Atoosa Rubenstein on the return to life she blew up
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Atoosa Rubenstein
Last May, following a brutal breakup, Atoosa Rubenstein, the most famous teen magazine editor of the early 2000s, began making a comeback on Substack. She started her first Unedited Atoosa newsletter by addressing its former readers on Cosmo Girlwhich she founded in 2003 at the age of 26, and Seventeen, which she ran as editor before stepping down to become a full-time mom. “When we last connected, the truth about my life was a little darker than it appeared on the letter from the editor page,” she wrote.
On the surface, Rubenstein had it all – including a stint as a judge on America’s Next Top Model – but the woman who defined what ambition and success looked like for a generation of teenagers could barely get out of bed. In 2006, she abruptly left Seventeen and was little heard from thereafter.
Then, during the pandemic, just as the cargo pants and crop tops she once featured on her pages came back into fashion, so did she. Through her weekly newsletters — raw, unfiltered missives about her affairs, childhood assaults, and embarrassment over an ugly outfit she wore to the Met Ball — Rubenstein dismantles her own carefully constructed, flawless image. . Below, she talks about achieving her dreams, why happiness and ambition aren’t linked, and her circuitous path to finding fulfillment.
Do you remember the first job you wanted?
I was in fifth grade – in Mrs. Shapiro’s class in 1981 or 82 – and we had this homework about what we were going to be in the year 2000. I said I was going to be a rock star. I was going to live in Manhattan. I was going to have a purple limo in which I would drive around town. I wanted a very highfalutin lifestyle. Even before that, in third or fourth grade, I was signing my autograph and trying to sell it.
Did your family encourage her?
My parents were just trying to get through the day – we regularly had economic problems. They didn’t have high hopes for me because my grades weren’t good. I don’t think they found me particularly impressive. Because I was underestimated, I was ready to fight. I remember saying to my mother, “One day I’m going to buy you a house. And back then she was like, Absolutely not. And I made it to the end! I bought him a house.
Sometimes it can seem like personal success comes at the expense of others. Has this ever been the case for you?
When I worked at Cosmopolitan, in the fashion department, there was a lot of nudging. I remember being a fashion editor and they hired someone as a senior fashion editor. We all collaborated to get that person fired, and then we collaborated to get the next one fired as well. And then I became the fashion editor.
What you are describing is quite ruthless. Have you ever been afraid that someone will take over from you when you were editor-in-chief?
I felt very protected by the former president of Hearst Magazines, Cathie Black. I once asked him, “How could you just give a 26-year-old a magazine?” And she said, “If it hadn’t worked out, I would have just gotten rid of you.” The fact that I could get fired just hadn’t occurred to me. Maybe my confidence is a coping strategy or a way to survive in this job. I came to the United States from Tehran when I was 3 and was placed in a school for the first time, where I didn’t speak the language. I sat there and cried and cried and cried until I developed this way of thinking of I’ll have to do it myself because the adults around me don’t create a safe environment for me. And so I became a person who doesn’t even let the thought of failure in.
What advice would you give to a teenager or someone at the start of their career who is worried about taking on a new role?
I used to try to tell people under me who were managing people for the first time that you’re not a boss by being bossy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very controlling and I know what I want, but it doesn’t come from a place where “I’m the boss”. You can’t be in a real, genuine connection with someone if you can’t admit you’re wrong.
Has there ever been a situation where your personal ambition led you to a bad decision?
When I became editor, there was this reception where we were celebrating the first issue of Cosmo Girl, which was a big problem because I was very young. Old Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown gave me a diamond eternity ring. All those things I wanted when I was little were happening. They gave me this big toast. I got up and gave a big speech and thanked my bosses, but didn’t recognize my creative director and my team.
When did you realize your mistake?
Cathie Black was like, “Hey, you know, you could have thanked your team.” I was just full of shame. I was so embarrassed because I didn’t know. I apologized. I cared so much for my team. I never made that mistake again.
When did you realize your ambitions had changed and you wanted to leave the magazine industry?
I was in secret talks and had the opportunity to go to a magazine which had been my ultimate goal. We were talking about it backstage and I realized it wasn’t my dream anymore. The industry was changing. I was not happy. I had affairs even though I was married. I had fun and I went to parties, but I was always looking for something, I was not satisfied.
Earning a lot of money was important to you?
I have never been motivated by money. I remember I was renegotiating my last contract, and I was making a lot of money, and I wanted to ask for $2 million. My ex said, “Well, why are you asking for $2 million?” And I said, “That’s the number I need to feel comfortable with.” I was putting a price on my sanity. It was then that I knew I had to leave. When I put a very high price on it, I realized there really was no price.
Is there too much ambition?
Have you ever had a moment where you have something salty, then you have something sweet, then you have something salty, and it goes on? I was caught in a cycle, and I had to stop it. I was almost addicted to power and ambition. Nothing was enough – vacations in Bali and Capri, going to the Met Ball. It didn’t matter. That’s when I realized something was wrong. My decisions up to that point were fueled by fear, which I think stemmed from a lack of maternal attachment and the desire to be something in the world to get attention.
Do you think happiness and ambition are related to each other?
They are not related at all. This is also something I realized when I quit my old job. I think back to this girl who seemed to have it all, who looks like the “It girl”, and I realize that she was driven by fear.
What advice would you give to someone considering making a big change in their life?
I’m still the whisper in my heart. At the height of my career before I left, I was usurped on SNL, new York and vanity lounge wanted to do profiles on me, and I decided to stop. When I sat my team down to tell them, I said I wanted to live a more Christian existence. What I meant by that was forgive more and love more. Even though it wasn’t part of my reality at all, it was something that I felt had been whispered to me in the same way as the idea of Cosmo Girl was whispered to me. It didn’t make sense to anyone at the time. It didn’t make sense to me either, but I have faith in that whisper.
What happened to your ambition once you left work?
I no longer wanted to be something in the world to attract attention. I put that hard work ethic into everything really towards my own emotional foundation. Sometimes I feel the fear that once drove me. I think I have to, I have to, I have to, I have to. In my morning pages – a practice described in The artist’s pathby Julia Cameron – every time I write “I need it”, I stop and cross out.
What motivated you to start your Substack, Unedited Atoosa?
My newsletter was the start of my awakening. It was as if I had slept in the Barbie DreamHouse. I thought my marriage was going well, but there were a ton of signs that it wasn’t. I had gained a ton of weight; I did not have sex with my husband. After we separated, I had an important relationship that ended and I came back to this deep feeling of grief. I felt like I was learning something new and I wanted to share it.
What motivates you now?
My goal right now is to get a divorce and make room for my kids so they can get through this in the most grounded, peaceful, and loving way possible. But man, the second the ink dries and I can start to have more free space, I want to work with a team again and try to figure out how to make room for more complex discussions and organize the content in a more modern way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The current version of this story has been updated from the original to correct some transcription errors.