With Amy Larocca
Bonnie Fuller knows how to make an exit. She’s made six of them in her twenty-year career as an editor-in-chief, and not all of them have worked out so well, but this one went off with the diversionary panache of the casino heist in Ocean’s Eleven.
Things were going brilliantly at Us Weekly: Newsstand sales were defying gravity. Her boss, Wenner Media general manager Kent Brownridge, told the Post on May 30, “It means Bonnie is a very rich girl,” since “the $1 million contract” the paper noted she signed earlier this year had a big circulation bonus clause. On June 17, Fuller congratulated the staff on their success with a champagne toast.
“She plotted it out so beautifully,” marvels Us senior editor Catherine Hong, who had just had a frosty meeting with Fuller after giving her notice. “She made it sound like it was going to inconvenience her,” she says. “And she was leaving the next day. Nobody knew. It was very convincing.” To everyone: Her staff thought she had a signed contract just as much as Brownridge and Jann Wenner thought they’d made a deal to keep her there. Nobody knew that she’d spent “twelve to fifteen hours” in clandestine meetings with tabloid king David Pecker (“I could say it was someplace where nobody would recognize us,” he says) over the previous couple of weeks, working out the terms of her defection to American Media.
On Thursday, June 26, much of the staff of Us Weekly wasn’t even in the office, since they’d closed a double issue the previous Monday—a Fuller classic, fuchsia, purple, and yellow girlie newsstand-candy featuring three exclamation points and a digitally conjoined photo of Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson glowing pink over the headline HOT MAMAS! WHY HOLLYWOOD’S SEXY YOUNG SCREEN QUEENS WANT BABIES NOW. Her executive editor, Janice Min, was away in Tuscany, and—as Cindy Adams had dutifully noted in her column earlier in the week—Fuller would be off to Hawaii Friday morning with her family to celebrate her twentieth wedding anniversary. Even the Us publicist, whom she’d pestered to keep her in the press, was on vacation.
Not a caption got printed in Us Weekly without passing through Fuller’s uncompromising filter, which meant that staff people were waiting with 30 pages of proofs for her to go over before her vacation while their boss went off to meet with Wenner in his corner office. She never returned. The staff waited. At around four o’clock, the phones lit up—friends asking, “Is Bonnie really going to The Star?”—and tech support came and carted away Fuller’s assistant’s computer, since she didn’t use her own. A bit after five, jacketless and smiling, Wenner gathered the staff in the glass conference room and announced she’d left, wishing her “godspeed.” He didn’t know what had hit him.
The staff retired to the gloomy bar at the Warwick Hotel to wonder what was going to happen next. “When Jann came and talked to us and said, ‘Bonnie’s about to get on a plane to Hawaii,’ it was like the last scene in a movie,” Hong says admiringly. “You could just picture her sitting in first class, sipping a cocktail.”
People have been wondering what movie Bonnie Fuller sees herself starring in ever since she was imported from Canada to be editor of the teen magazine YM in 1989. In some ways, she’s the Joel Schumacher of editing: a single-minded producer of superefficient blockbusters, instinctively mass-market. She’s dumbed down every magazine she’s ever worked for—Us to the point of its being little more than a slickly packaged, guilty-pleasure-inducing collection of paparazzi photos—by stripping away anything that the reader wasn’t going to be instantly interested in.
“She’s not editing for anyone else in New York, she’s not editing so other editors can cluck over her artistry,” says Mark Golin, creative director of Time Inc. Interactive, who worked for her at Cosmopolitan.
But Fuller’s serial successes have changed editors’ worlds nonetheless, putting pressure on them to think about what the reader wants to know more than what they might want the reader to know. “Bonnie is like no-fat editing,” says Golin. “Not low-fat, not 15 percent, but no-fat. She doesn’t put a thing in the magazine that she doesn’t think will work . . . She tortures every caption.”
And every caption writer. Fuller is legendarily difficult to please, and so obsessed with the product that she churns through staff, regularly burning out editors with dismissive treatment and punishing late nights. But she gets bang for her buck: She’s posted hefty circulation gains at every magazine she’s touched, including Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour, minting money in turn for Gruner + Jahr, Hearst, and Condé Nast. Until last week, the only surprise turn in her juggernaut of a career was the falling-out with Si Newhouse that led to her ouster from Glamour. Rumors were flying that she’d been jockeying for the editor-in-chief’s job at Harper’s Bazaar; staffers reported seeing her working on a mockup of the fashion book around the Glamour office—a charge she has dismissed as “urban myth”—and she had withheld signing a new contract that had been on her desk for months. But she didn’t get that job—it went to Glenda Bailey—and she was quickly pushed out of the one she had, the contract taken off the table by a miffed Newhouse.
When she was hired for the Us job, it was not only a save for Wenner, who had lost Terry McDonnell to Sports Illustrated after several months of struggling to establish a niche for the newly launched weekly, but a comeback for Fuller. In the eight months without her name on a masthead, she had been cooking up a shelter magazine start-up for Meredith Corporation and writing a personal how-to book called From Geek to Oh My Goddess: How to Get the Big Career and the Big Love Life and the Big Family—Even If You Have a Big Loser Complex Inside.
Indeed, even after all of her success—starting with the editorship of Flare, a Canadian fashion magazine, at 26—people she’s worked with can’t resist observing that she’s never lost her loser complex inside. She’s probably referred to as the “geeky girl from high school” more than any other woman in publishing.
Maybe that’s the “Rosebud” explaining her enormous drive. There’s a crude, force-of-nature quality to Fuller’s personal style that leads everyone who works for her to try to figure out what causes it, if only to determine how best to stay out of her path. “We’d do amateur psychologizing about her,” says a former staffer. “I think she’s absolutely clueless about how she affects people.”
Or, scarier, maybe she’s not clueless. “She would fuck with you,” says an editor. “She would fuck with people if they gave off fear. She respected people who were brave and seemed resilient.”
“If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll love working with her,” says Jane Hess, one of Fuller’s oldest friends from Toronto. “But if you want to do the basic job and go home at five-thirty, you won’t. She likes people like herself. She’s not interested in people without ambition.”