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Je suis Egoiste

Nicole Wisniak has created a magazine that weighs a ton, costs a bomb and is the ultimate Parisian fashion accessory. Ian Phillips meets her
Thirty pounds may sound like an awful lot of money to blow on one magazine, but for the past few months, hordes of French people have been doing exactly that. Fashionable coffee tables have been straining under the weight of what has been variously described as "the most beautiful magazine in the world" and "a little jewel of chic". For every self-respecting Parisian knows that the latest status symbol is neither a Prada bag nor a Gucci loafer. lt is a copy of the new issue of Egoiste.

Egoiste is the work of one woman - Nicole Wisniak, who is at once its editor, consultant art director, advertising director, production controller and distributor. This daughter of Polish immigrants started the magazine with an initial investment of only 8,000 francs (pounds 1,000) 19 years ago. Today, the early issues are collector's items; the latest has a print run of 35,000.

Wisniak calls Egoiste "the subjective dictionary of an epoch" and perhaps her greatest talent has been her ability to persuade some of the most famous names of the century to work for nothing. There have been interviews of Ava Gardner by Princess Caroline of Monaco, of Catherine Deneuve by the writer Francoise Sagan, and of Mick Jagger by Jodie Foster.

The 280 pages of the current issue weigh in at 2.3kg and are large and exceptionally thick. Uma Thurman stares out from the cover with a dove perched on her fingertips. Inside she is interviewed by Diane von Furstenberg, the New York designer and socialite. The tone is a far cry from the usual glossy magazine puffery. Von Furstenberg acts almost like a psychiatrist as Thurman unveils her thoughts on the Hollywood star system, her religious beliefs and her views on men.

Elsewhere in the magazine there is a tribute to the late French novelist Marguerite Duras, a profile of Sharon Stone, an imaginary conversation between Wisniak's husband Philippe Grumbach - a former director of L'Express, the current affairs weekly - and the chess computer Deep Blue, along with a piece on Charles Laughton by Simon Callow.

Many of the contributors are French writers and other intellectuals, but Wisniak also managed to persuade Salman Rushdie and the American novelist William Styron to put pen to paper. Rushdie's essay on Being Photographed is set against one by Richard Avedon entitled Photographing, and Styron talks about prostate problems in one of a series by writers on their favourite medication. French company directors offer what they consider to be the perfect job application letter.

While much of the writing is distinctly highbrow, a number of articles offer light relief. Yet, however original and entertaining the editorial content, the magazine's visuals are the main attraction. One stunning full-page black-and-white photograph follows another.

Egoiste's star photographer is Richard Avedon, who started working for American Vogue and Harper's Bazaar after the war, served as the model for Fred Astaire's character in Funny Face and is now The New Yorker's staff photographer.

There are Avedon portraits wherever you look in Wisniak's apartment-cum- office at St-Germain-des-Pres. A huge one of Marilyn Monroe, a series of Samuel Beckett and a shot of Francis Bacon just above the 19th-century bed which occupies one corner of her living room. It has an ornate, carved wooden headboard and is covered with bottle-green velvet.

Wisniak lounges on it, dressed in a baggy black jumper and velour leggings. Her ear is glued to the telephone. "My bed has become legendary," she exclaims, before explaining that it is not the one she sleeps in. Instead, she receives most of her daytime visitors on it. "After all, it's much better to work in your own bed than in other people's," she jokes.

The interview takes place on the floor, and it soon becomes obvious just how she gets so many stars to work for her for nothing. She seems to have limitless enthusiasm. Before I start firing questions at her, she has already scoured the apartment for vitamin C tablets for my cold, plied me with tea and asked me in detail about both my personal and my professional life.

She is less keen to enter into details about how she managed to twist all of those celebrity arms. When I ask just how she got Princess Caroline of Monaco to model, write and take photos for her, she refuses to answer. Any question which starts with "How did you meet ...?" simply irritates her.

She will reveal that she first met Avedon when she interviewed him for an old issue of Egoiste. While dining with him in a Paris restaurant some years later, she saw the novelist Marguerite Duras at another table and coaxed her into being photographed. "I had already asked her to do some pictures in the past, but she wasn't too keen," recalls Wisniak. "But this time, Avedon was there. She had just come out of a long coma and was celebrating her resurrection with her son."

She got photographer Helmut Newton to work for her on the second issue for just Fr800 (pounds 100) after introducing herself to his wife at the hairdresser's. She asked him to take pictures of Mick Jagger, to which Newton replied: "But I can't stand him." The shoot went ahead nevertheless, and Wisniak readily admits that his participation was a turning-point. "His arrival and that of Francoise Sagan in the third issue were obviously factors which meant that the magazine gained credibility. Two great artists, like two good fairies, leant over the crib of a newborn baby." She had met Sagan at the age of 19, and soon afterwards became a regular fixture on Paris's social scene. She used to live next door to Loulou de la Falaise (former muse of Yves Saint Laurent), cites Diane von Furstenberg as a friend, and went to school with the photographer Bettina Rheims, who was chosen to take the first official portrait of Jacques Chirac after his election last year. Today, Wisniak must have one of the best address books in the French capital.

She was born in 1951 into a middle-class family in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. Both her parents worked in the rag trade, but she claims that they encouraged their children to become artists. She also believes that she inherited her taste for quality from her mother. "She was always attracted to the most beautiful things," she says. "Even when she took me to a doctor, it was always one of the best specialists. She thought that it was much better to deal directly with the good Lord than with one of his saints."

After a history degree and a spell classifying Picasso's drawings, Wisniak decided to "bring together my visual and literary tastes" in the form of a magazine. It did not have the most auspicious of starts. The first issue had a print run of only 4,000, of which 3,000 ended up at her parents'. Still, it did include an interview with a certain Francois Mitterrand and another with Andy Warhol. Ever since, the magazine has come out with surprising irregularity. It is basically printed when it is ready; the latest issue took two years to put together.

Wisniak insists on total originality and, to this end, designs some outstanding one-off ads for her clients. In the present issue, a model skates around town on a pair of roller-skates in the form of Renault Twingos, and an aerial view of Paris shows the Seine embellished with the Hermes logo. Many advertisers have tried to persuade her to sell them the right to reuse the ads, but she has so far always refused.

However, no celebrity refused her call to contribute to the latest issue. According to Bettina Rheims, Wisniak has "a great talent for getting the best out of people. Most editors ask you to do the same things you normally do, whereas Nicole pushes you to do something different."

Yet Wisniak has one big regret - that she did not ask Orson Welles to contribute. "At the beginning, he seemed too unapproachable, and then he died." Who is top of her must-have list today? "Marlon Brando," comes the reply. "I still haven't tried him. I'm waiting to be really up to scratch" n

Correction: the article about Adia, the Muslim model, in Wednesday's Tabloid was wrongly credited to Tamsin Blanchard. It was in fact by Ian Phillips. We are sorry for this mistake.