Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Business Of Beauty Magazines

Beauty sells, brains don't

Moving from news to feature writing was like shifting from a sweatshop to a boutique. I was fortunate to be transferred from the tyranny of the shop floor under an MCP to be part of an intimate team headed by a Benevolent, Emancipated Woman. 

The magazine section was given reign over the whole of the fourth floor. There were clusters of workstations for Jelita, Her World, Fanfare, Penghibur, Jaguh, Puspa Niaga, Malaysian Business. We---the pool of feature writers---had to gather materials for all the publications. I was assigned to cover product launches, press conferences and wives' association meetings; conduct profile interviews with women profesionals, businessmen and entertainers; compile beauty, health and household tips. But there was always the constant reminder at the back of my head---that magazine writers had to look for new and creative angles since their stories will only hit the news stand 90 days later, not the next day or the following Sunday.

But Content was just the Handmaiden. Cover was the Queen. First Women might have inspired and encouraged women and girls to realise their ambitions and improve their stations in life, but uncoiffed, bare-faced, bespectacled women simply didn't shout, 'Buy Me!', from the pegged lines of the Mamak's news stand. Cover girls still had to be 'dolled up' by make-up artists, hair and fashion stylists, and their best angles highlighted by photographers.


Hence, there had to be a mix and a balance in the content featured. Ministers' and high-ranking wives must be featured alongside female ministers and high-ranking females in the army, navy and Air Force. Career tips gave side glances to 'petua-petua rumahtangga'. Home-cooked food jostled for space with fine dining dishes at five-star hotels. Home decor competed with commercialised interiors for readers' attention.

The women magazine's content might have appeared 'realistic' by its attempt to capture both the Professional Women and Housewives' markets but there was also a sense of contradiction and dissonance. Busy, career women then had no time nor interest to keep abreast of the latest trends in fashion and beauty products and were too plain anyway to grace its cover. Not all high-ranking officers' wives were cover-friendly either. Inevitably, the magazine fell back on Pretty Women - beauty queens, models, singers, actresses in professions that were deemed frivolous but integral to the media and fashion industry - to sell its copies.

The more copies sold - to women with disposable incomes and allowances - the more advertising content and revenue filled up the magazine's pages and coffers.

"Consume compulsively, consume conspicuously
Consume, consume ..."

was the beauty magazine's mantra. How else would people know that a woman had arrived, albeit via her husband in most cases, if not through her lavish life style and purchases?

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