BY Sarah Khan in Frieze | 02 NOV 06

Readers’ Lives

A new publication charts the stellar rise and dramatic fall of Germany’s most iconic teen magazine

BY Sarah Khan in Frieze | 02 NOV 06

Elvis Presley was a peculiar kind of star: he didn’t like to travel, and certainly not abroad. He never went to London, for example, or Mexico. In fact, apart from trips to Hawaii, he only left North America once, and then only because he had to. This once-in-a-lifetime journey took him to West Germany, of all places, where in 1958 he reported for military service near Frankfurt as the most famous GI of all time. He stayed for two years, watching over the Germans as they recovered from Nazism and World War II and got used to their new freedom, and making sure they didn’t fall into the hands of the Soviet empire. Unsurprisingly, Elvis was himself the subject of equally vigilant scrutiny by the Germans during his sojourn, in particular by BRAVO, a publication that developed over the following decades into Europe’s biggest youth magazine, with a peak weekly circulation of 1.5 million. Originally founded as a ‘film and television magazine’ in 1956, two years before Elvis’ arrival in Germany, BRAVO is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary with the publication of a substantial, richly illustrated volume charting its evolution.

The unprecedented international media interest Elvis generated wherever he want heralded a shift in journalistic techniques: pop culture began to dominate magazines and tabloid newspapers, and, by documenting a star’s life in images week after week, reporters sought to emulate a palpable physical proximity. This commemorative volume of BRAVO offers a fascinating insight into how the budding, and doubtless very chaste, romance between Elvis and his future wife Priscilla Beaulieu, the 14-year-old daughter of a US Army captain, was tracked by the magazine from its delicate beginnings with no small degree of proprietorial pride.

Over the following years the magazine developed its vision – which truly was visionary for its time – of catering for a completely new kind of teenage readership; for a youth culture that operated entirely independently from the adult world. Initially BRAVO simply presented its snippets of information about the latest pop stars, including stories and anecdotes from their private lives, in columns. In 1959, however, it took the enlightened step of presenting these titbits in weekly, pull-out instalments that could be gradually pieced together to create a life-size poster of the featured star – the first one being of Brigitte Bardot. With the help of scissors and glue the star’s image could be reassembled to partly mask the bland, parent-endorsed wallpaper that graced the walls of most teenagers’ bedrooms in this new period of stolid, postwar prosperity. These provocative (if sadly only two-dimensional) images heralded a new type of sexually enlightened fan – too old for Mickey Mouse but too young for Playboy – who, at the age of 11 or 12, was just launching onto the market as a pocket-money consumer. To a large degree a creature of BRAVO’s own making, this newly sexualized pubescent fan could hardly decide whether to love or hate, to gratify sexual urges or to channel them into cults. In a way, these young readers recall Dr. Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ from some 150 years earlier, a creature who had very similar problems, yet was tragically without the help that BRAVO would be able to offer, in the form of its newly launched revolutionary sexual advice column by ‘Doktor Sommer’.

A household name in Germany, ‘Doktor Sommer’ (the pseudonym of Martin Goldstein, a doctor and teacher of religion) was BRAVO’s concession to the equally proverbial sexual liberation of the 1960s. From 1969 to 1984, when he was succeeded by the ‘Dr. Sommer Team’, Goldstein fought a battle against sexual ignorance and misery in the pages of BRAVO. If he had been asked for help by Frankenstein’s sad creation, he most certainly would have advised it to accept its appearance, become better acquainted with itself through regular masturbation, diligently practise putting on a condom and have a chat with its parents about the strange goings-on in its body, which were really nothing to be embarrassed about at all.

Indeed ‘Doktor Sommer’ is the name millions of German teenagers associate with their sex education. In many ways it is almost inseparable from the historically significant term Aufklärung – which in German means both ‘sex education’ and ‘Enlightenment’. When 18th-century German philosophers and writers debated the concept of ‘Enlightenment’, they did so in an attempt to understand how humankind might at last gain release from what Immanuel Kant called ‘self-incurred tutelage’ and break free from the reign of an aristocracy clad in the trimmings of religion. Two centuries later Aufklärung had lost any such overtones of philosophical or political urgency, but it nonetheless remained a very real issue for German teenagers.

‘Enlightenment’, in sexual terms at least, now meant: skip all that parental stuttering about the birds and the bees and read BRAVO every week instead, where ‘Doktor Sommer’ and his team explain petting, menstrual bleeding, anal sex and French kissing. Naturally such frankness did not always pass unnoticed by the authorities: in 1972 two issues of BRAVO were declared unsuitable for minors for going into clinical detail on the subject of masturbation, and were withdrawn from sale. But this feeble political gesture did not result in the magazine’s plain talking becoming any less plain.
Although mockingly referred to by some as ‘Pimples Pravda’, BRAVO was nonetheless so successful in establishing itself as an institution in sex education that, until relatively recently at least, it would have been hard to find anyone whose adolescence did not include a brush with the magazine. BRAVO aroused teenagers with its imagery and then explained their arousal to them, which in itself was somehow arousing. For that crucial year or two of sexual awakening teenage BRAVO readers would hole up in their bedrooms, scissors in one hand – to cut out favourite snippets from the frenetic hotchpotch of photos, autograph cards, columns, stickers, star fact files, song lyrics and beauty tips – while the other hand fumbled around somewhere inside their underwear. And if all this made them feel terribly insecure, or if they just felt like making fun of someone, they could always write a letter to Doktor Sommer: ‘I took a bath in the same water as my big brother. Will I get pregnant?’

The 1980s – that leaden, self-satisfied period under the government of Helmut Kohl – were the golden years for BRAVO: pop music delivered a whole host of national and international stars who no longer rebelled against their parents’ generation and who offered something that might appeal to everyone. Even the ones who quite blatantly promoted gender-bending and cross-dressing became acceptable popular cultural icons for male and female teenagers alike to hero-worship without necessarily raising questions about their sexual leanings. ‘Do you really want to hurt me?’ mischievously sang Boy George, a pop star who was, of course, emphatically embraced by the BRAVO community. Partly tolerant, partly indifferent, this peace-loving approach likely bore within it the seeds of the decline in popularity that was shortly to beset the magazine.

For as BRAVO tracked the break-up of boy band Take That in 1996, the magazine also saw its huge circulation suddenly begin to slide. Perhaps this waning of interest could be blamed on the rise of the Internet, although at the time PCs were still a long way from being the standard fixtures in every teenager’s bedroom that they are now. Perhaps the naive game of desire between mainstream fan and mainstream pop star had simply been played out. Certainly teenage culture has become more fragmented and individualized, a development to which BRAVO has reacted by diversifying its range, launching subsidiaries such as BRAVO Sport, BRAVO Girl and BRAVO Screenfun. Yet this has only succeeded in drawing readers away from the mother title, which now sells an average of just 600,000 copies – almost a third of what it sold at the peak of its popularity. It would appear, perhaps, that the Kantian definition of Aufklärung from 1784 – ‘the maxim of thinking for oneself at all times’ – has to some extent pushed its way back into the foreground. Not, however, before Doktor Sommer’s work with several generations has ensured that the pre-sexual misery of young people in Germany can never again be as desperate as it was back when the king of rock ‘n’ roll suddenly mutated into a good soldier.

BRAVO 1956–2006, ed. Teddy Hoersch, Collection Rolf Heyne, Munich, 2006.

Sarah Khan is a German novelist based in Berlin.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Sarah Khan is a writer who lives in Berlin. In 2012 she was awarded the Michael Althen Prize for criticism. Her latest book Die Gespenster von Berlin: Wahre Geschichten (The Ghosts of Berlin: True Stories) was published by Suhrkamp in 2013.