New magazine's creed: over 40 is not over the hill

To those women over 40 who might feel weighed down by such labels as ``middle-aged'' or ``empty nester,'' Frances Lear offers encouragement. Ms. Lear - writer, lecturer, businesswoman, mother, and former wife of television producer Norman Lear (``All in the Family'' et al.) - is now founder and editor-in-chief of Lear's, the first heavily invested, New York-based magazine targeted at women over 40. The magazine is intended to transform what she perceives as their negative stereotype into a positive image.

In Lear's view, a woman in this age group is not ``over the hill.'' So the magazine's policy is not to airbrush or retouch photographs. Part of its mission is to redefine beauty in the older woman, giving aesthetic value to the patina of age and experience.

Influenced by the feminist movement, inspired by the women of the younger generation who she feels want it all, and - mostly - finished with the responsibilities of raising a family, Lear finds herself with ``a whole new share of freedoms.''

``She belongs to the first generation of women to reach this age with an entirely new agenda,'' enthuses Lear about her intended reader. ``This is in essence the second half of her life, so she is beginning again to find whatever she feels will bring her more happiness. Many women at this age are experiencing a kind of rebirth, a need to stretch themselves in ways they haven't before. It's a new phenomenon.... Women in the past who turned 40 and were thought of, or even thought of themselves, as `over the hill' are not feeling any different from younger women until they reach, say, their mid-50s.''

Lear herself illustrates that the moment of rebirth can occur at a later age than the 40s or even 50s. She devoted her earlier years to her family, as well as to the women's movement by founding an executive search firm for women. She also supported women political candidates. Now, at 63, Lear finds herself recently divorced and embarked alone upon her most ambitious and adventurous business enterprise.

But it is clear from the interview at her office that Lear's is more than an exercise in entrepreneurism. Lithe and lean, elegant and austere except for the gray gossamer hair that frames her face, Lear paces the floor like a nervous Siamese cat confined too long to interiors.

One senses that the magazine is not only her window to the world but may be the culmination of her life. Her desire to share with other women her newly found awareness of their possibilities verges on zeal. ``The Lear's woman is about to lead another societal change by pushing back the time of aging,'' she says.

The changing attitude toward women over 40 and the changing view they have of themselves coincide with what the magazine prototype calls a ``demographic revolution.'' The Census Bureau estimates that there will be 30 million women between the ages of 40 and 54 by the end of this century. This year alone there are three 40-year-old women for every two last year. This coincidence convinced Lear that there was a market for a neglected, growing constituency of readers.

The readership Lear is attempting to reach is over 40 not only in age, but also in income - that is, with a household income of more than $40,000. More than 50 percent of the women are employed full-time outside the home. They are educated, intelligent, and sophisticated.

The graphics, design, color, and even paper stock of the prototype issue reflect the taste and values of this upscale group. So does the editorial content with its probing, imaginative features on the arts, relationships, money, health, humor, fashion, work, and leisure.

``There is no magazine, no media, in which this woman - the woman we call `the woman who wasn't born yesterday' - can see herself,'' Lear protests.

Actually, there is another magazine directed toward the same market. Called Quarante (French for 40), it appears quarterly and is published ``on a shoestring,'' according to its equally dedicated founder and publisher, Kathleen Sullivan Katz. The first issue appeared in 1984, and it's billed as the ``magazine for the woman who's arrived.'' Published in Arlington, Va., Quarante is available now only through subscription but will be on newsstands in 18 major cities this fall.

Ms. Katz is proud that the magazine is in the black and has 17,000 subscribers. She is hopeful that the market will be large enough to accommodate Quarante and the comparatively lavish Lear's.

Lear's will appear bimonthly at first and be available through subscription or on newsstands, with the first issue appearing in February, 1988. The ultimate question is whether Lear's or Quarante will attract not only readers but also advertisers. A market research study on Lear's conducted by Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. was encouraging. But veteran magazine consultant James Kobak is less sanguine about its prospects for success. He points to previous magazines for older people that have either failed or not done well. He voices the widely held assumption that ``older people don't want to read about or look at older people.''

Although Lear's and Quarante are the first to target an exclusively female older audience - an advantage from an advertising point of view - Mr. Kobak is dubious about whether they can carve out a niche not already filled by such publications as Working Woman and Savvy.

William F. Gorog, president of the Magazine Publishers Association, feels that a magazine pitched to women over 40 could succeed if it has a broad enough appeal and differentiates itself sufficiently from the general women's magazines.

``There is no question that there are a lot of women over 40 who have disposable incomes,'' he says. ``They make an attractive target to advertisers from a demographic standpoint. The bottom line, however, is whether the magazine is attractive from an editorial standpoint. This business lives and dies on whether the dogs eat the dog food.''

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