When CosmoGirl magazine launched in 1999, it was aimed squarely at girls like me. I turned 12 that year, and back then, my chief concerns were that I didn’t look like Reese Witherspoon, I had never slow-danced with a boy, and I felt hopelessly, irredeemably weird. The second I had the chance, I bought an issue and subscribed. I loved teen magazines and had piles of them in my bedroom, but most of what they contained has long since blended together in my mind into a soup of Skechers ads and best hairstyles for my face shape.
Except for Atoosa.
I don’t remember any other teen magazine editors from the time, but I remember Atoosa Rubenstein. If you’re a millennial who grew up reading these magazines, you probably do too: the giant cloud of black hair, the endless positivity, the dorky childhood photos she shared alongside her legendary editor’s letters. There’s a reason she’s the only teen magazine editor, to my knowledge, who has a thriving Instagram nostalgia account named for her.
As the myth goes, Rubenstein founded CosmoGirl, a teen spinoff of Cosmopolitan, at 26—it was her stroke of genius to write “girl” in lipstick on the logo—making her the youngest editor in chief in Hearst’s history. After a few years there, she was promoted to its corporate sister Seventeen, where her fame only grew: She got an MTV reality show, was a judge on America’s Next Top Model, and was even parodied on Saturday Night Live (Maya Rudolph played “Anoosa Rosenfeld”).
Anyone at that time might have expected her to remain a Wintour-like magazine idol for life. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Rubenstein suddenly left Seventeen after three years at the helm. She all but disappeared, shocking her fans and the industry. She became the kind of person, increasingly rare in the Instagram age, about whom people sometimes asked, “Whatever happened to … ?”
As I grew up and started to work in magazines myself, I often wondered about Rubenstein—until this past May, when she reemerged, nearly 15 years later, with the very 2021 announcement that she was joining the newsletter platform Substack. To recall another aughts teen touchstone, the day this news arrived felt to me like the very first scene of the original Gossip Girl pilot: Serena, Gossip Girl declared, was back, and the Upper East Side was abuzz. The Atoosa was back. Only there was no Gossip Girl to announce it—Rubenstein did that herself on Instagram. And the Atoosa mythology was exactly what she wanted to talk about: “I will turn the lights on some of the dark shit that was really going on in my life when I was ‘Atoosa at Seventeen,’ ” she promised in her Instagram announcement, irresistibly.
And so one summer day I found myself in front of her tony apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where we had planned to meet to discuss her return to media. Outside the door, I felt like a teenager collapsing into the pages of Seventeen again: giddy, intimidated, second-guessing the stupid skirt I decided to wear, nervous a Trauma-rama might befall me at any moment.
When I got inside, this feeling proved both silly and warranted. “I don’t think anybody reads magazines anymore. It’s not a nice thing to say, but it’s true—there’s nothing in there that rocks your world anymore, at least not my world,” Rubenstein declared to me early on. In Rubenstein now, I found a woman whose gift for telling a great story (often, yes, about herself) is still very much alive—and who saw me, one of her grown CosmoGirls, as both an opportunity and maybe a little bit of a threat. Before our time together ended, I’d be startled to find myself in one of her Substack letters, and I’d get a proper lesson in what it really meant to cultivate a legend that riveted and then mystified a generation of girls.
Being a teenage girl in the early 2000s was a total best-of-times, worst-of-times situation: We were up against Girls Gone Wild, a cultural obsession with virginity, “I’m-not-a-feminist-but”—in other words, unremitting casual misogyny. On the other hand, we had a profusion of teen magazines, and we had Rubenstein and her relentless girl-power message.
She tried to answer every note she got. But she wrote to all of us in her editor’s letters, which drew on a seemingly endless supply of tales from her immigrant upbringing (her family had come to the U.S. from Iran) and unpopular adolescence. The awkward photos were always juxtaposed with pictures of her more glamorous—but importantly, not exactly perfect—present-day self. Her February 2001 letter was classic Atoosa:
As far as I was concerned, my hair sucked. There were no “curls”—only fuzz (which, as some kids kindly told me, “felt like stuffed animal hair.” Thanks!). And then there was the body hair: from my connected eyebrows to the very hairy legs my mom wouldn’t let me shave. Oh yes: toe and belly hair included by senior year.
By the end of the column, Rubenstein was preaching to her CosmoGirls that she eventually saw her own beauty, and one day they would, too. I very nearly believed her.
“She just hit the zeitgeist where young women were at that point,” said Cathie Black, the former Hearst executive who greenlit Rubenstein’s vision of CosmoGirl in what she called “probably one of the better meetings I’ve ever had in my entire career.”
“It was very girly, but it was sophisticated, and it had her voice. She had a very significant following of young women who just adored her,” Black said.
Rubenstein had a particular impact on girls who wanted to be like her. Her erstwhile readers are all over media today. New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz has cited her as an inspiration. When the newsletter launched, journalist and gadfly Yashar Ali called her an “Iranian legend.” (Ali is also of Iranian heritage.) Jazmine Hughes, another New York Times reporter, once tweeted that she only had Google Alerts set for three people: “Atoosa Rubenstein, Drake and myself.”
On Substack, Rubenstein is writing letters again to this audience of former CosmoGirls, aiming to fill in the gaps about what she’s been up to and what the CosmoGirl and Seventeen years were really like. Readers who thought the letters about her adolescent struggles felt real back in the day may find that Atoosa Unedited makes those admissions look superficial and tame.
In June, for example, she revealed that while she was writing some of those peppy editor’s letters, she was cheating on her then-new husband, Ari. (She and Ari separated in 2020, and are finalizing their divorce.) A few weeks later, she wrote about the day she got an abortion in college and, against medical advice, slept with someone else that night. Many of the newsletters eventually circle back to the lingering trauma of having been sexually abused by a family member as a child.
Rubenstein had a lot to process, and over the years when she wasn’t working, she went to just about every type of therapist, shaman, teacher, or healer out there. (She’s still processing; when we met, she quoted her meditation teacher and mentioned some upcoming plans to do West African grief rituals. “I’m into really esoteric shit,” she said.) As she changed, so did the world, and a lot of what her newsletter is doing now is dismantling the legend of Atoosa—and, I eventually came to realize, creating a new one.
“We all had this glossy sense of what her life was like,” said Erica Cerulo, of the A Thing or Two With Claire and Erica newsletter and podcast and one of the many women Rubenstein inspired to work in media. “So now we’re getting this peek behind the curtain in a way that serves us. It’s never as shiny or simple as it seems.”
As vulnerable as she’d seemed to me 15 years ago, it turned out that toe hair hadn’t been the half of it. Though some of Rubenstein’s former magazine colleagues sensed at the time that there was something darker under the editor’s wunderkind veneer, her Substack can still be a bit stunning.
“The newsletters clear up the emotional armor she wore then,” said Elizabeth Dye, who worked in publicity at Hearst during Rubenstein’s reign. “Understanding that she had such trauma in adolescence connects some dots for me. You realize she glitched in her life around puberty and adolescence.”
But in some ways, Atoosa Unedited is a natural extension of what Rubenstein’s been doing all along. Jessica Coen covered Rubenstein when she was the editor of Gawker in the aughts (and now works as the chief content officer at the business news outfit Morning Brew). “Whether intentional or not, Atoosa was ahead of the curve on the influencer thing,” Coen told me—which is to say, she has long been a uniquely canny steward of her personal brand. “The way she’s sharing intimate personal stories as a means to reestablish her voice today is fundamentally the same thing she was doing 15 years ago.”
Coen, who hadn’t heard about the Substack before we talked, was admittedly puzzled by the whole thing. As nimble a self-marketer as Atoosa clearly is, we’re now in a very different cultural moment than the one she came up in. During Rubenstein’s period of professional dormancy, Jezebel was founded; xoJane rose and fell; seemingly every news outlet launched its own “personal essay” vertical; much ink was spilled about what the “the first-person industrial complex” means for female writers. “We are well past peak woman confessional essay,” Coen said. “Girl, where were you 10 years ago? Where were you in 2012 or 2013?”
When I asked Rubenstein where her newsletter fit into this space, she was well-aware that the word confessional could evoke “a voyeuristic train wreck,” and said that’s not how she sees what she does. “There’s an element of healing, I hope, in the work that I do.”
Rubenstein’s living room looks like a Barbie Dreamhouse crossed with the women’s coworking space the Wing. Purple and hot pink are the dominant colors, and long velvet couches snake through the room. Near the front door, a Tracey Emin neon sign features the words “I promise to love you” contained in a heart. (She and Ari, who works in finance, reportedly paid almost $9 million for the apartment in 2013.)
Drinking a coconut water on a couch, Rubenstein, now 49, said that the reason she left the glossy magazine world was simple. “It wasn’t fun anymore for me, and magazines were changing,” she said. But she hadn’t quite anticipated what her life would look like afterward. “I sort of became this wealthy uptown wife and mom,” she told me. Rubenstein said she met some nice people in her uptown interlude, but it was “fucking weird and not my jam.” “It felt like I was just, like, drowning in a vat of vanilla ice cream.”
“For a few years, I was carrying all different color Birkin bags, and my husband kept buying me Birkin bags and Birkin bags, and I was just like, ‘This is not me,’ ” she said.
Rubenstein built CosmoGirl as a place for the weird girls who didn’t fit in. In a magazine environment that was even less diverse than it is today, she was a Muslim and an immigrant. Sure, it was a teen magazine, with all the insidious body-shaming and “how to be a guy magnet” propaganda that goes along with it, but it was notably progressive for its day.
“I did a story about a transgender boy in 2002 or 2003,” said Dibs Baer, a former CosmoGirl staffer who is trans. “Nobody was doing that back then.” For a writing project, Baer recently hunted down a copy of the piece: There on the page, “we have a shirtless trans guy with his scars. That changed my life dramatically.”
Project 2024—a 2002 editorial initiative built around the idea that in the year 2024, the youngest CosmoGirl readers would be eligible to run for president—was another bright spot. Not all of it holds up today, granted. Though it mostly spotlighted successful women, Rubenstein recalled including at least two men: Donald Trump and Eliot Spitzer. (“I dare say it was a fun conversation,” she remembered of Trump. Afterward, she said, whenever he saw her in the New York Times, “He would cut it out and send a note. He’d write on it and be like, ‘Good for you.’ ”) But Project 2024 was still strikingly prescient, featuring interviews with high-powered women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi about how they’d built their political careers and how other young women might do the same.
At the same time, several staffers recalled how hard it was to work at CosmoGirl. Rubenstein’s pink pen was legendary, and not in a good way. “It was pink, but it was brutal,” Baer said. “It would leave comments on your thing like, ‘Duh.’ ‘Stupid.’ ”
“That pink pen, she’s infamous for that,” said Jessica Musumeci, who worked in the art department at CosmoGirl and later at Rubenstein’s Seventeen as an art director. “Every editor who’s ever worked with her is like, ‘God, I have nightmares of it.’ … I was young, so I did not mind working all hours of the night. There were definitely times when we would take naps under our desks.”
Baer is still haunted by her memory of being on staff at the magazine on 9/11. As Rubenstein admitted in one newsletter, she called her shell-shocked staff back to work almost right after the attack. (“Not a proud moment,” she wrote.) Baer said she left the magazine not long after.
“It was almost like being in a cult there. It really felt like you had to deprogram your thinking after you were there, because I definitely felt like I didn’t have any talent at the end, because it was just constant ‘No, no, this isn’t good enough, it’s not good enough, you’re not good enough.’ ”
Still, with hindsight, Baer said she looks back at working at CosmoGirl fondly, and she now considers Atoosa a friend. Even though she drove Baer crazy, Rubenstein inspired great work, and her perfectionism often seemed pointed at herself: “If she could have written the entire magazine herself, she probably would have.”
By the time Rubenstein went from CosmoGirl to Seventeen in 2003, the cracks were showing. For one, she no longer represented the magazine for underdogs; she was the popular girl, at the biggest magazine in the category. In a symbolic blow to curly-haired tweens and teens everywhere, Rubenstein straightened her hair as part of a sleek makeover for the new job.
When Rubenstein told her senior staff she was leaving Seventeen, she remembers saying: “ ‘I’ve turned into a stamp of a person.’ And like, you just stamped me over and over again, and there’s just no room for me to grow or change. That’s how it felt from the inside.”
Cathie Black recalled promoting Rubenstein to Seventeen certain that she “would be a fabulous choice for the magazine and give it a new voice and give it new energy,” Black said. “And yet I think that CosmoGirl was still in her heart.” There was also something else afoot. At the time, Black thought Rubenstein was being pulled away from being an editor and toward becoming a brand herself.
Today, we’d call this a turn toward influencing. Rubenstein sniffed at that word when I raised it, praising the traditional curation editors provide. But then I asked her what she’d be doing if she were starting out in media today. Well, she said after thinking about it, maybe she’d be influencing.
After Seventeen, Rubenstein said, she went to a ton of meetings through CAA, the Hollywood agency she’d signed with. At one point, her literary agent circulated a book proposal, with several publishers bidding for it at auction. But publishers turned out to be less keen on the fact that she wanted her book “designed like the Bible, like with gilded, sort of curved pages. I wanted the cover to have that almost plastic-y feel, with a bookmark, like the Bible.” She told her then-husband, “ ‘You understand, right? It’s my vision.’ And he was like, ‘Honey, it just doesn’t sound like you want to be in business.’ That resonated. So I just stopped.” Not long after, she got pregnant with her first child. Twins followed in 2012.
Rubenstein herself always figured eventually she would follow up her magazine years with some other big professional move. Meanwhile, she threw herself into parenting. Then her kids got older. A pandemic struck. Her marriage ended. “Still nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing,” she said. “And then this fucking breakup happened.”
That breakup, with a man she refers to as “the Bear”—the first guy she dated after splitting from her husband—made something click. “I just think that he broke my heart and when he broke it, a lot came out,” she said. Within a week, she said, she’d started her newsletter. Before she started publishing Atoosa Unedited, which costs nothing to subscribe to, in May, she didn’t know much about Substack. It was news to her, for example, when I told her that some writers had gotten six-figure advances to come to the platform.
“I don’t have any such deal,” she said. “And here I am somebody who was making a million dollars a year when I was working 13 years ago.”
Selling magazines to teenage girls and getting people to read an email newsletter are related but separate enterprises. Absent the ability to put Christina Aguilera on the cover, you’ve got to have something else going for you—and so for the first few months of Atoosa Unedited, it had juicy personal stories. She preceded one by calling it “the bitchiest, shittiest thing I’ve ever done.” I mean, click. What followed was a long narrative about the time she invited two different guys to a college sorority formal and blew off the sweet, nice one for the dangerous older one.
It was dramatic, complete with a cafeteria confrontation, and there’s a level on which it would make a great episode in a Netflix series adaptation of Rubenstein’s life. But it was also something shaggier and stranger than that, a reminder that Rubenstein could write the Netflix series of her life if she wanted to, or the book that gets optioned for such a series, and instead was making the conscious choice not to. In the more commercial version of this newsletter, she wouldn’t talk quite so much, or maybe at all, about how the story related to her history of being molested by a family member, and how those wounds are still playing out today.
You can see a path where Rubenstein taps into the new vogue for mental health and therapy-speak and strikes gold again. But she doesn’t want to talk about mental health in the rose-tinted, corporate-friendly way such conversations often play out in pop culture: Think Selena Gomez’s beauty line that somehow doubles as mental health advocacy, or the way all of Brené Brown’s talk of “daring greatly” and “braving the wilderness” can start to sound like vague motivational speak. The “Brené Browns of the world” are “definitely the sunnier side” of mental health, Rubenstein said. “What sells always is shiny, happy people. What sells is the filters.”
At this, she digressed for a second: Speaking of filters, as in Instagram filters, she had recently tried one for the first time. It was “so fucking amazing. Before I was like, ‘Oh, that is horrible. Why would people do that?’ ” Now, she understood; she looked great.
But Rubenstein admitted she still has plenty to learn about the internet. “I have five days without my kids. They’re going to Mexico with their dad. I want to find someone to just sit with me and give me the dummies’ version of how to use Twitter,” she said.
There’s a lot she’s learning these days. She’s dated a little more, and the main way that’s changed, she said, is that “I was fucking hot as shit in my 20s. So now I’m a middle-aged lady.” She’s on “exclusive” dating apps like the League and Raya, though she said Raya, known as the dating app of choice for celebrities, “is more for the goof.”
“It’s so fun. Like at any given moment, it’ll be like, Ian Ziering,” she said, before asking me if I know who Ian Ziering is, which only hurt me a little.
She recounted an interaction she’d had with one Raya match: “He’s a white rapper, and I always loved Eminem.” They got to chatting, and she was about to invite him on a walk, which is her standard dating-app move, since she doesn’t drink. So she asked him if rappers ever go on walks.
“He said no, period. And I said, ‘Well, what do rappers do?’ And he writes, ‘Come to think of it, we rap and we fuck.’ ”
“Well, heavens to Betsy!” Rubenstein told me. “I think I wrote back, ‘Well, you seemed nice.’ Delete.”
When we met earlier this summer, Atoosa Unedited seemed to be going well: Gwyneth Paltrow had just subscribed the day before, Rubenstein volunteered. She has around 2,000 subscribers, she told me more recently, but ideally, she wants it to grow into something more than a newsletter. “If I squint and look forward, I’d love to create some sort of a safer platform that may be more membership-based,” she said, adding that maybe it would involve workshops or one-on-one coaching. Early on, Rubenstein asked newsletter subscribers if anyone would be interested in forming a weekly Zoom session to go through the exercises in The Artist’s Way, the classic self-help book for creativity. Several readers wanted in, and a group of them met with Rubenstein and Lauren Brown, a former CosmoGirl staffer she enlisted to facilitate the group, every Sunday throughout the summer, some waking up at 6 a.m. in their time zones to be there. Most were former admirers from Rubenstein’s teen magazine days, people who wondered about her over the years and were excited to connect with her in the present. Seeing her in the group, “she’s still very good at being that ‘XOXO, Atoosa’ from CosmoGirl,” said Brown.
There is a lot of crying. “It’s a mix between an acid trip where you’re trying to focus on changing the world and also being in the room with your heroes,” said Anne Egeland-Williams, a 38-year-old automotive engineer in Chicago. “It is like a drug that, if it was sold on the open market, I would buy it.” Weeks into the group, Egeland-Williams said that it had already inspired her to apply for a new role at her company. “As a direct result of this workshop and talking to Atoosa, I went for it.”
As much as Egeland-Williams loves the group, she also feels protective of Rubenstein, and worried about trolls or social media blowback. “Part of me, I want to give her a hug and tell her hold on, maybe don’t share so much of yourself, because I don’t want her to get hurt.” When I asked Rubenstein if she worried about backlash, she said she didn’t: “I’m not really sitting there thinking what ifs at this point.”
Some of Rubenstein’s former colleagues and observers wonder how she might fit into media now, too. “I am definitely curious to see her in this media climate,” Baer, the CosmoGirl colleague, said diplomatically. “She’s brutally honest about everything.”
Teen magazines, the fiefdom Rubenstein ruled over, barely exist anymore. Indeed, the most attention one has gotten in recent memory was when Teen Vogue named a new editor this year, political reporter Alexi McCammond—and then promptly unnamed her after past offensive tweets resurfaced.
Rubenstein said she followed that story a little. “That’s what she said when she was a teen, and we all make mistakes when we’re teens. One hundred percent, but she’s at a teen magazine. And so I sort of understand that corporation would just want to choose someone different. And ultimately, I feel that this girl is also being freed to do something probably a bit bigger and better.” (McCammond has since returned to her prior employer, Axios.)
But Rubenstein is also emphatically not a fan of “cancel culture,” which she believes “limits our ability to accept ourselves and love ourselves and love other people.” “I was a total slut in college. I happened to not have said racially insensitive comments, but there is plenty of fucking skeletons in everybody’s closet,” Rubenstein said. Later, she added, unprompted: “I have a lot of compassion in my heart for men in our culture, in particular white men.
“I don’t have a son, but if I did, I would feel like, ‘Wow, our society really puts men in a box.’ And I wonder how much of that results in them becoming perpetrators.”
So far, such talking points have not shown up in her Substack; it’s unclear how they would go over with her particular readership. Some of her thinking on the substance of her newsletter has already evolved since the early days of Atoosa Unedited, she said when we caught up recently. After spending the summer baring her soul, she felt like she was mostly done writing personal newsletters. She’s run a few guest essays from readers, and she sees the newsletter going more in that direction. She wasn’t just worried about herself. The Bear, her ex, hadn’t been altogether pleased by the way Rubenstein wrote about him. (He’s not her ex anymore, actually—they decided to rekindle their relationship; she didn’t think she’d write about him again.) Other reactions have been even rockier: Her mom, for instance, heard about the newsletter through a Persian acquaintance. She already knew most of the stories that were in it, but she was nonetheless displeased. “I don’t know that my mom’s not talking to me, ’cause she was at my daughter’s birthday, but I will tell you, she hasn’t reached out to me,” she said.
Rubenstein knows that in her 20s and early 30s, she was very, very good at courting attention—and she still is. Not only were her magazines successful, but she became a character in the media, especially in the New York Post and on Gawker, which dubbed her “the ’Toos.” She has a good sense of humor about it now. She didn’t like when Gawker wrote that she had Botox—”I was like, ‘Fuck you, these are my cheekbones, this is not filler,’ ” she told me—but of the time the blog compared her to “a really creepy-looking doll from the movie Saw,” she said, “I remember being like, ‘Hmmm, I sort of do look like that.’ ”
It’s a different era in media now, of course. Gawker is back, but it’s “nicer” now, and it hasn’t mentioned her so far. Rubenstein also recognizes that her relationship with attention wasn’t altogether healthy, which she spoke about on the A Thing or Two podcast in June: “The thing that gave me and still gives me pause, if I’m gonna be unedited with you, is my need for attention is something that I noticed when I was working,” she said.
Her skill at attention-getting is the quality that gives Coen, of the old Gawker, pause, too. She said she admires Rubenstein’s bravery in putting her story out there after having worked through her trauma, but at the same time, “It’s really difficult to read some powerful, vulnerable sharing without viewing it through the lens of ‘This is Atoosa Rubenstein,’ ” she said.
After we first met, Rubenstein sent out a newsletter all about being worried about the profile an “online media outlet” was writing about her. “This reporter’s (very appropriate) critical thinking had me fucking spiraling,” she wrote. She was careful to be polite—note that parenthetical—but that online media outlet was Slate, that reporter was me, and once I read that, we were both spiraling. The thing that wigged me out most was that I knew she knew I would read it the second she hit publish.
If this was a mind game, even an unconscious one, it worked. I had gone to meet Rubenstein under the auspices of having been a CosmoGirl subscriber at 13 and a wide-eyed aspiring magazine editor at 18, watching her admiringly from afar. But she, still a millennial girl whisperer, seemed to have seen through the innocent act to the Gawker-poisoned cynic I became a few years later, who was convinced I had totally missed out on an actually-cool era of teen magazines by being too young for Sassy and had only become more bitter since. Why couldn’t I just be positive about her new project? Why did I have to be skeptical? This was not the girl she had raised me to be.
I’d planned to ask Rubenstein about it, but she brought it up first in our next conversation. “I was talking about you, do you remember that?” she said lightly. She was trying to be there for herself when those anxious feelings came up, she told me. I used this as an opening to tell her that actually, that newsletter had made me pretty anxious.
She seemed surprised. But by the end of the conversation, she was speaking as if the fact that I am the kind of person who would get anxious if someone wrote a newsletter about me was all part of the plan. My earnestness, she said, is what made her want to open herself up and say: “Tell me, who am I?” It sounded a little like she thought of herself as the editor who had assigned me to write a so-called unedited profile of her in the first place. “I sort of put you in it so that you can feel how confronting it is. In some ways, you’re part of this, whether you knew you were going to be or not.” Back in her Hearst days, she recalled, “her image was created by people who were paid a lot of money to do that.” Now, one thing is clear: She’s owning that image herself.