In every issue of Talk magazine, there's a moment when you turn the page and your eyes bug out and you mutter, "What the hell is this?"
In the premiere issue in September, it was the picture of Gwyneth Paltrow sprawled across a couch in a black leather bikini, fondling a riding crop and looking fierce.
In the October issue, it was the picture of a grinning Whoopi Goldberg exposing her tattoo and her right nipple, above a quote that read: "I have 32 teeth. Sometimes it feels like 100!"
And in the November issue, it's a huge double-spread photo of Jay Leno clasping a wrench in his teeth. Or maybe it's the picture of some skinny, dorky-looking guy with no shirt on and a fancy black Dior handbag hanging from his armpit.
What the hell is this?
Flipping through Talk is like channel-surfing. You never know what you'll come across next. First, you're on PBS and Saul Bellow's son is talking about the difficulties of life with the Nobel-winning novelist. You turn the page, and you're on "Entertainment Tonight" and Michael Jackson is babbling about his buddy Liz Taylor: "She's a friend. She's Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, the queen of England, and Wendy."
Turn another page, and you're on some rogue version of the History Channel, looking at a gruesome picture of the Russian Bolshevik poet Vladimir Mayakovsky with a huge bullet hole in his heart, where he shot himself in 1930, the photo accompanied by a learned literary essay on his life and work by novelist Francine du Plessix Gray.
Talk is, of course, the magazine founded by Tina Brown, the famous former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Brown is a genius at self-promotion, and the launch of the magazine in August garnered almost as much press coverage as the O.J. Simpson trial.
Much of it focused on the premiere issue's interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who engaged in some amateur psychoanalyzing of her philandering husband. There was also a minor flap about Talk's story on George W. Bush, which revealed that he swears like a sailor. And there was plenty of coverage of Talk's launch party at the Statue of Liberty, which was attended by Madonna and Henry Kissinger and just about every celebrity in between.
Never averse to tooting her own horn, Brown covered the party for Talk's first issue with an eight-page photo spread in Talk's second issue. Readers who hoped that Talk's third issue would include coverage of a star-studded party for Talk's second issue were, alas, disappointed. There was no party for the second issue. Or the third. In fact, there has been very little talk about Talk lately, except for rumors in New York media circles about editors quitting and staffers grumbling about Brown's notoriously fickle and demanding management style.
Talk is a tough magazine to get a handle on, a strange hybrid of highbrow and lowbrow publications. It's got cover lines that sound as though they were lifted from supermarket tabloids: "Gwyneth Goes Bad" and "Di's Lover: Historian or Jerk?" It's as celebrity-crazed as People, but it's also obsessed with politics, running pieces on various presidential contenders and on a dull non-contender, New York Gov. George Pataki.
There are highbrow literary pieces by British playwrights David Hare and Tom Stoppard that could run in the New Yorker or Harper's. And some photo spreads of actresses that could, by merely removing a garment or two, fit nicely in Playboy. And it's printed on that soft, slick rotogravure paper that makes it feel like the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
The November issue is typically eclectic. It contains well-crafted profiles of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oliver Stone, plus a photo spread of actress Julianne Moore made up to look like actresses Marlene Dietrich, Ann-Margret and Bette Davis. There's a short but savvy profile of Sen. John McCain and a long, sympathetic piece on Al Gore's youth at Harvard and in Vietnam, which is accompanied by some great photos of Al and Tipper looking young and semi-hip.
There's also a long piece on the Eastern European children stolen by the Nazis and given to German families. And a moving book excerpt about a poor kid with cerebral palsy who learned to play the violin well enought to get into Juilliard. And a profile of the editor of the French edition of Vogue, a woman so pretentious that she describes a new perfume as "just like the later works of Carlos Castaneda." And a hilarious piece on servants who push their rich-but-wimpy employers around: "Miriam completely dictates the terms of cleaning for us," says one browbeaten boss, "and we submit happily."
There's lots of other stuff, too. Talk is big and fat and stuffed with stories. Some are good, some are embarrassingly bad, and some are just plain weird. I'm not sure I actually like this magazine, but I'll keep buying it, if only for that inevitable moment when my eyes will bug out and I'll mutter, "What is this?"
Sniffing Out the Rest
There's plenty of interesting stuff on the newsstands this month:
National Geographic has a fascinating piece on the discovery of three Inca children killed in a religious ritual sacrifice 500 years ago. The astonishing photographs reveal mummified bodies that look as if they'd been walking and talking yesterday.
In the New York Review of Books, legendary essayist Joan Didion takes on "Dutch"--Edmund Morris's biography of Ronald Reagan--and eviscerates both the book and its brown-nosing author. Didion really knows how to deftly slip in the stiletto.
Esquire's "Genius Issue" fails in its promise to identify "The 21 Most Important People of the 21st Century"--most of those folks probably haven't been born yet. But it does have an entertaining piece on four certified geniuses who have screwed up their lives. Apparently, possession of a stratospheric IQ doesn't guarantee happiness--or even success--which is reassuring for the rest of us.
Wired advertises its story on computers that can emit scent with a garish cover featuring an ugly cartoon guy with a scratch-and-sniff patch in his armpit. Feeling like an idiot, I scratched and sniffed but smelled nothing. The press release said I should be smelling either lily or banana. I tried another copy. Again, nothing. My colleagues sniffed and they, too, failed to discern a scent. Even my dog was unmoved. A third copy--this one had been sealed in plastic--did smell faintly of banana. Life gets weird on the magazine beat.