The Human Condition: 'Sybil' is no girlie mag

Ann Treneman meets the 28-year-old editor of a new magazine that isn't afraid to be feminist
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Vacuous. That's one of the nicer words that Lorna Russell uses to describe the contents of most women's magazines. Hypocritical is another. "It is just endless, endless, endless talk about fashion and make-up and sex and interiors and gardening and cooking and lilac curtains!" She splutters over the word lilac. "What about an alternative? What about a magazine to satisfy the curious and intelligent side of women's natures? That's the gap we are trying to fill." By "we" Lorna means the women behind a new feminist magazine called Sibyl which aims to build on the traditions of Spare Rib and Everywoman without taking on the dogma and political baggage that killed both in the end. Lorna was the last editor of Everywoman and was "bloody miserable" when it collapsed in the summer of 1996. Now, though, she thinks it is better to start afresh.

But can a feminist mag be fresh in 1998? After all, isn't this the post- feminist age? And, if not, then author Natasha Walter has just identified something called the New Feminism that praises Mrs Thatcher and attacks the sins of the dungaree-clad past. Lorna shrugs. At 28, she is interested in what's happening now, not rehashing then. "Sibyl", as she tells me, means a woman who can see into the future and she wants to be sure that Sibyl has one.

My first question is "Why?" and her answer is quick: "Because there is nothing that any of us want to read!" Feminism is not about a battle between the sexes, she says, but about equality and that remains elusive. Besides which, it all makes you think. So far, so succinct. Then I ask about the name Sibyl and the answer takes forever. "We were talking about it for weeks and weeks and weeks and ended up saying things like, if this magazine were a colour, then what colour would it be? What sort of car would it be? What sort of animal? Actually we did have a colour. It was violet but we thought it sounded too much like violent and luckily we didn't go for it because then the magazine Red came along." Nightmare! "Yes, it would have been. But then we got into what kind of flower it would be and then we got into herbs and from herbs we got basil and from basil we got Fawlty Towers and from that we got Sibyl and we thought that was hilarious because she is the most maligned woman in comedy. Then we realised it had another meaning and it was perfect."

The first issue (it is bi-monthly) goes on sale in alternative bookshops or by direct order this week. It has all that you'd expect - news, views, arts and books - and a few that you don't, like its own soap opera. It is put out by a co-operative (some things don't change) and accepts "ethical" adverts. And, yes, men can and will work for it. But how is it really different from the glossies? Well, no lipstick, no multi-orgasmic tips and no designer fashions. Features include the political (on the New Feminism) and personal (choosing your baby's surname). An article titled "Can Men Have It All?" is a response to the media's obsession with superwomen and there is a Campaign for Real Women in fashion too. The cover features a lily, white with red spots. Evidently this is symbolic and to do with an article on tampons ads. "The other option was a tampon dripping blood," says Lorna and laughs. (Somehow I think she made the right decision). The article shows the work of four ad agencies who have devising sales pitches that feature absolutely no women in white roller-skating up cliffs or little beakers of blue dye being dripped onto sanitary towels. "Bloody hell!" shouts one poster with a crabby-looking PMT type on it. The ads are sarcastic, funny and honest. Like feminism can be. Perhaps Sibyl knows the future after all.

To order a copy of Sibyl (pounds 2.75), ring 0171 226 2160

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