It’s an intriguing position,” mused Maer Roshan, “being a member of three distinct minority groups in the United States at this moment.”
Roshan, the 36-year-old publisher and editor of Radar — one of the most eagerly anticipated new magazines to hit the newsstands in years — is talking about being Jewish, Iranian and gay. “Maybe the best thing about this,” he continued, “is that it allows me to see things from the outside. That, I think, is one of my most important strengths as a journalist.”
Indeed, Roshan has made his name as a crack, even volatile, journalist. In 1993, after stints at Details and Interview, Roshan became the founder and editor in chief of QW, an audaciously political lesbian and gay weekly that made its name, in part, by outing celebrities. After QW folded he moved onto a six-year job on the editorial staff of New York magazine, where he was responsible for some of that magazine’s most provocative articles — including the groundbreaking Gay Life Now issue, which marked the first time that a major mainstream publication devoted an entire issue to gay themes. He went on to serve as New York’s deputy editor, and in 2001 Tina Brown tapped Roshan to be editorial director of her much-trumpeted, but floundering, Talk. Talk went under before Roshan could make much of a mark, but industry insiders agreed that in his short time there he livened the spark — and the sales pace — of the magazine. Since Talk’s demise last year Roshan has been working to put together his own publication. Radar debuted on April 15 and expects its next issue June 10, with monthly editions to follow.
Much like Roshan himself, Radar, a celebrity-bashing general-interest magazine, is an insider that sees itself on the outside, a publication that understands its role to be critical, yet exists in the center of mainstream culture. For example, a highlight of the debut issue is a big, mean feature, “Monsters Ball,” which details the most “abusive, excessive, outrageous” celebrity behavior. This exposé of cultural nastiness includes the omnipresent J-Lo, right-wing shock jock Michael Savage and TV’s erstwhile queen-of-nice Rosie O’Donnell. Radar seems all over the place: liberal, conservative, insightful, respectful, vulgar — malicious even — and smart.
“We are in a world in which being Jewish or being gay is obviously less of an issue in many, many situations,” he said. “But to me it is always very important because my background — and I guess I am thinking particularly of my identity as a Jew here — really shaped, and continues to shape, how I see the world. There is something very important about being more marginal than the mainstream. It gives you a unique vision.”
“Let’s face it,” he added, “most great American culture is produced by people on the margins. Look at the history of Hollywood. Cultural outsiders can make great art and vital creative contributions.”
There is little doubt that Roshan’s world view — and media sensibility — is shaped by his background. Born in Iran in 1967, he moved to the United States at the age of 12 with his parents and lived on Long Island.
“We were culturally Jewish,” Roshan said of his family life growing up, “and observed the holy days, but my home life was not as deeply religious as some are.” This did not stop Roshan’s mother from sending him to yeshiva. “My mother had this very unusual vision of the United States that she got from Hollywood movies,” he said. “She really thought that life in New York was just like ‘West Side Story,’ so it was very important that I did not go to public school.”
In many ways this education made Roshan the man he is today. “It was a very safe environment — a very interesting way to grow up in a world that is so different. I didn’t really have a drink until I was 17 years old, so I was not a typical Long Island teenager,” he said.
“The focus on learning and on studying was also very important in my teen years,” he continued. “It was an all-boys school and I barely spoke to girls. I had the reputation of being an expert on women — which is very funny since I was gay, although I didn’t come out until later, when I was in college. I really loved being at the yeshiva, and I think that the insularity of it was very important to me. It really gave me a firm sense of identity and of how to relate to the world.”
Roshan’s multiple outsider identities make his experiences complicated. “Living in New York during the 1980s Iranian hostage crisis was a very peculiar, disconcerting experience,” he said. “As a Jew I grew up with a very clear sense of antisemitism in the world, which affected me very deeply. It’s impossible to have a Jewish identity and not be affected by the attacks on Jews that happen across the world from the suicide bombings to everything else. But you have to realize that there are other realities as well. Being an Iranian in America at that point was another reality that was quite instructive.”
And being gay? “Well I didn’t come out until college,” he said, “so it wasn’t really a question at yeshiva, although since that time, when I go to school reunions, it has been fine and they are welcoming of me and my partner. It was sort of funny, when I was the editor in chief at QW, I did an interview in Newsday, and my mother called to tell me that she didn’t care if I was in The New York Times, that was fine, but all of her Long Island neighbors read Newsday.”
When asked how this outsider sensibility shapes his work — especially on Radar — Roshan answered quickly: “I see Radar as occupying that outsider position — that is what is going to give us our punch and our ability to step back and really look at what is going on. But it is more than just about content. One of the reason’s Talk had so much trouble was that it was too big, it was too mainstream. This is a very tough economic time for general interest magazines, and we put together Radar with a fraction of what Talk cost.”
Laughing, he added, “When people ask me what I am going to do differently, I always say spend less money and throw fewer parties. But the reality is that you have to know who you are, to have a firm sense of that in order to be able to say what you need to say. Living on the outside, on the cultural margins — even when publishing a glossy, national magazine, or maybe especially when publishing a glossy national magazine — can be a great place to be.”
Michael Bronski writes frequently on arts and culture and is a visiting scholar in Jewish studies and women’s studies at Dartmouth College.