Get Your DIVA On
The U.K.’s lesbian magazine celebrates a milestone.
Photo credit: L+R
In a world where newsstands are stocked high with commercial magazines, mostly those telling women how to and what to in a condescending tone, it’s worth celebrating the fact that a handful of high quality lesbian magazines have survived the global financial crisis, and the technology and tablet boom with its accompanying rapid change in reading habits. Curve is one such magazine, still going strong after 22 years. Another classy, glossy read is DIVA, out of the U.K. As editor in chief of Curve magazine I chatted to Jane Czyzselska, editor in chief of DIVA, to talk what makes a good lesbian mag, and to celebrate their 200th issue.
You’ve been heading up DIVA since 2004. What were your challenges?
Well, I was shortlisted for the job four years earlier and I didn’t get it. I think I wasn’t really right but I was cocky, so I tried again. But during that four year period I broke into the mainstream press as a journalist. I was worried that I was going back into the ghetto. My straight best friends said, “Are you kidding? You should totally do that. You will have a ball! Surely it’s your dream job.” And it has been my dream job. I had quite a bit of freelance editing experience under my belt by that point, and I had a lot of contacts, crucially. I thought, What the hell, I’ll just try for it because it would be great to transform the magazine into something more glossy, give it a commercial edge while maintaining its community feel as well.
With making those changes did you ever feel like you went too far?
The visual communication of a magazine can define its audience and its readership, and I do think some probably felt design-wise it was much more aimed at a youth readership now. I suppose we did lose some people but we also gained a lot of people.
Do lesbians demand more from their publications than they do mainstream publications?
I think we’ve both got very difficult jobs in the sense that we’re niche publications trying to cater to our entire communities, and no other women’s magazine has to do that. They know exactly who they’re aiming at—what she looks like, where she goes shopping, how much she earns, what she spends, her lifestyle, etc. We don’t have that.
We’re a much more varied demographic than say, the 25-34 year olds who read InStyle.
There’s also a sense of ownership of the magazine because there’s so little else out there for lesbians and that’s why they’re critical.
What is the most common criticism you have received from DIVA readers?
Young readers saying, Why do you always do stuff about old lesbians? And then older lesbians saying, Why do you always do stuff about young lesbians?
That sounds familiar!
And sometimes on the Letters page I love to put those two complaints one after the other. We can do our best to cater to as many readers as possible but we’ll obviously always fail at some level.
Where does DIVA stand on some politically charged topics, such as trans, bi, genderqueer identities, etc.
I am very pro trans, pro bi. We have bisexual and trans staff members. I think it’s our job as editors to represent all sorts of non-heteronormative identities. We make sure, for example, that our Facebook page is a safe space. When people are being anti-butch, or anti-femme or whatever, we say, This is supposed to be a place where everyone can talk safely between themselves. In the 200th issue I did a piece on butch phobia because I think it’s really common within the lesbian community. I’m against all types of prejudice. I’m just following my gut instinct, I guess
Looking back over the issues, have there been some moments that have stood out?
We were the first to do a coming out story on Lady Sovereign. She’s a prominent rap star here. [Also] creating controversial and ground-breaking issues such the FAT issue of DIVA in which we challenged cultural and queer community fat phobia and our most recent Naked issue, in which I interviewed the feminist Naomi Wolf (who was our cover star) about her new book 'Vagina' and we asked readers to send us images of their genitalia which we then invited an artist to reproduce—it was beautiful and designed to challenge ideas of visual normalcy and sexual shame.
What about covering pivotal trends, like The L Word?
At the end of the first series I knew it was going to change the way that people think of themselves; but a lot of our readers were not massive fans. I just think that it’s such a privilege to be part of the documenting of changing lesbian and bisexual culture, basically, to reflect people’s lives and give people voice. Visibility to me has always been so crucial. I think being involved in all the debates and loves and hates and changes taking place, and being a resource—it feels, as an editor, an incredibly privileged position to be in. Do you feel that too?
I do. I also feel as though it’s my job to anticipate shifts. For example, that Lip Service would take off here in the U.S. as a more down to earth version of The L Word.
I think programming for lesbians is going to change gradually and I think that’s really interesting and important to show how that happens and what kind of effect it has on people.
Do you feel there are A-List lesbians who elude us? How can we get the big interviews?
It’s very much about people liking us as editors, and our personalities. But you could be the nicest, most switched on networker and there are certain people who are never going to agree to be on the cover of your magazine, for whatever reason. ... It would mean so much to our readers but maybe those [celebrities] forget that, or perhaps it doesn’t matter to them, or perhaps it’s been such a long time since they’ve experienced prejudice that they don’t remember how important it to speak to their community directly.
I hear you are coming to New York... to get married?
Not to get married. My girlfriend and I are celebrating a year of being together. We’re possibly going to look for engagement rings in New York, we’re not sure yet. ... I do want to go to the Dalloway. It sounds so classy.
Yes, it’s very nice, up market, about time we had such a venue! And I have to say that the 200th issue of DIVA looks very classy, too. What did you want to achieve with it?
We wanted to look at where we’d come from and what had changed over the last 20 years, and give people an insight into how we work and what we do. I also wanted to look at what it means to be a lesbian today compared to the past. And we’ve got our fabulous cover feature with our 12 cover stars, and a gatefold and we’ve got individual shots, bios and Q&As in the magazine too.
It looks beautiful. Was it tough to decide who were going to be the 12 cover girls?
Yeah, it was tough and also to get all the people there at once, as you can imagine, juggling the schedules for all these high profile people [was] almost impossible [Laughs]. We had to beg, borrow and steal in terms of accommodation and catering, etc. But it’s amazing what you can do really.
The 200th issue of DIVA is on sale now. Go to divamag.co.uk.
Check out photos from the launch party below! (Photos by Holly Falconer)