NEW YORK — Lea Dince just turned 16, but she remembers every celebrity she has loved since she started buying Tiger Beat magazine at the age of 5. She couldn’t read back then, but she studied the glossy photos of round-cheeked teen idols that have populated the fantasies of generations of American girls. Tiger Beat turns 51 this year — and is in the midst of an ambitious renovation — and there are countless adult women who need only to hear its name to be transported back to their first “fave rave,” whose glossy poster they carefully removed from the magazine, taped to the wall and kissed before bed.
Dince, a sophomore in Chappaqua, N.Y., keeps a shoe box of concert tickets and event passes — an archaeology of lost loves. First, she was into the Cheetah Girls, then she loved Joe Jonas, whose honor she defended when other girls claimed Nick was the best of the Jonas Brothers. Then she idealized Disney-era Miley Cyrus.
But by the time she was 12 — which coincided with Dince’s peak Tiger Beat-reading period — she fell hard for Justin Bieber in the daddy of all crushes, now entering its fifth year. Dince has been to see Bieber in concert many times and met him twice at backstage events. She knows nothing will ever come of her crush, but the fantasy life of a teenage girl is a lush, hardy thing, and what she knows with the self-awareness of an almost-adult is undercut by the hope of a child.
“I definitely think about being with him sometimes, and how maybe we’d meet someday and maybe something would happen,” she says, sitting in her dining room. “But I know that’s not real life.”
Dince was 13 when her idol was arrested for drunken driving. She ached for him and wanted to help him, before she remembered that Bieber of all people didn’t need her help and also didn’t know who she was. “I’m not a close person in his life; he’s a close person to me in my life,” Dince says. “It’s a weird dynamic.”
It is weird, but it’s also deeply familiar — and the well-trod territory of Tiger Beat, which has managed to hang on long enough to become an icon and occasional Beltway meme. Politico’s breathless tone earned it the nickname “Tiger Beat on the Potomac,” and New York Times editors showed their fangirl credulity in 2011 when they mistook an Onion parody of a Tiger Beat cover featuring President Obama as legit.
Last year, the brand was bought for just under $4 million by a team of 17 investors with dreams of turning it into a multi-platform juggernaut that will dominate the lives of teenage girls.
The website has been revamped and the print magazine relaunched with a new logo and lifestyle, fashion and beauty coverage enhancing the celebrity stories. A recent issue features social-media-stars-turned-pop-rap-duo Jack & Jack — “So hot, they will make you cry!” — as well as a photo spread on perfect summer hair buns. The intended demo for this historically tweenish brand has been aged up to 13 to 19, and the expanded bicoastal Tiger Beat staff has colonized social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Wishbone. There are also plans for podcasts, concerts and a “19 under 19” franchise.
But it’s an open question what Tiger Beat has to offer in an age when a girl with a crush on Vine star Cameron Dallas can catch him shirtless on Snapchat. Girls claim ownership of their beloveds’ images and make GIFs out of them, appending silly captions. Will kids used to making and curating their own content, and who aspire to be social media stars themselves, want what Tiger Beat’s editors choose to serve them?
To see into the heart of the adolescent girl and give her what she wants — and monetize it — has always been Tiger Beat’s goal. It was founded in 1965 by the late Charles Laufer, a onetime high school teacher, who described it as wholesome entertainment for the price of a hot-fudge sundae. And the entertainment? “Guys in their 20s singing La La songs to 13-year-old girls,” he said.
The magazine struggled till it latched on to the Monkees (heartthrobs drive sales) and, with magazines like 16 and Teen Beat, was part of what’s been called “the peak for teen-crush magazines” in the mid- to late ’60s. (1967: “Tiger Beat Presents Micky Dolenz ... Find out all his private thoughts!”)
Why do girls love to love? What is it about this age that’s so earnest, so full-hearted, so enamored of what’s adorable? Also: What’s up with all those exclamation marks?! It’s an oft-ridiculed topic, part of a long history in America of denigrating the stuff girls love. But crushes are not mindless. Say what you will about the early Tiger Beat ethos — its unrelenting promotion of (straight) romantic love, its superficiality, its middle-brow tastes, its soft sexism — it was also a venue that listened to girls’ desires at an age when many thought them best seen and not heard.
By the time Ilana Nash was crushing on Shaun Cassidy in the late ’70s, she recalls Tiger Beat respectfully serving that liminal space of adolescent sexuality, the stage where a girl fantasizes about a dinner date with her idol but not, perhaps, what happens after. Nash says that at a time — as now — when the larger culture fetishized female adolescence, it was a refuge. And 40 years later, in an era of transactional hook-ups, porn star emulation and errant sexts, there’s still a lot to be said for putting girls in charge of their own fantasies.
“When you’re 12 and 13, you’d kind of like the freedom to have your hormones to yourself for a while before other people start eating you for lunch,” says Nash, now a professor of gender and women’s studies at Western Michigan University.
And while the celebrity crush, that north star of Tiger Beat, has been lampooned as pointless pining, it might be more generously considered a valuable, if imperfect, means of self-definition. Just as in 1965, girls today choose the idol, male or female, whose personality or looks or lifestyle communicates something about who they are, or hope to be.
If nothing ever comes of all that fantasizing, that was never the point. The crush is “about us,” says Norma Coates, a music professor at the University of Western Ontario (once-upon-a-time crushes: Michael Nesmith and Davy Jones).
Of course, such feelings are complicated by commerce. If the celebrity crush is about pubescent girls defining themselves, sophisticated marketing forces hand girls the tools for all that earnest, wing-beating love. Lots of people make lots of money off all that fantasizing, and this tension is why fangirling can make you feel optimistic and cynical all at once.
The problem of entering puberty, Dince says, is you don’t yet know who you are. Everything has been decided for you for so long that when you discover a new love on your own, you can’t help but go deep. So yeah, once upon a time she used to ape Miley Cyrus’s mannerisms because she was still figuring out her own, but who gets to say that’s silly, rather than the necessary work of growing up?
“It wasn’t me,” she says, “but it was me trying to figure out how to get there.”
Charles Laufer and his brother sold Tiger Beat in 1978, and it was bought and sold several times. Last year, Mark Patricof, an investment banker and entrepreneur, bought it with investors from the entertainment and sports worlds, including TV personality Nick Cannon; Steve Tisch, the film producer and chairman of the New York Giants; talent managers Troy Carter and Scooter Braun, who manages Bieber; and basketball star and Washington-area native Kevin Durant.
Success, Patricof says, will depend on delivering something that “feels genuine” — like something girls might create themselves. Already, longtime editor in chief Leesa Coble, once a press secretary for the Feminist Majority Foundation, has expanded Tiger Beat’s message of gentle empowerment. A recent girl-power issue offered tips like “You don’t need to change for anyone,” advice to start a feminist book club, and a story about Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. The brand’s reputation for upbeat, celebrity-friendly, mom-approved innocence — the very thing that’s so easily lampooned — is much of its value, says Patricof, because it brings nothing but good cheer and career enhancement to talent, advertisers, record execs and music managers. “It’s only a friend to everybody,” he says.
Lea Dince is now on a panel of teens that weighs in on topics like how Tiger Beat might cover the presidential election. She takes her mission as a teen whisperer seriously because Tiger Beat was both a big part of her childhood and a ladder to who she is now. It fostered her love for music and pop culture, and her ambition to become a record executive. It gave her Bieber, whose existence is so woven into hers that his tweets trigger an alert on her phone. Dince has her own life, of course, but she also has a second one, populated by the confessions and love lives of famous strangers.
“I feel as if I’ve been keeping up with their lives for so long,” she says, “that it would be weird if I didn’t.”
Libby Copeland is a journalist in New York and a former Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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