News Column

Selecta Celebrates 20th Anniversary

October 21, 2002
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Nora Bulnes has just returned from New York, where she was a guest at the wedding of Marc Anthony's personal assistant.

That took her to the nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) salsero's Long Island mansion. Then he invited her to his Madison Square Garden concert, where she enjoyed a second-row seat beside his wife.

"It was spectacular," says the South Florida publisher/Hispanic high society maven. "But it was tiring."

As she primps her carefully coiffed blonde hair with a manicured hand, Bulnes doesn't show any signs of fatigue. In fact, she's scurrying to prepare for the next date on her heavily booked social calendar.

It's her own gala event next month -- the 20th anniversary celebration of Selecta, her Spanish-language society/star magazine.

"And people thought it wouldn't last," says Bulnes, who is seated behind her gold-trimmed Louis XIV-style desk strewn with calligraphy-adorned invitations.

But last it has, and then some. In its two decades, the glossy, oversize magazine has become a fixture among South Florida's jet set and Latin elite, as well as a profitable enterprise since the beginning. Bulnes didn't provide further financial data.

Each month, Selecta's 35,000 readers, who boast an average income of $150,000, devour cover stories -- usually exclusive interviews and photo spreads. She's featured everyone from Chicano boxer Oscar de la Hoya to Venezuelan fashion designer Carolina Herrera to Chilean TV host Mario Kreutzberger (Don Francisco).

Then there are the reports on and original photos of swanky society parties in venues ranging from Caracas to Los Angeles, the latest haute couture being paraded on Parisian and Milanese walkways, palatial homes, the newest baubles from the world's most opulent retailers, and luxury travel destinations.

The stable of top-flight advertisers such as Piaget and Louis Vuitton, who pay $3,000 to $4,000 a page, would be any publisher's envy.

It's a formula that has been painstakingly perfected by Bulnes since she launched Selecta as a newsprint tabloid in 1982 when the magazine's only color page was its cover.

Besides knowing her target market from the inside out, she says the other key elements in her business model are always maintaining strict cost controls and not getting personally carried away by the society lifestyle the magazine promotes.

"I know people who started magazines and in three months they're buying a Mercedes," she says. "I still live in the house I've lived in since 1972."

In the early days, Bulnes and her son Michael, now president of Selecta, would load boxes of magazines into her car and ferry them around for distribution.

Her aim: to bring the best of Hispanics to the world. "I wanted to create a quality product that speaks about all the good of Hispanics, without vulgarity or sensationalism," says Bulnes.

Gossip is carefully avoided, she notes. At that moment a secretary informs her that a reporter is on the phone, wanting to know if Marc Anthony's rumored-to-be-estranged wife was at the weekend wedding.

"I never take those calls," Bulnes says.

Being discreet is part of what gives Bulnes and Selecta entrée into the clubby world of the rich and famous.

She's attended Donald Trump's weddings, been a guest in Julio Iglesias' dressing room, and is on the regular guest list for fiestas held at the Dominican estate of the Fanjuls, the sugar moguls. She's been a juror for numerous Miss Universe and other beauty pageants and is often flown to Europe and Latin America to attend soirees.

But behind the whirlwind of name-dropping and party-going lies an astute businesswoman who arrived penniless in Miami in 1960, fleeing the newly installed Castro regime with only a baby daughter and sales savvy that she didn't know she possessed.

That baby, Avelina Rodríguez, is now Selecta's business manager.

A former teacher, Bulnes started buying clothing from a factory and selling to friends. Eventually, she saved enough to open a boutique in 1968.

"I started organizing quinceañeras (birthday parties for young Hispanic women when they turn 15) and I met Emilio Estefan, who was struggling to get ahead with his small band. I would hire the Miami Sound Machine for the parties," Bulnes recalled. "Now we're like brother and sister."

She expanded with a modeling school, then a fashion design house, attracting well-heeled clients from as far as Venezuela and Mexico.

But a Thanksgiving Day flood in 1982 drowned her dreams of a fashion empire when insurance wouldn't cover the damage caused by the upstairs tenant's ruptured pipes.

"Once again, I had nothing," she says.

A friend suggested starting a Hispanic society magazine, and she threw herself into the project. But for the first five years she told everyone she was not the publisher but just doing the magazine's "public relations."

"I didn't have any money, and if you don't have money, people won't let you in the door," she recalls. "People would ask all the time who the owner was, I would say 'I don't know, my check comes from New York.'"

Reinaldo Pérez Gómez, owner of Miami's Pego Lamps lighting store chain, says it was Bulnes' raw enthusiasm that persuaded him two decades ago to advertise in Selecta's first issue. He has hardly missed an edition since then.

"That magazine is Miami's Hola!" he says, referring to Spain's premier celebrity magazine. "She's really worked for everything she's got."

From the beginning, Bulnes was determined to make Selecta a quality product. The magazine boasts correspondents in Caracas, Bogotá, Los Angeles, and has a roster of fashion photographers in Europe. The extra cost was tough to justify at first, she says, but it has paid off.

"The quality is what made that magazine successful and what separates it from the rest," says Sherwood Weiser, chairman of luxury hotel operator Continental Companies and a longtime Bulnes friend. "And it's really become much more than Miami."

As Selecta reaches the end of its first two decades, it's getting set for the next two. The magazine is spending almost $500,000 on posh new digs with state-of-the art equipment in Coral Gables.

It's also hiring more editorial staff, and looking to distribute in Texas and Los Angeles to grow circulation, says Michael Bulnes. New titles are also under consideration.

After years of keeping her wardrobe in the office so she could move seamlessly from breakfasts to luncheons to cocktails to galas, his mother now limits her involvement in the social whirl.

Day-to-day operations are left to Michael. But Bulnes always makes time for her other passion -- charity work. Three years ago, she founded the Hope & Dreams Foundation, whose activities include distributing Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas toys to the poor.

She doesn't hesitate to give causes she's deemed worthy promotion in Selecta.

"She really cares about the community and she does give back," says Sallie Byrd, regional relationship manager at the American Cancer Society, where Bulnes has been active for years as a volunteer and fundraiser. "She's covered so many of our events I can't even remember."

Selecta's promotion of philanthropic causes has placed it above a society review, readers say.

"The magazine is subtly much more than a social magazine, and it's become a very valuable asset to the community," says Weiser. "She gives publicity to institutions that need it."

Bulnes says she can never forget those less fortunate because she, too, has known poverty. "People think I'm a snob with my nose in the air, but I'm not," she says. "It's all about honesty, credibility, and faith in God."



Source: Copyright ©2002 Miami Herald. All Rights Reserved.


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