From a very young age, what I wanted most in the world was to be discovered by and taken in hand by an older, wiser, cooler, female mentor. My mother has always been very supportive and encouraging, which I now know is far from universal, but as much as I enjoyed and counted on her attention and praise, I also dismissed it and took it for granted. To me, she said nice things because she was my mother, not because she actually found my science fair projects, stories, and dioramas full of promise and talent. “You were the best in the class!” she told me after one dance recital on the way to Friendly’s. “Thank you, Mom!” I replied, pulling the endless, stabbing bobby pins out of my bun, enjoying the compliment, but knowing full well that I was the fourth best in the class on a good day, and this had not been a good day. I was never actually the best at anything, but I longed for an outside, unbiased party to confirm that I was indeed VERY special in some non-specific, nebulous way. Green, perhaps, rough around the edges, perhaps, but full of potential and promise and It, an It that set me apart from the rest of my peers in my tiny New Hampshire town. I didn’t know what, or how to name this desire to be picked out of a crowd, acknowledged, celebrated, and taken under an exotic, feminine wing to be groomed and taught and transformed into something cooler and better than I was, to live up to potential I swore I had but couldn’t quite reach, until I discovered Sassy magazine and began my quest to be named the Sassiest Girl in America.
Much has been written about Sassy at this point—the supposed magazine of a generation, the magazine that introduced so many girls to zines, indie rock, DIY culture, and feminism, not to mention platform clogs, baby T’s, witchy striped tights, knit beanies, and Chloe Sevigny. Sassy started in 1988, which was the year I started junior high school. I picked Sassy out of the Sun Foods magazine rack, ignoring my old standbys Seventeen, Teen, and YM, and knew I had found a mentor at last. I would study Sassy and absorb its style, knowledge, and way of life and finally possess that nameless, coveted It. Best of all, Sassy held an annual contest—not a stupid modeling contest, like Seventeen, but a Sassiest Girl in America contest that involved sending in photographs, sure, but also essays and projects that conveyed your sassiness. This was it; this was my in. The women of Sassy would see that special something in me, that SASS, and welcome me into their glamorous, gritty, good time New York City circle. I obsessively crafted my Sassiest Girl in America entry and waited for the call from Andrea Lee Linnet or Kim France or Christina Kelly or Jane Pratt herself, fresh from walking the runway at J. Morgan Puett or partying backstage with R.E.M., telling me that I was a finalist, that I would be coming to meet them and that my life was changed forever. I was noticed and selected and I was finally on my way to my new life as a Sassy Girl, possibly THE Sassiest Girl, and was I ready for my close-up in my complimentary Doc Martens and Betsey Johnson dress?
My Sassiest Girl in America entries failed spectacularly in every possible way. The ways in which I failed are various and sundry, but there are three particularly cringe-worthy examples that occasionally come rushing back to me, bringing with them such shame and horror that I have to clutch my head and hum.
1. My Sassiest Outfit: As a lifelong thrift shopper and “weird dresser,” Sassy was a godsend. Here was a magazine that encouraged shopping at the Salvation Army, mixing patterns and styles, and dressing for fun rather than to be sexy or to fit in. As someone whose favorite, much-mocked Halloween costume of all time was a Time Machine, featuring neon puff paint streaked sneakers, rainbow leg warmers, a poodle skirt, a psychedelic print sleeveless turtleneck festooned with my father’s Vote McGovern buttons, a large cameo necklace, and my version of a 40’s style, “victory rolls” hairdo, this spoke to me.
I poured over Sassy’s fashion shoots, taking in the homemade pillow case dresses, the patchwork hats, the odes to Bob Dylan and Twin Peaks, and the prom issues, featuring Manic Panicky models in layered vintage slips, combat boots, and children’s tiaras. “Got it!” I breathed, putting on my prized black and white striped witch tights, which I had learned about from Sassy and acquired at a Super Socks during a trip to Boston’s Faneuil Hall. That was my base layer.
I had deduced that the outfits in Sassy were actually a mixture of thrift store finds and expensive designer clothing, so I decided that I would go the high/low route myself and incorporate my most expensive article of clothing into my outfit. Unfortunately, that was a bright purple pair of rayon culottes I had purchased at 70 percent off from another Faneuil Hall shop, the name of which I don’t remember, but it was something along the lines of Apex or Endgame.
On top I wore one of my father’s plain white undershirts and a men’s tweed vest with an adjustable red satin back—my prized thrift store find. I posed in front of the mirror and thought I was THE picture of sass. I would never dare wear all these pieces of clothing together on a normal day, but this was a special day, the day I had surely cracked the code and pulled together a Sassy outfit from my own Swanzey, New Hampshire closet. My mother took my picture in the backyard in front of my sister’s swing set. I was on my way.
2. Perfect Human Being: The “challenge” portion of the application required creating the “perfect human being, employing no fewer than five but no more than fifteen characteristics from various humans, living or not, fictional or not, famous or not.” I don’t understand what happened here. This should have been my place to shine. For all my complete lack of understanding about what was fashionable and cool, I should have been able to come up with five pretty good humans. Humans I loved and admired in the summer of 1992 included John Waters, Florence King, Nina Simone, Audrey Horne from “Twin Peaks,” and Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—that’s a pretty perfect human being, still, to this day, as far as I’m concerned! However, I’m almost positive I included none of those people in my perfect human being composite. The only person I remember including was Larry McMurtry, for some god-forsaken reason, and his “ability to write amazing female characters,” which is something I read in another magazine and decided to plagiarize. To this day, I do not know why I did this. I had read and enjoyed Leaving Cheyenne, mostly because it gave rise to a lifelong fantasy of having two devoted boyfriends who live on neighboring ranches, both of whom begrudgingly accept the fact that I love both of them and also kind of love each other, but I was by no means a huge Larry McMurtry fan. Why I thought that the editors of Sassy would be blown away by a plagiarized reference to Larry McMurtry still keeps me awake on certain terrible nights, to say nothing of the idiocy of lauding ABOVE ALL OTHER WRITERS the ability of a middle aged man primarily known for writing Westerns to write “amazing female characters.”
3. Why You Should Pick Me: This portion was written in 1991, not 1992. I entered the contest two years in a row, and I believe this section was the 1991 version of 1992’s perfect human being. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what Sassy asked for that led to me deciding to share my penchant for writing “rap songs” to replace regular classroom presentations with the universe.
“Rap songs” I presented to my fellow classmates included an ode to 15th-century Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, “Do the Dias,” which included the following lyrics:
Bartolomeu Dias was a real homeboy
He played with ships and not no toys
He was born around 1450
Def, triumphant, definitely nifty.
I went on, now doing the Running Man, again plagiarizing:
Do the Dias
Do do do do
Do the Dias.
I got an A and lots of laughs. I was intoxicated with “rap song” power. I went on to compose raps about the ozone layer, how to diagram a sentence, and finally, in my greatest triumph, why I should be elected ninth grade Student Council representative…and I actually WAS elected Student Council representative, meaning I won a popularity contest for the first time in my life. I’m pretty sure I stopped doing parody raps once I reached ninth grade, finally, and as a matter of fact, I was roundly, understandably booed and lost the election for tenth grade student council representative when I attempted to recapture the magic of my parody raps by performing a parody blues song. (?!?!?!) To this day, I can’t handle parody raps and want to die when I run into any sort of “look, it’s white people rapping! whoa!” situation and it’s only within the last half hour that I realized why this is. At any rate, I still was pretty proud of myself in the summer of 1991, and I told Sassy all about how I got good grades and made people laugh by rapping about Bartolomeu Dias and my qualifications to serve on the Student Council. They weren’t impressed. Sometimes, when I’ve mentally flagellated myself about Larry McMurtry enough to finally stop and go to sleep, I wake myself back up imagining Kim France and Christina Kelly passing my rap songs essay back and forth, laughing laughing laughing at my idiocy laid out in purple inked bubble letters, circles over the i’s.
In the fall of 1992, I very suddenly got the opportunity to attend a nearby private high school when my mother got a job in their communications and public relations department. I was going to attend a school with a public relations department! I had sort of been aware of this school for years, in part because it was the high school of the 1990 Sassiest Girl in America, who had been elected in some sort of seemingly miraculous coup at the age of thirteen! The only other thirteen year old I had ever seen on the cover of a magazine was Milla Jovovich. The 1990 Sassiest Girl in America only seemed slightly less exotic to me than a prepubescent Russian supermodel. If I remember correctly, she had traveled across the country on some sort of learning expedition with her whole family and was accompanied to New York for her Sassy shoot by an older sister named Apple, DECADES before Gwyneth Paltrow blew everyone’s mind with her unorthodox child-naming strategies. My parents worked during the summer, we drove to a campground in upstate New York for our annual family vacation, and my sibling was younger and named Emily. Despite all of this, the former Sassiest Girl in America and I would be attending high school together! The thought was terrifying and exciting; no one from my New Hampshire high school did or won anything but an occasional state basketball championship or county-wide spelling bee. On the first day of school, I stood in the “day student room” of a dormitory, dressed in my Blossom/Clarissa Explains It All best, surrounded by kids in ancient, expensive J Crew outfits and Phish t-shirts, all of whom seemed approximately 22 years old. I was completely out of my element and out of my league and wondered how soon I could leave this beautiful, expansive, historical place and get back to the originally scheduled public education to which I was accustomed. Then, it happened. The Sassiest Girl in America walked into the day room. I was star-struck. Was this a sign? Was she going to be my first new friend and take me under her wing and start me down the road to sassiness, second-hand, sure but that was all right with me?
“HI!” I screamed.
“Hi…” she replied warily. “Is Susanna McMasters around?”
“Nooooo…no, she’s not here.”
“Ok, thanks…” She was leaving! No. NO!
“Hey…you look familiar to me…” I was desperate. “Do we know each other?”
She turned back around, looking me up and down. “Um…do you play soccer?”
“Do you shop at the Greenfield co-op?”
What the fuck was a co-op? “Nooooo…”
“Where are you from?”
“Swanzey. New Hampshire.”
“Never heard of it.” Obviously. Who had? This went on for a while, I’m sorry to report, until at last… “Oh. Do you read Sassy?”
“YES! THAT’S IT! OH MY GOD! YOU’RE THE SASSIEST GIRL IN AMERICA!!!!”
“Yeah. Ok, well, see you later…” I don’t think we spoke again for the next three years.
Life went on and I kept reading Sassy off and on until the end of high school. At some point, Sassy was sold to Teen, the entire staff was fired and replaced, Sassy became a weird Stepford version of itself, and everyone forgot about Sassy for a few years, until Jane rose from the ashes to found Jane, which I am not going to talk about, and the think pieces started, and there was a book, and fashion and style wunderkind Tavi Gevinson declared Sassy as an influence, and now certain women of a certain age go “OH MY GOD!” when you ask them about Sassy and Kim France even has a blog called Girls of a Certain Age, for crying out loud. As for me, I thought Sassy was pretty much out of my system until around eight years ago when I made a new friend and soon discovered that she herself had been a finalist in the 1992 Sassiest Girl in America contest, aka McMurtryGate.
…And Karen will be interviewing her in a piece that will run later today, watch this space for more.