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Ex-Cosmo editors Ingram, Freedman, McCahon and Wilson reflect on their time at the helm

This week Bauer Media axed one of Australia's most iconic magazine titles, Cosmopolitan. Here, former Cosmopolitan editors Pat Ingram, Mia Freedman, Bronwyn McCahon and Sarah Wilson reflect on the title and its impact on Australian society.

Pat Ingram, Cosmo editor from 1988 to 1996, now editorial director at Fairfax Media’s Sunday Life

What led you to your role as editor of Cosmopolitan?

Cosmopolitan played a pivotal role in my career since it was launched by Fairfax, where I was working at the time on Woman’s Day. My first role was as deputy editor but when the Fairfax magazines were bought by ACP I was appointed editor (for the next 12 years) then, as my career progressed, I was its editorial director and finally publishing director.

Why do you believe it was important to young women?

Cosmo’s female-empowering philosophy was an ultimate lifestyle handbook for young women.

The magazine broke through boundaries, was not afraid to talk about the issues that affected them from career opportunity to sexuality, to making the best life for yourself. While Cosmo was sometimes criticised for its blatant appreciation of having a man in your life, it was essentially very feminist in its outlook in that it encouraged women to build careers, and empowered women to take stands on issues… You could think and wear lipstick at the same time!

Did it have an impact on Australian culture?

Yes, definitely. While being a wholly Australian edition and dealing with the lifestyle issues of young Australian women, being a international brand opened its readers” thinking to other cultural behaviours too. And along with Dolly and Cleo, it helped shape the attitudes of several generations of women.

What were you most proud of as an editor?

I was lucky that I edited in what can quite reasonably now be called the halcyon days of magazine publishing. Monthly circulation of up to 400,000 was pretty heady stuff, but I loved the innovation that was made possible by the commitment of the parent companies, ACP and Hearst, to the brand. And of course there was in the words of founder Helen Gurley Brown “that Cosmo girl” – the readers who lived and breathed Cosmo.

What was your favourite part of Cosmopolitan Australia?

Sharing with our readers the influences and attitudes of womens right’s around the world. It was great to be part of such a huge international family, one in which the Australian editor was highly regarded and emulated.

Why do you believe Cosmopolitan was no longer commercially viable?

There are really only two paths to commercial success – circulation and ad revenues – which have both been heavily impacted by the changes in media consumption. But I still think it is so sad that no-one has been able to harness the fabulous brand power of the young women’s titles.

Mia Freedman, Cosmo editor from 1996 to 2005, currently creative director and co-founder of Mamamia

What led you to your role as editor of Cosmopolitan?

I’d been working for five years at Cleo under Lisa Wilkinson who had given me my break with an internship when I was 19 and from the day I started, my goal was to be the editor of Cleo before I turned 25. When she left to have her second child, I became restless and decided to move to New York. While I was saving up some money to do that, I went to see Pat Ingram, Cosmo’s then-editor about doing some freelance work. In that first meeting, she offered me the editor’s job and I said no! Pat was moving up into a more senior publishing role and she was looking for someone to make a generational change. I had my heart set on moving to New York, but then I really thought about it and the next day I called back and told her I was keen. My first day as editor was a few months before I turned 25. I would have made a terrible Cleo editor, because I’d been so in love with it as a reader. Cosmo was more of a blank slate to me and I was the editor for the next seven years and editor-in-chief for three more years after that.

Why do you believe it was important to young women?

Until the early 2000s, women’s magazines like Cosmo, Cleo and Dolly were the only form of women’s media. That was IT. So if you wanted any information about issues affecting women and girls, that’s where you found it. And contrary to some sexist thinking, that didn’t just mean sex and beauty tips. Cosmo published articles about feminism and domestic violence and breast cancer and issues of great importance to women decades before the mainstream media covered them. Cosmo was also founded particularly on Helen Gurley Brown’s philosophy that it didn’t matter how you looked or how smart you were, every woman could be the best version of herself. It was very pre-Oprah.

Cosmo was the original self-help title for women and when I left in 2006 there were something like 56 international editions in countries as different as Israel and Kazakstahn. Cleo was actually a copy of Cosmo that Kerry Packer instructed Ita Buttrose to start as a spoiler when he unexpectedly lost the licence to launch Cosmo in Australia and Hearst decided to partner with Fairfax instead. The two went head to head for decades. And no outside publisher in Australia was ever able to challenge them in the young women’s lifestyle market. They were really fun years, trying to outdo each other with the raunchiest sealed section and the best cover lines.

Do you believe it had an impact on Australian culture? If so, how?

On my first day as editor, I called in my fashion editor and told her we would be featuring models of all different shapes, sizes and skin colours in every issue of the magazine from now on. I felt passionately that magazines had a responsibility to portray women in a more realistic and diverse way that reflected how we really looked! As a feminist I knew that the ways magazines only featured one very narrow view of the female body was a bad thing for women but as a businessperson – and make no mistake, that’s what an editor is – I thought it was bad for business too. Why make your audience feel bad about themselves every time they looked at your product? It made no sense to me. Diversity helped take Cosmo to the number one position for sales, readership and ad revenue. It’s what women wanted. My bosses were pretty shocked to tell you the truth. But women still talk to me about it today.

 

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Flashback to my Cosmo office, sitting at my desk with my covers behind me. What a bittersweet day of memories. Cosmo is closing in Australia and it’s the end of the third iconic mag brand in as many years….Dolly, Cleo and now Cosmo…all gone. Make no mistake: women’s media has never been stronger. Women are consuming more content than ever before. It’s just that now it’s via their phones and social and podcasts. I spent many years trying to convince my mag bosses that winter was coming and in the end, I got tired of their blindness and I left to start my own women’s media brand. Mamamia now employs around 80 women, many of them who would once have dreamed of working in women’s mags. I only wish that the bosses of those magazines would have realised that they weren’t just mags, they were brands. It’s so sad that they were allowed to vanish. To all the magnificent Cosmonauts I worked with over my 10 years at the helm I love you and I miss you and I’m so very proud of what we achieved together. Particularly around body image. And to those who have lost their jobs, sending you love and hugs. ❤️❤️❤️

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What was your favourite part of Cosmopolitan Australia?

The camaraderie of working with women and building communities of women around brands is something that formed the foundations of Mamamia which I started a few months after I left Cosmo. I learned so much about creating content for women from the incredible female mentors and co-workers I had during my magazine years, women like Lisa Wilkinson and Wendy Squires and Paula Joye and Pat Ingram and Maggie Alderson and Deborah Thomas and Bronwyn McCahon. They remain some of my closest friends and are some of the smartest women I know.

Why do you believe Cosmopolitan was no longer ‘commercially viable’?

I spent the last year or two of my print career in endless meetings with my then bosses, trying to convince them that armageddon was coming for women’s magazines, particularly young women’s mags, because I could see through my own changing habits they were moving away from print. Those guys just refused to see it coming. So I left what was then ACP and started Mamamia in my lounge room in 2007.

What those magazine bosses – and their subsequent owners as the company was sold and resold –  didn’t seem to understand is that Cosmo and Cleo and Dolly weren’t just magazines, they were brands. Iconic brands. Brands that should have simply changed the way they delivered content to women. Mamamia has been able to build a media company in the gap that they just couldn’t see. Women have never consumed more content than they do today and our largest audience demographic is millennial women who once would have been reading magazines.

So I have mixed feelings. I’m sad for the staff and sad that such iconic brands have been allowed to vanish. But at the same time, Mamamia has been born out of the changing habits of women and we employ almost 100 women now, so that’s a positive thing for some of the women who would have once dreamed of a magazine career.

Sarah Wilson, Cosmo editor from 2003 to 2007, now a writer

What led you to your role as editor of Cosmopolitan?

Very bizarre, but particularly and wonderfully Cosmo circumstances! I was a news journalist and political columnist in Melbourne and the wonderful journalist Wendy Squires noted the fired-up feminist slant in my writing (in the Herald Sun, no less, where I shared a page with Andrew Bolt) and suggested to publisher Pat (also a former Cosmo editor) she should chat to me. It was a generous gesture. When I landed the gig I’d never worn heels or owned a hair dryer and wore a Melbourne uniform of all black. Kerrie Packer was still very present in the building in those days and the atmosphere at ACP was distinctly maverick and so a totally unknown entity like me was given a wild chance.

Why do you believe it was important to young women?

It espoused glossy, fun empowerment, which played out in different flavours over the decades, sometimes controversially so, but always playing to the era. It was originally rebellious, it then became a bible for women to “check in on” whether they were getting life right and its original mission statement and cult status continued, I think, even as competitor magazines and the internet increasingly ate into market share. I was editor pre-social media and I think that the “wise girlfriend who chats to you straight” vibe was still very much the appeal. Cosmo’s USP was the legacy that Helen Gurley Brown built from the beginning – it was inspirational and focused on career quite heavily (amid the naked chests and sex advice and ads for handbags) and “wanting men” but not needing them. As I say, these were originally rebellious ideas, but the sentiment resonated for many decades. We rode with it, trusted it.

 

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Today @cosmoaustralia closes. I was editor #4 in the 45-year history and I landed in the job on crutches (mountain bike accident) having never owned a hair dryer, heels or makeup at 29 with nooooo idea how to pick up a dude or what Japanese straightening was. I remain incredibly grateful for everything I learned and the incredible women who guided me and supported me and worked with me. Especially Helen Gurley Brown who really changed the world. And me. Good luck to everyone on the current team moving on to fresh stuff. Know that your life has changed and you can’t unlearn how to be the wise girlfriend who holds another’s hand through the big lessons. Had to share some of these pics…a pivotal time in my life. Mag stack by @weebirdy

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Do you believe it had an impact on Australian culture? If so, how?

Absolutely. The campaigns around rape, various contraception issues, voting and body image, particularly pre-social media, were incredibly impactful. Cosmo spoke and you took note, if only because it represented a particularly interesting and shifting demographic that other outlets struggled to understand.

During your time as editor, what were you most proud of?

There were the more bombastic moments, like entering the Guinness World Records for the biggest ever bikini shoot. I coordinated 1100 women in bikinis on Bondi beach (through old-school letter drops and in-mag call-outs – influencers and EDMs weren’t invented yet!), the footage went global, hitting page three of the New York Post (which is not necessarily to be worn as a badge honour!). I also got a deep kick from getting less fashionable, but super important, topics into the magazine. I did an enrol-to-vote campaign in the lead-up to the 2007 election and interviewed former PMs Howard and Rudd on issues that affected young women. They both told me the interviews got them thinking through that lens.

What was your favourite part of Cosmopolitan Australia?

The ‘Real Women’ fashion shoots, I think. We’d do regular fashion shoots where we’d used inspiring women doing great shit in the world as the models. It was an opportunity to provide a launchpad for some incredible business women, and also to present readers with fresh imagery of who and what they could be. I’ve watched a lot of the women we featured in these shoots rise and rise over the years.

Why do you believe Cosmopolitan was no longer ‘commercially viable’?

I say this with respect for the nuanced constraints the industry faces, especially since I left before the really dire commercial challenges hit, but I think a mag like Cosmo suffered from two things.

First, it set off to address the digital-print revenue and subscription challenges by trying to force-fit things into old models and missed the opportunity to enter the digital fray and reinvent things beyond the “banner ad” model. Cosmo’s brand loyalty and massive communities weren’t leveraged and, over time, radical approaches weren’t explored (as you could argue the music industry managed to do).

Second, as the full picture of how the digital age played out in the market, mags like Cosmo didn’t stand their ground and provide a firm point of difference from online’s disposable content. Again a brand leveraging issue. There is no doubt that there is room in the market for quality “old-school” products and techniques – like building a genuine community and travelling with them.

Bronwyn McCahon, Cosmo editor from 2006 to 2016

What led you to your role as editor of Cosmopolitan?

Cosmopolitan was my lifeblood for 16 years and I owe it largely to Mia Freedman. Mia gave me a job as her assistant when I was 20 years old and I spent the next five years moving through numerous seats on staff from production editor to beauty editor and features editor. After a short two to three year stint reliving my teenage angst as editor of Dolly magazine, I returned to Cosmo as editor-in-chief in late 2006 and remained in the chair until 2016.

Why do you believe it was important to young women?

Cosmo was THE trusted source and it gave young women a voice. It gave them permission to discuss topics that had otherwise been taboo. Women felt Cosmo was in their corner, always pushing boundaries and having conversations that mattered to them. Before Google and blogs, if a young woman had a relationship problem or emotional angst about something, they bought Cosmo and felt relieved to see their concerns articulated in its glossy pages. If they wanted to know what to wear out on Saturday night, it was a no-brainer, they bought Cosmo. It’s so cliche but for a good chunk of its 45 years on Australian newsstands, Comso was truly a woman’s bible, something savoured every month.

Do you believe it had an impact on Australian culture? If so, how?

Absolutely! From its earliest days Cosmo served as an agent for social change, encouraging women all around the world to take the leading role in their own lives. That was its DNA in the beginning and all the way to the end.

During your time as editor, what were you most proud of?

So many things, from our FUN, FEARLESS, FEMALE Awards to upholding our Body Love philosophy by featuring women of all shape and size in every issue (despite pressure to do otherwise).

I’m proud of the campaign we launched around breast cancer which saw fake breasts with hidden lumps taken to universities all around the country so women could feel first hand what a breast lump actually felt like so they could better detect one in themselves. We initiated so many campaigns around the tampon tax and pay equality, some even making it to parliament. But I think the thing that stands out most is that my tenure as editor of Cosmo came at the critical turning point where blogs, content sites and social media really took off and changed the conversation around how and where women consume information. Print publications had to work harder than ever to stay relevant. The role of editors during this period was incredibly tough and we lived or died by our circulation and readership results, while simultaneously having our budgets and headcounts cut.

For a long time Cosmo was able to remain reasonably steady in such a compromised market and did so on a fraction of the resources that I had witnessed in the early 2000s. I’m incredibly proud of the calibre of people I employed during my time and how tirelessly they rallied to produce outstanding content and photoshoots within reduced financial parameters. It was all heart!

Why do you believe Cosmopolitan was no longer ‘commercially viable’?

The fight for advertising dollars and eyeballs is just far more crowded now. There is so much competition for women’s time, money and attention today compared with 20 years ago and advertisers have got more immediate options to capture that attention. Women don’t wait for a monthly magazine to help solve their problems or get their fashion fix anymore. We live our lives on Instagram and in 24 hour news cycles. Women today have grown up with information being a click or scroll away – and free. That’s incredibly hard for print publications to compete with.

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