She's young, she's sexy, she's successful - and she's stuck in the Eighties. Perhaps the Social Affairs Unit should not worry too much about the effect 'Cosmo' girl will have on her readers because, quite honestly, she's a bit out of touch these days
Meet Cosmo girl. "She's at a party, she's holding court, she's got a glass of champagne, she's wearing Dolce e Gabbana and looking fabulous, she's amusing people and regaling them with tales of her own experiences. She's very sexy and very glamorous and men absolutely love her."

Natural-born editors are the personification of their ideal reader, and Mandi Norwood, editor of Cosmopolitan, is no exception. What she means, of course, is not that her readers are actually like this, but that they want to be; and, sitting in her bedroom devouring glossies, so did the teenage Norwood. As editor, she has passed through to the other side of the looking glass, but it hasn't diminished her appetite for what she calls "sparkle". Perhaps she is still watching dazzling Cosmo girl with a certain amount of envy.

Cosmopolitan is the world's most famous glossy magazine for women and much fuss has been stirred up this week about glossies in general, due to a report by the Social Affairs Unit on "Magazine Woman". From Digby Anderson worrying about sluttish habits in the kitchen to Anne Applebaum fearing women might just stop going to the trouble of having children, its contributors have fretted about the effect of women's mags on their readers. As Norwood triumphantly points out, she would have been worried if Digby Anderson had liked Cosmo. Being a middle-aged white bloke, he is scarcely likely to be a natural member of her constituency.

And Norwood is very specific about her median readership: they are 28 to 29, intelligent, affluent and single. I am 30 and have been married for a couple of years, but I still reckon I come pretty close, and when I and my friends picked up Cosmo this week, what we noticed more than anything else was how dumb it had got since we last looked. Shallow, we love; sex, we love; trivia, we love; but there are intelligent, funny and satirical ways to treat these subjects. Cosmo's take on them is formulaic, badly written and, frankly, lazy. Why, we wanted to ask Norwood, isn't there better journalism in your magazine?

Mandi Norwood famously once declared that she would edit a magazine by the time she was 25, and fortunately for her, she achieved this ambition by landing the editorship of Looks magazine two months before her 26th birthday. Born and brought up in Tyne and Wear, she embarked on a National Council for the Training of Journalists' course, before giving up on court reporting in disgust and heading for the London College of Fashion. By dint of perseverance and work placements, she got a sub-editor's job on Look Now, progressed to freelance writing and became features editor on The Clothes Show Magazine. From there it was an easy step to More! and eventually Looks. In 1990, she secured the editorship of Company by promising National Magazine's managing director, Terry Mansfield, a circulation of 300,000.

At 34, she remains ferociously ambitious and, in one of a number of attempts at news management, this is the narrative she urges me to tell. "It's an inspirational story about someone whose daddy wasn't in publishing. She achieved through determination and will power and ambition. She has got kids and a great relationship and a good job and lots of friends. She is successful. This country is so full of people who want to put you down and find some skeleton in the cupboard." I was a bit surprised to hear her deploying the classic wounded celebrity tactic - she is after all a journalist, not a starlet - but then Norwood herself admits, "I always wanted to be famous in some way. I never wanted to live a 'normal' life."

There are other respects in which Norwood is an unconventional editor. In newspapers and magazines there has traditionally existed a creative tension between editor and publisher. The publisher is concerned with advertising, circulation and the bottom line; the editor's responsibility is the quality of his or her product. Norwood believes "the boundaries are blurring between editor and publisher. The really good magazine editors understand and have an interest in the commercial side. I'm a good businesswoman as opposed to a creative genius."

It is rare to find an editor who so willingly embraces the idea that circulation is an end in itself; not to keep the advertisers happy so that you can have more pages and commission better writers, but as an absolute good. No wonder the rest of the industry, as she puts it, "doesn't regard me as one of them. I'm out there doing my own thing and doing it well. There have been plenty of bad things written about me, but I don't particularly care what people think."

At this point I promise to set down, for the record, that she is not wearing a leather suit (she has apparently taken flak over her taste in clothes) and that her hair is not standing up on end (for which read spiky, power-mad, bitch goddess). In fact, she's wearing a perfectly nice suit, though it's lime green, and sports a gamine little crop. She also looks extremely svelte after the birth of her second baby, now 21 months (her husband is "in publishing"; Norwood is the main breadwinner). She is probably no loonier than the average glossy magazine editor, but rarely have I felt so overtly manipulated. It's not quite true that she doesn't care what people think; as editor/publisher/publicist, she is obliged to care, and she couldn't resist trying to take charge of my responses. Once she had sussed that I am not a Cosmo fan, she began warning me not to let my opinions get in the way of the piece (how on earth could I possibly not?); when I objected that Cosmo is cliche-ridden, she challenged me, school playground fashion, to do a better job. All of this gave me reasons to dislike her when, to be honest, I had expected to be charmed, since I'm usually a pushover.

As a matter of fact, circulation has wobbled rather since Norwood took over two years ago. She inherited a figure of 456,000, took it to 461,000 but has now presided over a fall to 441,000. That means she has failed to eat into the market share of her closest rival, Marie Claire, which currently sells 435,000. (I asked her how Marie Claire girl differs from Cosmo girl. She told me that while Cosmo girl was being the life and soul of the party, Marie Claire girl "was in the corner with another intellectual/academic pontificating about the situation in Croatia." Remarks like this begin to put Cosmo's fluffiness into perspective.)

Her predecessors must be enjoying a hollow laugh at her expense. Under the editorship of Linda Kelsey and then Marcelle D'Argy Smith, the magazine accompanied articles on sex and relationships with campaigning pieces on women's issues, regular decent fiction, well-known writers and an avowedly feminist stance. But, according to Norwood, circulation began to falter in the early Nineties. Research showed that "there was too much hard-line feminism and not enough entertainment. I didn't feel it was positive or enthusiastic enough. It was pondering on woman as victim not as achiever, when women really have a great variety of choices at their disposal."At this point, I feebly intervene with shelf-stackers working the nightshift in order to support their children not having much choice and mention Natasha Walters's hugely hyped The New Feminism, which according to pre-publicity, concludes that things are quite as bad as they ever have been. Oddly, Norwood doesn't seem to know what I'm talking about.

With the feminism, social conscience and good writing stripped out, Cosmo lacks roughage. But that's the way Norwood and her readers like it. "When I put down the magazine," she says, "I want to feel like I've had a really lovely experience. As an editor, I'm interested in whether a piece fulfills my brand values, is it sexy, is it uplifting, does it have a passion about it? I know my market, I'm concerned about circulation and I'm on a mission to encourage, support and inspire women." What, I ask, is her ultimate ambition? After a lot of rather stagy hesitation, giggling and murmuring about self-editing, she vouchsafes the information that her heroine and role model is the original Spice Girl, Baroness Thatcher. In this light, the new Cosmo suddenly makes a lot of sense. The personal has replaced the political; the individual the community. Instead of campaigning journalism, you have self-help articles about how TM can turn your life around; instead of context and analysis you have personal testimonies which "will either uplift people or make them burst into tears - and either way it's a positive reaction".

"Women," says Norwood, "have never had it so good. I've never ever regarded myself as a victim, although I could have done. I come from a one-parent family and I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth." You can almost hear the Iron Lady prompting from the wings. The peculiarity is that Norwood is so dramatically out of step with the times. Hasn't she noticed that we're living in the caring, sharing, communitarian Nineties? All around her magazines (Frank, Red, Scene) are springing up which value intelligence and originality over the traditional recipe of sex, self-help and sentiment. No wonder Cosmopolitan looks old-fashioned.