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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Bonnie Fuller

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-27

Bonnie Fuller wears the monikers of titlemeister and controlmeister with perfect aplomb.

That isn't to say that Ms. Fuller, the Canadian-born chief editorial director of American Media Inc. doesn't generate turbulence while she wields control of the company's 23 titles - or while she promotes her persona as a powerful editrix who also finds time to raise four children, tend to a self-employed architect-husband in Hastings-on-Hudson, and write a much buzzed-about book, "The Joys of Much Too Much" (Fireside Books), which will be published today.
"You've got to keep your focus," Ms. Fuller said, when asked about her reputation as a hard-driving celebrity-executive whose demanding style has been famously known to run lesser beings mortals - including rivals - into the ground.

"When you have a job, you've got to get it done - so do it," she said.
Ms. Fuller.
Ms. Fuller has She's lived by those mantras since 1989 at the helm of some of America's most successful publications, including YM Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Us Weekly, and Star. With their success, her annual remuneration has risen to beyond the $1 million threshold that separates journalism's commissars from its lumpenproletariat.

And while Ms. Fuller leaves the impression that she couldn't care less about the caviling concerning her demanding management style, consider the following:

At one point during the lunch, she said she was puzzled why she didn't get invited by too very many journalism schools to address students (even though she's highly sought after elsewhere on the celebrity lecture circuit).

If that toss-away remark suggested, well, some anxiety, that's understandable.

Ms. Fuller, a warm and chatty dining companion, has been among the most envied and reviled figure in the catty world of magazine publishing. Sparkling profiles in newspapers and magazines have also been studded with on-the-one-hand-this-but-on-the-other-hand-that treatment. And while her influential lofty perch in the publishing community has sometimes insulated her from direct attacks, the subtext of many editorial references to her has been less than kind.

There are those who contend that there's something preternatural about her career arc from the editor's job at YM in 1989 to her current position avatar as CEO David Pecker's sultanaat American Media. They contend that Ms. Fuller has so carefully calibrated her career that, instead of being invited to journalism schools, she should be invited tovisit business schools to offer a case study in relentless ambition.

Ms. Fuller may challenge the pejoration implicit in her critics' view, but she acknowledges that ambition was imbibed early into her life.

"As a child, I liked to be bossy," she said. "I liked to have things my way. I liked being a leader."

She had a role model for leadership in her own home.

"My father, Stanley, was a lawyer who got involved in real-estate issues - and he was entirely a self-made man," Ms. Fuller said, reminiscing about her childhood in Toronto. "I was very proud of him."

That childhood - as the oldest of two daughters and a son of Stanley Hurwitz and Tanya Warsh - was filled with conventional activities such as attending Jewish summer camps. There were also unconventional things - such as attending civic hearings on the revitalization of downtown Toronto, where her father played a prominent role.

"My father instilled in me a love of work," Ms. Fuller said. "He wanted me to join him in his law practice."

She applied to journalism school instead, but didn't get in. So, as a fallback, she went to law school at the University of Toronto where, Ms. Fuller said, "I learned to think logically."

"I also learned that God is in the details," she said.

Ms. Fuller brought those skills - along with a husband, architect Michael Fuller - with her to New York. And the rest, as they say, is publishing history.

If there's been a core technique in shaping that history, it lies in the fact that Ms. Fuller emphasizes listening to her readers.

"You may not always agree - but as an editor you need to listen to what your readers are saying," she said. "I also always ask myself, 'What can I do to make me want to read my own magazine?'"

Because of the provenance and purview of the titles Ms. Fuller edited, her readers have been overwhelmingly women.

"Women lead very complicated lives - so magazines need to respond to that," Ms. Fuller said. "Being a working woman myself, I just knew that women had no time. That's why I wanted to make magazines easier to read. Magazines should be fun, they should be entertaining, and they should be useful to readers. That I understood how to do."

She also understood how to create buzz for her books, the word of mouth that often determined whether a title would sell well or just sell.

And in creating that buzz, Ms. Fuller developed a reputation for shrewdness in using public relations to her own advantage, even if it sometimes meant using PR to a fault. It has meant, too, establishing a caste system among publications through decisions about whom to favor with interviews and in what time frame.

That characteristic may not exactly endear Ms. Fuller to her colleagues in the press, many of whom lament over being needlessly manipulated needlessly.

Still, there's been no shortfall in publicity for Ms. Fuller, and her new book is likely to fetch more of it.

Tomorrow, for example, there will be a glittering book party in the Altman Building. Ms. Fuller will be appear on various television talk shows. She will be feted by her associates, and surely by others who wish to curry favor. And - like this reporter who wrote to her many years ago - there will be those who might cite bad times aseek her attention. (For the record, Ms. Fuller never responded, a fact that brought a smile of amusement for the reporter during lunch.)

Ms. Fuller said she wanted her readers to understand her personal story, and hence her book.
says she understands bad times.
"I started this book when I was unemployed," she said, alluding to a fallow period before her assignment with Us Weekly came through. "I didn't think that I'd be an editor again. I thought that maybe I'd go into fashion or retail."

"But I don't believe in giving up - and I'm asking women not to give up believing in themselves or in their dreams," Ms. Fuller said. "I feel that I've been in the trenches. That's why I always want to provide a positive message. I always believe that life could be better for all of us."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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