Marcelle Karp is one of the smartest, most fearless women I’ve ever had the privilege of (virtually) knowing. She is the co-founder of BUST, an entity that was so much more than just a magazine to me- it was finding a community of women like me, a finding a monthly dose of kindred spirits. On top of that, she’s raising one of the coolest “tweens” out there.
I knew when I started The Women Take Over, Marcelle was going to be at the top of my to-be-interviewed list. When she agreed I was beyond thrilled, and since we’ve started this conversation I’ve learned more about feminism than I ever hoped. Because her interview was so in depth and amazing, I’ve broken it into two parts so you can get the most from it.
Please tell me everything about how/why the life-changing BUST got its start. The ’90s were such an interesting time- why do you think it was important for that message to be shared at that moment?
This is a super-favorite memory of mine.
I met Debbie Stoller in the late ’80s at Nickelodeon. We shared this oversized cubicle space. I can’t recall what department she was in (maybe even the one I was in), but she had the same kind of vibe that I did; there was some other world she was living in underneath the working girl surface. I had this tiny white Sanyo mini boombox and I played The Fall on cassette incessantly, and I think that’s how she knew we could be friends.
I lived in the Village and I had a dog and I read comic books and Sassy and I was in my mid 20s, living from paycheck to paycheck, hanging out with people who were struggling, too- stand ups and improvisers and musicians and actors, all at the cusp of what their lives would become. I went to shows every week, supporting my friends who were on the stages of whatever their craft was.
I joined women activist groups, I marched in the pro choice rally in DC with my best friend, I talked incessantly with my friends about equality and how I was feeling undervalued as a woman in these worlds I was straddling, the corporate and the personal. In my personal life, I felt invisible unless I showed off my “assets,” I was confused by relationships, I was struggling to connect, to be heard. And I was in this corporate world, watching people in beige stockings struggling to kick ass every day, sometimes even throwing women under the bus to get ahead. It bothered me so much.
Where were we as feminists? What happened to battle cries of the ’70s era feminists? Who were, and more importantly, where were my generation’s voices? At some point, Debbie and I became friends, spending time together outside work and we seemed to have very similar points of view on the way women existed in the world(s) we were living in. We felt under/not represented in media. This was pre-Internet. So to find like minded women, who were feminists and starting to ask these questions, took a little bit of work.
We had Sassy. And then something started happening in music. (Obvs before this I lived for Patti Smith. Siouxie Soux. The Slits. Joan fucking Jett. Exene.) I heard the Throwing Muses. And the Pixies. And Sonic Youth. And as we head into the ’90s, I started to hear more voices, more women, singing about this sense of here/not here, that I was feeling. I was not even 30 yet and my world, the world inside my head, started to alight. The possibility of a future, where we spoke and heard each other, was so close. And then Anita Hill came into our lives, and that sparked another dialogue of indignation and anger.
Sometime in 1991 or 1992, Debbie and I started talking about creating a magazine that spoke to women like us, the ones we didn’t see represented in women’s fashion magazines. We wanted a magazine that didn’t list Ten Ways to Please Your Lover. That would address things that were not all happy-happy-joy-joy. We were 100% influenced and inspired by what Jane Pratt and her team were doing with Sassy, and we wanted a 20-something version of that.
We talked about it nonstop, and then two things happened to me that influenced me so radically: 1. I worked for a sports organization where I was the only female producer in the facility; the only women who worked in any position of power were…no one. Oh wait, the publicity department had a slew of ladies but even the head of the department was male! I was perhaps the only female “creative” there. All the women that worked there were either assistants, designers, or very junior support staff. And I was hit on incessantly. And I was really upset by the environment, it was so different from what I experienced when working with Debbie at the corporate place, which had women at all levels there. And the men were clean cut with a sense of bravura and entitlement, cocksure and arrogant; to ask me out, or come into my edit room was no big thing to them, because after all, I was this helpless little girl. I mean. Really.
2. I quit after two months and went to Paris where I lived for awhile and aired myself out. I watched the women all around me, in cafes and clubs and at the stores and in the parks, and I could see that these women were writing their own script, living on their own terms. Something I was desperately trying to do. And I met a woman who would become one of my closest female friends (still is to this day) and I felt whole, connected, to a like-minded feminist.
I returned to NY and Debbie was the first person I called. “Hey did you ever do anything with BUST?” She hadn’t. “I want to make this happen. Now.” And that was in the spring of 1993. By then, Riot Grrl was full-on and I knew that all possibility had become reality. Debbie and I went to See/Hear, this legendary zine store, and scooped up all the zines that were on the same page as us and we knew this was it, this was how we could turn our BUST into reality.
So we had a few challenges. First, how to collect the content; second, how to distribute; and third, the OMG we’re doing this. When I look back at how determined and focused we were, on our mission- creating a zine that we’d want to read, that represented us as women, that wasn’t afraid to be heard, be angry, be fierce, be fun, be feminist— I’m so amazed. I think our corporate backgrounds helped us with our strategic sense, and the two of us together were unstoppable; I was suddenly so unafraid. Fearless in the sense that the word “NO” was not an option.
We got the content from women we knew within the corporate world and in our personal lives, and we asked them to write from the heart about what a day in their lives looked like, as feminist. And we told them they could use pseudonyms- because even though we were putting this feminist zine together, there was still fear in the truth and I knew that part of my mission with BUST was to break through that fear, and that sense of anonymity really opened the writers to writing so honestly; as I read through each woman’s story, I got more and more excited. What they were saying, there was no way I’d ever see any of that in fucking Cosmo!!!!!
Even as I type this I have chills- what these women were doing, breaking through the barriers of convention with their stories- ah. maze. ing. Debbie was still working the corporate job, so after hours we’d go to her office and just photo copy these pages of women’s voices, what would become the first issue of BUST. Also, the zine community was incredibly supportive, there was a zine called Factsheet Five, which was essentially a monthly library of every zine in the world, and Seth Friedman who published it had a DIY guide to distribution so we got ahold of that and went for it. We called every store, every distributor, we had our elevator pitch, would they be willing to carry us, and some said yes and some said no and we would send five copies of BUST to Powell’s and 100 to Tower and so on until we basically mailed 1000 copies of the first issue of BUST out into the world.
It was exhilrating. It was a lot of fucking work. It was a lot of being super friendly on the phone and super efficient with postage and follow through and sending invoices and all this stuff, nothing that Debbie and I had ever done before. But we figured it out. We figured out how to work together. We figured out how to delegate duties. We figured out how to sell to people. We figured out how to collect. Basically, from the time I got back from Paris until we started thinking about a second issue, so like six or so months, we were on autopilot. We were feminists. We were empowered. We were finally being heard. We were getting to be creative. We were becoming business women. We were doing it, on terms that we were laying out as we went along.
So all of this, what was happening in our worlds, our lack of representation in the media other than as pretty Barbie dolls, the dormant sense of feminism, the fledging groundswell of Third-wave and more, all of it was leading us to BUST, to creating this bastion of feminist expression, of women who had something to say, something to get off their chests and we were psyched. And it came at a critical moment in our timeline as women, because as we could hear in the words of Riot Grrl, we were being fucked over.
I ought to point out that in 1990 or 1991, Debbie and I honed in on the title of what our dream magazine would be (It’s very possible we decided this one cold winter afternoon in Tompkins Square Park when it was still a den of inequity, syringes and the like strewn everywhere.), because that became a major topic over and over again, if we were to create the perfect women’s magazine, what would it be? What would it look like? What would it read like? Obviously it would be feminist. And we would talk about sex, but not in the “How to Please Your Lover” way. We would own it. We would own every single thing about ourselves, our insecurities as well as our power, our anger as well as our mischief, our joy, our whatever. We wouldn’t shy away from anything about ourselves. That’s what we wanted and more and more and more and that’s what we set out to do…
Read part two of the interview here.
Photo by Kareem Black