Returning to the Life You Blew Up

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Atoosa Rubenstein

Last May, following a brutal breakup, Atoosa Rubenstein, the early aughts’ most famous teen-magazine editor, started mounting her comeback — on Substack. She began her first Atoosa Unedited newsletter by addressing her former readers at CosmoGirl, which she founded in 2003 at age 26, and Seventeen, which she ran as editor-in-chief before quitting to become a full-time mom. “When we were in touch last, the truth of my life was somewhat darker than it appeared on the Editor’s Letter 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 teens could barely get out of bed. In 2006, she abruptly left Seventeen and was little heard from afterward.

Then, during the pandemic, just as the cargo pants and crop tops she once featured in her pages came back in fashion, so did she. Through her weekly newsletters — raw and unfiltered missives about her affairs, childhood molestation, and embarrassment about an ugly outfit she wore to the Met Ball — Rubenstein is dismantling her own carefully constructed, flawless image. Below, she talks about making her dreams come true, why happiness and ambition aren’t related, and her circuitous path to finding fulfillment.

Do you remember the first job you ever wanted?

I was in fifth grade — in Mrs. Shapiro’s class in 1981 or ’82 — and we had this assignment about what we were going to be like 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 limousine that I would drive around town in. I wanted a very highfalutin lifestyle. Even before that, in third or fourth grade, I would sign my autograph and try to sell it.

Did your family encourage it?

My parents were just trying to get through the day — we had economic problems regularly. They didn’t have high hopes for me because my grades weren’t good. I don’t think that they found me particularly impressive. Because I was underestimated, I was ready to fight. I remember saying to my mom, “One day I’m going to buy you a house.” And at the time she was just like, No, definitely not. And I did in the end! I bought her a house.

Sometimes it can seem like personal achievement comes at the expense of others. Has that ever been the case for you?

When I worked at Cosmopolitan, in the fashion department, there was a lot of elbowing. I remember being a fashion editor, and they had brought somebody in as a senior fashion editor. We all collaborated to just get that person fired, and then we collaborated to get the next one fired, too. And then I became the senior fashion editor.

What you described is pretty ruthless. Were you ever worried someone might take over from you when you were editor-in-chief?

I felt very protected by former Hearst Magazines chair Cathie Black. I asked her once, “How could you just hand a magazine to a 26-year-old?” And she replied, “If it didn’t work 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 of surviving in that job. I came to the U.S. from Tehran when I was 3 and was put in a school for the first time, where I didn’t speak the language. I would just sit there and cry and cry and cry until I developed this way of thinking of I’m going to have to do this on my own because the grown-ups around me are not creating a safe environment for me. And so then I became a person who doesn’t even allow the thought of failure to enter.

What advice would you give a teen or someone early in her career who is worried about stepping into 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’s not coming from a place of “I boss.” You can’t be in a true authentic 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 an editor-in-chief, there was this reception where we were celebrating the first issue of CosmoGirl, which was a big deal because I was very young. Former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown gave me a diamond eternity ring. All of these things that I wanted when I was a little girl were happening. They gave me this big toast. I got up there and made a big speech and thanked my bosses, but I didn’t acknowledge 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 about my team so much. 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 covert talks and had an opportunity to go to a magazine that had been my ultimate goal. We were having talks behind the scenes about it, and I realized that was not my dream anymore. The industry was changing. I wasn’t happy. I was having affairs even though I was married. I was having fun and going to parties, but I still was seeking something, I wasn’t fulfilled.

Did making a lot of money matter to you?

I was never driven 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 replied, “That’s the number I need to feel comfortable.” I was putting a price on my sanity. That’s when I knew I had to leave. When I put a very high price on it, I realized there’s really no price.

Is there such a thing as 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 just keeps going? I was caught in a cycle, and I needed to stop it. I was almost addicted to power and ambition. Nothing was enough — vacations to Bali and Capri, going to the Met Ball. It didn’t matter. That’s when I understood something was foundationally off. My decisions up until then were fueled by fear, which I think stemmed from a lack of maternal attachment and by wanting to be something in the world in order to get attention.

Do you think happiness and ambition are related to each other?

They aren’t related at all. That was also something I realized when I left my old job. I’m looking back at that girl who seemed to have it all, who seems like the “It” girl, and realizing that she was driven by fear.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about making a big change in their life?

I always follow the whisper in my heart. At the height of my career before I left, I was spoofed on SNL, New York and Vanity Fair wanted to do profiles on me, and I decided to quit. When I sat my team down to tell them, I said I wanted to live a more Christ-like existence. What I meant by that was to forgive more and love more. Even though it was not at all a part of my reality, it was something that I felt was whispered to me the same way the idea for CosmoGirl was whispered to me. It made no sense to anybody at the time. It kind of made no sense to me, either, but I have faith in that whisper.

What happened to your ambition once you left the workplace?

I didn’t want to be something in the world in order to get attention anymore. I put that hard work ethic in everything really toward my own emotional foundation. Sometimes I’ll feel the fear that used to motivate me bubble up. I think I must, I should, I need to, I need to. In my morning pages — a practice outlined in The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron — whenever I write “I need to,” I stop and I cross it out.

What motivated you to start your Substack, Atoosa Unedited?

My newsletter was the beginning of me waking up. It was like I had been asleep in the Barbie DreamHouse. I thought my marriage was fine, but there were a ton of signs it was not. I had gained a ton of weight; I wasn’t having sex with my husband. After we separated, I had an important relationship that ended, and I got back to that deep feeling of heartbreak. I felt like I was learning something new, and I wanted to share it.

What is driving you now?

Right now, my goal is getting divorced and to hold space for my children so that they can get through this thing in as grounded and peaceful and loving way as possible. But man, the second that ink is dry and I can start to have more headspace, I want to work with a team again and try to figure out how to make space for more complex discussions and curate 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 for some transcription errors.

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