The Fuller Life
MEDIA QUEEN BONNIE FULLER TALKS TO LINDA FRUM
Bonnie Fuller leads an overcommitted, “jampacked-to-the-gills” life. She thinks you should too. Fuller is a wife, mother of four, and the editorial director of American Media, where she oversees 23 magazines, including the celebrity newsweekly Star. She is also the former editor-in-chief of, among others, Flare, YM, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Us Weekly. Her latest credential is that of much-buzzed-about author. In the new book The Joys of Much Too Much, Fuller, a Toronto native, encourages readers to “plunge into living,” embrace a “happily unbalanced life,” and commit themselves “110 %.” After proposing a dozen possible interview times to Fuller’s assistant, I finally managed to catch up with her, via telephone, during her family’s ski vacation in Wyoming.
Bonnie, I really appreciate you doing this interview on your vacation.
Well I appreciate you agreeing to talk at 8 p.m.
That’s no problem. This is just living proof I suppose, that you have “much too much going on. Even you must have days when you think: “Yikes! It’s much too much!”
Your book—which is riveting— is positioned as a how-to guide.
I’m wondering if it’s not better understood as a memoir? After all, how many women out there are capable of living their lives at the frenetic pace you do?
I think that every woman
has dreams and hopes for herself. And I want to encourage her to go for them. I don’t want her to abandon them prematurely—or at all—because she thinks she needs to make some kind of “Solomon’s choice” in order to be perfect at her career and also perfect as a mother and wife.
You believe that true “success” means having both a career and a family. You don’t believe that just one or the other is enough?
I don’t think you should have to make that choice. I am a proponent that the road to the greatest happiness is to have a husband, children, and a career.
You’ve had a great career advantage in that your husband has been happy to take on the role of caretaker to your four children,
who range in age from 19 to five.
My husband was able to take on the caretaker role at certain times in our marriage. Right now he’s working very full-time.
I was wondering about that. You make such a persuasive case in your book about how exciting it is to pursue “the big life and the great career,” I imagined that he might want that for himself too...
Every couple needs to make the decisions that work for
Bonnie Fuller (left) at her office; with her two daughters, Sofia and Leilah, (and a guest) at the New York opening of the Sean John store; with her husband, Michael Fuller, at the world premiere of Love Actually
great energy and make great arrangements for child care. Being able to semi-retire, because your husband can support you, is a choice that only a limited number of women have. Your husband has got to be earning an awful lot of money for you to be able to do that. Whenever I read articles suggesting that it’s all too much for women, and they should just retire—well, that’s not an option for most women.
How do children fit into this? Kids like to have their mothers around. I’m sure your kids complain when you are gone. I’m sure they desire to have more of your time than they get...
I work really hard to spend time with my kids. And I think that most women do. On
the other hand, I don’t believe that you should drive yourself crazy with guilt over the time that you can’t spend with them. First of all, you are working for them so that they can have a good life. You’re setting a great example for them. I know my kids are really proud of me. And I include them in my career as much as possible. They love to come to the office and they love to go to different events with me. And one day, the kids are going to grow up, and most likely, they are going to have to support themselves. They are going to have careers. And they will have a role model. Somebody who has shown them how to do it and still be a good mom. The other thing is, we really have to under-
stand that mothers have never had enormous amounts of time to just sit and play with their kids. Mothers since the dawn of time have had to work in the fields, bake the bread, make the clothes, do the washing. Mothers have always had maxedout lives. Having the luxury to express ourselves as mothers and give a tremendous amount of time to our kids is new.
True. But for the upcoming generation of mothers—Generation Y—indulging in the luxury of time spent with children appears to be the new ideal. The boomer “having it all” lifestyle seems to have given way to a child-ceiitred lifestyle—where women also revel in their leisure,
their yoga bodies, and their Starbucks coffee Matches.
That is a lifestyle that if women want to do it, and they can afford to do it, then good for them. It works for them.
But I assume it wouldn’t work for you. As you say in your book, you would rather “suffer from stress than die of boredom. ”
Every woman can make her own choices. She may have a career that she really loves. And it may not require the kind of hours that my particular career does. I want to cheer her on and tell her: you know what? What you are doing is going to work out really well for you and for your family. You shouldn’t
drive yourself crazy and make yourself feel guilty thinking that you are not being perfect at everything. I think we set extremely high standards for ourselves in all areas of our lives. I think that kind of perfection-guilt we subject ourselves to, it’s too harsh. It’s too much. We don’t deserve it.
Almost every career woman I know feels guilty, at some time or other, about her children. You never do?
It is difficult when you are trying to juggle being a parent, being a wife and a career woman. And there are times, definitely, when I feel guilty. But I do feel that life isn’t perfect and you do have to make choices. And it depends on the day, it depends on the week, it depends on what’s going on. You look at what you have to do and you figure out what the priority is at the moment. So if your child is going through a really tough time and they need you, of course you are there. But there are times when you have deadlines and you have to be at work. So you make sure you do that. It’s very much about dealing with the moments as they come up, and it’s not per-
fect, but overall, you are doing a good job for your child. You are doing a good job for yourself. And you are doing a good job for your employer.
It has been reported that, as a boss, you set extremely high standards for the people who work for you. You are indeed known as a perfectionist.
I definitely tend to have perfectionist tendencies when it comes to work. And I’m sure that’s why I’ve been fortunate to have the growth at all the magazines that I’ve been at. But I’m really proud of the employees that we’ve had, many of whom are now editors-in-chief and executive editors themselves. The best job that I’ve done
as a boss is to have Tommy Hilfiger; with actor
, ii. Pierce Brosnan (top right) at
other people realize a screening of the movie
their dreams and amEvelyn; with Lil’ Kim at a
bitions. The editors of fashion show in Real Simple, Seventeen, New York
Woman’s World and Glamour, were all editors who worked for me.
And I’m really proud of them and I’m glad I’ve been able to help them get where they are.
So where did this other side of your reputation come from? The stories may be apocryphal, but you’ve heard them: staffers who hated you so much they urinated in your coffee or put snot in your food?
People can say things. It doesn’t mean they’re true. When you are somebody who is brought in—as I’ve been—and the mission is to launch or relaunch or transform, because that’s what’s absolutely necessary in order for those businesses to continue, well, not everybody is going to like it. And when you go through those sorts of situations, they do typically require longer hours—at least in the short term—than what people are used to. It’s
a fact. Anyone who has been through that, not just working for me but for other people, knows that. And these seem to be situations that I get hired into.
So those stories about you keeping your staff at work until 4 a.m—those are true?
Well, that happened
at Us Weekly for the first few months. I came in there and it was an extremely small staff. And we had to rehire. And that magazine needed to go through change and to go through it quickly in order for it to continue. And a lot of us were new at it, and we were learning as we went. And after a few months we were no longer there until 4 a.m. That was no longer the norm. And at Star, we are a welloiled machine now. And I happen to know we get out earlier than any of the competing weeklies. We have a terrific staff and we have very, very little turnover now.
It was startling to learn that as you were
climbing your way up the New York publishing ladder, both of your daughters were battling potentially fatal diseases. Your elder daughter had a bram tumour. Your younger one, leukemia. Thank goodness, they are now both okay.
It was not easy. But I am not the only person that this kind of thing happens to. And so I wanted to get that message across. That even when something difficult happens, and you think you can’t get through it: you can. That’s what other people who had been through it told me—and it was like a lifeboat.
But you found your work to be a lifeboat too?
It was, but I had no choice. When my older daughter, Sofia, got sick, she had just turned three. I was at YM magazine. The situation was very much an emergency, but after a few days they were able to know she would be okay. With Leilah, it happened when she was five and I was at Us Weekly. When Leilah was sick, I’d only started my job three
FRANK FRANKLIN II/AP (LEFT); ADAM NEMSER/PHOTOLINK
weeks before. My husband, because he is selfemployed, could stop everything and be there at the hospital 24/7. One of us had to keep working and keep the money coming in, and the medical insurance. There wasn’t a choice. We were lucky that one of us could take care of her full-time. Other parents don’t have that choice. Also, I’m one of those people who, if I’m left on my own to just contemplate, I would catastrophize. I would think about the worst possible thing. And that isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for your child. And so, in my case, it was helpful, after we got through the initial crisis, that I could go to work and carry on.
Still, are you not worried that by writing about this, you will expose yourself to people’s
harsh judgments about how you continued to work so intensely when you had two very sick little girls to take care of?
With Sofia it was a much more short-term experience. She had a crisis, and an operation, and of course I was there for that—and then it was over. With Leilah, the treatment for ALL [acute lymphoblastic leukemia] is
With fOUt kldS and a fllll“tllUe to see what she went through
job, you have to squeeze five and how difficult k wasthings into every minute'
two years. We felt very fortunate that one of stage in life?
us was in a position where we didn’t have to work. This isn’t Canada. If you don’t work, you don’t have medical insurance. So it’s a very different system. I couldn’t stop working because I needed my daughter to stay in Columbia Presbyterian hospital. And I needed my insurance to cover that. That was the reality of the situation.
But you are inviting people’s scrutiny. Are you ready for that?
I hope to help any parent who has a situation like this happen. If you are in that situation, you need to hear from people who have been there: how they coped, how they got through it. My hope is to be helpful.
In the book you say that your mother thinks the way you live is crazy. You write: “I drive my mother nuts because she says that if I have a minute, I’ll squeeze five things into it. I always have way too much to do; she thinks that’s bad. ”
Well, it’s interesting because my mom is very much the one who encouraged me to have a career and go for my dreams. And to make different choices than she made in her
life. And let’s face it: when you’ve got four kids and a full-time job, you have to squeeze five things into every minute. Not every single one, but lots of them.
It was in fact your mother’s example that provoked you to be so ambitious, wasn’t it? You learned from her what can happen to women if they are not self-reliant?
m m _ . It was a very valuable lesson
That’s right. She worked really hard and she handled it phenomenally well. But it was very difficult to go from thinking you will lead a certain lifestyle and be taken care of, and then have the rug taken out from under you.
On behalf of all your former countrymen here, I’m wondering, when you advise the readers of your book that they should “embrace their inner Canadian”—should we feel flattered or insulted by that particular piece of advice?
Totally flattered. Canadians have, in general, excellent manners. And Canadians read more. And they take a more thoughtful approach than WOtk Americans, which I think
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the world. And makes you strive harder.
So being Canadian was a help to you in your rise to the top?
Because I was an outsider I think it was easier for me to connect with readers. The magazines that I have edited are not for that small group of women inside Manhattan. They are for a large mass of women throughout North
America who are not SOCIETY living that kind of life. I understand the readers and their feelings and needs because they are my feelings, and my needs too.
By the same token, you are convinced that many of the women who read Star also read literature and have other highbrow interests?
I think women are very complex and they have multiple interests, multiple needs and they read multiple things. They read Star because it’s relaxing and fun and an ongoing soap opera. Since the dawn of time people have been interested in the celebrities of their society. I think that’s very normal and natural. But they can also be reading the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, and Maclea?i’s. Women aren’t one-note.
What do you read as an antidote?
I’m a newspaper addict. My husband couldn’t believe the bag of newspapers I packed to bring along on this vacation.
Do you ever have time to read a novel?
Right now I am reading DisneyWar, which I’ve been reading for...well, a few months.
If your girls grow up and choose to become coffee-klatch yoga moms, will you feel you failed as a role model?
I want my girls to have the kind of life they want to have, whatever their life goals are.
This is from a person who wrote: “A life that is just OK is not OK. ”
My book isn’t about telling women they can only have one kind of life. My book is for women who aspire to have a life which has multiple facets to it. And I don’t feel there has been enough encouragement for that kind of woman. This isn’t going to work for 100 per cent of women. But I want to be a cheerleader for those who do choose to take this path. I believe it to be an extremely
Tve been reading DisneyWar for... weil, a few months'
fulfilling path. You only have one life to make your dreams happen.
With all that is already going on in your life did you ever worry that writing and promoting a book would put you over the top on the stress-o-meter?
What happened was that I sold the book when I was between jobs—after I had left Glamour. It happened that a month after I sold the book I got the job at Us Weekly. I never perceived that I would be going to a weekly. Life has surprises for you. You can’t always guess what is going to happen. Fortunately I had written the outline and a few of the chapters already. But, as I soon found out, books are a lot of work. And so are weeklies. That’s why it took three years to get the book done.
Did you hate the book at times?
No. But I am so happy it’s done! M