MediaSeptember 5, 2019

Boy crushes and girl power: Remembering Creme magazine


‘A girl’s best friend’ was Creme magazine’s tagline, and for many girls growing up in New Zealand in the early 2000s, that was absolutely true. Five years after Creme shuttered, Amanda Robinson looks back at a teen phenomenon.

When I think of Creme magazine I think of grocery shopping at the Foodtown in Glenfield Mall, rushing ahead to the magazine section as my mother pushed the trolley. The months we couldn’t afford a copy, I’d stand by the rack and flip through the sections, discovering everything I could about movies, music and make-up, scanning the advice column for questions that captured all the angst and embarrassment I felt simply being alive as a 14 year old girl.

From 1999-2014, Creme tended to the interests and obsessions of New Zealand’s preteen girls. It taught me the definition of a heart-shaped face, what a winter undertone was, and how to master the perfect smokey eye. While I was drawn to the beauty section, my sister remembers feverishly entering every competition, and my colleague recalls collecting posters of boys for her teenage bedroom, including one with a Home and Away star on one side and a Coronation Street star on the other that she’d alternate each month.

August marked five years since Bauer shuttered the magazine due to falling profits. Bauer bought the magazine from APN News and Media in 2013 as part of a package with New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, The Listener, Simply You, and Simply You Living for a reported $7 million. At the time of its closure, Bauer said they’d hoped to raise more ad revenue than at APN, where it had been operating at a loss, but had never been able to attract enough advertising to make the magazine “significantly profitable”. In the first quarter of 2014, readership fell from 180,000 to 142,000.

The final Creme, “The Confidence Issue”, was published on August 25th, 2014, 806 days before Trump was elected, with Zendaya on the cover. When the closure was announced on Facebook, fans flooded the comments section to share their heartbreak.

“whaaaaaaaat omg i use to collect every mag each month”

“Noo u guys have been around forever I loved all the mags I have got since 07 when I first started reading Creme it’s soo sad to see u go :( ;(“

“I just can’t believe it R.I.P Creme.”

I wanted to know what went wrong, so I went to the source: original Creme publisher Natalie Wright (nee Chandulal). When I asked her whether there’s still space for print magazines in the digital era, she didn’t sound hopeful.

“Print’s dead. There’s no room for it now. We used to get a lot of ‘No’s [to pitches] for advertising dollars then, but you get even more now. It’s very hard to quantify readers and whether advertisers get the exposure they’re aiming for. It’s not worth it.

Now that life is busier, advertisers and readers are united by their desire for specificity. Advertisers want to track distinct audience habits, and readers no longer want to buy a whole magazine just because they’re interested in one story.

“I can get anything, any moment of the day on my phone,” Wright says. “I personally haven’t brought a magazine in over two years, and I love magazines. I just Google it. And more, 12 year old girls now will just Google it.”

I think about my younger sister’s era of Creme and how many of those cover stars have since faded from conversation: Reece Mastin, Jaime McDell, Cody Simpson, AnnaSophia Robb, Nina Dobrev. I followed Wright’s logic and Googled what had become of them. Reece Mastin now goes by ‘Mastin’ and released an album last year, as did Jamie McDell. Cody Simpson is acting, currently playing Dmitry, one of the lead roles in musical production Anastasia. He’s also a United Nations advocate for oceans. AnnaSophia Robb is doing a true crime TV show. Nina Dobrev is appearing in a few different movies and television shows, none of which look very good.

Looking at those old magazines, I remembered how each issue – that curated, fixed collection – used to last us a whole month. I miss that slow, savoured pace, where each issue felt like a time capsule. On the cover of Creme’s August 2013 issue, Jaime McDell wears a grey sweater and studded cutoff shorts with one of those braided headbands made to look like blonde hair and worn, inexplicably, in the centre of the forehead. Is there anything more August 2013? These days, in the post-magazine era, months no longer feel so cohesive, nor information so permanent.

Creme magazine was founded by independent publisher Tim O’Donnell, who initially pitched it as a music magazine. When that didn’t take off, O’Connell brought in Wright, who began marketing Creme towards preteen girls, figuring the advertising money from beauty brands, and focus on celebrities, would sustain it. And for 15 years, she was right.

Creme was where my interest in celebrities began, and — before social media — the only place I could learn about the real lives of these unreachable stars: Blake Lively, Orlando Bloom, and my favourites, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Before my time as a Creme reader, Wright recalls putting Pink and Tomb Raider-era Angelina Jolie on the cover.

“We had lots of fun. I met so many stars; Anastasia, Robbie Williams, Backstreet Boys, Girl Thing, and Christina Aguilera — although she was a bitch, and she stunk of B.O.”

When Wright became pregnant with her second child in 2002, the exhaustion induced by monthly deadlines all got too much, and Creme was sold to Waiata Publishing, then to APN, where Alice O’Connell was brought on as editor. She says she quickly realised what a hands-on job editing a small magazine could be.

“In the early days my role involved absolutely everything from working out how to fill every page and writing the content, to sitting down with stacks of envelopes and literally sending out every subscription copy.

“I remember one issue we were given 4,000 free lip glosses which we spent an afternoon gluing by hand to cards to be inserted into copies.”

Of course there were more glamorous aspects to her job as well, such as being flown to the Teen Choice Awards in the US. Another highlight was being the first magazine in the world to make Kristen Stewart a covergirl.

“The Twilight franchise was massive, and I’ll be forever proud that we put Kristen Stewart on the cover before anyone else realised what a success she would be – that was our biggest-selling issue ever and we got calls from people around the world trying to get a copy.”

On a local level, O’Connell says she’s proud of the work Creme did with the Health Sponsorship Council (HSC) under Helen Clark’s Labour Government. The HSC’s Smokefree campaign focused on getting teenagers to stop smoking before it became a lifelong habit. In conjunction with Smokefree, Creme found ways to promote the idea that smoking was actually uncool and definitely not glamorous.

“We’d often ask celebrities in interviews about smoking, and then weave it into the story,” O’Connell says. “Like Justin Bieber at the height of his teenage fame telling us the one thing that would put him off asking his crush out would be if he found out she was a smoker.”

Boy crazy and proud of it

Creme was a publication that trusted young women – not just readers, but the magazine’s staff themselves. O’Connell started at the magazine two weeks before her 22nd birthday, with the expectation she’d get some experience then transition into investigative journalism. She ended up staying for nine years.

“It was a dream, the best of dreams,” she says. “[We were] really passionate about what we were doing, and in turn we had readers who were incredibly invested. I had the best conversations with readers on Bebo, MySpace and then Facebook, and we used those conversations to create the magazine, so it really felt like our readers had ownership of the content.”

When she heard Creme was to close, O’Connell says she felt a keen sense of loss, not just for her hard work but for the magazine’s readership.

“I definitely shed some tears. If anything, I felt like the voice of Creme was becoming more important – to boost young women up, instil self-worth and the importance of looking out for one another, which seems like a necessary antidote to the messages young women are being bombarded with on Instagram, Snapchat and the likes today.”

Stephanie Holmes started at Creme as an intern aged 25, and rose through the ranks to deputy editor from 2004 to 2008. One of her responsibilities was the advice column What’s Your Problem, a fixture of the magazine. She says she’s still proud of her column’s impact, including on one young reader who asked for advice about being severely bullied. She later wrote back to say Holmes’ advice had inspired her to get help from teachers and a counsellor at her school.

“We never made up any letters, everything we published had come from real readers asking for help. They would often break my heart, the emotion and hurt in some of them was palpable.”

That guiding principle of supporting girls to be self-reliant, caring and brave carried through to the entire magazine, Holmes says.

“We always tried to be a good influence: focusing on positive body image, loving yourself from the inside out, supporting friends and peers, encouraging confidence, intelligence and individuality. And although we would write about ‘cute boys’ and give advice on relationships, we would always focus on putting yourself and your own needs first. We all knew how hard it could be to be a teenager and we did our best to help our readers through that.”

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Emma Clifton, who started as Creme’s assistant editor at 23 in 2008 and became deputy editor in 2010. She says she thought of the magazine as a “safe space” for young girls, one in which their joys and problems were taken seriously.

“We felt like we were in the position of being a nice older sister. The teenage years are a fraught, messy time that are equal parts horror and wonder and we really, really loved and respected our readers.”

Clifton says her time at Creme was “a total joy” coinciding as it did with a “golden hour” of pop culture for the tween and teen market: Taylor Swift, the Jonas Brothers, Rihanna and Justin Bieber were in their ascendance, while Harry Potter, Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, High School Musical and Twilight were global teen phenomena.

“Working at Creme felt like a combination of working on a school newspaper while also staying at the world’s longest sleepover – eg, heaven.”

Since Creme closed its doors in 2014, the teen print media landscape has continued to decline. With Teen Vogue ditching their print edition and the closure of Tavi Gevinson’s online Rookie Mag last year, the number of publications catered specifically towards teenage girls is the lowest it’s been in decades.

“I think Teen Vogue does an amazing job in giving youth a voice,” says O’Connell, “[but] I wish there were more safe spaces in the media that specifically cater to teenage and preteen girls. At that age you need a lot of guidance – and you need some space to just be a kid and not feel like you have to grow up too soon. I hope teens today have that support somewhere in their lives.”

“When I was at Creme, Bebo and MySpace were just getting started so cyberbullying and trolling wasn’t really a massive thing yet,” says Holmes. “It must be so hard to navigate it all now. I hope they have somewhere or something like Creme where they can be themselves, feel supported and confident and loved.”

“It has been very hard watching the spaces and magazines dedicated to young women die a slow, painful death,” says Clifton. “I think Elaine Welteroth did an amazing job with Teen Vogue, as did Tavi Gevinson with Rookie. But a lot of what is aimed at teenage girls these days covers the scary, serious stuff – which is important and there is absolutely a place for, but it requires them to be at the more mature end of being a teenager.

Teen Vogue

“You have your entire life to be an adult, there is a very small window where you can be a teenage girl and unabashedly love the fun, fluffy aspects of it.”

That sense of fun ran through Creme’s every page: whether to pick Team Edward or Team Jacob; why you’d wanna be BFFs with Blake Lively; what it’s like to kiss Zac Efron; the ten friendship commandments thou shall not break. For a lonely girl living in a tiny island nation at the bottom of the globe, Creme was a glimpse at the world – from the embarrassing moments and boy problems of girls my own age, to the untouchable glamour of Hollywood stars.

Of course it was the trend away from print and towards digital – and the resulting lost ad revenue – that killed Creme. But it’s hard not to wonder whether a publication that looked towards the future with such optimism would even make sense in our current political and environmental climate. The idea of a magazine encouraging self love these days seems passé; every brand has already commodified the concept. As uncertainty and insecurity ripples through media industries, it’s doing the same to teens today. I think of Creme’s final cover girl, Zendaya, and her current role as troubled 17-year-old drug addict Rue in HBO’s Euphoria. The show is imbued with a darkness distinctive to Generation Z, a worldview that seems a million miles away from the fun, fluffy approach of outlets like Creme.

I threw out my stack of Cremes years ago, but not before cutting them up and collaging together a vision board. Looking at the finished board felt like a blueprint for the kind of life I wanted for myself; whether that was a bestie, a boyfriend, or a signature scent. It was a naive activity, of course, but it made me ambitious and optimistic and hopeful for the future, exactly as a teenager should be. I only hope teenage girls get to make vision boards for generations to come.

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