It's been a little under two months since Ann Shoket was named the new editor of Seventeen, ending speculation over who would fill the spot following the highly-publicized departure of Atoosa Rubinstein. The 34-year-old Shoket wasn't exactly a shocking choice, given her background: A former senior editor at teen news magazine React, she'd spent the last seven-and-a-half years as a staff member and then as executive editor of CosmoGirl, developing a laundry list of the mag's most popular features (including teen leadership campaign Project 2024 and an interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to name a few) and overseeing its rise from a startup to a 1.4 million-circulation title. A self-proclaimed Internet addict and tech geek, she's also demonstrated her chops on the Web, founding pioneer New York City web guide GoldenNYC.com (later renamed TagMag) in 1996 and serving as editorial director of Cosmogirl.com in 2000, during which time the site's page views doubled. Editorial-wise, Shoket hasn't been afraid to challenge convention in the often-rigid formula of women's magazines; under her watch, CosmoGirl became one of the first mainstream titles to include editorial content for lesbian and bisexual teens.
After a few extended rounds of emails with Hearst PR flaks, we managed to nab the closely-guarded but surprisingly-down-to-earth Shoket for an interview. Easygoing and cheerful despite the pre-coffee hour on a Monday morning, she spoke with us about teenage life, body issues, conquering still greater Internet territory and the joys of retail therapy.
You have a pretty extensive background in dot-coms and tech, including online video games. We'll admit, we didn't know what Zork was until we read your quote in 2000 about it.
That GirlGeek of the Week article that comes up as the first article when you Google me? That was from 1998, 1999 something like that. That article will never go away. It's gone with me forever. And the Zork comment, someone said something to me about it and I was like "What?" It was third grade or something that I was talking about. That was the very first time we'd all gathered around the Commodore 64 in the library in elementary school to play a game. There were no graphics. The funniest thing about the Internet is that you say something once and it goes with you forever and ever and ever.
The relaunch of the website happened last week, and we are still slowly rolling out pieces of it. It was a relaunch that was in the works before I got here, but obviously I worked on the relaunch of CosmoGirl before I got here, and Seventeen and CosmoGirl relaunched at the same time. I mean, I think that what is exciting is that Hearst is really putting a lot of effort and energy and resources behind the Internet, making these really rich media properties online, I think we were first of all the websites at Hearst to launch. And the web is such an important thing in particular for our audience. This generation of girls is fearless when it comes to technology and the Internet. I mean, I think there was never a time when these girls did not have the Internet. When you think about when we first started to use - I'm going to date myself again - but when we first accessed the Internet with a non-graphic browser that was connected through an outlet. What was that, twelve years ago, more maybe? But my audience, my girls are maybe fifteen or sixteen, so by the time they were three years old, they had the Internet. And so it's such an important piece of the puzzle now, for us to have a really strong online presence and to use the power of the Internet to its best ability, its best purpose. I mean, like, how do you make it interactive - I mean like deeply and profoundly interactive, so that you really can squeeze your brand into the reader's life?
So how are you making it interactive? Are you planning to bring in any user-generated content?
Yes. There will be user-generated content. There's a few sort of big pieces that we'll be rolling out in the next few months. The "Editor's Assistant" game is an adorable fun game that will launch in the next couple weeks.
Is there a prize? Maybe winners get to be your assistant for a day?
That would be fun, right? We're working on getting my assistant integrated into the game so she can say, "See? It's not that easy." I am blogging on the site, on Seventeen.com...[I]t's been a particularly eye-opening experience for me, from talking to girls every month to being able to talk to them every day.
Is this the first time you've blogged regularly?
How are you finding it? What's the hardest thing about it?
The hardest thing is coming up with something to say every day. The biggest challenge has been to figure out not only what to say to these girls but like how to find something that I can talk about every day that's relevant in their lives. Although a couple of my posts are about things that I have done, the purpose is to talk about things in their life. I don't want to talk about what I had for dinner. They'd be like, "That's nice, thanks." The point is how do I take something that's happening to me, life lessons I'm still learning, life lessons that are coming to me again, and to bring them up every day to talk to the girls about.
What's your daily media diet? Must-reads?
My media diet starts first in the morning. The very first thing I do is have a cup of coffee and log on...I check the headlines through My Yahoo - that's how I read the news. I'm not such a newspaper person. Then I hit Women's Wear Daily and read the media column Memo Pad, and I read Gatecrasher in the Daily News. Ben Widdicombe is a friend of mine and so I don't miss a day of his column. Then I will hit Perez Hilton and see what's going on, and Page Six to see what's going on, to see what I need to know before I get to the office - is anything going on with anyone that we're covering.
The last book you read?
We heard it's good.
It's great. I met Liz Gilbert many many years ago and I always thought she was such an interesting woman. I like things that are written by magazine writers. They're written so fast and there's a nice rhythm to the language. And I thought it was a really smart book.
What's the last item of clothing you bought?
I did a little shopping trip that was chronicled by the Daily News. We went to Barneys to sort of pick outfits that would go with a new editor at Seventeen's life. So we put together three looks with what I would wear for a cover photo shoot, what would I wear for a "big night out" party dress and what would I wear for a corporate business meeting. I ended up buying the dress. And the suit.
Do you think it makes sense for teenage girls to be buying the designer clothes in magazines?
You know, there is that sort of product lust that girls have, that women have, that, you know, we all have about wanting something sparkly and flashy that everybody wants and you have and it sort of feels special. I think that girls, they see all of the, they have access to runway, they see celebrity photos, they spend their time reading celebrity weeklies, looking at the pictures. And you know there's that designer lust - it's in front of them. I think that there's sort of the way that girls are dressing and the way that girls are shopping now, they will buy one or two designer items. And it will be something probably a little more accessible. It'll be the sunglasses, it'll be the Dior lip gloss, it'll be the Mark Jacobs handbag, it'll be the Coach wristlet. You know, sort of slightly more attainable designer items. And when you have that one designer piece, the rest of the clothes will be much more accessible, a lower pricepoint. It's really the way, that sort of high-low mix is the way girls dress today. And you'll start to see that reflected more in the pages of Seventeen.
I want to point to something in particular to tell you about. I want to point to a particular story, I just got the May issue in now. One of the things that we are doing in May that you'll start to see in a bunch of stories going forward is there's a story with mostly high end designer pieces, then at the end we'll do a workbook telling girls how to get the same look, similar look at the mall. We are very dialed into the realities of teen life, I mean I have been doing this for ten years and I know I'm a teenager on the inside. I 'm usually getting in touch with my inner sixteen-year-old and sort of checking it by her.
What about print? Do you think it's still relevant?
I think absolutely print is relevant. There is absolutely no doubt about it. The way I see it is that the magazine is sort of the centerpiece of the brand, and that at the same time the Internet has to be incredibly incredibly powerful and incredibly rich. For a long time I think editors - and I was one of them - were afraid that the Internet would cannibalize the audience of the magazine, cannibalize the content. It's an irrational fear. It doesn't make sense. If you want to serve your reader in the best possible way, you will be wherever she is. If she's online, you're gonna go online. If she's taking us on the bus on her way to school, you can't take a computer on the bus on the way to school and read something. We're gonna be in print there. We're on mobile. We're on TV with America's Next Top Model.
Are you taking Atoosa's place on ANTM?
[Let's just say] we're working on America's Next Top Model.
What's the different in ethos between CosmoGirl and Seventeen?
Picture it this way: There are the days that you need a hug from your older sister. And that to me is CosmoGirl. And then there are the days when you want to call up your most fun friend, and get in the car and go to the mall and drink caramel frappuccinos and meet boys and have a little retail therapy, go shopping and have that kind of crazy fun afternoon. That to me is Seventeen...we have such a fun hyper great energy. My take is that I want to be her best friend. I want to be her most fun friend. We're such a strong fashion and beauty magazine, and that's where the fun comes in. Shopping is fun. Beauty is fun.
I saw the April issue, it certainly looked fun.
Even Avril Lavigne is happy and wants to have fun these days! That was like a gift, I felt like, when I came here. I thought, "I want it to be fun," and then I get these photos back of Avril Lavigne and she legitimately has this bright smile.
And no black eyeliner.
Yes! No black eyeliner smudge. And even she's super fun. That is the mood of teenage girls. That fun positive optimism.
You did a lot to include lesbian and bisexual issues in CosmoGirl. In the April Seventeen you had a spread on coming out and stopping anti-gay violence. Do you plan to include issues affecting lesbian and bisexual teens on a regular basis?
You know, a lot has been said that makes it sound like I was on a mission to include gay girls. And it's not. It wasn't my personal mission. It's just a reaction to the way girls think, and the way girls' lives have evolved. In a lot of ways, there's a much friendlier environment for gay teenagers these days. Teens are much more open minded about that. And so, you know, my job is to help reflect what teens are going through and what experiences are in their lives and to help give them some context and help them understand it. And that's where the inclusion of gay teens comes from. At Seventeen, we've had real positive feedback about the anti-gay violence story. And so it is something that we have on our mind here. How do we reach out to our lesbian readers and help them feel like this is their magazine too?
Do you think Seventeen will ever get to the point where headlines read "How To Nab That Perfect Guy Or Girl"?
I think that is almost, like, pointing it out too much. Saying, "His, Or Her!" is drawing almost too much attention to it. The whole idea is to make girls feel included and not pointed at. And so, you know, we focus on your "crush" and your "sweetie." And the girls can decide if their crush is a guy or a girl.
Given the current atmosphere in the fashion industry, poor body image is a huge problem, and a particularly tough one for teens. What's your strategy for tackling the issue?
What should I tell you? Body image is a huge important piece of what's happening for teenage girls. I think of it as "body peace," and that our mission is to help girls make peace with their bodies, and sort of understand all the forces at play. You know, these girls are really sort of stuck. We have two epidemics that are really sort of, really damaging. We have an epidemic of obesity and at the same time there's a huge upswing in anorexia. And, you know, our job is to help them be healthy in their bodies, to help them physically be healthy, and at the same time to help them think positively about their bodies. I think that that whole idea, it feels very old school to me to say, "Love your body." And then you immediately set yourself up for failure. My goal is not to set girls up for failure, but to say, "How do you make peace with your body? How do you appreciate what it can do? How do you honor it? How do you accept it, and make peace with yourself?" That's really our goal.
Your predecessor once told me she cared "passionately" about teenage girls. Do you feel that same connection and passion? Do you have any positive or negative associations based on your own experiences as a teen?
Gosh, that's a lot of questions. I feel a tremendous responsibility to help these girls grow up to be smart, amazing, self-actualized, fulfilled women. And you know that responsibility is, like, every day. What do these girls need now, so they can walk into any situation and feel confident? They need to know how to look the right way, what clothes to wear, how to make themselves feel great by looking great. They need to know all sorts of life lessons and life strategies. I feel a tremendous responsibility to these readers. Teenage girls listen to what we say. I'll tell you a story: When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I read my horoscope in Seventeen magazine. And it said, "You Gemini girl are so fantastic that you could date two guys in one night." And I thought to myself, "Oh my Gosh, I am that fantastic." And I was fourteen, I didn't date, I didn't have a boyfriend. But I sort of held on, you know. My magazine had told me that I could be that amazing, and so I held on to that little piece of information. And a couple months later I was hanging out with my cousins, and they were these two guys a couple years older than me. They were already in high school, they were very popular in high school, they had girlfriends, they played sports. They were really great looking guys. And we were playing this kind of "What if" kind of a game. And my cousin said to me, "What if you'd already made a date with one guy, but a guy you liked better asked you out?" And I said, inside I said, "I know what I would do. Seventeen magazine told me I'm the kind of girl that could go out with two guys at once." So I said to my cousin, I said, "Whatever, I'd just go out with both of them." And they nearly fell out of their chairs laughing at me. Hysterical falling down laughing. "You can't do that! You can't go out with two guys in one night! That's ridiculous! Who do you think you are!" I was crushed. I was like, "Oh my God, my magazine lied to me." And, I mean, what is ridiculous is that now, twenty years later, I still remember this - that moment of realization when my cousins called me out for clearly not knowing anything about dating. But my magazine had not told me the truth. It was not in touch with the reality of teenage life.
Ouch! That's so painful!
It really shows how much girls care about their magazines, and how big the responsibility is.
On a lighter note, it's getting near prom season. Who did you take to your prom?
I took a guy to my prom, he was actually in college already. He had graduated and was a year ahead of me, and he was a friend. And I went with a group of really close friends and we all went together. My best friend from high school is still my best friend today, she's a designer, and she was there. And so my prom date was pretty unremarkable. The prom itself, I made that classic mistake: We went to the prom but the minute we got there we acted too cool to be at the prom. So we stood outside all night, just stood in the courtyard and talked.
Just standing in the courtyard? Nothing illicit?
I might have been standing outside smoking cigarettes, but don't tell my mom.
What was your dress like?
It's so classic! I am known for wearing all black all the time, and I wore a lot of black in high school. I wear a lot of black now, to the dismay of our PR team who s constantly trying to get me to wear something in color. The dress I bought at Barneys is pink and so I felt like that was a big step forward. Prom night I broke from the traditional black and I wore a bright red strapless ruched dress that was shorter in the front and longer in the back, and I wore flat shoes dyed to match. I had to wear flat shoes - I think I might have been a little taller than my date. And then I wore my mother's pearls. And the biggest hair you've ever seen in your life. More or less, all of the top editors are more or less the same age and we all have that late-eighties-early-nineties gigantic curly hair [in our prom photos], and I think we're gonna have a contest to see who had the biggest hair.
Excellent. Can we get a look at anything new coming up on the website? The Editor's Assistant game maybe?
It's soft launching [soon]. It's a really cute game. The funniest joke is, I love to say this all the time: There's so much attention on magazine editors' assistants these days - you know, "Ugly Betty." I have literally, I think, the prettiest assistant, and she's so lovely and so gracious and so graceful. And I crack myself up thinking, "She's my Ugly Betty." She doesn't think it's nearly as funny as I do.