Nikki Hardin is the founder and publisher of a unique monthly women’s magazine put together in Charleston, South Carolina called “skirt!”. It’s cleverly designed, unpredictable, full of fascinating essays and articles, and free! It came, she says, out of the universe of her subconscious.
” The title was something catchy and controversial, something unexpected.” Nikki Hardin
Nikki launched it with $400 as a small 16-page black and white handout in 1994 hoping that women would embrace it, and to make a living. Seventeen years later it’s alive and doing well with ten local editions throughout the country.
I met Nikki through writer Phyllis Theroux who told me that I just had to meet this women who started an incredibly original magazine “skirt!”. And where could I find this freebie with the strange name? “It finds you,” she said.
That’s all I needed to know. So I found Nikki at her Charleston office to get her to explain just what “skirt!” was all about…
EYE: I recently had my first look at your skirt! Magazine. It’s a fascinating, outspoken, different and I can’t believe it’s free! How did it come about?
I was a freelancer not making much money back in 1994 and bored writing real estate brochures and annual reports. Initially I was going to do a newsletter.
I didn’t want to do a Charleston Magazine for Women. One friend came up with a clever approach to the design. Another suggested we name it “skirt!”. The title was something catchy and controversial, something unexpected.
I wanted it to be a little bit feminista, a little bit fashionista. I consider myself a feminist in a fun way. I wanted it to reflect things I’m interested in.
EYE: An important part of it is essays written by women. Also, the design is very imaginative and the pages full of surprises.
NIKKI: The essays were part of it early on. We live in an age of sound bites and short paragraphs. These essays provide a forum for good writing and for different points of view on all types of topics.
We even design the ad pages. We wanted it to have a lot of white space and to have ads that were as stylish and interesting as the content. A lot of effort went in to giving it a special look.
“I hoped that what I’m interested in would be interesting to others. I had no desire to do something that was just commercially viable.”
EYE: How does it reflect your voice?
NIKKI: It was written with my vision and voice for the type of woman I’d like to be, but I’m not. I’m not adventurous. “Skirt!” reflects my alter ego. Who would I be if I were everything I wanted to be? If I were bolder, I’d be like “skirt!”
People expect me to be something different when they meet me. “Skirt!” reflects what fascinates me. I hoped that what I’m interested in would be interesting to others. I had no desire to do something that was just commercially viable. I get bored easily. We change it out every year. It’s not predictable like a national women’s magazine.
EYE: Do the current women’s magazines reflect what women want?
NIKKI: I don’t know that any of the current magazines reflect women very well. I read fashion magazines but get sick of them at times. They’re like too much chocolate. Plus who can afford to buy what they’re selling?
There are two things we don’t do. We don’t take gun advertisements because guns kill women and children, nor do we take tobacco ads. We are pro choice. A lot of local publications aren’t and don’t want to be out there as liberal or pro choice.
“I had no business plan and no prior experience in the magazine industry. And I was 50. Once I got a good salesperson, we saw light after three years.”
EYE: Was “skirt!” an instant hit?
NIKKI: Women loved the magazine so much that they almost drove the advertising to us in the beginning. We built a big audience before we had a lot of ads. That audience became loyal readers. We didn’t have a salesperson and somehow kept it afloat hand to mouth for the first 18 months.
Two friends put in money to keep it going. We didn’t take a salary. I kept doing freelance writing for the first few years, because I didn’t know if it would work. I knew it was good but I didn’t know how good.
I had no business plan and no prior experience in the magazine industry. And I was 50. Once I got a good salesperson, we saw light after three years. Then I quit freelancing. Now I write the cover and a lot of national pages.
I am a writer. It’s painful for me, and I’m not quick. I don’t know how to do anything else although I love editing. I also love to write for my blog Fridaville.
EYE: Do you see yourself working on “skirt!” a lot longer? I know you sold it in 2003 when you became its publisher.
NIKKI: I don’t see myself always doing “skirt!” My identity is tied up with it, but much less so than before I sold it.
EYE: Why did you sell?
NIKKI: I was 60 had no way to ever retire and not much money. Everything had gone back into the magazine. I had a salary, but I almost didn’t have a choice. It was very sad.
I don’t work well with others and like to be in control. But, it’s OK now. I’d like to try something new. I never felt that this was something totally stable.
Working in a factory is stable. This seems so fragile. We’re at the mercy of the reader. I don’t know how you can keep something like this fresh, but we’ve been able to do it for 17 years.
“There was nothing like it when I started it…I still don’t think there’s anything that quite captures what we’ve done.”
EYE: Your product seems unique–a free handout full of interesting articles for women with a wonderful design sense to it. I can see where it would catch the eye!
NIKKI: There was nothing like it when I started it. Within a few years there were a lot of imitations. I still don’t think there’s anything that quite captures what we’ve done. There’s no national edition, and it’s on newsprint.
NIKKI: It organizes the essays and the national issue. There are only twelve themes in the whole world and we just do variations on them. December’s was LEAP. January is AMAZING. February is SINFUL because of Valentine’s Day. March is WHAT IF.
EYE: Can anyone write for the magazine?
NIKKI: We do most of the regular recurring articles in house. Anyone can submit an essay by sending it to email@example.com. We get about 200 each month; I read them all and pick out five. There aren’t many places that take essays that pay for them.
We publish plenty of first time writers who never have submitted anything to “skirt!” before.” I know the type of writing that I’m looking for. Generally I can tell within the first two paragraphs if it will work for the magazine.
I can’t take time to work with writers who need help or a lot of editing. I look for an unpredictable slant on a topic. I don’t do a menopause article unless it’s something startling about an experience or something funny. Certain topics are too “done.”
EYE: What else do you look for?
NIKKI: An authentic voice. I don’t want an essay that’s a predictable way into a topic. I know it when I hear it. A woman wrote tongue and cheek a few months ago about how she gets through the day by drinking. It was very funny and obviously not true.
I found her on another blog and emailed her. She was spoofing how you get through a day. It was not like anything I had read before. People who have a curiosity and who really notice things will give you an unpredictable essay.
EYE: What was your life like before “skirt!”? You once said that you “are from a long line of red necks and white trash.”
NIKKI: Yes, definitely. That’s the way I think of it. My family might not agree. I just always wanted to write, even as a child. I thought writing novels the biggest thing you could ever aspire to. All I did was read as a kid. That was my escape.
Parts of my upbringing were good, parts difficult. I was lucky. I had a grandmother whom I spent most of my time with who encouraged my imagination. I was solitary child but lucky to have her.
I eloped on a Greyhound Bus when I was 17 and had just graduated from high school. I thought I was madly in love, but that was really my ticket out of town. I didn’t feel like I could do it on my own so I got married, a drastic move.
EYE: I know you finally went to college. How did that happen?
NIKKI: Twelve years after getting married I was divorced, 29, and had three children. Then I started college. I always wanted to go but didn’t know how to get there. So first I went to community college and then transferred to American University where I got a scholarship. I won a fellowship to do graduate work after. I had three kids at the point and was not a typical college student.
EYE: You said you didn’t get a master’s degree because you spent most of the time crying and watching Kojak reruns in graduate school. Could this be true?
NIKKI: College was easier than graduate school. I didn’t finish it; I hated it. I just didn’t see the point to it and left. I still was raising children. I got a job as a secretary and was then promoted to an editor. I left as assistant Vice President for a publishing company. In 1985 I moved to Charleston with one child still at home thinking I would get a job. I had had a tragic love affair.
But I couldn’t find employment. I went from a good salary to nothing. I did anything I could to make money from cleaning houses, to working in a bed and breakfast, to clerking in a liquor store. Then I decided to start the magazine. I was making no money and living on an island five seconds from the beach.
EYE: You are incredibly honest, especially in your blog Fridaville which you named after artist Frida Kahlo. You describe it as a place that’s “not on a map… there’s no zip code, area code, dress code.”
NIKKI: I’ve been doing Fridaville for a couple of years now. It was a whim, and it’s become an outlet for what I can’t put in “skirt!”–more personal things. Writing these musings on a blog makes me feel anonymous in a way I don’t in the magazine.
Frida was so ahead of her time, a true original. I love that she wasn’t predictable or like anyone else. I was crazy about her work and character and craziness. She’s an alter ego. She took what she was and amplified it.
EYE: You put a very poignant story called “Escape Artist” about the death of your son on your blog. That must have been incredibly difficult to write.
NIKKI: It was. It was actually written before I started the blog and it appeared as an essay in “skirt!”. It just seemed like I needed to write it. My oldest child had Down Syndrome and died when he was five. It’s been a long journey to arrive at how I dealt with that situation.
I didn’t properly go through the mourning process when it happened. We were so young. We had no idea what was happening to us. It took me decades before I could put a stone on his grave.
Writing the essay was part of that process. There was no preparation for what happened. He died in 1967, and it wasn’t until almost 30 years later that I was able to place that stone. It was part of the process. I still deal with it.
Last year I found out accidentally that a man whom I had had a relationship with had died. I hadn’t heard from him in awhile. It triggered a lot of emotion about my son’s death. It just keeps rolling on…like waves.
“I want to change my life and not put things off. There might not be a some day. I would love to start an online magazine…”
EYE: You talk about getting psychotherapy so that you weren’t paralyzed by anxiety and becoming involved with EMDR, a therapy I had not heard of.
NIKKI: It’s amazing. It’s a new technique that some psychologists are using now with rapid eye movement. It seems to work for trauma victims. If something bad happens to people, a lot of them can move on. But a lot of people’s brains keep returning to that memory. When another trauma happens, the mind goes back to that same spot.
EMDR can create new pathways in your brain. I’ve been doing it. It’s been remarkable for me. I could never talk about my son to my kids or my family. Nothing would come out. Finally I’ve been able to look at his death and his life in a totally different way.
I’m able to talk about him. I see the whole thing differently. It was always so sad, horrible, and painful. I felt so guilty. Then I started looking at his life and seeing that I actually was a good mother, and that he did have a peaceful death.
EYE: That is a wonderful accomplishment. What is ahead for you now?
NIKKI: I don’t know. I still love “skirt!” but I’d like to do something new. That’s part of the reason I’ve planned a trip to London. I want to change my life and not put things off. There might not be a some day. I would love to start an online magazine, but I can’t figure out how to make it work yet.
EYE: You always have a word that you embrace for the year. Last year’s was “Change.” What’s the word for 2011?
NIKKI: “Surrender!” I try to be in control all the time, and I think it’s time to let go of a lot of things: regrets, fears, and rules!!!!!
EYE: Thanks, Nikki. I predict lots of terrific things coming your way in 2011. And I look forward to reading “skirt!” regularly. I know that in the cities where it’s available, it can be found in restaurants, boutiques, and grocery stores and online of course.