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Did reading these 90s teen magazines make me really gay or was I really gay already?

Probably a bit of both really

I went to see Jackie The Musical recently with a friend who once worked on the legendary magazine. It was a cheerful jukebox musical featuring 1970s pop hits and lots of nostalgia, but that wasn’t what really interested me. Even though Jackie herself jacked it in more than 20 years ago, the theatre was full of loyal former readers who clearly remembered every detail of their favourite title. Like Smash Hits and Just Seventeen, it defined the generation of girls that eagerly devoured every issue. You never forget “your” magazine, and that audience – whooping and cheering more for the covers they remembered from their youth than for any of the songs – were definitely still Jackie girls.

It reminded me of how I was slightly obsessed with magazines when I was a nascent gay in the 1990s. A lot of people assumed that my teenage love of pop music and soaps meant I was a bit soft, but I can confirm that you had to be fucking nails to walk into a newsagent in a small town in the west of Scotland and march up to the counter with a copy of Smash Hits.

I’ve had a rummage through that big box of old crap that has moved house with me at least five times now to look back at some of the greats (and not-so-greats) of teen magazine publishing that helped make me the slightly ridiculous person I am today. And look – I’ve even created a “jukebox musical” of my teen mag journey by hastily sticking a YouTube link onto the end of each section, so I’ll have my standing ovation at the end please.

BIG!

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Big! was the sister magazine of Smash Hits in the 1990s. Its USP was, literally, that it was BIG – about 2cm taller and wider than Ver Hits.

It went “big” (ho ho) on Aussie soap stars and other telly people, with a sprinkling of pop stars on top. It always had the most posters, including an impressive gatefold one in the middle that gave people the chance to have an almost life-size Billy Warlock, Dan Falzon, Les Hill or whoever to pin up on their wardrobe. They had loads of pages to fill every two weeks, so had to feature pretty much anyone who would agree to be in it. This led to oddities like this double-page spread going behind the scenes of a Right Said Fred video, which seems to have been filmed in the darkroom of a specialist nightclub for gentlemen in Vauxhall.

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Big’s decline probably started when some bright spark decided to make it SMALL, while simultaneously making Smash Hits massive. You can’t have a mag called Big! that is smaller than its competitors. That’s just silly. Oh, and trying to convince everyone that Kavana was having it away with one or both of the Sweet Valley Twins probably didn’t do a lot for their credibility either.

Big-Magazine

BIG’S JUKEBOX MUSICAL SONG: The Home & Away theme.

FAST FORWARD

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This cover, which introduced new neighbours “hunk” Ashley Paske, will enable future historians to date the exact moment I went from “hmm, this feels a bit weird, I wonder…” to “OK, I’m MASSIVELY gay” at some time between August 1st and 7th 1990.

If ever a publishing company was onto a sure thing, it was BBC Magazines when they launched Fast Forward. At the time, they were allowed to put ads for their titles between BBC programmes, and they absolutely BOMBARDED the youth of Britain with trails for this cheeky and cheerful Beeb version of Look-In. They had the best slot imaginable – right before Neighbours, which at the time was staggeringly popular and pulling in up to 20 million viewers a day. The ads had an irritatingly perky jingle, too.

The magazine itself was a slightly-too-wholesome mix of gossip, interviews, lifestyle rubbish about how to keep rabbits or whatever, and incredibly badly-drawn comic strip versions of popular BBC shows, including Grange Hill and ‘Allo ‘Allo (yes, really). The most ridiculous of these was probably TV Centre, in which CBBC favourites would have “wacky” adventures with visiting pop and soap stars.

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I was actually supposed to do work experience at Fast Forward in 1994, but it shut down before I got there, which I’m sure was probably my fault on some level. But then again, I didn’t even get a reply from Smash Hits or TV Hits, so they can both get stuffed frankly.

FAST FORWARD’S JUKEBOX MUSICAL SONG: Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini by Bombalurina

NUMBER ONE

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After the success of Fast Forward, BBC Magazines decided to buy the ailing Number One magazine from IPC and turn it into a big sister mag that they could also flog to the Neighbours crowd. The result was a super-dorky version of Smash Hits that was much less likely to scare any unsuspecting parents. Its USP was that, being a BBC mag, it could have the proper Top 40 in it every week, which was quite a coup at the time.

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It had all the right bits in the right order but always seemed a bit more square than its rivals. But hey, any magazine that was willing to devote a whole spread to letting an enormo-frightwigged Cher slag off Madonna for being a rubbish actress had to have something going for it.

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Also, this poster of Dannii Minogue was worth the cover price (60 flipping pence!) alone.

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NUMBER ONE’S JUKEBOX MUSICAL SONG: $ucce$$ by Dannii Minogue

Unfortunately Number One’s days were number-one-bered when it suddenly folded in the very same week as THIS happened…

SMASH HITS, BUT NOT THE VERSION OF SMASH HITS THAT EVERYONE GETS NOSTALGIC ABOUT, THE ONE THAT CAME AFTER THAT

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There was a MASSIVE shock waiting for me at the “newsies”  on January 22nd 1992. Gone was the magazine I knew and loved, and in its place came a weird teen version of Sky Magazine. It seemed that every bit of quirky charm the magazine was known for had been chucked into a bin bag and tossed out into Carnaby Street. Even Black Type, the beloved host of the letters page, got his jotters – replaced by some bloke called Mike who was probably never heard of again.

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The cover story was just a load of ropy old quotes strung together pretending to be a feature, and the single reviews were pruned back to half a page, which was just unforgivable. It wasn’t all bad though – the songwords were put together in a nice section in the middle, meaning you didn’t have to hunt through the whole mag for them. And the design was very clever and cool – I’m still nicking bits of it now, 23 years later. But it did seem like Smash Hits had lost its sense of self and become just another magazine.

“ALL-NEW” SMASH HITS JUKEBOX MUSICAL SONG: Jump by Kriss Kross

LIVE & KICKING

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Live & Kicking magazine appeared to tie in with the launch of the legendary TV series in 1993, and was obviously knocked together in a bit of a hurry – some bits of the first issue were even based on old Number One templates. It was all pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for the first year or so, before it exploded like a glitter cannon of concentrated homosexuality around 1995. This dramatic coming out coincided with the arrival of the pop band Deuce, who despite being amazing never really had a massive hit, and yet seemed to be on the cover of Live & Kicking most months. Luckily I was mildly obsessed with them at the time, so this was all just fine with me.

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Live & Kicking on TV eventually kicked the bucket, but the magazine carried on for a bit before being reborn as It’s Hot, which was pretty much the same but with the addition of some Fast Forward-style comic strips. Plus ça change.

LIKE & KICKING’S JUKEBOX MUSICAL SONG: I Need You by Deuce

TOP OF THE POPS

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After a bit of a false start as a snoot and stylish music mag with covers that paired up the stars of pop and rock (Brett Anderson and Tony from East 17 were the odd couple fronting issue one), TOTP went full pop and soon became massively popular, especially when the Spice Girls came along and the mag actually came up with their famous nicknames. Amazingly, the Girls didn’t give TOTP its biggest-selling cover ever – that honour goes to none other than Peter Andre.

IMG_2357Because the mag got to go backstage at Top of the Pops itself, it got amazing access and interviews with A-listers that its rivals could only dream of, which makes it all the odder that they devoted a whole page to an interview with a Mark Owen “lookalike” who couldn’t really have looked less like him if he tried. Still, at least there was the first post-Eternal interview with Louise to balance things out.

I had loads of fun working on TOTP Mag in the noughties during the era of Busted, Blazin’ and, erm, the Bedingfields, and the magazine is still going strong today – although I now work for its biggest competitor so, y’know, don’t be buying it for old times’ sake or anything.

TOTP’S JUKEBOX MUSICAL SONG: Wannabe by Spice Girls

STAR: THE CELEBRITY MAGAZINE

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OK so we’re technically past the 90s now but I’ve found two more mags at the bottom of the box, so let’s just press on. At the turn of the Millennium, Hello! and OK! magazines were at their peak, so it seemed like a brilliant idea to bring out a teen version, taking readers behind the scenes of the glossy and expensive lives of their favourite stars in a suitably glossy and expensive package. A Star (no relation to the current magazine of the same name) was born.

Stuffed with Hollywood celebs and exclusive photoshoots, the jumbo-sized mag couldn’t have looked more lavish if they’d stapled £10 notes to the front (which they might as well have done, given the vast sums that were apparently spunked on it).

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I mean, they took us INSIDE MELISSA JOAN HART’S BEAUTIFUL HOME! Look at it! Isn’t it beautiful? Yes, it is.

Sadly Star was just too glossy and expensive for this shitty world and closed after about a year. The fact that I loved it when I was in my 20s suggests that they might have been a bit off with their target audience, but the people who made it were basically everyone I’ve worked with for the last 15 years and they’re brilliant, so hooray for them.

STAR’S JUKEBOX MUSICAL SONG: (You Drive Me) Crazy [The Stop Remix] by Britney Spears

SNEAK

When Heat magazine was a big hit, it was a no-brainer to follow it up with a younger version, taking the by now jaded teen format and injecting it with a dose of celeb mag magic. Sneak appeared in 2002, just as Pop Idol fever wad gripping the nation, and was adorned, as everything was at that time, with a fake Louis Vuitton logo. Its brash, direct and newsy style was a marked contrast to the younger tone of its rivals, and its new cast of characters from the world of reality TV was a breath of fresh air.

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Unfortunately, it launched just as the bottom fell out of the teen mag market. In a very short space of time, almost every teen magazine closed. Cosmo Girl, Elle Girl, TV Hits, It’s Hot and even the legendary Smash Hits – all gone. Sob! Sneak itself managed a respectable four-year run before it too snuck off.

SNEAK’S JUKEBOX MUSICAL SONG: Anyone Of Us (Stupid Mistake) by Gareth Gates

SO WHAT’S LEFT

The good news is that there are a few brave teen mags still standing – including the ones I work on (We Love Pop and the internet-breaking Oh My Vlog!). Our circulations may be smaller but our loyal readers seem to love us just as much, and it’s nice to think that I’m helping to make some memories that some of them look back on fondly in years to come. They probably won’t make any jukebox musicals about us though, which is definitely a bit of a shame. But if they did, this would be our song.

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