WHAT WOMEN REALLY REALLY WANT
The people who brought us `The Face' and `Arena' in the Eighties have a new project: a ground-breaking magazine for women. It's going to be different, they say. But how exactly?
Sunday 11 May 1997
The voice belongs to Tina Gaudoin, a former editor at Harper's magazine and American Vogue and, until recently, the deputy editor of Tatler. When we spoke she was taking a re-energising break but, by the time you read this, her beautifully shod feet will be firmly ensconced under a desk in the Clerkenwell offices of Nick Logan, 50-year-old publisher of the upmarket style monthlies The Face and Arena, where she is heading a much-heralded new project. An entire floor has been given over to Logan's latest brainchild, what early reports are calling a "breakthrough" women's magazine. This fabled beast won't appear until September but, such is Logan's reputation, the media world is already a-flutter.
And, of course, what women really, really want right now is another magazine. Britain is booming, there's a new Prime Minister, money to spend, and no sign of the gender gap getting smaller; to capitalise on all these things, what better than another high-profile fashion rag? Then again, perhaps what we're about to receive really will be original and vital, a genuine breakthrough. But how?
The magazine market may seem saturated but what it's latterly become glutted with is magazines for men. Arena, Maxim, Esquire, GQ, FHM, Loaded: newsagents' shelves creak under the weight of words, wit and, sadly, semi- clad flesh aimed at post-New Man. Women probably look at these papers, many even buy them; probably, they grudgingly like them, even the most knuckle-dragging. Open the covers, after all, and you enter a wildly optimistic world full of clubby, irreverent joie de vivre. Life, these magazines say, is there for the taking and, as a man, you can have the lot. And that means everything: the variety of subject matter is almost interplanetary. From in-depth pieces on culture (movies, directors, shenanigans in Cannes; no-nonsense, provocative features on pop groups; witty opinions on art) to adventure (white-water rafting, bungee jumping, dirty weekends at Raffles) to, maybe, a sardonic take on politics or sport or some news-lead piece that's genuinely informative.
The increasing babe quotient is depressing but even in the stuck-together pages of FHM (now selling 365,000 an issue, a six-month rise of 100 per cent) you'll note an interest (if only a spark) in the outside world. The monolithic two-year-old Loaded, scary as it may be, carries copy that crackles with humour and has sales of 328,155 an issue, double the sales figures of many of the long-established women's magazines on the stands. Loaded has had a dubious effect in initiating a slide towards the downmarket - gathering pace now at GQ, whose editor Angus MacKinnon has been replaced by the bouncing former editor of Loaded, James Brown. Nevertheless, the song remains the same: guys, these papers say, you're pretty cool. It's a great, big world outside your window; go grab it.
Open a women's magazine, however, and you're in trouble. A cursory glance at the cover-lines will tell you more than you really want to know about where women find themselves in the Nineties.
When Women's magazines began, their brief was domestic; they provided step-by-step instruction in how to achieve womanhood, the two roles central to that status being "wife" and "mother". It has been argued that post-war Britain saw two main changes to this formula. The first was a shift from finding (and keeping) your man, to self-help, which involved the knotty problem of achieving a sort of perfection (being a better mother, lover, worker, cook, while at the same time staying slim, of course) and overcoming misfortune (physical and emotional crises). The second change was the mid-Seventies advent of glossies such as Cosmopolitan, for the "independent, working woman".
We're still trying to be perfect: the downmarket hard-hitters, like Woman, Woman's Own and Eva, currently selling around half a million an issue, portray a world where women soldier on in a hell of adversity, conjuring up meals "to tempt the family", coping with a cornucopia of ailments, and finding release in first-person sob stories by fellow readers so unfortunate that anyone would feel good in comparison. Here is a world of the disenfranchised where, apparently, feminism (sorry, there's no other word) never happened.
It did, though. Didn't it? Back in my twenties (we're talking the Eighties) I was a Cosmo reader. Admittedly, Cosmo's original plan, sent down via the magazine's American founder Helen Gurley Brown, was to be a mould- breaking sex manual - but, under the editorship of Deirdre McSharry and, later, Linda Kelsey, we had snappy pieces by Angela Carter, Polly Toynbee, even Betty Friedan (who had previously said Cosmopolitan was "quite obscene and quite horrible"); "Freud on the couch - Jill Tweedie gives her diagnosis"; "The courageous Mrs Mandela" (OK, so everyone makes mistakes). Between then and now something has gone horribly wrong. When current editor Mandi Norwood took over in 1995, she declared that Cosmopolitan would be "more aggressive, cutting-edge, gutsy, ballsy". Certainly she recently interviewed John Major and Tony Blair, but Cosmo has celebrated its 25th year with headlines such as "Blood-letting: women who slash themselves to slim", "Plastic surgery for sexual pleasure" and "Manhunt! Where the sharp, smart, sexiest men are - and how to take one alive!" (too many screamers - magazine-trade slang for exclamation marks - are always a worrying sign). The Cosmopolitan Book Day, a fiction free-for-all at Hay-on-Wye, has gone, replaced by the Cosmo Show, a fashion, health and beauty freebie event.
Cosmo is not alone. Flick through almost any mid- to upper-bracket women's magazine and you enter a world of narcissistic trivia. In many ways, they're not so different from Woman and Woman's Own - a menu of fashion, beauty, recipes, home improvement and titillating (or tragic) readers' stories mean they, too, are po-faced, self-help manuals, just a little glossier.
Even the soaraway Marie-Claire (sales of 458,000 an issue), which began on a platform of hard-hitting features, has degenerated into tawdry exploitation ("The day I discovered my daughter was a prostitute"). Sick of reading about the latest mascara wand? Keen to see more than five lines of simplistic twaddle on a ground-breaking new movie? Sister, you won't find it here. Yet we go on buying what's dished up. Maybe we're as dumb as they think. And now for something completely different? We'll see.
Maverick Nick Logan initiated his new venture, like his previous successes, on a hunch. Logan is the man who discovered Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons at NME before starting up Smash Hits and then, with finance from a second mortgage on his flat, assembling The Face in 1980. A blend of clever, modish writing, innovative typography and sumptuous design, its like had not been seen before, though many tried and failed to imitate it. Arena was a similar risk, at a time - 10 years ago - when the notion of anything but a top-shelf magazine for men was laughable. There is a spin-off, Arena Homme Plus, a men's pure fashion bi-annual. All were brave moves.
Dylan Jones is group editor at Logan's mystically named company Wagadon, which is now assisted by Vogue publishers Conde Nast. In his late thirties and a veteran of i-D, the Observer and the Sunday Times, Jones will oversee the launch, and one of the key problems he aims to redress is the latent, what we might call "victim" stance in women's magazines.
"That dreadful business of creating problems in order to solve them. Y'know, `There's something wrong with you, but we can help you.' Why is there something wrong with you? There isn't anything wrong with you. Also, hopefully, we won't have endless pieces about sexual behaviour. I think if you've reached, say, the age of 25 and you find yourself unable to have some particular kind of orgasm and you need to read a magazine in order to sort your life out, you're not the kind of person we're after. I really think that stuff's quite sad."
Excitement is an understatement for what Jones feels about the project (still nameless, but Eve is one of the semi-finalists). He's amazed it doesn't already exist. "This city is the prism through which everybody wants to see things at the moment - y'know, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Time, all those nauseating pieces about swinging London. It seems crazy that there are well-established women's and style magazine markets, a hugely expanding men's market, but there isn't one hot British mag you pick up in London and go, `Wow, this is it!' "
What will give your magazine the edge? "It'll be incredibly glamorous, close to Sally Brampton's original UK Elle, mixed with the kind of sensibility Nova had in the late Sixties - clever, sassy, a sexy artefact. But, above all, there'll be great features. Women's magazines always carry gender- specific pieces; we want to get away from that, to deliver something with attitude, very spunky, very London."
So you'll deal with ... ? "All the things other magazines do, clearly, but the secret will be in the way we attack those stories: if we can't do it in a new and different way, it's not worth doing. There will be strong feature content, consumer pages, beauty pages, fashion. There'll be interiors, design, travel, food ..."
How about movies? Books?
"Yeah," Jones puts his fingers together, "I mean, it will have arts coverage in it. [Quite carefully] It has to. I think that arts coverage, for perhaps good reasons, in other women's magazines, has been ... mmm ... "
"Yes, it has been sidelined, I think."
And if you do get a piece on, let's say, the movies, it's a throwaway few lines on a hunky actor, beside a nice big picture. It would be a pleasure to see something witty and informed, where it's assumed you can concentrate on something that doesn't pertain directly to yourself - and that your concentration can go the distance.
Raised eyebrow. "Hopefully, among many other things, you would have those kind of discursive, lengthy meandering pieces that - "
I'm not saying meandering. I'm just saying enough with the handbags, already.
Jones sits forward, bridling. "Well, that's what we're trying to do. On the one hand you think, if it's so bloody easy, why hasn't anyone done it before?" Then he adds, ominously: "But maybe the inclination hasn't been there."
To expound on the new attitude let's come back to Tina Gaudoin, who, according to her press release, is 35, and keen to make the magazine she'll edit "provocative" and "challenging". How?
"In the sense that I think few women's mags ask very many questions about the way we live our lives, or dress, or eat. When I say provocative I mean questioning - forcing people to go beyond thinking about frocks as frocks, shoes as shoes. On the other hand, it's not rocket science, you know? I'm always saying, fashion is our football; there's an element of fun here."
"You sound doubtful."
Not about the humour. Fashion seems fairly well covered already, though.
"But do those papers ask you why you do what you do? I mean, why you find Manolo Blahnik shoes so attractive? Why did Alexander McQueen do his bumsters? Do other papers ask you those questions?"
Maybe not. But can't we think about something else? Women's magazines still encourage us to be such dull homebodies, to obsess about what's inside - in, or on, our bodies, in our homes, how our relationships are doing - rather than looking out.
Gaudoin agrees; it's just that what she says sounds suspiciously dated. "I think it is a bit short-sighted to assume we only want to look at clothes or know about beauty. I mean, most women choose their own cars, a lot of women determine what sort of personal finance service they'll use." And there I was, assuming we all did.
Enthusiastic and hugely likeable, Gaudoin is keen to reinforce Dylan Jones's point that this will be a very different magazine to what we're used to, but she still can't tell me how. There will be wide coverage, there will indeed be humour. To sum up, she says, "Women are fantastically busy. And what you expect from a magazine today is an edit of everything that's great out there, that relates to you. You want that information quickly, and beautifully presented. It's like a guide or an index. To a certain extent, it's escapist; it's slightly informative. And it's luxury."
We can't know, of course, what this publication will eventually deliver. And no one who's working on it is about to give away the plot - that would be foolish. But the slightly dispiriting aspect is that what's fresh about it seems to be its attitude, not necessarily its content - and a broadening of content is surely the thing women need, and where the real gap in this overcrowded market lies.
Or is it? One intelligent, fairly varied offering is Elle. New editor Marie O'Riordan has introduced wit and humour and attempted to widen parameters. "When I took over, I was so bored with women's magazines - narrow, gender- specific features. I wanted to treat women as broader individuals."
Good because, hey, perhaps that's what we are. If I go for a drink with female friends, there's banter about movies, our jobs, concerts or plays we've seen, books, the election and so forth before we get to relationships. Looking at the papers that serve us, you'd doubt we could even spell "culture".
"I couldn't agree more. I think that inward-looking approach is tragic, and I'm surprised that those papers continue to sell so well." O'Riordan pauses. "Obviously, though, Elle is not Cosmo or Marie-Claire in terms of circulation; the kind of reader you and I are talking about - there's just less of them. I'm very sad about that but I do believe women can be interested in other things. I'm convinced of it."
So where does this leave us? Perhaps brainy women have given up on magazines, seeking stimulating writing on the wider world in other places. Which is a shame, because men don't have to. Further, a women's magazine is, by definition, a badge and a reflection; for better or worse, women will buy it and take it in as a mirror of what it tells them they are. Don't mistake me - I'm not advocating the likes of the now-defunct Spare Rib, a dust-dry (wo)manifesto. I'm looking for something hip and knowing that takes our blinkers off.
Former Cosmo editor Marcelle d'Argy Smith recently remarked, "Women seem to go through life as if they're doing a crawl underwater through oil. I wanted to make them see they could float." Which begs the question: is floating really best achieved in a well of self-obsession, competing ferociously about how we look? Perhaps we get the magazines we deserve but, as any self-help book will tell you, happiness is partly gained by shifting perspective to what's outside yourself. Are women's magazines the only backwater still coming to terms with this?
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