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Bonnie Fuller – What’s the Inside Scoop?

We headed to New York City to sit down with Canadian-born media executive Bonnie Fuller and asked her to open up about her work and new challenges

By: Carolyn Lawrence | Photography by: Dylan Coulter

What I had read about the Midtown Manhattan office space for Bonnie Fuller’s new online media venture turned out to be accurate.

No sign on the door, no reception to greet us, but a flurry of activity on the inside. This was a team making it happen. In today’s world the news never sleeps, and in this case you could see that no time was being devoted to anything other than connecting and engaging their readers, and it is paying off in spades.

Bonnie was named President and Editor-in-Chief of in July of 2009, launching the site in time to catch the post-recession advertising spend. The company has seen progress in that area, achieving double their targets in dollars and readers after six months of operations. Bonnie has been good for the bottom line.

She made the jump to online media after making a mark as editor at some of the industry’s most noted publications: Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour. She invented celebrity journalism as we know it, and how the public consumes it, in large part as Editor-in-Chief of US Weekly, and as Vice President and Chief Editorial Director at American Media (Star, Shape, Men’s Fitness, Natural Health, among other titles).

I have admired Bonnie’s career and resulting influence on North American women since I picked up my first copy of YM in 1994, and looked forward to going beyond the biographies, and sitting down to ask her what it took for her to get to where she is.

So who is Bonnie? To start, she lives a full life, has a big passion for her 24/7 career, and has a supportive, loving husband, and four beautiful kids. She thinks you can have that life as well.

CL: In your book, The Joys of Much Too Much, you talk about having a “fuller” life and how women have to be balanced and lead their careers and family lives with the same intensity. You’ve certainly been a great inspiration to a lot of women in that respect. Can you share more about that?
BF: Well, first of all, I don’t know if I said it was balanced. I think it seems impossible to balance and you shouldn’t bother trying because you’re just going to make yourself crazy. At different times in your life, you’re going to have different things that are your priorities or more demanding and besides, it’s just so hard. I don’t really think you can balance things. Basically, I believe you have to squeeze them all in.

CL: What are you aspiring to do?
BF: I’m aspiring to make a very big, vital and dynamic business, as well as a great destination, a real online community for women.

CL: And what are you hoping that adds to their lives? What are your goals for
BF: I’m hoping that it informs them, entertains them and makes them feel better about their own lives. Ultimately, it relates to them, because I really believe that women look at celebrities as mirrors of their own lives. When they see a celebrity, they’re often using them as a way to reflect upon themselves, so if they are looking at Jen Aniston being 41 years old and who has got a marriage behind her that didn’t work out and can’t find a guy, then it makes them feel better about the fact that maybe they haven’t found the right guy and they’re in their mid-30s. If Sheryl Crow can decide to have a baby on her own in her 40s, adopt a baby, well then maybe that’s a life choice that they can make too. On the other hand, if they’re concerned that their husband or their boyfriend is cheating on them, well we’ve been covering Tiger (Woods) and Jesse James. We’ve certainly given our audience indicators, posts on how to tell if your guy is cheating. So, it can help too.

CL: So, you hope that the website really inspires and that celebrities might even act as role models for the viewers?
 BF: Definitely role models. I mean they are fashion and beauty style role models. They are diet and fitness role models and they can be life decision role models too.

CL: Leading to our next question then, part of why Women of Influence Magazine is interviewing you is to find out who your role models and mentors are because we believe that providing access to role models can really help a woman further her career and family life, by seeing what other people do. So, who did that for you?
 BF: Well, my mother was my main role model. My mother was fantastic and she was always extremely encouraging, since I was a little girl, about my ability to make my dreams happen. She believed that I could grow up and be what I wanted to be, achieve anything that I wanted and also, be able to have a family. She was always very supportive and extremely strong and outspoken about women’s rights and I think that was very important. The fact that she lived through a time period where women didn’t have a lot of rights and was raised to think of herself as a second-class citizen made her very concerned about raising all her children, including her daughters, to feel as though they were always, well that they were absolutely first-class; there was no difference between men and women. I think that young women today don’t really grow up with that experience. They’re post-women’s liberation and many of them look down on the idea of women’s liberation, but I had a mother who that made a giant of a difference to. She grew up in a very repressive era and so she was very motivating.

CL: That’s great. So, what would you say to aspiring young women either in the media industry or who are just breaking into their careers now? What do you think they need to focus on?
BF: Well, I think they have to be prepared to work very hard. I mean right now is a particularly difficult time. I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, but here the economy is still very bad. The media industry is in the midst of great change and there’s no clear path in the traditional sense. Instead, new kinds of paths are forging ahead. So, I think first of all they have to be prepared to work very hard today without reward, at least financially, for some time to come. With the current level of unemployment, people who are very experienced in their fields are not getting raises and having their own opportunities curtailed. Unfortunately, this makes it even more difficult for people coming in.

On the other hand, they shouldn’t be discouraged because times change, meaning time passes, and well, you know the world is cyclical and I believe the economy and opportunities will rebound hopefully within a couple of years. So, they can’t be discouraged by the fact that their opportunities are maybe not incredibly great right now. They should still use this time to learn and get their feet in the door and do whatever they have to do to get some experience under their belt in whatever field it is that they’re interested in. But then, I do also think that careers can still be tremendously fulfilling for women if you find a career that you’re passionate about.

CL: Agreed. Going back to what you said about women having to be prepared to work hard, we’ve read that you’ve worked till 4 a.m., and encouraged your staff to do the same when it is required, while balancing your four children and a husband you’ve had for many years. So, what is the definition of “working hard” for you?
BF: Well, the 4 a.m. stuff was when we were only a weekly magazine. Until we got staffed up and we all learned what we were doing, yeah we were working some crazy hours, but that fortunately didn’t last too long and I certainly don’t — we don’t work — till 4 a.m. here. But you know, I’m in a different situation than most people and most women in that I’m doing a start-up business that’s a news business, and news can be 24/7. So, when I say that you’ve got to work hard, it’s not so much the hours, though yeah there  are hours that you just have to do, but more so, it has to do with thinking about what you’re doing all the time, just being. It’s like there’s not really a line, a mental line between, “Well I’m finished my job for the day, so I’m walking out the door and I’m not going to think about it.” I think if you are really passionate and deeply involved in something, you’re thinking creatively about it a lot. Not all the time, but it’s just a part of you. And so, I just think if you’re more of the attitude that you want to have a 9-5 job and when you leave the office, you don’t think about it, you’re not going to have the same kind of fulfilling and passionate type of career. But you see it’s almost not even a career, I mean this is all part of your life. If you love doing something, it makes your life much more interesting and it makes your family life more interesting and your children’s lives more interesting. If you love leisure pursuits, you love hiking or you love skiing, the goal of your life should be to find a career that allows you to do those things, not just after hours but where you can do them all the time. Then your whole life can kind of be infused with what you love to do.

CL: Sounds like a great way to live.
BF: Yeah. Well, that’s what you should try and do because I think you’ll be happier that way. I personally don’t think you can be that happy if you don’t love something.

CL: Okay, so let’s switch gears, what is the Bonnie Fuller brand?
BF: Well, I think right now it’s my by Bonnie Fuller. I’m infused in the brand and so, what does that mean? It means that I feel like Hollywood life is very lively, positive, entertaining, and opinionated. It welcomes opinion and interactions with its audience. I would say that the Bonnie Fuller Brand is very friendly and warm to other women and yet, we’re informative. Come on in and get your news here and give us your opinion and we’ll talk back to you and give you our opinion and our take on celebrity news or on fashion and beauty.

CL: Talking about you and your team, you understand that employees generally want to do what’s right and work hard, but they often need leadership to push them to work harder and I’m curious to know what you’ve had to do to assert your leadership in this office, with your team here. How do you get the best out of them?
BF: First of all, you do have to provide leadership and direction. You have to know what you want and you have to be able to give direction. If you don’t know, or if you can’t make up your mind about what you want, it’s very hard on your team. I think people want to know what they’re working for and how they can contribute, so it’s important not to be shifting direction all the time. I think that you provide leadership by example and also by giving a lot of feedback and instruction. I mean, we’ve got great people here and they get a lot of really positive feedback. They write a great post, they break a great story. I tell them. If they’re off and having trouble communicating an idea, then I talk to them and explain what I think they need to do to improve that particular piece of work.

CL: How many magazine titles have you played a leadership role in?
BF: Well, I’ve been Editor-in-Chief of, I have to count them: Flare, YM, Marie Claire, Glamour, Cosmo, and Us Weekly. Then I over-saw Star and Shape, Men’s Health, Country Weekly and Natural Health. So that’s 11.

CL: And what we’ve read is that in those leadership roles you are a tough manager. Would you say that they’ve misunderstood you, or that you’re driving the most successful results?
BF: Actually I think I’m a very good boss and you know why? Because look at the number of magazines that are headed today by my former employees. I’ve really populated quite an enormous number of the magazines here. The best thing for your employees is to help them realize their dreams.

CL: So, what was your dream that you were trying to fulfill when you started your career?
BF: Well, my dream was just to be a newspaper reporter at the Toronto Star.

CL: How long did it take you to get that role?
BF: I really started thinking about that when I was a teenager. When I was in college, at University of Toronto, I started working   for the Varsity newspaper, but not until my third year did I really love it, but I was too scared to try-out for it. I was able to get a summer job at a weekly paper and later, in the fall, I went to law school for a year. Then I started working for the Toronto Star North York bureau and that ultimately led the following September to a full-time job. So, I guess a few years.

CL: Do you ever sit down and write your goals or plan out what the next step is? Or do you continue to build on the success that you already have, and take opportunities  where they come?
BF: I’ve never sat down and wrote down on a piece of paper. But along the way, I’ve thought about it, wherever I’ve been. I’ve always been focused on that particular place, how to build and overall, excited about how much we can do with that particular publication. Sometimes opportunities came along that just seemed like great opportunities to take. And then other times, it felt like it was time to make a change and grow into something else. I felt that when I was at American Media and when I was at Star. Once we began the Star Magazine website, I felt that it was very important to develop in the online world. My audience of young women was moving there and I wanted to move with them, to move online.

CL: So, what’s the biggest difference then, between the print titles and digital? What’s the biggest difference in the culture or your role specifically?
BF: Different magazines have different cultures, but I really like the culture of the online world because it’s just less formal. It’s really fun, it’s very of the moment, it’s very news driven, which I really enjoy and it’s very immediate.

CL: So, how does break through with so many other online news sites and be the one that’s the most successful?
BF: Well, I think it’s already broken through.

CL: And how do you do that? What’s the recipe?
BF: First of all, you have to think about your audience, that’s always the most important thing no matter what you do. Either you’re thinking about your customer or you’re thinking about your audience. So, I think about my audience and what it is that they need and what will make them excited and what will relate to them and what will work for them. I felt it was very important to have a much more personalized website so that our audience could relate to us, so that they could see me and talk to my staffers and me. If you look at the site, a lot of posts have people’s names and they present their own points of view because the audience likes to relate, not to some corporate entity, but to other people. They want to relate to other women and I think that’s a real point of differentiation, the fact that we relate our news to our audience’s lives. You can’t do it with every single post that you’re doing, but we talk to them every day. We relate a lot of news to them and we also ask their opinion all the time. We have a ton of vote boxes
and we often do post the feedback and respond.

CL: So, what do you think is happening with the print industry, given that they can’t keep up with the level of interaction the digital world has?
BF: I think it’s challenging. But I don’t think magazines are going away. I think there will always be magazines. Just as many forms of media can co-exist.

CL: I have a personal question. Would you say that you’re the “Breadwinner” of your family?
BF: Well, I guess primarily. I think that my husband is also a Breadwinner, but he’s been able to be more flexible in terms of his schedule and has been able to work out of home at different points of his career, which is wonderful for us for raising kids. I’ve been very fortunate to be married to the man I’m married to because he’s a wonderful husband and father. He really helps to cement our family.

CL: Do you feel that the role as Breadwinner is more challenging or presents different challenges for women than it does for men?
BF: Yeah, I do. I think in most cases it’s harder for women still.

CL: How have you ever overcome those challenges? Do you have a mantra or something you do to get through?
BF: No. You just have to do it. I mean I still think in general, it’s harder for women in the work world. There is still a boy’s club mentality in many fields and women have to work harder to achieve the same amount as men. I think there is pay differentials in many fields still and there’s a lot of preconceptions about how women should be in the office, in the work forces and how they should be as bosses that make it harder for women to succeed and cope with everything. It’s certainly going to be easier in the coming generations. Every generation gets easier because you have women breaking ground ahead of you.

CL: But you think it’s 100% worth it?
BF: I think it’s 100% worth it to follow your dreams, I really do. You’ve got to try. You only have one life and nothing’s ever going to happen if you sit at home on your couch. I do think that a lot of women could have the happiest life by being able to pursue passions, dreams and also a partner and family. To me, that’s the best. Not for everybody, but I would recommend it to a great deal of women.