“I remember desperately wanting to make a magazine for my teenage self”
Illustration: Beena Mistry
For our fifteenth anniversary we’ve reached out to the Shameless community and asked what the magazine has meant to them. What has Shameless meant to you? Talk back to us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
In my fourth year of journalism school, our magazine editing class was given an intriguing project: come up with a concept for a magazine that doesn’t exist yet, but should. My mind immediately raced to being 13 years old and spending hours poring over glossy teen mags like Seventeen and YM, searching for relatable content. There were plenty of tips on choosing the right lipstick or getting boys to notice you, but I was more interested in activism, alternative music, books and big ideas. Looking at those magazines made me feel the way I already felt at middle school: like an outcast who didn’t fit in and probably never would.
So, when the opportunity presented itself, I knew immediately what kind of magazine I wanted to create: a teen mag that empowered its readers and encouraged them to be outspoken, politically aware and, well, shameless. I found an enthusiastic co-conspirator in Nicole Cohen, and we spent weeks developing an editorial and business plan with a few classmates.
When the time came to present our concept to a panel of real-world magazine editors – which we did with musical accompaniment from Le Tigre’s “They Want Us to Make a Symphony Out of the Sound of Women Swallowing Their Own Tongues” – we were shocked to discover that these industry insiders loved the concept too. Shameless was only supposed to be a class project, but walking out of that presentation, Nicole and I immediately decided we wanted to launch the magazine for real.
The next year was a whirlwind of activity, as we balanced full-time media day jobs with planning Shameless in every spare hour. We had zero dollars to fund the project, and knew virtually nothing about launching a magazine or running a business, but somehow that didn’t stop us.
We started meeting for coffee with every indie publisher and prominent feminist we could find, begging for tips and tricks. After putting together a tiny volunteer staff, we assembled a youth advisory panel of the most inspiring, politically active teenagers we’d ever met, and found like-minded writers, photographers and illustrators to contribute their work. We planned fundraising events – from dance parties to a kissing booth – and gradually raised the $5,000 we needed to publish our first issue.
Editor’s Letter from Nicole Cohen and Melinda Mattos, Issue 1 of Shameless Magazine
Our launch party took place on June 5, 2004 at The 360, a now-defunct venue on Toronto’s Queen Street West. We had the Squad 416 radical cheerleaders out front, drawing a crowd with their pom-poms and progressive chants. Inside, we’d booked two teenage comedians (Mae Martin and Sabrina Jalees, who’ve since built successful careers in comedy), as well as some awesome local DJs to get the dance floor moving.
But what I remember most is walking into that dark, noisy club and seeing teenagers sitting on the floor reading Shameless. Reading! At a dance party! Seeing Shameless in the hands of our audience made all those late nights of planning and editing and fundraising seem worthwhile.
That warm, fuzzy feeling was rekindled many times throughout the next few years, whenever we received a letter or email saying that Shameless had made some teenager in the middle of a small town feel less alone, or helped them discover their passion for activism, or a new favourite band. The sense of connection fostered by Shameless was powerful.
In the 15 years since our launch, Shameless has evolved and grown to meet the needs of readers and our community, becoming a non-profit organization grounded in inclusive, intersectional feminism. New editors and publishers have continued the labour of love we started, and the original team of five has expanded into a masthead of 16. The teens that guided our editorial direction that first year have grown up to become writers, artists, entrepreneurs, social service workers and parents, making an impact in our community, across the country and around the world. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the diverse, inspiring, sprawling community that would grow out of one school project.
When Nicole and I were developing the concept for Shameless, several people told us that no one would be interested in a feminist teen magazine, because women already had equal rights and the fight was over. But we knew the fight wasn’t over in 2004, and now, in 2019, as U.S. states enact regressive anti-abortion laws and Ontario’s provincial government makes sweeping cuts affecting child care, public health, education, legal aid, Canada’s reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and more, it’s clear that the fight still isn’t over.
Today more than ever we need to amplify the voices of those who are underrepresented and ignored by mainstream media, and find new ways to inspire, inform and advocate for young women and trans youth. At a time when mainstream magazines are folding left and right, our fiercely independent, grassroots mag is still fighting – and that’s entirely due to the passion and politics of our volunteer staff, our contributors, and the readers and donors who support Shameless. (Want to help? Subscribe or donate!)
Thinking back to that magazine editing class so many years ago, I remember desperately wanting to make a magazine for my teenage self. Something that would empower her to speak louder, stand taller and blaze her own trail. Now, at 15, Shameless is a teenager itself – and I’m incredibly proud of the trail it has blazed. I hope you are too.