BUST Magazine at 25: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

By Jenni Miller

25 years ago, BUST Magazine began life as a cut-and-paste zine that the founders quietly photocopied while at their then-day jobs. 

BUST was a beloved side hustle for co-founders Debbie Stoller and  Marcelle Karp, who were eager to spread messages about feminism and pop culture. Art director and now co-publisher Laurie Henzel, who previously worked at Rolling Stone doing mechanical graphic design with an X-ACTO blade and physical type, found a cheap printer in Queens and taught herself what was then called desktop-publishing software.

In the early days, the BUST aesthetic was low-fi and DIY, like the underground zines of that age—but sexier.

“I've always been a feminist, but I was actually inspired by Playboy and magazines like Details, graphically,” says Henzel. “In men's magazines, they make everything seem so uplifting for men. They'll show pictures of sexy babes, and the message is, ‘You can have this.’ In BUST, we wanted to show all these cool things that women can do or actually do do.”

BUST’s 1993 debut cover (left) and an inside spread from the second issue (right).

“We used a lot of clippings, like old ads,” Henzel continues. “We couldn't pay for art, so it was all stolen,” she jokes, adding that in some ways, “I really embraced the pin-up culture [as an aesthetic]... It's appealing to the eye, and why not celebrate in women's sexuality? So, there was a lot of sexy stuff in there too. I just felt like that paired well with the stories that we were presenting.”

The aesthetic evolution of BUST took time, and perhaps more importantly, money.

“Every time we put out an issue, when we sold copies or ads, we would put the money back into the next issue,” Henzel says. “The second issue had two colors on the cover, but the inside was black and white newsprint. The third issue had four colors on the cover, but inside was still black and white. We slowly would add maybe one signature of magenta, but it was very gradual. By the time we got to the fourth issue, it was a full color cover on glossy paper. But the inside was still newsprint.”

Covers of BUST’s second issue, from 1993 (left), and the fourth issue, published in 1994 (right).

In the late 1990s, BUST got a glossy makeover so the indie mag could compete on newsstands with other women’s magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and Allure. The BUST crew also began reaching out to female illustrators and photographers to contribute

A 2002 feature on Biba, a London clothing store and brand.

The logo (also known as the nameplate in the United States and masthead elsewhere) transformed from the name in a workaday typeface emblazoned on a woman’s silhouette to a wordmark that’s more refined, yet powerful (see example at left). “We wanted something that was bold and strong because women's branding back then was soft and feminine—lots of script fonts and curlicues. We wanted to punch you in the face with our logo."

BUST’s cover photos are also meant to provoke.

“It's so important to show the subject of the photo not being submissive. In fashion, lots of times, the women are just lying on a couch looking blonde and sexy, you know?” Henzel says. “On our photography, it’s really important that the subject looks strong and in charge.”

Since the early covers, subjects have included Bjork sticking out her tongue; Rosario Dawson posed to punch the camera with a fistful of silver rings; Tina Fey in a Bettie Page-style pose with a typewriter; Neko Case without makeup, enjoying coffee on her front stoop; and Tracy Morgan dressed as an astronaut for their Men We Love issue. Inside, Jillian Tamaki and Dame Darcy are just a few of the exceptional female illustrators the magazine has featured.

One cover from 2007 (left) and two from 2017 (middle and right).

BUST comes out every other month, which can get hectic for the independent magazine. (Stoller, Karp, and Henzel sold the magazine to dot-com whiz kids Razorfish in 2000. After the dot-com bust a year later, Stoller and Henzel bought back the magazine and resuscitated it.) Henzel says that she and senior designer Meredith Felt shoot, design, and produce 100 pages—in two months. The no-frills team uses Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign CC to layout each issue.

Henzel collaborates with every artist and photographer who contributes to the magazine, which includes the cover shoot and most of the photos for features. “It depends on the story,” Henzel explains. “A shoot for a feature on ‘How to set up a Goth Halloween party’ will be very different than a cover shoot with Tina Fey.”

A 2017 feature on Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokno.

Just as BUST’s aesthetic has evolved, so too has society evolved to accept—and, in some corners, full-throatedly embrace—the political movement at the magazine’s core: feminism.

Henzel says, “When we started, there were riot grrrl zines and there was Ms., and there was Sassy. BUST was kind of inspired by all three of those things. Now feminism is so popular. You couldn't even say that word [when we started]. We've always said we were feminists, obviously, but we used to actually hide it in our media kit for advertisers.” Now celebrities are asked about feminism in magazines and on red carpets across the world, especially with the advent of #MeToo.

Riot grrrl and punk rock “will always be in our DNA,” Henzel says. “Depending on the story, we can get pretty grungy.” The days of cut-and-paste may be over, but BUST’s DIY roots live on.

September 5, 2018