“I think their life is so hard,” said Amy Astley as she sat talking about the young people-the actors and actresses, the models and rock stars-who fill the pages of her magazine, Teen Vogue .
The hazel-eyed, blond-haired ballerina turned editor in chief has such confidence in the girls who read and appear in Teen Vogue that she speaks of being young as though it were synonymous with being talented.
“They’re so young. Soon young,” she said. “Having grown up in the hothouse of ballet, I understand. It’s all about rejection, and I try and give them a lot of support where they can feel good and bring that through in the magazine. I want girls to feel happy and confident and good. It’s the only way they can grow up and be productive.”
Without a pause, Ms. Astley-who was wearing an all-Marina outfit, including a pink llama top-continued: “Another thing I learned in ballet: It’s a harsh world.”
At 36, Ms. Astley is the next generation of Condo Nat matron: the knockout, stylish urban mother who tends to her children before beginning her real day as mother to thousands of girls who will, like her, care about the news from the fall shows in Milan one day, but for now should be into their own “personal style”-if not French-kissing the lacrosse player next-door.
In June 2002, Condo Nat chairman SDI. Newhouse and Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour pulled Ms. Astley, then nine months pregnant with her second child, to lead the company’s charge into the Gilmore Girls set.
In retrospect, Ms. Wintour-whose 16-year-old daughter Bee Shaffer is listed as a contributor on the Teen Vogue masthead and has been cited as the inspiration for the magazine-said she’d become “very aware that there was a huge segment of young women who weren’t being tapped into, who were much more sophisticated and interested in fashion and aware of fashion and buying fashion, who other magazines weren’t addressing.”
Accepting this younger generation into Vogue ‘s tutelage, Ms. Wintour found the governess par excellence in Ms. Astley.
“I saw how well she ran her department,” Ms. Wintour said of Ms. Astley. “How she seemed to take on so much beyond the normal job description. She seemed to have the right understanding of young women.”
Now, close to a half-million teen girls are picking up fashion tips cribbed (but not directly taken) from the runways and the streets of the outer boroughs of New York. In the first three issues, the magazine has averaged newsstand sales of 374,900, with the last two selling close to 400,000. In February, the magazine will increase both its rate base (to 500,000) and its frequency, from six to 10 times a year. While the old guard of teen magazines either falls (see Teen ) or seeks new footing, Teen Vogue has become the mini-sized tote-bag survival tool for what Ms. Astley describes as the “fashion-conscious girl.”
Calling upon her own Michigan childhood spent yearning for something else somewhere else, Ms. Astley has become the girlish archetype of success: she believed in herself, wanted the best and, well, got it. The husband. The two kids. The glamorous editor-in-chief title at Condé Nast.
Not that you’ll find any advice on how to land that future husband in Teen Vogue . Like its grown-up predecessor, Teen Vogue steers a hemisphere away from sex advice, kissing tips and embarrassing moments.
What’s left is fashion and beauty, with an underlying sensibility that allows for “other girls” to do the things they would probably regret. Someday, Teen Vogue oh-so-softly whispers to its young readers, you’ll rule the world.
“The makeup is very appropriate for the age,” said Aerin Lauder, vice president of advertising for Estée Lauder. “The fashion is appropriate; it’s not overly sexy. She respects teenagers and their sense of trends, but she also respects their parents as well.”
Ms. Astley-who wasn’t allowed to watch Happy Days as a child because, um, it featured dating and, you know, the Fonz-said that she wanted the magazine to encourage strong relationships between parents and their children.
“It’s parents who help kids understand what’s appropriate and what’s not and give them their values,” Ms. Astley said. “That’s where you get it. Our responsibility is to show them an image of life that has glamour and has elegance, but has quality. We have standards that we try and uphold in the magazine. So I feel confident they’re having a wholesome experience with information and education.”
Indeed, if there’s one great surprise in Teen Vogue , it’s how damn democratic the magazine can be. Sitting behind her white marble desk on Friday, Sept. 26, Ms. Astley (who currently lives in West Chelsea and is moving to Tribeca) pulled out a recent feature from the October/November issue and declared, “Every cool kid in New York lives in Brooklyn! What’s the point in spending half of your salary on living in Manhattan? All my staff lives in Brooklyn. We just found great girls who live in Brooklyn on Brooklyn streets. We didn’t dress these kids. And it’s really important to me that the magazine is racially, ethnically diverse, fashion-wise diverse. We don’t say someone is or isn’t Teen Vogue . I think all girls expressing their personality are right for us. You know, you have the preppy girl here and the girls with their lip liner and their Puma bags. It’s a little bit of everything. Of course we show them the looks of the season and the things they should think about buying, but I also try to emphasize to them that you’re great the way you are.”
That means, Ms. Astley said, scouring addresses that aren’t named Rodeo and Park-or even Smith, for that matter. In some respects, Ms. Astley sees herself as a scouting director, seeking that one fashionable girl wandering the pedestrian mall in Richmond, Ind.
“It’s very time-consuming to scout, and my staff loves Teen Vogue ,” Ms. Astley said. “We love it. We live it. We go up to girls on the street. We’ve all done it. Everywhere. Anywhere. Obviously, it’s easier for us to scout New York and L.A. because we have staffs. It’s harder to scout girls in Ohio. But there are great girls in Ohio! There are great girls everywhere. It’s a priority for me. It has to be racially diverse, ethnically diverse-girls in different shapes and sizes, different kinds of looks. You know, we’re not just the Prada princess. Definitely not.”
In her almost blindingly white corner office on the ninth floor of the Condé Nast building, with an enlarged photograph by Irving Penn behind her desk and a stack of adult Vogue magazines on the windowsill, it’s clear that Ms. Astley believes in her mission as den mother for the fashion-obsessed. She wakes up at around 5 to 5:30 a.m. each morning and is in the gym by 6. Both she and her 25-person staff (Lilliputian by Condé Nast standards, where six aspiring novelists often run the fax machine) are in by 9:30 a.m. and will often work until 9 at night.
Speaking to his wife’s devotion to the product, Chris Astley-himself a photographer and artist whom Ms. Astley met the summer after her freshman year at Michigan State, when the two sat next to each other at a showing of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in East Lansing-said, “She’s feminine and soft on one hand; on the other, she’s incredibly rigorous. She never stops thinking about her job. Almost everything she looks at, she puts through the lens of her job. For better or worse.”
If Ms. Astley can speak to that girl in the Midwest without adopting fashion’s sometimes condescending drawl, it’s because she was once one of them. The daughter of a painting professor at Michigan State, Ms. Astley first came to live in the city when she was 11, after her dad received a Rockefeller grant and moved the family-including Ms. Astley’s mother and two brothers-from East Lansing to Tribeca for a year. Tribeca was “still rough in the 70′s, when I was living there,” she said. “So rough. And now I’m about to move there with my kids, and I think, ‘This is insane! This is like yuppie land!’ It’s unbelievable-unbelievable to me. I’m moving there now so my kids can go to P.S. 234, the great school in Tribeca. And when I lived here, we had to get bussed to the worst school you could ever go to in your life, that had metal detectors. This is a part of me-I mean, I worked at Vogue for 10 years, but I have experiences that give me a different view on kids and helps me as an editor.”
Most of that experience was colored by ballet, from which, Ms. Astley said, she picked up a sense of line and proportion, but perhaps something more important: an understanding of the perfection, the absolute perfection, demanded in both the corridors of fashion magazines and from the front rows of the shows of Paris, Milan and New York. Indeed, while Ms. Astley preaches a kind of “It’s O.K. to be you and me” ethos in her magazine’s pages, it’s infused with the idea that self-boosterism-demanding the absolute best from yourself-is what’s needed in this world.
“It’s going from one rarefied world to another,” Ms. Astley said. “The ballet world is really rigorous. It has no mercy, and I think it’s true of fashion at the top, too. And beautiful-really beautiful. When you’re a dancer, they teach you that you have to smile while you’re performing and make it look easy. And everyone has to look and think it’s easy. But it’s really painful. It’s years of work and it’s rigorous, and you’re sweating and your feet are bleeding. And to me, everything beautiful-everything worthwhile-requires that.”
At 18, Ms. Astley quit dancing, quit bleeding from her feet and quit cementing a smile on her face onstage. She decided that if she couldn’t be the best, couldn’t go on to the New York City Ballet, she didn’t want to dance anymore. She didn’t want to spend the next 10 years in regional theater companies, watched by people who’d gone to school on one of the coasts but were now resigned to a life of semi-decent Thai food and tenure-track jobs.
So, instead, at the last minute-at a time when all of her ballet friends were off to apprenticeships with companies and her faculty brat-packers were leaving for New Haven or Cambridge or even Ann Arbor-Ms. Astley got into Michigan State “by the skin of her teeth.” She met her future husband (himself from East Lansing and a student at the University of Michigan), studied English and, by her senior year, was ready to return to New York for good.
“She liked fashion,” Mr. Astley said. “She never talked about it or anything, but she always looked pretty good to me. But she was interested with style, lifestyle, people who led interesting lives and talked about interesting things. She kind of hates things being mundane.”
After graduating from college in 1989, Ms. Astley came straight to New York and to Condé Nast, because, she said, “I wanted to be at the best company and knew this was the place for me.”
Beginning as an assistant at the now-defunct HG , Ms. Astley rose through the ranks, writing and editing till the day the magazine closed in 1993.
That day, she got the call from human resources. Anna Wintour wanted to see her. Today.
“I was like, ‘Today? I’m not dressed!’” Ms. Astley recalled. “And they were like, ‘Today is today. Right now. She’s ready.’ And that was my introduction to Vogue and how Anna works.”
Ms. Wintour brought her into the haute mothership, under legendary beauty director Shirley Lord; she would eventually take that title herself. Certainly, Ms. Astley has a very un–Lauren Weisberger view of both Ms. Wintour and the magazine she commands. She said she speaks to Ms. Wintour “every day” and that working with her was “amazing,” “incredible” and “inspiring.”
“She’s at the top of her game,” Ms. Astley continued. “She has real energy. She never takes her eye off the magazine, and I learned from her that the book is only as good as you are. You’re the engine pulling it. You have to keep pushing people. Get the right team. You have to inspire people to do their best. Everyone inspires in a different way. I am very nurturing. She has a different style, and it worked for me. To me, it’s a place only for the best, which is harsh but true. And I was totally comfortable with that.
“I only want to be around people who are really ambitious, with the highest standards, putting out the best work,” Ms. Astley said.
Sensing that, Ms. Wintour approached her in 1999 with the idea of overseeing a test run of Teen Vogue .
With no staff of her own, Ms. Astley cobbled together work from freelancers and the younger staffers of Vogue to produce four test issues from fall 2000 to fall 2002 while she continued her duties as beauty director at Vogue . On June 4, 2002, just days from giving birth to her second daughter, Ms. Astley said that Ms. Wintour called her in and told her that Mr. Newhouse was serious about officially launching the title. The next day, her birthday, it became official. After a June 14 C-section and a maternity leave, Ms. Astley spent the rest of the summer assembling her staff.
While Teen Vogue draws upon the lights of established photographers like Mario Testino, teacher and protégée see the magazine as a minor league to develop young models, stylists, writers and photographers (as well as new readers) for its adult counterpart. Asked about the difference between the two, Ms. Wintour noted that Ms. Astley uses “a lot less expensive clothing from the kinds of places not appropriate for Vogue . She uses a wonderful mix of clothing and does cover houses the reader is looking for. There’s a very personal style for the teen. It’s very individual. It’s not right off the runway; it’s much more about a young girl taking things and putting them together on her own.”
But they’re not on their own! They have Ms. Astley.
“People are always saying to me, ‘Don’t you miss Vogue ?’ And I’m like, ‘No, now I work with all the fresh talent.’ I love Vogue , obviously, but this has a whole different premise than Vogue . It’s still about style, but it’s celebrating everybody who’s young and new.
“I want another baby, but I can’t,” Ms. Astley said. “Because Teen Vogue ‘s my third baby. And I don’t think I can take care of four babies.”