When the first issue of Sassy came out, I was about halfway through eighth grade, extremely self-conscious in my first year at a new school in a wealthier part of town. It was a challenging time. There was a brief vogue in my class of wearing shirts inside out and backward so that the Esprit or Benetton labels were right under the wearer’s chin — really. I felt hopelessly different from all of my classmates, certain that I would never find another person like me. And then, suddenly, there was Sassy.
It was different from all the other teen magazines. Like them, Sassy covered pop culture, fashion, beauty (or Zits & Stuff, as the column was called), but it also took on heavy topics without condescending to its readers. Teen suicide and “Losing Your Virginity: Read This Before You Decide” were in the premiere issue, almost as if the editors were afraid they wouldn’t get a chance to address them if they waited — and, indeed, advertiser boycotts and letters from furious parents did result. Sassy didn’t venerate the Tiger Beat-minted stars marketed to people our age; instead, it championed out-of-the-mainstream bands and regularly mixed thrifted and vintage pieces into its fashion stories. Like all the most resonant stories for lonely teenagers, Sassy gave you a sense that there was a wider world out there waiting for you if you could just get through whatever torturous or stultifying or even just dull existence was currently trapping you.
Looking back, I find it obvious why I suddenly became obsessed, in the summer of 2020, with recapturing that feeling: Once again, I was trapped by circumstances beyond my control. Eventually, I wound up on eBay. I created a list of all the issues I had, in iCloud, so that I could check new auctions against my library, no matter where I was. Losing out on a 15-issue lot — still the biggest I’ve ever seen — in the literal last second of bidding ruined the rest of my day and finally persuaded me to install an auction-sniper app on my phone. Functionally, collecting Sassy wasn’t that different from a gambling addiction: There was an element of chance, I was compulsive about it, it was expensive — and it passed the time.
The one saving grace is that there’s a finite number of them. Perhaps not every Gen-X woman knows exactly what that number is (it’s 80), but they know the trauma that made that the cutoff: In its seventh year, Sassy was sold to a new publisher, whereupon an entirely new editorial team took over. Teenagers generally don’t follow behind-the-scenes business moves at the brands they patronize, but Sassy was different. Where other magazines made the models aspirational, at Sassy it was always the staff, with its founding editor, Jane Pratt, using her monthly Diary column to showcase each person on the masthead. Before long, this cult of personality had developed to such a degree that bylines were mononymous. You could buy a behind-the-scenes VHS tape to see what editors’ offices looked like and what they did in them. If you thought your parents wouldn’t check the phone bill, you could call the 1-900 hotline to hear their voices; a quiz in the June 1990 issue tested how well readers knew the staff. (I took it the other day and got a respectable 18.)
Going through the issues now, my present-day self yearns to go back, not to who I was during those years — because as I mentioned, I was not exactly killing it — but to who we all were. Sassy debuted so long ago that the earliest issues still had ads for word-processing typewriters. Even by the end of its run (November 1994, the last good issue), the existence of the internet was barely acknowledged, never mind what hideous garbage would later be made on and of it. And yet it’s maybe the most internetty thing that I have ever consumed that predated the internet. The way we felt we knew the Sassy staff back in the day would be familiar to anyone who’s intimate with strangers’ most arcane opinions and mannerisms from listening to them on podcasts or following them on Twitter.
But the publication — not its employees — was the real object of my affections. I once had issues as well-kept and unmolested as the ones that arrived by mail this summer and fall; like all teenage girls in the ’80s and ’90s, I made collages and tore pages to put on my bedroom walls, but never from Sassy. Those, I kept as pristine as I could while also reading all of them over and over again, until one day I brought them to a common area at my college and left them there. Sassy had served its formative purpose in turning me into … whatever I was, or am: comfortable yelling about injustices great and small, reflexively suspicious of the things most aggressively marketed at me, still disgusted by acid-wash denim.
Sassy was introduced six months before I started high school; six months after its canonical form folded, I met the man I would eventually marry. It was my first magazine crush, and led me to a career in which I would bear witness to the slow death of so many others that I loved. There are countless painful pleasures inherent in reading Sassy now, seeing all the other futures shimmering optimistically in its pages. One I didn’t expect to miss so much was the one in which magazines — or perhaps even publications as a whole — were still a going concern. In which culture was something I could pick up, escape into — and put back down.