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Bertie Brandes and Charlotte Roberts

How Mushpit magazine changed the London publishing scene

Bertie Brandes and Charlotte Roberts turned the DIY zine scene on its head five years ago with an uncompromising satirical/political/feminist mag that does things their way

In collaboration with Barbie, Girls Like Us opens a window onto five women who have made their dreams a reality. Through this series of features, we hope to inspire a new generation of girls to conquer challenges and follow their own paths.

Since journalist Bertie Brandes and stylist Charlotte Roberts founded their satirical, political feminist publication the Mushpit in 2011, the pair have managed to carve out their own, unapologetic, corner of the self-publishing industry —  funding a magazine filled with personal experiences by throwing parties hosted at Dalston haunt The Alibi and filling their pages with anti-fashion content inspired by early 00s magazine Cheap Date. With more and more women dissatisfied with being sold hair removal under the guise of female empowerment, it's easy to see why a magazine jam packed with tongue-in-cheek fake ads, DIY political feminist parties and photos of their own friends captured the hearts of a generation bored by online clickbait quizzes. 

Five years, nine issues, and an impressive transition from homemade zine to fully fledged glossy mag later, the duo has refused to compromise on their morals in order to assimilate with the wider publishing industry at large. Instead, the duo's publication remains (real) advertisement free, peddles a vodka lime socialist political agenda mocking the current government and doesn't shy away from printing full frontal muff. Dealing with real issues affecting women via hilarious, satirical content including agony aunt columns and centrefold posters, the Mushpit proves that feminist politics doesn’t always have to come in the form of a pseudo-political hashtag or boycotted notions of empowerment.

Instead, the duo put working with their friends first – using their platform as a modern day diary chronicling the ups, downs, and crises often involved with navigating life in London as a woman in her twenties. Representing real women and their own readers amongst the pages of their publication, you're unlikely to see big-name celebrities or models of the moment gracing the cover of Mushpit. Instead, the magazine pulls in heavyweights from the worlds of art, photography and fashion; with previous covers having been shot by the likes of Tyrone LeBon and Alice Neale.

As part of our Girls Like Us Campaign in collaboration with Barbie, we sat down with Brandes and Roberts to discuss female mentors, their advice to women looking to start out, and chopping the hair off of their beloved Barbie dolls…

You work as a duo – why would you say it is important for women to work together?

Charlotte Roberts: Well I suppose you just get double the brain power so you can always turn to someone for advice or to bounce your ideas off, and you don’t feel like you’re just in this mad hole of self-referential quagmire.

Bertie Brandes: Also in intimidating situations, it’s nice to have a friend as well as doing something like a project together. You freak out together prior to that meeting. It makes it all feel quite social in a good way which fits very well with the magazine.

Why do you think so many women of our age and younger are choosing to create their own publications instead of working for others?

Charlotte Roberts: It’s very difficult. I guess for the generation above us, the hierarchy and the established world is very much set and obviously it was pre-internet, so that way of doing things for our generation maybe became slightly archaic. Also, it was a much longer-term schedule of career, it’s now easier to do things immediately and to create a movement. You know that if you create your community online and then you have the physical print copy, it is much easier to do now and easier to get recognition and build that up quite quickly.

Bertie Brandes: As soon as one person or two people do it, everybody else realises that they can too in a positive way. If you are interning at a horrible magazine that you know is never going to hire you — which you can realise after about five minutes — maybe you see an ex-intern making a magazine on their own, then you realise that you can do that too. it’s really nice, it’s a really positive thing for independent publishing that this has happened.

Do you feel like the progressive ethos of Mushpit and other independent, female dominated publications has forced any tangible change in the wider media at large?

Charlotte Roberts: The wider media is definitely paying attention that’s for sure, but how and why they use a similar aesthetic and tone is not necessarily to be trusted. I don’t like thinking that our little bubble of independent media is being fundamental in progressive depictions of women in media because it just feels a bit over idealistic. Hopefully, we’re providing an alternative which seems way more interesting.

Bertie Brandes: Rather than informing the mainstream we’re informing our own little group, which I think does feel quite distant from that in a way. It’s establishing that there’s room for both. The validity of the indies amongst the validity of the new establishment.

How do you feel that Barbie’s new move to diversify the doll will positively impact beauty standards in a wider sense?

Charlotte Roberts: Any attempt to represent a wider pool of women is a very positive thing. We respect any brand who realises that they’ve limited themselves before and are willing to acknowledge that and attempt to make change. That’s definitely a very positive thing,

Bertie Brandes: A vision that isn’t just the stereotypical skinny white women is important because that is not the world that we live, nor have we ever.

You’ve always produced editorials within the pages of Mushpit, but how do you think fashion can be an important tool in terms of feminism and gender equality?

Charlotte Roberts: It depends what you mean by fashion. What we do is very different. We use a lot of vintage and we’re not betrothed to advertising so it gives us a lot more freedom. Even though these things all sound like cliches but it’s true. A lot of the casting is often from our own readers, women we know, love and respect, or young students who we just think are interesting and would like to feature. So it’s become more than just aesthetics, it’s about the story that fits within the context of the magazine and still has that tone running throughout.

Bertie Brandes: It’s interesting how we have always had photographic portraits of women and young women but we haven’t necessarily always had clothing credits, but it still comes under fashion. Is it fashion or is it just women representing themselves and that being then hijacked by a big industry? We’re a big mismatch, and that’s also the whole point of Mushpit. We’re quite an organic conversation where there are aspects of uncertainty. There’s fashion, there’s anger, humour, politics and seriousness. People really feel like not having our minds made up 100 per cent is a weakness, but I think that’s a strength.

Charlotte Roberts: Especially the anger and the rage. That and the confusion definitely comes through, and I personally don’t see that in terms of mainstream women’s media or even some of the supposed independent style publications. I personally don’t feel that message being conveyed. There’s a lack of anger.

Why is satire an important tool for you in terms of conveying political messages?

Charlotte Roberts: It just comes very naturally. It’s a big part of our personalities and it’s just very easy and very effective. It’s not forced, it’s not boring, there’s no better way of getting your point across and making a stupid joke out of it. It’s something that as you grow as a magazine and get bigger, you are just totally unable to do because if you’re reaching hundreds of thousands of people they’re not going to get the nuanced references that make your satirical point work. So when you’re a small magazine I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t be funny.

Bertie Brandes: Also in fashion there’s so much humour without purpose — it makes the jokes really un-funny, and there’s loads of pisstaking without a point. Even if we’re pisstaking, we’re normally taking the piss out of ourselves and demonstrating a kind of wider discomfort with the industry, especially now we’ve obviously become more political. There’s always a skeleton of meaning within every little slip of the sentence which is really key to our whole ethos.

Was Barbie important to either of you growing up? What are some of your earliest memories of the doll?

Bertie Brandes: Yeah to be honest, I want to sound like a furious feminist but I was obsessed with a Gap Barbie. She had a little denim jacket, jeans, a backpack and Gap bag and I was obsessed with her. I couldn’t bring myself to chop her hair off and dangle her out my window and be really cool about it, I just loved her too much.

Charlotte Roberts: I chopped my hair off one of my Barbies, the one with the really really long blonde hair, as I genuinely thought that the hair would grow back. So I gave her a really short haircut and my mum was horrified, and thought I had disseminated the Barbie on purpose. I was like “it’s gonna grow back”, and was trying to give her a Rachel. Yeah, it didn’t work out for her.

“People really feel like not having our minds made up 100 per cent is a weakness, but I think that’s a strength” – Bertie Brandes

Who do you think have been the biggest female role models in terms of your career and why?

Charlotte Roberts: Well, Kira Joliffe and Bay Garnett from Cheap Date magazine. They were a massive inspiration in the beginning. We befriended Kira and will every so often have  a debrief dinner at hers and pour over the magazine and talk about everything. So I think they were pretty instrumental.

Bertie Brandes: There aren’t that many magazine editors that are women that aren’t just terrifying fashion people so when we realised that it was possible to do something that had like a subversive and funny tone that wasn’t really masculine, that was very energising.

How important do you feel it is for Barbie to present young girls with a variety of career options that present powerful role models for young women and allow them to test out options for their futures through play?

Bertie Brandes: Making traditionally male-dominated fields like tech or architecture as accessible and present as possible for young women is hugely important and helping girls to have as many choices as they deserve is a really positive objective.

What advice would you give to any young girl looking to start their own magazine?

Bertie Brandes: Do it. Just do it. You learn the most from actually physically making it and the processes involved. I’d say it’s important to decide what you’re talking about and not make it for the sake of it –  it’s much more fun if you have a voice or person in mind, because obviously it’s a very crowded scene out there. Also, team up with people around you. That’s the most fun part of it. Use what materials you have available to you, so if you do just want to do an online magazine, and you only want to do it that way, or if you have access to a photocopier make posters – just do what you can.