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In sending me to interview Melinda Messengera year ago, the boys on the News Desk were spot on in their judgement. They spotted something which serious media pundits like me were a little slow to pick up on: the emergence of a media phenomenon

Melinda Messenger and me, we go back a long way. One year to be precise. In fact, I've just been reflecting on the anniversary of our first encounter...

We met in the lobby of an elegant Covent Garden hotel and, almost instantly, ended up together on a couch... sipping tea and biscuits and reflecting on what it feels like for a 22-year-old Wiltshire woman to be suddenly anointed "The Sun's Page Three Girl for the Thrillennium."

I joke about it now, but I wasn't sure what to think when the News Desk sent me racing into town to meet Melinda. Surely I hadn't joined The Independent to interview topless models? Surely the job of Media Editor on a serious broadsheet was to analyse the newspaper price war and report on the recurring ructions in the Birtist BBC.

But the boys on the News Desk were spot on in their judgement. Drooling over the inside spreads in The Sun and The Star, they spotted something which serious media pundits like me were a little slow to pick up on: the emergence of a media phenomenon.

Can you think of anyone else who has been propelled from utter provincial obscurity to the status of a household name in the past year? Don't say Kirsty Young, the blonde news anchorwoman. Her fame will never match Melinda's so long as she works for Channel 5.

Kirsty may have been considered big enough in the public recognition stakes to be included among the celebrity talking heads on ITV's new pop doc series The Truth About Women, but it was Melinda who was listed first in the advance publicity material from Meridian.

Mind you, nothing the Girl for the Thrillennium said made it onto the "significant quotes" highlighted in the accompanying press pack, proving that her appeal remains very much visual rather than verbal.

Whatever its foundation, it evidently straddles the sexes. Melinda even made it onto the front cover of Options magazine recently. A brief telephone interview with the deputy editor of that glossy women's mag, Helen Jaworski, yielded some insight into what lay behind that decision.

"Options is pitched at women aged between 25 and 35 who are working and want an escape from real life," she explained. "We believe such women admire Melinda and the way she is making a living."

What about the cover line - "Melinda likes it thick and creamy" - a rather suggestive, not to mention cheap, vulgar, tacky way to sell a rather humdrum feature about skin creams?

"I think that would make most women laugh," replied Ms Jaworski. "Women have a sense of humour about sex that the media tend to forget."

OK, so I'm po-faced. Never mind, even I couldn't resist a chuckle when, reflecting upon the first anniversary of Melinda Messenger's meteoric rise to nationwide celebrity, Neil Wallis, deputy editor of The Sun a year ago, observed with an entirely straight face: "Every so often you just get a natural phenomenon."

Come on, Neil. You can rhapsodise about Melinda Messenger in many ways. But as you, I and the rest of the British population know, her two prime assets are anything but natural.

I only raise the issue of silicon implants because The Sun itself did so, apparently, in a recent reader poll. Did subscribers to the "Currant Bun" want false boobs on Page Three? Seemingly not, so they're now going to get them on pages four, five, six, seven...

I had phoned Mr Wallis because I reckoned that, since he recently quit as deputy editor of The Sun to edit The Sunday Mirror, he might have opened up and supplied a little insight into what they really think about Page Three Girls these days down at Wapping.

Aren't they set to become as quaint and anachronistic as saucy seaside postcards now that former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie has got cable TV awash with tottie?

Wasn't The Sun over-milking the Melinda phenomenon last week with a whole series of features marking the first anniversary of the day Mel displayed her melons for the first time to the nation?

Mr Wallis was having none of this highbrow hypothesis, pointing out that he used to get sackfuls of mail at Wapping pleading for more Melinda. "Listen Rob, I've seen many hard-bitten tabloid reporters who've dismissed her as a blonde bimbo and who are completely overwhelmed and charmed by her. As the population in general is. Did you know she recently appeared in a pantomime in Southend and it was a total sell-out?"

So why hasn't the Melinda Messenger phenomenon stopped The Sun's circulation from falling in the past year? Wallis, still loyal to his old chums at Wapping, wasn't prepared to forward a theory for that.

But, as he well knows, the people who run virtually all the "red tops" are seriously rethinking their approach to popular journalism. There are even rumours that both The Sun and The Mirror are preparing to move up- market in an endeavour to emulate (at least to some degree) The Daily Mail. The Mirror has even appointed a media correspondent for the first time, a sure indication that it is turning serious!

Both it and The Sun are certainly preparing to serve up longer reads. They are also starting to look at the world in a slightly warmer and more serious way.

A radical transformation of the British tabloid press could turn out to be one of the lasting legacies of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales - indisputably the real media phenomenon of the past year.

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