THERE was a time when you couldn't walk into a newsagency without
being confronted by a Genuine Teen Idol. They stared at you from the covers of
numerous magazines, their air-brushed faces suggesting sweetness, niceness,
A distinctly Hollywood invention, the Genuine Teen Idol (GTI)
included"stars" like David Cassidy, Donny Osmond, The Jackson 5, The Monkees
and, more recently, New Kids On The Block and TV's Kirk Cameron.
And GTIs provided an important service, becoming a safe focus for teenage
girls exploring their first crushes and flowering sexuality.
Girls could worship their heroes from afar, sighing at the life-size
picture on their bedroom walls and dreamily writing the star's name on their
exercise books at school.
Then, of course, there was the scream. This particular brand of scream
-high pitched, hysterical and often accompanied by distraught tears and fainting
- was reserved for that truly special occasion: the meeting of worshiper and
But in America - the world's major exporter of GTI culture - the era of
teen idoldom is on a slow and irreversible decline.
Magazines which once sold hundreds of thousands of copies based on having
a particular GTI cover star are showing significant circulation falls. Teen Beat
magazine, for example, saw its average circulation drop by 32 per cent between
December 1992 and December 1993.
The young television, movie and music stars of today just aren't winning
the teens over and the image itself has changed as a drugged-out, scruffy grunge
look supersedes the toothy grins and combed hair of yesteryear.
Indeed, the fans themselves have changed. Today's teens are far more
streetwise than their predecessors from the early 1970s, who lived through the
height of the GTI boom.
Judy Jorgensen, from Magazine Publishers of America, said publications
catering for a young, female market had made significant changes over the last
"We've done a bit of informal research on the changes that have come about
in design and content and there have been some quite major departures from the
formats of even 10 years ago," she said.
"Today, the teen magazines are dealing with serious subjects like teen
pregnancy, drugs and AIDS as well as the usual beauty and fashion segments.
"Our research shows that teens and even younger children are smarter and
more sophisticated than they were years ago and they have an incredible
influence on purchasing decisions."
Carla Lloyd, a professor of advertising at the SI Newhouse School of
Public Communications at Syracuse University, has studied the way young women
model their appearance on entertainment images and agrees that today's teens
simply have more on their minds.
"My teen idols were The Monkees and Bobby Sherman," she said. "Now, I
think there's a lot more stress. To devote the kind of attention that girls of
my generation did to construct our shrines to Micky Dolenz seems rather
frivolous and out of step."
Joan Elliott, from America's Sassy magazine - heralded as the instigator
of the more sophisticated teen magazine - said there were other factors behind
the decline of teen idoldom. One of the biggest reasons was that teens were
scared of being let-down by their idols, she said.
"I think we can still say there are heroes but there have been so many
disappointing heroes and these kids are so sharp and cynical, they don't want to
depend on their heroes anymore.
"There may be some curiosity (in idols) but teens aren't getting involved
as passionately as they did in the past because there's such an opportunity for
"Look at people like Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and O J Simpson - when
you get enough of these types of people picking you up and then disappointing
you, you start to wonder if maybe you shouldn't depend on them anymore."
Ms Elliott also said today's teens had more cultural choices available,
meaning it was now impossible for an idol to appeal to kids across the board.
"There are so many different choices they can make in terms of fashion,
personalities, music and behaviour. There are sub-cultures within cultures."
According to Randi Reisfeld, editor of 16 magazine, today's top three teen
idols are TV stars Jonathon Brandis, 18, Jonathon Taylor Thomas, 13, and Rider
They're hardly household names, which is why she and the other arbiters of
teen culture are worried.
"I have to say that New Kids on the Block was the last great
phenomenon,"she said. "And that finished in 91-92. We've got lots of young
actors our readers are interested in but none are in the league of the New Kids
or Beverly Hills 90210 when that first started.
"It would certainly help if somebody or a new music group came through but
who knows? You can't shove them down readers' throats."
WHO DO AUSTRALIAN TEENS IDOLISE?
WHEN it came to having idols there were definite differences in teenagers
today, said James Manning, editor of Smash Hits magazine.
"They are much more aware than teenagers in other eras and are much less
obsessed with idols. Unlike teenagers in the days of The Beatles, for example,
who were totally obsessed and almost in a dream-like state."
Teenagers idolise people who are not as squeaky clean as Donny Osmond or
David Cassidy. They admire stars like Shannen Doherty from Beverly Hills 90210
even though she may have a controversial personal life.
Manning said: "Kids can stand back now and appreciate idols for what they
do professionally and aren't affected by their personal life. And kids don't
need to slavishly idolise others these days because they have more of an idea of
their own identity."
He said the hottest idols were often from soapies like Melissa George and
Dieter Brummer from Home And Away.
Susie Pitts, editor of Dolly magazine, believes girls are still looking
for idols and out of the three idol categories - squeaky clean, brooding
Mediterranean and dirty rough - squeaky clean still wins out.
"Some people are more streetwise but not all teens. Joey Lawrence in
Blossom is huge in the States, so is Jonathon Brandis in seaQuest DSV . For two
years running Dolly's Prince of Soap has been Dieter Brummer. You couldn't get
anyone more clean cut and baby faced."
She believes stars today can no longer boast such universal appeal because
girls have so many to choose from. "When I was young it was either David
Cassidy or Donny Osmond. Or you had to like one of the Bay City Rollers. Now
there are hundreds of new stars."