Where Have You Gone, Diana Vreeland?

My initial, instinctive loathing for Lucky , the new shopping magazine from Condé Nast, has given way to a grudging acceptance, maybe even admiration. It is tempting to dismiss Lucky , which is really more of a telephone book than a magazine, a 200-page telephone book filled with merchandise hand-picked and baldly showcased by editor Kim France and her staff (which includes an Internet editor named Jenny B. Fine; can this person exist?). But think what it means.

It heralds, for one thing, the end of the women’s magazine editor as celebrity; as domineering, matriarchal presence; as “editrix.”

In their 1940’s to 1960’s heyday, Vogue ‘s Diana Vreeland and Harper’s Bazaar ‘s Carmel Snow were not only arbiters of style, they themselves were stylish people. Ms. Snow, whose very name promised toothsome photo spreads of luxurious clothes in fairyland settings, was known for, among other things, reeling boisterously around town. Ms. Vreeland was famous for speaking in italics, for her deliciously dictatorial morning memos: ” Today, let’s think pig white! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have stockings that were pig white! The color of baby pigs, not quite white and not quite pink? ” A striking figure with her ink-black bob, flushed cheeks and erect posture, she was frequently photographed in her lavish living and working quarters, leaving in her wake a bracing whiff of dramatic African art, red lacquer and leopard prints. In more recent years, Cosmopolitan ‘s Helen Gurley Brown picked up the skein of these stern mother figures, what with those Burt Reynolds centerfolds and sprightly suggestions: “Why not greet your husband at the door dressed in nothing but Saran Wrap?” “Why not go an entire day without underwear?” One might not have liked these women, one might have rebelled against their pronouncements, one might have decried them as elitist or sexist, but it could not be denied: They were personalities.

It is hard to detect this kind of presence in today’s crop of women’s magazine editors. Vogue ‘s Anna Wintour once seemed formidable, dining vampirically on rare hamburgers at “44,” but think of her now: still hiding behind those sunglasses, scuttling down to the Condé Nast cafeteria and green-lighting undignified, demographically sensible projects like Teen Vogue . Liz Tilberis of Harper’s Bazaar had a bit of the old, welcome eccentricity in her silver-haired, stubborn size-12-ness, but she died of ovarian cancer in 1999. Her replacement, Katherine Betts–”Kate” to pals, which apparently include you, the reader–seems a bit like the wholesome, nicely dressed girl down the hall you knew in college. Soon after her first issue, Ms. Betts taped segments for the cable TV network Lifetime on the challenges of being a working mom. She has since hired a publicist at P.M.K. to screen her from the press, as if she were Meg Ryan.

When Ms. Wintour’s predecessor, Grace Mirabella, was fired in 1988 after her attempts to democratize Vogue , she recouped by getting her own eponymous magazine, Mirabella . (As did, briefly, Frances Lear: Lear’s .) This seems unthinkable today. Save for Jane , helmed by former Sassy editor Jane Pratt, whose name is conveniently generic enough to mean “everywoman,” it is people who are already famous–multimillion-dollar entrepreneurs or “stars” in other industries– who are now successfully putting their imprimaturs on magazines: Martha Stewart with her Living ; Oprah Winfrey with her O ; Rosie O’Donnell, who recently ate McCall ‘s. If celebrities aren’t actually “editing” magazines, they are driving their sales: Witness the most successful of them all, In Style , and the mad rush by the others to duplicate its formula. (Who’s on the cover of this month’s Vogue ? Nicole Kidman.)

Since editors can’t possibly compete with the ready-made narratives celebrities provide, they have slowly begun to erase themselves. Mirabella closed up shop for good this past summer. Its final editor, Roberta Myers, now edits Elle ; she has omitted her photograph from her editor’s letter. In the latest issue of Glamour , Condé Nast’s most lucrative title, editor Bonnie Fuller didn’t even bother to write a letter; she instead prints a picture of herself posing with actresses Sharon Stone and Kristin Davis, as if she might absorb their celebrity by osmosis.

It is a fool’s errand. The new model of the women’s magazine editor–Ms. Pratt, Mademoiselle ‘s Mandi Norwood, Marie Claire ‘s Glenda Bailey–is not a dictator, not a queen, but a girlish and conspiratorial chum. (How can you dictate, after all, in a world of eBay and casual Friday? How elite can you be when most socialites have day jobs?) The youthful Ms. France is the ultimate self-erasing editor, posing for her editor’s letter quite literally in the closet. “I’d like you to think of Lucky as your personal shopping playground,” she writes, “overseen by that one friend who knows exactly which jeans are the most butt flattering.” Her magazine goes on to present no stories, no advice on job hunts, no how-to, no horoscopes (finally!), no vision of your ideal life, just first-person squibs from her editors accompanying photographs of items, items, items –the reason why magazines were existing all along. It’s crass, perhaps–note the $68 dish-drying rack on page 104–but there’s something honest about it. Something even brave.

Ms. France goes one, even braver step further: She has not only erased the idea of the women’s magazine editor as celebrity, she has erased celebrities ! The few actual living people who do appear in Lucky are either a) editors; b) unknown models ( Lucky ‘s models are no more striking than the prettiest woman in your office, and just as anonymous; compare this to Vogue running something like six successive covers of Gisele Bundchen last year); or, c) unknown creative types–designers, interior decorators, hair stylists–women who are making a living just like you or me. O.K., maybe they’re making a living perpetuating the Beauty Myth, but who cares? At least they, and not Charles Revson (or Ron Perelman) are the ones profiting!

Of course, it will ultimately be Condé Nast’s Si Newhouse who profits if Lucky is successful. And while it is a Condé Nast tradition to maintain a stable of beautiful glossies, Lucky also signifies the end of the women’s magazine as a cultural artifact, an ornament, a quasi-book. There was a time when the fashion layouts of women’s magazines were so heartbreakingly beautiful, they were set pieces unto themselves. It seems unbelievable now, but entire movie sequences were constructed around women’s magazines (think Kay Thompson, Vreelandishly decreeing “Think Pink” in 1957’s Funny Face ).

The 70’s and 80’s brought the slightly schlockier woman’s mag: the embarrassing relationship advice to be pored over, corner folded; the quiz to be filled in with erasable ball-point; the insert of recipe cards to be extracted and filed and smudged. Ms. Tilberis did some gorgeous covers for Bazaar in the mid-1990’s, but for the most part, women’s magazines were now consigned to the recycling heap without an afterthought. They had ceased to be coffee-table artifacts and were now furtive entertainment for the doctor’s office or the airplane. All the more so since Mr. Newhouse poached Ms. Fuller, the current editor of Glamour , from Hearst’s Cosmo in 1998 (in the process “retiring” yet another dignified, old-school mother figure, Ruth Whitney).

Lucky takes this phenomenon to its logical conclusion: It is a women’s magazine as project . By its editor’s fiat, its pages are meant quite explicitly to be annotated (“I want this Cosabella thong in these colors”), doctored, torn up and out. One of its pages is covered with peel-off stickers–a rip-off from the popular Bliss spa catalog, one person who worked on the magazine remarked–to flag the items that the reader wants to buy. In the initial test issue, the stickers read “maybe” and “yes”; one read “yes!”–to indicate, one supposes, that one must-have item. In the current issue, all the yesses are adorned with exclamation points. Shopping as never-ending orgasm. It is gross, but at least more novel than the never-ending loop of sex advice in a Cosmo , Glamour or Mademoiselle –”Happy Horni-Days: 50 Ways to make Xmas really jingle,” limply promises the latter’s December cover.

And then there is sex. In the recent past, women’s magazines had so many pictures of practically naked women that a woman’s boyfriend or husband could be forgiven for occasionally sneaking a peek. Take away the text, and women’s magazines resembled soft porn for straight men. Magazines like In Style and now Lucky , which place a far greater emphasis on the merchandise itself–the “product” shot–are in a sense much more a woman’s women’s magazine. Lucky ‘s test issue had a startling photo of a bare-buttocked woman racing up the escalator of a department store, but the second contains no such bizarre fantasy scenarios. What it has, instead, is a sense of the modern marketplace as a battlefield that needs to be navigated, a mountain of products to be scaled, with Ms. France and her posse as our Sherpas. There is the ubiquitous “gift guide.” What is the deal with “gift guides,” anyway? We need “guidance” to buy gifts because there is too much to choose from; our sense of overwhelmedness at the vast array has become a pathology to be sorted through. Ms. France’s browsers are, as the magazine puts it, “intrepid”–it’s war out there. The magazine even employs a columnist, Mim Udovitch, that they have dubbed “Dr. Shopper.” There are so many products out there, perhaps one literally feels diseased.

But Lucky is not a prescriptive magazine, it is a descriptive one. In the December/January issue, there is a guide to cheese with an accompanying layout of accessories–”Everything you need to pick, plane, trim, grate, and scoop the cheese.” Unlike the dictatorial magazines of yore, Lucky is not saying, “Cheese is the thing to serve at your holiday bash!” It is saying, ” Should you serve cheese, here are your options .” (For some, a $105 parmesan grater.) Maybe Lucky is not just a woman’s women’s magazine. Maybe it is the end of women’s magazines entirely .

It comes down to, again, the end of narrative. Women’s magazines used to publish literary fiction–Truman Capote, Carson McCullers and, more recently, Susan Minot. When they stopped doing that, most of them were and still are trying to spin narratives, stories about their readers: who their readers expected and hoped and were trying to be, whether it was floating on a yacht in Belize or gamely climbing the corporate ladder. The idea that a woman might derive her identity from a magazine–actually be a Cosmo girl, a Fun Fearless Female–now seems quaint and ridiculous. ( Mademoiselle seems to be trying to revive the genre with some kind of “thoroughly Modern Millie” conceit, but it is falling flat. As are the magazine’s sales.) No, women now draw their identity, as men increasingly do as well, from the stuff they have, from the products that construe their own personal “style.”

It goes without saying that there is no Susan Minot story in Lucky . But unlike most of the others women’s magazines, which still publish little critical nubs of recognition for this month’s Bridget Jones’s Diary , Ms. France isn’t even offering book reviews (“I find it’s very patronizing when women’s magazines feel you have to give women a little dose of arts and books,” she told Women’s Wear Daily ). There is, however, a piece on how to begin collecting vintage paperback books. Who needs to even read anymore to construe an identity, when you can instead display copies of old Lolita s in your living room filled with mid-century modernist furniture?Maybe we are all floating, blissfully gender-neutral, in the same consumerist stew–a bleak and possibly soulless place to be, but at least we are all in it together. Men have magazines now called Gear and Stuff . There used to be a magazine for women called Charm . We don’t need to learn Charm anymore. We are, for better or worse, Lucky . Where Have You Gone, Diana Vreeland?