Marie Claire

I'd always wondered where exactly Marie Claire fit on the evolutionary chain of women's mags. Then, as now, it struck me as relatively hip - yet I'd been basing my opinion strictly on the publication's semi-sedate covers rather than, god forbid, actually reading the thing.

And so it was that I found myself at the local Barnes & Noble, merrily proffering a crisp $5 bill with my copy of Marie Claire. The gal behind the counter eyed me suspiciously; I glanced down at the magazine and squeaked, "It's for me!" I do not recommend this strategy for meeting girls.

Marie Claire seems to be attempting to distinguish itself by offering a broader topical palette than its competitors. The mag's logo, "for women of the world," is proudly embossed on its binding. Too, there's bona fide substance - an article on child slavery in Ghana, a campaign jointly coordinated with Amnesty International to stop the torture of Chechen women - interspersed with the expected dreck on shoes and positively darling handbags.

The problem: noble though the publication's mission may be, it's woefully misguided. I suspect that few readers turn to Marie Claire to bolster their sense of civic and social responsibility; they want to know how to lasso that DREAMY guy who works three offices down and where to buy the halter top that'll make his eyes pop out of his skull. A magazine can only be so many things at once.

The May issue's unfortunate Cameron Diaz feature illustrates the tonal clash. On the cover, she's dolled up in a low-cut red dress, her face so immaculately wrinkle-free that one wonders if her stylists have access to some miracle iron that doesn't scald the skin. From there, the story devolves into a first-person account about her passion for the environment and helping poor people and stuff. Suffering is, like, bad!

The photos that accompany it, of course, would suggest that she brought a gang of makeup artists on the road with her. After all, you can't help preserve Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park when your skin is blotchy. Her conclusion: "The trip was so worth it." Note to Ms. Diaz: In the future, for the love of all that is holy, please let your checkbook do the talking.

There are other dim-bulb items, such as a "You & Your World" featurette, which seems to have little purpose besides noting that purses can be bought in countries outside the United States. But even the best of the nontraditional content suffers due to its placement in the mag. The aforementioned report on Ghana, for instance, is sandwiched between items titled "Do Your Looks Match Your Personality?" and "What If Your Mother Looked Your Age?" That's not exactly a smart spot in the batting order for a sober, haunting piece of reporting.

Whatever Marie Claire's grander ambitions, the magazine does cheery fluff quite well. Subjects featured in the "Mother" piece probably ought to be working out their issues on a therapist's couch, but the story boasts a quirky, casual feel that serves it well. Ditto for the series of "10 Best" items on beauty and fashion, though I'm not sure how a quartet of book recommendations made it past the hair-scrunchy police.

Other items, especially those in which reader participation is solicited, boast a chummy, conversational tone that books like Jane and Cosmopolitan could only dream of aping. The mag's fashion spreads feel much less vacuous than most (er, that was supposed to be a compliment) and several of the first-person tales, such as an editor's brave venture into the land of $800 haircuts, elicit more than a passing giggle.

When I told a friend that I'd be checking out Marie Claire, her advice was something along the lines of "it is what it is. It's best not to think too deeply about it." Maybe the mag's editors ought to consider that same nugget of advice.

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