What If You Had a Pissing Match and Nobody Came?

Orange Coasts Ruth Ko is all in a tizzy!

The world of Orange County lifestyle mags is a placid one, an untroubled place of shopping, fine dining and charity balls. There are no worries here, only caviar on new potatoes at the latest grand opening of the newest boutique. Ladies are shod in bangled sandals, their toes sporting perfect coats of red paint. Everything is pointedly fuzzy and warm, from the editor's letter at the front of the book always managing to extol the "Mediterranean climate" to the inside snapshots of happy debutantes arm-in-arm for the camera at the swankest soirees.

But things are not happy now. Ruth Ko, the glamorous owner of Orange Coast magazine, has unleashed a hurricane on this serene pond. Claiming that her rival, Coast magazine, is a bad sweatshop knock-off of her own Gucci publication, Ko is talking shit about the competition all over town.

She has bitchslapped the staff of Coast, actually taking out a series of ads in the Orange County Business Journal showing Coast being abused in a plethora of new and exciting ways. One installment shows a copy of Coast being run over by a car; another shows it being used (by a slim Asian model who could double for Ko herself) to swat a pesky fly. The latest depicts poor Coast as a birdcage liner, being shat upon while Orange Coast takes its place of honor in the well-appointed home. Observers are in an uproar, barely containing their glee as the gossip swirls in silvery eddies from Laguna Beach's Las Brisas to the moneyed Anaheim Hills. There is just so rarely excitement here beyond the latest spa opening.

But no one will speak on the record about the increasingly emotional campaign. Nobody, it seems, wants to be in Ko's laser sights.

"She's a very convincing woman, and she has a lot of friends," one woman said before launching into out-of-school tales.

There are stories about both camps showing up at the same Palm Springs hotel junket, and one camp immediately storming off. There are stories of tearful, martini-soaked lunches, during which, one wag claims, Coast bigwigs decided they could solve their problems by changing their name to Town & Coast. There is conjecture about why Ko is choosing now to freak out, much of it speculating on the added pressure from the entrée of Riviera into the haute-monde market. There are allegations of numbers-cooking, à la WorldCom, and printouts of stories from the Times detailing Ko's alleged overstatement of her circulation. Everybody loves a pissing match.

Ko is the only one who will publicly piss.

"It's not that we think we're 'above' it," one shocked Coast insider exclaimed. "We just don't even know how to respond!"

A little background is in order. Orange Coast was begun in 1974 as a soft lifestyle mag featuring—usually—washed-up LA celebs on its cover. (That much remains the same: the latest has a very taut-skinned Bo Derek.) In '91, publisher Ko, formerly an Orange Coast ad saleswoman, bought the mag. At around the same time in '91, Coast started life—as The Coaster—founded by Newport residents Jim and Nikki Wood. The name was shortened in '96 because, one insider said, "People in New York actually thought we were a magazine about coasters."

Both mags focused on the same things: money, sunshine, spas, shopping, money, galas, rich people and the finer things in Orange County. As soon as the name changed from the admittedly stupid-sounding Coasterto the admittedly similar Coast, Orange Coast's Ko fired off some letters demanding the new Coast change its name. She claimed people were confusing her mag with Coast, which is delivered free of charge and which she considers "valued as such."

Negotiations ensued.

Then, in 2000, Freedom Communications (parent to The Orange County Register and the 13th largest media company in the country) bought Coast from the Woods. One insider describes Ko as going "berserk. Ko thought Freedom was going to be pouring money into the magazine. She was painting this picture around town of this single woman against the big white board of Freedom. She almost became possessed with the idea that Coast was copying her magazine."

The evidence? First of all, of course, there was the name. Then, Coast upgraded its paper stock to glossy, had what are known as perfect-bound covers instead of its previous staples, and—just like Orange Coast!—had an editor's note. And a horoscope.

Highly placed sources close to the negotiations say that when an agreement between both parties had been reached and Coast would modify—not change—its name by adding some other phrases to the word "coast," Ko demanded a little more.

"She thought Coast was copying her by writing about romance in February and mothers in May. She wanted to say that Coast couldn't 'copy her content.' No hearts in February. No weddings in summer."

Negotiations broke off, and Ko launched her ad campaign, which she described in an interview with the Business Journal's Jennifer Bellantonio as a "value campaign."

OCR Magazines' Chris Schulz, who runs the department for Freedom, was adamant in his refusal to engage in Ko's pissing match. "It's not the way we do business," he said. In a brief meeting, his silver brush-cut shining in the sun, he chose his words carefully. Asked about morale at Coast, he said stolidly, "Nobody likes to be attacked, but the fact is we have a group who every month put out a wonderful magazine that's well-respected by its readership and its advertisers." Asked why Ko would break off negotiations last month, he said only, "We negotiated in good faith for a long time. We had even agreed at one point—both sides had agreed—to modify, not change, the title. She walked away from the negotiations and then began her attack. I will not conjecture in terms of her motivation."

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