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A Dreamy History of Teen Idol Magazines, Just for YOU!

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The editors at Super Teen had some ironclad rules about the profiles of teen idols featured in their pages each month. An actor or musician’s bad behavior was never discussed; long-term relationships were barely mentioned. Most importantly, there was a permanent ban on chest hair.

"If they have hairy chests, you’ll see them with their shirts buttoned up," Bob Schartoff, the magazine’s creative director, told the New York Daily News in 1982. Facial hair was also verboten. When a reporter offered a hypothetical—say Scott Baio grew a beard—Schartoff said the Joanie Loves Chachi star would effectively be excommunicated from his pages.

Super Teen, Tiger Beat, Bop, 16. From the 1960s to the 1990s, these glossy, primary-colored magazines that looked like the inside of a 13-year-old girl’s locker door sold hundreds of thousands of copies each month and provided gleefully superficial insight into the non-threatening sex symbols of their respective eras. Jason Bateman was photographed cradling a Teddy Ruxpin; Matt Dillon could be seen eating pizza like any normal person. Readers were often referred to in the second-person to better help them visualize an innocent evening with their celebrity crush. ("Are YOU the Kind of Girl Adorable Tim Hutton is Looking For?")

At times, the magazines anticipated the evolution of dimpled pin-ups into actual marquee stars (Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox). Other times, there was a lot of ink spilled over the internal workings of Menudo. All of it was meant to entice their demographic of 11- to 14-year-old girls, which some editors were rather blunt about diagnosing.

"The typical reader … is shy, self-conscious, quiet, afraid of boys, and not into dating," Schartoff said. "They’re 'B' students and not the prettiest one in class."

Kirk Cameron poses for a February 1989 issue of 16 magazine

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The idea of pandering to fans of clean-cut performers with breathless magazine prose can be traced back to Elvis Presley. In the late 1950s, magazines like 16 went from printing song lyrics to relaying details of what it might be like to date the King, crooner Pat Boone, or actor Tab Hunter. When the Beatles arrived stateside in 1964, the ensuing pandemonium flowed into what was quickly becoming a subgenre of publishing—teen idol worship.

Charles Laufer took notice. A journalism and English teacher at Beverly Hills High School, Laufer thought a magazine devoted to teen interests would be a success. He launched Coaster, a regional publication for Long Beach locals, in the 1950s. It didn’t succeed until he realized his mistake: Boys didn’t want to sit down and read about celebrity lifestyles. Girls did.

Laufer renamed the magazine Teen and watched it grow into a hit before leaving to start Tiger Beat in 1965. His timing was fortuitous: The Monkees were just beginning to explode in popularity, and Tiger Beat saw its circulation rise when it profiled the fun-loving group. Laufer sold Monkees fan club memberships, posters, and books before he sold Tiger Beat itself to the Harlequin romance house in 1978 for $12 million.

The magazines—which began to number in the dozens and eventually in the hundreds—were usually cyclical in nature, their sales rising and falling depending on who happened to be in favor with teen girls at any given time. In the '70s, John Travolta and Erik Estrada moved copies. In the '80s, it was soap star Jack Wagner, Scott Baio, Rick Springfield, and Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron, who was such an ideal of non-threatening sexuality that he became a cover fixture.

Typically, editors would get stacks of photos from publicity departments—like Don Johnson standing next to an inflatable alligator—and hope that a competing magazine wouldn’t be running the same shot that month. Interviews were dependent on a star’s level of fame. Some, like Eight is Enough heartthrob Adam Rich, sat for interrogations with editors; others, like Tom Cruise, largely shunned any personal involvement, fearing they’d be typecast in juvenile roles. If a star did consent to an interview, their conversation would likely be parsed over several months to make it last.

Negativity was a killer. When Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio got married in 1987, editors told fans he "needs your support," rather than, say, trying to take down the woman who dared to take Macchio off the market. When a celebrity made a less-than-flattering impression—like the time the 13-year-old Rich told his publicist to "shut up" during one Super Teen sit-down—it was never disclosed. When John Schneider walked off the set of The Dukes of Hazzard over a pay dispute, fans wrote in to express their disappointment. Financial strikes broke the fantasy, and Schneider-related pin-up sales slumped.

The adulation could be mortifying for actors trying to take their careers seriously, particularly when they were surrounded by the kind of Trapper Keeper collage and single-syllable vernacular favored by the publications. (Pictures were "pix," facts were "fax.") Others—or their publicists—saw the teen mags as a vehicle to promote themselves. Rick Springfield was said to have hung around 16’s New York offices looking for a mention before his big break. In 1979, Kevin Spacey showed up for a cattle call to find a new “teen idol” for Tiger Beat. (He never joined the ranks of Cameron and the rest.)

The table of contents for the August 1992 issue of Tiger Beat
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At its peak in the 1970s, Tiger Beat and its sister publications reached roughly 2 million readers a month. Others got by on as little as 135,000 paid copies sold. The 1990s diversified with titles like Teen People and Sassy, publications that brought a stronger editorial voice to readers and eased up on the kind of copy that didn’t exactly enable feminism. ("Sail Away with RALPH MACCHIO!")

In the 1990s, the popularity of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC helped keep Tiger Beat and the others afloat, but not for long. The internet and social media excised the middleman, allowing stars to control their exposure and deliver calculated glimpses into their lives without Teen Beat interfering. Many enduring titles folded. Tiger Beat sold to a group of investors—which included Nick Cannon—for $4 million in 2016, with plans to modify the brand for a digital era.

The tens of thousands of magazines once revered like pop culture gospel are now relegated to recycling bins, basements, or eBay, with one cover or interview largely indistinguishable from another. All readers wanted was some gossip, some advice, and to find out whether or not Corey Haim liked pepperoni on his pizza.

"Actually," Teen Star Photo Album editor Lori Bernstein told the Palm Beach Post in 1988, "they all kind of say the same things."

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To Have and to Have Snot: A History of Madballs
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Steven Leung via Flickr

When art school dropout Ralph Shaffer was hired by American Greetings to illustrate greeting cards in 1964, the 23-year-old was tasked with depicting delicate flower petals and hopping bunny rabbits. Every now and then, presumably to break the monotony of sentimentality, Shaffer would draw the rabbits being hung by a noose.

These morbid doodles didn’t make it to store shelves. Rather than offer him psychological counseling, the company decided to redirect his energies toward an eccentric squad of talent dubbed Those Characters From Cleveland. The company subdivision was responsible for creating intellectual property like the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake. In the 1980s, it was also charged with designing a line of toys that parents would find appalling and boys would find irresistible: Madballs. By the end of 1986, more than 10 million of the decapitated grotesqueries would be sold.

Those numbers weren't surprising to anyone who had done a little market research. One of the few guarantees in the volatile toy industry is that boys love to be repulsed. Beginning with Slime in the 1970s—a gooey green gel that resembled infected snot—kids could always be relied upon to embrace things that would make most adults heave.

In 1985, Topps released the Garbage Pail Kids series of trading cards, a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids featuring revolting characters. Their immediate success was noticed by American Greetings, which had cornered the cute market with Care Bears but had never tried to appeal to booger-loving boys on the other side of the toy aisle. Sensing an opportunity, Shaffer, artist James Groman, and the rest of the think tank conceived of a line of squishy rubber balls with ghastly faces and names like Slobulus, Deathbreath, and Swine Sucker. Instead of a two-dimensional illustration on a playing card, kids would have a tangible object to torment their parents with.

Madballs debuted in February 1986 with a retail price of $3.99 apiece. The balls flew off shelves, emptying displays at Toys"R"Us and capturing newspaper headlines that attempted to rationalize such purchases by asking psychologists why protruding eyeballs were a selling point.

“Children find gross toys fun because that’s sort of where they are developmentally,” Brenda Baker, a psychologist based in Michigan, told The Morning Call in 1987. “These toys aren’t gross to them. They’re fun and funny.”

Because of their irregular shape, Madballs didn’t offer much in the way of actual bouncing. Instead, they were collected and displayed like morbid little trophies or used to antagonize siblings and adults. One boy, 7-year-old Chris Herter of Detroit, told The Morning Call he enjoyed rolling them down the laundry chute of his house. His mother, Libby, referred to the spheres as “gawd-awful.”

Although the toys were popular, they weren’t always welcome. Several schools prohibited them from being taken into classrooms because they were a distraction. One Madball, dubbed “Crack Head” for having a fractured skull, was renamed “Bash Brain” due to concerns people might think the company was poking fun at the drug epidemic burdening communities.

By September 1986, AmToy—the division of American Greetings that made these playthings—had successfully expanded Madballs into licensing, including Trapper Keeper folders. Bright Ideas, Inc. said Madballs outsold their Miami Vice products when it came to educational supplies. Direct-to-video cartoons, comics, and other ancillary merchandising followed. AmToy even released a line of action figures: When squeezed, their heads would spring into the air. AmToy also conceived a line of Blurp Balls that would spew a projectile when triggered. Among the characters: Up-Chuck Yeager.

An assortment of Madballs, still in the package
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Madballs remained a popular seller through 1988, at which point children began to tire of sculpted vomit and decaying plastic heads. The line fizzled out, and remained largely dormant until a 2006 revival by Art Asylum, a licensee heavily into pop culture nostalgia. Dubbed Sickballs, the revitalized line attempted to compound the ick factor by having bodily fluids ooze out of orifices when the balls were squeezed.

Since then, Madballs have undergone a series of relaunches. Just Play releases grab bags of the characters at regular intervals, and KidRobot recently issued a line of Madballs designed after horror movie icons like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. Gross-out nostalgia is alive, well, and still drooling.

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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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