American Elle magazine is 21, and the editors are celebrating by putting a pregnant Britney Spears on the cover. It's ironic that this former middle-America sex kitten with her signature exposed belly is now covering her bump with an Empire-waist gown. But even on the cover of high-end Elle, Britney still maintains her resemblance to a mall rat: Her brassy blonde locks are teased into a puffy helmet that makes her look as if she's wearing a wig.

I've been disappointed in Elle for years. When Amy Gross, the current editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine, was at Elle, it was the smart girl's magazine that I turned to for eccentric fashion and literary writing. In her editor's note, current editor in chief Roberta Myers -- a protégé of Gross' -- takes us back to Elle's beginnings as a celebration of French style. Valerie Toranian, the current editor in chief of French Elle, tells Myers: "Helene's values have remained -- a free, emancipated, dynamic woman and modern woman, curious about the world and having a passion for fashion. It is not a title focused just on fashion and lifestyle; it is, rather, about diversity, complexity, and contradictions in a woman's life."

This is a great mission. Unfortunately, the American version of Elle seems focused only on fashion and lifestyle, and in its attempt to reach out to America, the complexity, diversity and contradiction part gets watered down. Elle has gotten boring and smug. The editors still get good literary writers like Daphne Merkin, Amy Tan and A.M Holmes, and journalists like Lisa DePaulo, but the stories just don't pop in a way that makes you want to read them.

I also have one big gripe. For a woman's magazine that is trying to gain respect through top-notch journalism, why would the editors keep alleged serial plagiarista Ruth Shalit, (a former The New Republic writer with a history of reportedly borrowing unattributed words from other sources) on their masthead as a contributing editor? Insiders at the magazine have said that after all these years, Shalit is still losing her interview tapes.

Other features in the magazine include such topics as: Bradley Cooper, the blue-eyed star of new TV show "Kitchen Confidential"; new movies that every other magazine covers; Iceland style; trust-fund girls spending $250 on nail polish; Trump perfume; online cognitive therapy; and French actress Clotilde Courau.

By far the best part of this anniversary issue is an advice feature written by assorted lit set writers and other bold-faced names, called "The Most Important Things I've Learned." Despite the uninspiring headline, some of the advice is pretty good. For example, Cynthia Ozick tells us, "the self-anointed alienated few seem always to run in large herds."

While literary advice offers some wisdom, my favorite part of Elle has always been its sassy and straight-shooting advice columnist E. Jean. A reader asks her, "How do I drive a chap out of his mind with love?" She answers: "Pull up your bra straps and remember: The essence of romantic love is uncertainty. Torture him. Vex him. Keep him off balance." This to me is the essence of an American Elle woman.

Next story loading loading..