Jennifer D. Foster
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When Homemaker’s met Sally

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How a "Pollyanna ditz" brought hard-edged reporting on international women's isses to Canada's little recipe book

It’s just about 7:30 on the night before Halloween, and the 30th anniversary gala of Homemaker’s magazine (now known as HM is beginning to roll at Guvernment, a trendy club in downtown Toronto. Sally Armstrong, editor-in-chief of Homemaker’s, for the past eight years, is working the room wearing an iridescent-green wrap-around blouse, a short black skirt and black chunky heels. She’s a striking 6’3″ in them. The party room is dark, except for glaring spotlights that shine on large posters of past magazine covers. There’s a five-piece band playing jazzy pop in one corner, and a 10-foot-long hors d’oeuvre table set up near the bar. People are chatting in clusters or milling about over drinks. Scattered around the room are live mannequins representing the 30 years of Homemaker’s– a ’60s go-go girl, a ’70s and 80s corporate business woman climbing a ladder to success, and a ’90s woman, complete with cell phone in one hand and baby with bottle in the other. Embodying all three is Armstrong, who introduces me to photo editor, Peter Breggk, and his wife.

“Peter,” Armstrong says, “this is Jennifer Foster. She’s a student at Ryerson and she’s doing a profile of me for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, so please make sure you don’t say anything bad about me!” Everyone laughs, including Bregg, whose long mustache curls up and out like a bull’s horns. Moments late Heather Armstrong, Sally’s eldest daughter, introduces me to Robert Lewis, editor in chief of Maclean’s. “This is Jennifer,’ Heather says. “She’s doing a profile of my mom for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, so you can only say good things!” We, chuckle. They more thin I, since they haven’t heard it over and over again, as I have during the course of my lengthy research. Armstrong, the engine behind Homemaker’s continues to work the room as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. The truth is, she cares intensely – and about matters that extend far beyond a glamorous promotional evening, into darkly troubled areas all over the world.

Homemaker’s is only typical of Canadian women’s service magazines insofar as it publisles how-to pieces on food, decor, fashion and beauty. The differences are evident in its editorial content and, more importantly, in the editor herself. Since 1991, Homemaker’s has been a direct reflection ofArmstrong and what drives her: “I love stories that move you emotionally [and] move you to action.” Readers get current, hard-hitting and thought-provoking pieces about the lives of women across the country and, two or three times a year, fom around the world. Not only does she push the limit of this digest-sized, mainly controlled-circulation magazine, she’s the one getting the first-hand acconts. Like the time in 1991 when she spent three 12-hour days in the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario. Or in 1993 when she followed the path of a container ofwheat by truck convoy through Somalia, from Mogadishu to Baidoa and beyond. 0r the time in 1995 when she went to Ruhengeri, Rwanda to profile Dr. Marie Skinnider from the international medical relief team, Doctors Without Borders.

It’s these eyewitness stories, distributed to 1.3 millioin readers (300,000 of whom are paid subscribers), that give Homemaker’s its edge. Armstrong connects with her readers on both a personal and intellectual level unlike the other magazines – she encourages them to effect change. “I wouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re in business to entertain, but I think empowering people with information is a very valuable thing to do.”

Despite her self-appointed position as head cheerleader of change for women, Armstrong and her work have sometimes strayed from worthy issues. Take her 1992 authorized biography on Mila Mulroney, for example. The night in May 1992 when she and singer/song writer Nancy White co-hosted the National Magazine Awards, at the Sheraton Centre Hotel and Towers in Toronto, Armstrong had to check her pride at the door. Mila, published only weeks earlier, had been execrated by dozens of the nearly 700 in attendance .

“I was getting boiled alive” with that book, she says now. “I was getting so trashed, I can still show you my scars.” Mila, at 274 pages, sold around 5,500 copies according to a Macmillan Canada source (national sales manager, Cari Burrows, refuses to confirm this number). On the Take, Stevie Cameron’s scathing 487-page book on the Mulroney years, published two years later, sold nearly 100,000 copies – an indication of what people actually wanted to read and know about the Mulroneys. In an August 1991 interview, Armstrong had told Maclean‘s her book wouldn’t be a “puff piece.” But that’s exactly what her critics labelled it. In one of his columns, journalist Claire Hoy stressed, “I think someone a tad more detached should have taken a look at Mila and her influence. This book doesn’t do that. It just says how wonderful Mila is. Armstrong acted as a publicist for Mila.” Others were less restrained. In a summer 1992 review in Books in Canada, Michael Coren called Mila a “flatulent puff piece” full of “blubber” and “banality.” He went on to say, “There are only the most innocuous of criticisms here, emollient reservations that drown in a sea of flattery and fawning.” Don Obe, professor of magazine journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University, shares Coren’s sentiments. Obe, who says he has never actually Mila, calls it “a totally sucky book…. People dismissed it because it was hagiography.”

At the core of Obe’s criticism is what he and others call the dichotomy: “How can the Sally Armstrong who wrote that piece of nonsense be the same person who wrote the Bosnia piece?” Obe says it was the fact that she was capable of writing siuch “nonsense” that made some people regard her as a “frosted hair…ditz.”

Some typical fare from Mila should reveal what all the fuss was about. At one point in the biography, Armstrong quotes Mila: “I feel that I’m expected to be creative, that since this is 24 Sussex, the meal or the event or whatever has to be special and interesting. I’m constantly leafing though magazines and looking for new candlestick ideas or interesting new ways to line bread baskets. I feel I have to always one-up myself.” There’s more. Armstrong also talks about the Mulroney kids: “The children have inherited their mother’s style and her beautiful-people standards.Their jeans are ironed.Their hair always shines. They have straight teeth (braces helped little Caroline and Ben) and good bone structure. Together they look like a Ralph Lauren advertisement.”

To this day, Armstrong defends the book on all levels. “It was an opportunity to learn something new. I only had six months to write it. I’d never written a book. I wasn’t taking on an issue or a cause. This was an authorized biography so I had to be able to prove everything I put in the book.” But Armstrong is also quick to admit that “a little more Kitty KeIley would have kept the barracudas off my back.”

Criticism about Sally Armstrong’s work doesn’t stop with Mila. Many complain that recipes, fashion, and violence don’t belong in the same magazine. Critics seem quick to overlook the fact that this mix is found in nearly all women’s magazines. Do justice in the wokplace and taking care of your children’s health have to be mutually exclusive? asks Armstrong. “That’s the suggestion that bothers the hell out of me. And the suggestion that because we print recipes, everything else we print must also come in tablespoons and half measures -that’s very irritating.”

Not all judgement of Armstrong and her work is negative. Although her Mila book is devoid of profundity, her features in Homemaker’s – more specifically her international pieces -are not. To date, no fewer than 12 global-issues features have appeared in Homemaker’s since 1991. Perhaps the two that best display Armstrong’s dramatic writing talent are “Eva:Witness for Women” and “No Way Home: The Tragedy of the Girl Child.”

What makes her stories compelling is not only their meticulous attention to detail, but that she gives faces to these tragedies. With the October 1994 “Girl Child” story, Armstrong took a clever angle. She told the tale of a 15-year-old prostitute in Toronto named Angel and a13-year old one in Dhaka, Bangladesh, named Taslima. “We did it so our readers could not say,’Oh well, that’s just over there.'” Armstrong spent a week on the street with 11 girl hookers in Dhaka. “It was absolutely heartbreaking to me,” she says. An excerpt from the article articulates Armstrong’s experience: “The lice the kids pick from Taslima’s hair while she tells her story is only one sign of the lifestyle they’re yoked to. Most of them are coughing, scratching, yawning. They’re too small for their age, too wise for their years, too needy for words. They have scars and burns and body sores that bespeak horrid stories.”

Armstrong’s goal in this story (and all he, global stories have a goal) “was to put a hot blaze of light and attention onto governments.” She wanted to “point out that the governments around the world were allowing this to happen, and that they had to alter their thinking.” In this case, Armstrong succeeded. World Vision Canada, a nonprofit organization that, among other activities, sponsors girl-child projects world-wide, heard from about 4,000 Homemaker’s readers, many of whom offered to adopt or sponsor the child prostitutes in the story.

Armstrong, summer 1993 feature, “Eva: Witness for Women,” is by far her most moving piece. It’s a 12-page article about 48-year-old Evica Penavic who, in the autumn of 1992, was one of the first victims of mass gang rape in the Balkan region. It’s also a rivetting example of Armstrong’s knack for delivering eye-opening, first hand account of the atrocities women experience worldwide. Armstrong wrote the story to tell her readers that “You can’t turn people into ‘others.’ You can’t look at a situation and say, ‘Well, somehow they can handle that, I could never handle it, but they could.”‘ Armstrong wanted her readers to see Eva as “the universal refugee” – an ordinary woman just like them, but caught up in a set of horrid circumstances.

Armstrong writes: “Then they attacked her, like a pack of jackals, six men all naked…. By turns they raped her orally and vaginally. They ejaculated and urinated into her mouth….When they were finished with her they dressed her, cleaned themselves off with her lingerie and stuffed the fouled underwear into her ,outh, demanding she eat it.Then they marched her back outside into the garden…. Bullets ripped over her head…. They thought they had bagged another kill.”

“Why didn’t God take me when He took my [husband] Bartol?” Eva asks at the end of Armstrong’s piece. “I think He left me here to be the witness for all women.”

The feature won a gold award in the category of public issues in 1994 from the National Magazine Awards Foundation (of which Armstrong was president from 1991 to 1993). To this day, however, there is still griping in the magazine community about the win. One colleague said that some in the industry feel that, although the story “,,,.is very emotionally affecting,” it was “not terribly thoughtful nor terribly original.” According to him, many thought the award was more a reflection of Sally’s standing within the community than it was a piece of good journalism.” Readers, however, felt differently: no fewer than 2,000 letters from Homemaker’s, readers poured into the United Nations demanding change. Dozens of them also wrote to Homemaker’s offering to buy Eva a plane ticket to Canada.

It’s mid-October and I’m sitting with Armstrong in her cozy fourth-floor office at Telemedia Communications Inc. headquarters in North York, Ontario. Memorabilia from her experiences and world travels – a bronzed running shoe from the staff of Canadian Living, a baseball cap from the HMCS ‘Terra photos of her familiar awards and plaques -decorate every available surface. Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within is crammed onto her bookshelf. So is a book on menopause, and one on peacekeeping. Her in-tray is nearly overflowing. As usual, she’s fashionably dressed. Her ash-blonde hair, (no longer larger than life, as it was for years) is shiny and well groomed. She’s wearing pale-pink frosted lipstick and gold hoop earrings, ad her hands are perfectly manicured in a sheer beige polish. It’s 11:10 a.m. She’s just finished her biweekly French lesson (she has taken them for eight years to help her give speeches and proof copy in French), and is running behind schedule. She apologizes profusely, makes a call to a photographer in Croatia, listens to her messages, scoots into the hall to give instructions to her assistant and then hurries back into her offce.

While Armstrong and I are talking about her own take on herself, she admits that impatience is her worst trait. “When people don’t [understand something], I become extremely impatient. I think it’s because if I get it, everybody should get it. In my next life, I’m going to have patience.” What she’s happier with is her insatiable curiosity, which she dates back to her childhood.When she was little, she would hear adults talking incessantly about Monkland Avenue, a busy street for shopping in Montreal. When her mother forbade her to go there, she just had to make the two-block trip, and conned a girlfriend into going with her. They bought some bubble gum (an illicit substance in Armstrong’s house) and wandered around. Everything was going fine until 5-year-old Silly got hit by a car and briefly ended up in the hospital.

Armstrong is also proud of early attempts, trivial as they may seem, to make the world a fairer place. Even as young a 9, she was unhappy with inequality between the sexes. “I didn’t like the way the rules were, so I would challenge them.” She remembers her mother, Alma (who quit her job as a nurse when she got married in 1939 because those were “the rules”), serving her father, William (an employee of Bathurst Power and Paper), kippers on Saturday morning without giving Armstrong and her two sisters any. “I thought it was wrong, but I had loads of excuses for it.” Until her brother, who was then about 3, started sharing the kippers. That’s when Armstrong insisted that she, too, be allowed to try some of them.

Armstrong’s main devotion -bettering the lives of women – came to a head in her late teens when she was living in residence at Macdonald College at McGill University, in the mid-’60s. The different rules for men and women irked her and she fought them any way she could. Armstrong remembers the women having their freedom restricted by a 10 p.m. curfew and a leave system; the men had neither. “You can imagine the, shenanigans, how we’d cheat and go out windows…. You could be kicked out if you didn’t go along with the deal [and] I was often late.” If a woman was caught, she was called up in front of a disciplinary body known as the House Committee. Armstrong spent a lot of time there. Eventually, the realization that she as a feminist was cemented in 1967 when she found herself elated that the Royal Commission on the Status of Women had begun – Armstrong was 24.

Thirty years later, her approach to improving the status of women is still deeply personal. Rona Maynard, editor of Chatelaine, explains it this way: “There’s a sense of burning passion about her. She uses her own emotions very much as the litmus test for a story. Armstrong calls the features “the heart of the magazine”; her readers, “the soul.”

So what’s at the heart and soul of this 53-year-old former English and gym teacher? (She got her bachelor of physical education from McGill in 1966.) Armstrong is a combination of what you would and would not expect. As editor of a magazine called Homemaker’s you’d expect her to be married with kids – and she is. She’s been married to Ross, who’s in the molasses business, for 29 vears, and has three children: Heather, 27, Petr, 24, and Anna, 21. You’d also assume she’d always be wearing an apron and carrying a duster. “I don’t think my mother’s had an apron on in her life,” says Heather.

What you might not expect, however, is that Armstrong is a former ballerina who had to give up her love of dancing at 15 because she was too tall (she was already 6 feet and towering over the male dancers). She is also a self-proclaimed workaholic, perfectionist andjock (she jogs, skiis and plays tennis) who is as vulnerable and sensitive as the next person, yet won’t take crap from anyone. “You can still see the gym teacher in her,” says Kenneth Whyte, editor of Saturday Night. “She’s very straightforward. She doesn’t mince words. She’s very direct and up front about what she thinks, and she can be aggressive in articulating a position. I think that people who disagree with her on particular issues might find her to be domineering, but…I don’t feel that way.”

Mary McIver, who has worked with Armstrong for the last seven years as managing editor, describes her as a very complex person with mercurial moods. She says Armstrong is the best thing and the worst thing about working for Homemaker’s. “She’s like a dog with a bone when it comes to the this magazine,” says McIver. She never lets things go by and agonizes over detail. “She’ll lambaste you and say ‘This is a piece of shit.’ Once she even. said to an editor, ‘Is this supposed to make me jump out a window?'” One of Armstrong’s favorite expressions before she comes do-, hard on an employee is “I know I’m being a bitch, but…… Yet, at the same time, “she throws out a challenge …and makes you work and pull things out of your socks and make things better,” says McIver. Georges Haroutiun, consulting art director for Homemaker’s in the late ’80s and early ’90s, says Armstrong “knows exactly what she wants” in terms of art direction and “she tries to get ger way politely, and if she doesn’t, she becomes quite demanding…and difficult.”

While she may take her work seriously, Armstrong is nevertheless cheerful in her overall approach to life, seemingly unaffected by all the international evils she’s encountred. This, no doubt, is what has lead some people to think she’s shallow. Armstrong explains her resilience this way: “They are very scarring stories. I don’t think any journalist who covers those stories is untouched by them. [But] whenever I’m feeling the stress and the anxiety in a story, I quickly remind myself that I have a ticket out. They don’t. So I don’t like to focus any attention on what I may go through to tell the story of the person who has to live it every day.”

John Fraser, former editor of Saturday Night, has his own theories on why some view Armstrong as a “Pollyanna ditz.” According to Fraser, “Sally is so gung-ho. I think, mostly, magazine people are people who don’t like getting up in the mornings – and Sally’s someone who’d be bright and chipper and that would drive some people berserk.” To him, when Armstrong attends a magazine industry function, she’s “like the bluebird of happiness walking into a funeral home. We’re such a down-at-mouth, down-at-heel, pessimistic, nit-picking, back-stabbing group. And here’s this extremely positive, quite glamorously dressed, strikingly tall gym teacher. Well, she’s just bound to get on some people’s nerves.”

Armstrong made the leap from gym teacher to writer effortlessly – a job fell into her lap. A neighbour phoned her one day with a proposal to write about recreation and lifestyles for a new family magazine. And so, in December 1975, she was part of the team that launched Canadian Living.

She worked there for more than 12 years as a freelance writer, contributing editor and associate editor. Her stories ranged from the royal tours in Canada to family pieces on coping with teenagers. After almost every assignment, she would entertain her colleagues with tales of calamity and adventure. Like the time she was escorted out of a royal event by Prince Edward’s body guard because she was writing while he was eating. Or the time, about 15 years ago, she had to interview former Alberta premier, Peter Lougheed for a story on premiers and their families. Grateful for an interview, and nervous, Armstrong sat on the very edge of her chair, barely making contact with it. By the time the interview was over, her muscles had gone into spasm. She could barely waddle out of his office – let alone make a gracious exit.

Armstrong truly believes that what she’s doing will make things better for all women. Luckily, it also makes things better for the bottom line, since these global stories are what distinguish Homemaker’s from its sister magazines – Chatelaine and Canadian Living. (Elm Street, the newest Canadian women’s magazine has so far focussed on national issues and stories.) When owner Market Maid Corporation of Canada Limited published the first issue in July 1966, Home Makers Digest was a shopping list, a recipe book and a light-hearted child care guide – a lipstick-and-lasagna read.

But by the mid ’70s, under the editorship of Jane Gale, the profit-making magazine was taking on controversial issues such as incest, day care, gun control, divorce and – the one that caused an uproar across Canada – abortion (the article was pro-choice). Homemaker’s was the little magazine that continually surprised readers with its commitment to being a social conscience. By the mid-’80s, however, Homemaker’s, then owned by Comac Communications Ltd., was in financial trouble. In 1988 Telemedia Procom Inc. became the new owner and relaunched the magazine. And Armstrong, handpicked from Canadian Living by Homemaker’s new publisher, Greg MacNeil, was now in charge. From the moment she came on board, Armstrong had a vision. “I really wanted Homemaker’s to be a miniature Vanity Fair. I wanted strong, well-written, issue-oriented pieces, but I realized very early on that I had to protect the [readers’] interest in the food, the fashion and the decor.” With that in mind, a notable change in editorial content happened in 1991. Homemaker’s decided to try expanding on stories behind international headlines by giving them a personal slant. Half of the credit goes to MacNeil, the other to Armstrong herself. “It was my idea to send her to the Persian Gulf. It was her idea, I think because she really enjoyed it, to do more of it,” says MacNeil. Armstrong’s first international Homemaker’s story, about the women serving in the Persian Gulf War, was published in January 1991. The feature chronicled the daily fears and struggles of 15 women on board the HMCS Protecteur, who were the first Canadian women allowed into a combat zone.

It’s Halloween, and we’re both tired from the gala the night before. We’ve just spent a half hour looking at a sampling of tier photos – everything from war zones in Pakrac, Croatia, to cocktails at 24 Sussex Drive with Chuck and Di. The one that most succinctly depicts Armstrong is a picture from the Persian Gulf. It’s noon on November 24, 1990, during Operation Friction and she’s being transferred by two ropes and a pulley from the HMCS Protecteur to the HMCS Terra Nova across a nearly 100-foot-long gap. The cobalt-blue waters, with poisonous snakes riding the waves, are churning 30 feet below her. As I stare at it in amazement, she tells me the soldiers on the Protecteur were chanting, “Dip her in the water and buy you a two-four!” Her life, in that picture, hangs in the balance. The photo epitomizes the mix of danger and excitement she experiences on every trip to global hot spots to get that ever-desired eye-witness account.

The contradictory images and opinions people offer up when they talk about Sally Armstrong and Homemaker’s magazine have been rolling around in my mind a lot lately. What stands out more is the change in Armstrong since our interviews began. Instead of worrying over whether people are speaking negatively about her, she got to the point of brainstorming names of people who would probably trash her for me. And although she still dreads the thought of reading about herself in the Review, she says she’ll “cope” as long as it’s “a good read.”

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