From behind her desk, Atoosa Rubenstein took a deep breath and knitted her brow, a signal that the 28-year-old editor in chief of Cosmogirl magazine was going to get serious and talk about that night a decade ago. Prom night. “You know, at the end of the day, it was fine ,” she said of the prom, to which nobody at Valley Stream North High School in Long Island bothered to invite her. She was nodding her head in earnest. “It was fine .” Back then, Ms. Rubenstein was not the porcelain-skinned, 5-foot-11-inch woman with a wild mane of black hair falling over an Alessandro dell’Acqua sleeveless shell. Instead she was an unpopular, gawky immigrant from Iran in the days when Americans were convinced that Iranians were the only thing that sucked more than disco. “Ayatolla Atoosa,” the kids called the girl from the strict Moslem home who was forbidden to shave her legs (much less pluck her eyebrows) and who had to be in the house every night by 6 P.M.
But now, Ms. Rubenstein is indeed a prom queen of sorts: In late 1998, Hearst Magazines president Cathie Black plucked her from her senior fashion editor job at Cosmopolitan and ordained her the youngest editor in chief in Hearst memory. (She was 26.) Now, about a half-million teenage girls buy Cosmogirl, picking up kissing tips in preparation for the earth-shattering orgasms they’ll read about later on in Cosmopolitan . Starting with the February issue, the magazine is going from being published six times a year to 10. It’s all part of what could be called the Teen People phenomenon: That Time Inc. publication enjoyed one of the most successful launches in history and has 1.3 million readers. There are 30 million teens in America, and in 2010 there will be 35 million. The baby boomers topped out at 33 million.
Powered by some ugly adolescent memories, Ms. Rubenstein has positioned herself to be a Tony Robbins for the zitty, the unpopular and the flat-chested, someone they can look to as an exemplar of one who emerged from the same crap-ass situation, and got beautiful and rich. And married.
Eying the Imac on her desk, which beeped with new e-mail every minute or so, Ms. Rubenstein said the prom didn’t scar her. “I don’t mind saying that I didn’t have a date to the prom,” she said. “No one asked me to the prom. That’s totally fine . I went and got a job at Carvel because I wanted to be doing something that day, and I ended up meeting some terrific friends, and it was fine . I was fine, you know, every day, they were making their limo plans”–she lingered on the word “limo” like a poisonous Lifesaver–”finally, one day, I just kicked myself in the butt and said, O.K., stop being such a baby, and turn this into something positive, and it’s always been the way I like to see things, it’s turning the negatives into a positive.”
Hawking Cookie Pusses on prom night did seem to have an impact that went far beyond high school.
” This is what I was meant to do,” she said, gently rapping her fist on the desk. “People ask me, ‘What are you going to do next ?’ What’s next ? When girls don’t look in the mirror and feel bad about themselves, then I’ll have done my job. When girls can confidently talk about their dreams, and know that they can make it happen, and it’s within their grasp, I’ll know that I’ve done my job.”
“I was the girl who as a senior in high school cried when Liz Tilberis’ Harper’s Bazaar came out with Linda Evangelista on the cover,” Ms. Rubenstein said, throwing her arm in the air to mimic the famous cover pose. “I cried. I cried. I cried because I thought it was so beautiful, and I thought it was so special.” Ms. Rubenstein dragged her finger down her cheek, mimicking tear tracks. “I still get that way when I think about what Cosmopolitan means to women.”
In the girlie environs of her office on the 11th floor of the Hearst building at 1790 Broadway, a scented candle burning on the windowsill, it was clear that Ms. Rubenstein takes her job seriously. She said that she frequently stays at work until 3 A.M. and is back at her desk by 8 A.M. She said she tries to read each of the 1,000 e-mails the magazine receives every day. Once in a while, she picks up the phone and calls readers who, she said, scream a lot when they hear her voice. She takes home the videos that teenage girls send her, which usually consist of tours of their rooms and closeups of their knickknacks.
Ms. Rubenstein eats only McDonald’s hash browns for breakfast. The rest of the day, it’s Coca-Cola, chicken fingers from Ranch-1, hamburgers from McDonald’s. She orders hot dogs from Hooters, the jiggle restaurant near her office. She does not exercise and said she almost never gets depressed.
She shows it off, too. Her photo appeared four times in the October-November 1999 issue. In the editor’s letter, there was one photo of her today, in a snug blue sweater, and another of her at 13, with a Brillo-pad hairdo. She frequently publishes old, unflattering photos of herself. “These pictures remind me of how far I’ve come mentally, ” she explained in an editor’s letter. “Can’t you tell by looking in my eyes …? I was so sad, even when my mouth was smiling.” Further on in the October-November issue, there is an article called “Dream Jobs,” featuring photos of a bathing suit model, an actress, a fashion designer and … Atoosa Rubenstein, long legs draped over a chair. The caption reads, “It’s an amazing feeling to be psyched every morning to go to work–and to love every minute of it.”
She also has a penchant for publishing photographs of her “honey,” Ari Rubenstein, a 28-year-old independent cotton trader she married in 1998. In the magazine, she calls him “the perfect guy.” There is an 8-by-10 photograph of a pouty Mr. Rubenstein hanging on the door to her office. He’s a handsome devil.
“If Atoosa could talk to Atoosa when she was 15, this was the magazine she would give her,” Ari Rubenstein said from the couple’s apartment in Trump Place, the Upper West Side high-rise. Mr. Rubenstein said his wife did actually listen to N Sync and Britney Spears at home. “Think about it, it’s what everybody wants to do. They want to be able to go back and talk to that person, be the perfect big brother or big sister,” he said.
“Right now, it’s about 3 A.M.,” Ms. Rubenstein wrote in an editor’s letter. “Why am I up so late? Because I can’t stop reading your letters–they’re like an amazing book that I just can’t put down. I love how honest you all are! Let’s always keep in touch like this, okay?” She signs the letter in pink with “Atoosa” and a big loopy heart.
Then there’s the “Hall of Shame,” Cosmogirl’s contribution to the teen magazine staple of embarrassing stories: “I have this huge fear of big dogs, and when I get scared, I pee a little.” Then turn to the centerfold of an actor named Brad Rowe, whose “fears” include bad traffic and death by drowning.
Atoosa, Rock Star
In 1975, when things weren’t looking too hot for the Shah of Iran, Ms. Rubenstein’s father, Mansoor Behnegar, a colonel in the Iranian air force, moved his wife and children to Flushing, Queens. Ms. Rubenstein said they settled there because it was close to La Guardia Airport, where they got off the plane. The Behnegars didn’t know anyone in the United States and didn’t speak any English. (Ms. Rubenstein still speaks Persian when talking with her family.) Then they moved to Malverne, L.I., surrounded by lots of middle-class Irish- and Italian-Americans.
Mr. Behnegar couldn’t get his money out of Iran. “My dad went from being this distinguished business guy to, you know, driving a cab to make money,” said Ms. Rubenstein. “My mother, who had always been pampered, got a job. I’ll always remember that my mother was crying once because we didn’t have money for something. So I said, ‘Don’t cry, Mommy. I’ll take care of you.’ She had no idea that I could. Where we’re from, girls don’t do things like I do.”
Young Atoosa had a lisp, and had trouble in grade school because of dyslexia. But Madonna videos changed her life. “I remember, like, how empowering it was to hear Madonna say, ‘I want to rule the world,’” said Ms. Rubenstein. “When I would say, ‘I want to be famous,’ my mother would say, ‘Don’t say that. You’ll just be disappointed when it doesn’t happen.’”
In fifth grade, Ms. Rubenstein handed out autographed cards to school friends, which she signed “Atoosa Behnegar, R.S.,” short for rock star. She told the kids to keep them, they’d be worth something someday. “I wasn’t conspiring to be popular,” she said. “I didn’t think of it like that. It was always like, ‘Wow, that girl’s got really pretty hair.’ I was just a little sad.”
In 11th grade, Ms. Beneghar came down with pneumonia. Her father caught it two days later, and they both ended up in the hospital. Just after Ms. Rubenstein was released, Mr. Behnegar had a heart attack and died in the hospital.
In 1989, Ms. Rubenstein enrolled at Barnard, shaved her legs, became an Alpha Chi Omega sister and started dating a football player she describes as “Mr. Columbia.” But Seventeen hadn’t prepared her for college life. “I didn’t know if you invite a guy to your room, it’s different than inviting a guy to your home where your parents live,” she said. “The guy in college, he doesn’t even know you have a father! He will try to fool around with you. None of the teen magazines ever told me that! None of the teen magazines ever told me that my roommate could be a psychopath who would steal my food!”
And she kept reading teen magazines. “I was sitting in my political science class and I would be nodding my head as if I was understanding, but I would be reading Sassy magazine under the desk,” she said. Sophomore year, she wrote a fan letter to Sassy , but never heard back. She did get a summer internship at Lang Communications, Sassy ‘s publisher. “Any time they had something to go to Sassy , they’d give it to me, and I’d be so nervous, because I’d feel like I was in the presence of my idol,” said Ms. Rubenstein of Sassy editor Jane Pratt. Junior year, she snagged an internship in Sassy ‘s beauty department. “To me, that job was like saving lives,” she said. “I did it with a real vengeance.” She also scheduled all of her classes at night so that she could do a second internship at American Health . There, editors joked that someday they would all be working for her.
On Graduation Day in 1993, still wearing her cap and gown, Ms. Rubenstein answered the phone. Would she be interested in interviewing for a job in Seventeen ‘s beauty department? “I was freaking! Crying! I was hysterical because I loved the teen magazine thing and Seventeen was the biggest teen magazine,” she said. But 10 minutes later, Cosmopolitan called. Cosmo , she reasoned, was the biggest magazine of all. She didn’t read the magazine much, but one part of the magazine did excite her. “I mean, Helen … Gurley … Brown,” said Ms. Rubenstein, eyes widened. She took the job as fashion assistant; her job was to keep the fashion closet clean and orderly.
“She was so astonishing-looking!” said Ms. Brown, who has just published a book called I’m Wild Again . “When people would come to visit Cosmo, we’d be waiting for the elevator to go down, and she’d pop out of the fashion department. Invariably, whoever I was with would say, ‘Who was that ?’”
Ms. Rubenstein has never apologized for Cosmopolitan , sometimes viewed as the McDonald’s of women’s magazines. “Where I’m from, Cosmopolitan is an institution ,” she said. “I bumped into a couple of guys who thought I worked at Vogue . I told them I worked at Cosmo . They were like ‘ Cosmo !’ It was funny because in certain crowds, some people would think that Vogue was better because of the fashion angle or whatever. But in the bulk of the country, Cosmopolitan is the Bible.”
Ms. Rubenstein, unlike anybody else in the fashion department at Cosmopolitan , survived three editors. “I didn’t get caught up in the old, ‘I’m going to be mean to her because she’s the new editor,’” she said. “When Bonnie Fuller started, I was like, ‘Oh it’s great to meet you! I was a big fan of yours when you were at Marie Claire . I hope things work out for us!’”
Kate White, who succeeded Ms. Fuller, remembers similar treatment from the peppy Ms. Rubenstein. Said Ms. White: “More than any other person on the entire staff, she came in and said, ‘What can I do to help you ? I’ve been here since Helen Gurley Brown. Let me be of assistance to you. The fashion shows are coming up. I can go to any of the shows with you.’” Soon they were sharing Town Cars to the shows.
When Ms. Black was looking for an editor for a teen version of Cosmopolitan , she asked Ms. Rubenstein to create a mock issue of Cosmogirl. “It had been something I’d been fantasizing about for so long,” said Ms. Rubenstein. “It had been like dreaming of a picture in your head and then being told to put it on paper. It was very easy. It was really like fate.” She took her work to bed with her, scrawling the world “Girl!” over and over again in fuchsia lipstick for use on the magazine cover. When she and her husband woke up, their bodies were covered in lipstick. During Ms. Rubenstein’s presentation, Ms. Black had to tell her to slow down a couple of times.
Now Ms. Rubenstein is the boss of 27 young women, most of them under 30, and one young man. (“Our Cosmo guy,” she said.) One person who works in the office described the work environment as “a little like a sorority. Everybody’s jumping around telling each other how cute they are.” Ms. Rubenstein advises her employees that if they are having difficulty getting into the heads of teenagers, they should eat a hot dog.
After all, she takes those teenage heads seriously. “This girl has to deal with more adult pressures today,” said Ms. Rubenstein. “She turns on the television, and she hears about the President having oral sex with someone. She knows a lot more, but doesn’t have the experience to back it up. Cosmogirl is that big sister. It’s that voice of support that says, ‘Gosh, I know you’re confused, but here’s the advice we can give you. It’s O.K. that she has big boobs and you don’t. It’ll all work out.’”