Twinkle. Smash Hits. Just Seventeen. Select. The Face. Red. Elle Decoration. heat. These are my desert island magazines.
Between the ages of six and 30 I was delighted and defined by magazines at least as much as music. Magazines were a magical portal made of bitter-smelling print on crackly paper that led me straight to the glamour and grime first of pop, beauty and friendship, and later fashion, interior design and culture.
Thanks to Just Seventeen I learnt how to make my eyes look brighter, legs longer, waist slimmer and boobs bigger by clever make-up and specific clothes. I learnt that steaming my face over a bowl of boiling water seven days before a party would ensure my skin was glowing and blemish free. I learnt the theory of an alluring glance, which I still can’t do (and I have really, really tried). It was all incredibly stressful and completely marvellous.
I steered clear of More! magazine because openly reading ‘Position of the Fortnight’ on the school bus was potent shorthand for sexual precociousness and certain to lure a boyfriend, which, being a 13-year-old closeted lesbian, I was keen to avoid.
Altogether safer and objectively funnier was Smash Hits, where Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was once assistant editor. Its ingenious blend of youthful exuberance, fiendish wit and wide-eyed adoration for its popstar subjects was thrillingly addictive. Smash Hits dropping on my doormat felt like a handwritten love letter from my beloved Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles every fortnight.
An anxious teenage loser with a permed fringe and reversible Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, I was smart enough to realise that I would never be a pop star but I could do the next best thing. I could work for Smash Hits.
Some years later I responded to a classified advertisement in the Monday Media Guardian pullout for a job at Emap, publisher of Just Seventeen, Bliss and More! as “marketing executive” (whatever that was). I beat 100 out of 101 other applicants but, devastatingly, was pipped at the post. Rather like a twist in a reality TV show (yet to be invented), someone’s boyfriend then moved to Australia creating a second vacancy for me, the second-choice candidate, in a consolation prize job – on Elle, Red and Elle Decoration instead. The Emap glossies! What an upgrade.
And so it was that in the very same week I started my first Proper Job in London, Emap acceded to the FTSE100. It was 1999.
Mainstream British popular culture was white, skinny, heterosexual and materially aspirational. Denise van Outen and Jay Kay (of Jamiroquai, remember?) were “couple goals” long before the phrase was coined. Geri had already left the Spice Girls, Martine McCutcheon had just left EastEnders, and Robbie Williams’ second solo album was topping the charts.
Emap launched heat magazine in February that year as a midmarket, weekly entertainment title, a bit like a national edition of Time Out. It had enjoyed a £4 million launch campaign.
Nobody, not least those editorial geniuses, expected it to flop so spectacularly, or so quickly. But the Emap board was not in the mood for failure. I didn’t know it at the time, but in less than ten years I’d be the publisher of heat.
David and Victoria Beckham, universally still known as Posh and Becks, got married in July 1999, giving OK! magazine exclusive and unprecedented access to their wedding for a mere £1 million. The crown! The dress! The thrones! It was a royal wedding without the royalty – excessive, ludicrous and otherworldly. What were they really like? The two million people who read that edition had no idea. For now, at least.
Meanwhile, in the Elle magazine office, my eyes and mind boggled at my new colleagues. At school, the best looking girls were synthetically and forgettably sexy, like the women on the cover of FHM. But these women were another species. I had never seen anyone in real life who looked like Elle Macpherson, with long, luscious hair and naturally dewy skin. They didn’t walk, they wafted. And, to my astonishment, they wore outfits that could go from day-to-night with stylish accessorising and a slick of Lancôme Juicy Tubes lip gloss.
I was starting to wonder whether my appointment had been a terrible mistake. How could I, aged 23 and still wearing Claire’s Accessories hair-slides and an ill-fitting suit from Next, possibly compete? My boss was mercifully normal. A chain-smoking Brummie with a loud cackle and a fierce intelligence, she did not bother pretending to like everyone, especially not the people in the advertising department with the cold eyes and Versace pantsuits.
All my induction meetings happened in the Covent Garden Hotel, affectionately known as the Cov. Over a £7.50 espresso, she fixed me with a grave stare and advised me to “know your numbers and fit in”. It was a survival blueprint for getting ahead when you’re not the best looking woman in the meeting, her way of telling me I would have to work harder – commercially and culturally – to even the score. So that’s what I did.
Absolutely Fabulous is not a documentary but nor is it totally make-believe. Sometime in my first month a very senior colleague rumoured to have a £500-a-month blow-dry habit, crashed 45 minutes late into our Monday morning planning meeting. Wearing a floor-length cowhide coat and brandishing a giant Bottega Veneta handbag, she kissed everyone around the table, “hello darling, hello darling, you look gorgeous, darling” – I had never met her before – and exclaimed: “I’m only late because I’ve had a lost weekend with the Appleton sisters!” In 1999, this was a legitimate excuse for missing the trading update.
There were perks. As a lowly marketing executive I didn’t get the eye-watering gifts from big advertisers, which included Philippe Starck “Ghost” chairs and personalised Prada skis. What us junior people really wanted was the Clarins crackers. From mid-November, we’d loiter near the post room, eager to get our hands on that magical red box tied with white and golden ribbon and stuffed with crackers, each one with a full-size Clarins product hidden inside.
Once, I got flicked an invitation to a press trip to St Moritz to promote BMW’s new off-road vehicle. I had never set foot in a five-star hotel before, and almost had a panic attack when the nice man from the Badrutt’s Palace hotel asked me for my credit card “for any extras”. They closed a mountain one night and lit the whole thing with fire lanterns so ten of us could ski privately. When I asked the chap next to me at Zurich airport whether he could ski, he looked a bit put out. I discovered the following morning that he was British Olympic skier Konrad Bartelski, hired by BMW to join us as a tutor.
The acronym Emap stands for East Midland Allied Press but the unofficial version – Endless Meetings And Parties – was more accurate. For all that, Emap was a serious company, a commercial juggernaut rightly lauded for its relentless innovation. British Elle was the first of the women’s monthlies to twig that celebrities were catnip for sales, even on a fashion magazine. Cover shoots with British “it couples”, including Denise and Jay Kay, and Nicole Appleton and Liam Gallagher, flew off the shelves.
My job was to make sure we sold as many copies as possible. The boffins in the data team had built a statistical model that predicted, with unsettling accuracy, how each issue would sell given certain variables. Hair sold more than horoscopes, and horoscopes sold more than sex. I think we once even did a Sexy Hair Horoscopes supplement on New Woman. I took part in deadly serious meetings unironically ranking women by their selling power – Jennifer Aniston, Liz Hurley and Sarah Jessica Parker at the top; Patsy Palmer, Anna Friel and Naomi Campbell at the bottom. We airbrushed everything on everybody – widening eyes, narrowing waists, moving limbs. It’s easy to sell a dream when everyone’s dream is a flat stomach, low-waisted jeans and dramatic, smokey eyes.
More important even than the cover star was the free gift. This was long before anyone had waste guilt, so “cover mounting” was our weapon of choice to drive sales. WHSmith looked more like a cheap clothes stall than a newsagent. Each month, we’d slug it out for market share with increasingly elaborate freebies – a bag, a vest top, a pair of flip-flops, a sarong. We’d order the gifts from the Far East four months in advance, for anything from 20 pence a unit. I learnt the names of cheap fabrics (PVC-backed nylon was a favourite) and different forms of packaging (polybag, polywrap, belly band, blister) and spent most of my day on the phone with logistics companies. Nobody asked too many questions about the working conditions in the factories until one year when the Elle vest was outsourced by our Chinese supplier to a third party and the first we knew of it was seeing MADE IN MYANMAR on the label. That was a difficult day for the corporate communications department.
Some of my promotions lived a life of their own. I still see people on the Tube using the reversible Antoni & Alison bag we gave away with Elle’s 18th birthday edition. The police took samples of one transparent PVC bag to use as evidence following a gangland shooting in Manchester. Most of the stuff ended up in landfill, some of it never made it to the news stands at all. Three hundred thousand scented candles are still at the bottom of the South China Sea. A pack of tarot cards destined for the cover of More! magazine were deemed pornographic and destroyed by the Chinese government.
After six years, the glossies lost their sheen for me and I left to pursue a more intellectually nutritious career in “quality” newspapers. Four years after that, I’d had enough intellectual nutrition, thank you, and returned to magazines as publisher of heat, in 2008.
The women’s glossies defined the perfect relationship, body and style by glorifying those who appeared to have them, while the celebrity weeklies downstairs mocked those who didn’t. As a portfolio strategy it was almost poetic, and nobody ever considered – at least never dared mention – that such an impossibly narrow definition of female perfection might, maybe, be a bit problematic. You know, in the long term.
heat’s equivalent of More!’s ‘Position of the Fortnight’ was ‘Circle of Shame’, a double page spread of side boobs, sweat patches and double chins, typically of young, often drunk, women. Reality TV propelled a procession of anti-heroines straight to these pages, the messier the better. In its heyday through the early noughties, heat would sell well over half a million copies a week. They made it look easy. Like Smash Hits before it, heat was genuinely funny where OK! and Hello! were staid and cloyingly reverential. A run of audaciously brilliant TV advertising campaigns – “we’re going to London to buy heat magazine…” – left the competition standing.
But time waits for no magazine. I was back in the same building as I’d been in 1999, with a brief to protect the profit to which heat’s new owners Bauer had become accustomed, but the rules of the game had changed completely. In the few short years I’d spent in newspapers, celebrity gossip had become a commodity and heat was suffering from post-zeitgeist fatigue against a proliferation of copycat titles doing much the same thing for half the price. Twitter hadn’t yet turned toxic but was starting to eat up people’s time. Strategic conversations had shifted from whether an online presence was worth having to how big it had to be to make money. Big Brother was fading and, after a scandal about an offensive sticker featuring Katie Price’s disabled son Harvey, heat’s circulation had started to falter. Once again, I wondered whether my appointment had been a terrible mistake, but this time mine not theirs.
We weren’t allowed an expenses budget any more, so these induction meetings happened in the nasty Italian café next door to the Cov. I was so naive that I did not realise, when I agreed to meet heat’s external legal counsel for an introductory lunch, that I’d be paying for his time as well as his carbonara. He told me to try not to worry about legal letters apart from the ones from Schillings, “in which case call me immediately”. He assured me that most legal threats could be “neutralised”. “But how?” I asked. He explained that if we ran a piece claiming, say, celebrity X is crap in bed we’d just have to run one next week saying he was hung like a horse and everyone would be friends again.
As publisher, as well as making loads of money while trying not to get sued, one of my key responsibilities was to be Nipple Monitor. This meant I had to decide the precise amount of nipple to show on the cover – enough to optimise sales but not too much to fail the supermarket decency test. It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re paying five-figure sums to celebrities to pose naked for the cover. We learnt the hard way that getting people to take their kit off didn’t always work. We should not have been surprised that naked Natalie Cassidy (Sonia from EastEnders) didn’t sell, but naked Peter Andre, fresh from his split from Katie Price, was worth every penny.
Very rarely, the celebrity gods would smile upon us and we’d get a barnstorming cover for nothing – one of the best was taken by a reader on their phone, of Cheryl and Ashley Cole eating gammon and chips outside a pub.
If the launch of Big Brother marked the start of the celebrity gossip era, the death of Jade Goody in March 2009 may have marked the end of it. Mouthy, lovable and fragile, Jade had been a huge part of heat’s success. OK! magazine paid £700k for exclusive access to her wedding in February that year. Competitor magazines – including heat’s stablemate Closer – ran graphic images of Jade with a nose tube in her hospital bed in the weeks before she died. Sales-wise, Jade’s death was a boon.
It was the first and only time that I remember a moral imperative being weighed seriously against commercial interest during my whole career in magazine publishing. We, the editor and I, decided not to run images of Jade dying on the cover of heat. To me it was an easy decision, but it cost hundreds of thousands in lost copy sales. I still think it was the right call, but the whole episode sickened me. The sector felt like it was losing its grip and I didn’t have the stomach for it.
If a young woman dying of cancer is not a celebrity gossip story, what about a woman clearly struggling with drug and alcohol abuse? Well…
Three months later, the picture desk unearthed two recent photographs of Mischa Barton, star of US teen drama The O.C. Mischa was a minor royal in heat terms, but the pressure to sell more copies was mounting and we were getting desperate. The resulting cover put two pictures side by side – on the left, grey and drawn, on the right bloated and clammy; the headline was OUT OF CONTROL with FIVE MONTH MELTDOWN as the inside splash. It was a near sell-out. In the office, we celebrated. In private, I cried for a whole weekend.
The heat I’d loved, the one I’d wanted to publish, was a hilarious, admittedly irresponsible, treat. I was convinced that there had been an understanding, for the most part, between its cast of characters and its readers – somehow, everyone was in on it. But the market, with social media nibbling menacingly at its edges, had become hungrier for dirt and despair, and I couldn’t make my peace with it. I still wanted to believe that nastiness wasn’t the only answer.
We changed direction in a last-ditch attempt to recapture the old magic. A new editor softened the tone, and pulled back on the bitchy cover stories. Backed by another big marketing campaign and a new website, we even launched a TV station. heat got shortlisted for media brand of the year and squeezed a percentage point of market share growth over the next 12 months. But it wasn’t enough. I went on maternity leave and never went back.
On the wall of the heat office hung its biggest selling covers. It is striking just how many of the women who stared out from those covers, the ones who brought heat its most glorious and celebrated moments, have died. Jade Goody. Nikki Grahame. Amy Winehouse. Peaches Geldof.
For me, born and raised on magazines, being publisher of heat should have been the best job in the world. It was the worst.
I still have a mug, bought for me by our advertising agency when I was publisher of heat, that says “Happiness is a cup of tea and a new magazine”. I miss that feeling.
heat’s audited circulation figures show it sold 50,518 copies on average per week on the news stand in the six months to December 2021.
This piece appeared in News, the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.
Photographs Getty Images