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World leaders, Hollywood stars, the business elite - why does everyone want to get their picture in 'Vanity Fair'?

This month, Vanity Fair anointed what it called "the 65 leaders who shape and rule the world today". Among them are President Bill Clinton, his vice-president, Al Gore, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, the global financier, George Soros, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair - among only three Britons who made the cut (the third is Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, chairman of NM Rothschild & Sons).

You can argue about the choice, and it has already been pointed out that, hey, there's an awful lot of Americans on this list, and you can question whether the rabble-rousing Minister Louis Farrakhan (listed) is really more important globally than, say, the prime minister of India (unlisted), but you can't argue with the hubris of a magazine which calls its 58-page photo portfolio "A Portrait Of World Power". Nor its ability to pull it together.

THE reach of Vanity Fair can be measured by the extent to which men and women of such status were willing to give up the time to allow the magazine access to them. (A notable exception was China's Jiang Zemin, who originally agreed to be photographed - but only if the Dalai Lama was left out. The magazine ran a press shot of Zemin instead.) The cover boys on November's Vanity Fair are Clinton and Gore, who presumably had to take the afternoon off from running the free world to pose for VF photographer Annie Leibovitz. Then there's the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, photographed, bizarrely, on a street corner in Edinburgh. Boris Yeltsin is shown standing in Red Square; Fidel Castro on a rocky promontory overlooking Havana.

Tony Blair was photographed in his shirt sleeves in a meeting at 10 Downing Street. With him are Gordon Brown, Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Charlie Whelan, Brown's press advisor, among others. The photos are casual, unposed: it is clear the session - shot, again, by the ubiquitous Annie Leibovitz - was not a hurried affair.

So why does Vanity Fair, an American glossy, whose British edition has a circulation of about 83,000, get such access? Henry Porter, VF's London Editor, says it's because "the circulation is good in this country. It goes to the right people. And Tony Blair knows he's not just being photographed for the people in Britain. He's also being seen by a large and influential segment of the American population."

The US circulation of Vanity Fair is just under 1.1 million (the editorial content of the US and British editions is essentially the same), with a readership, or so VF claims, of around 4 million. It identifies its readership as the "affluent intelligentsia", though others have suggested that many of its buyers are merely "aspirational". "The people who matter don't need to buy it," an American writer notes acidly. "They get it sent to them free anyway."

But there's no questioning the magazine's success. Circulation has been rising, both in the US (up 14 per cent in five years) and the UK (a rise of 30 per cent since 1992). Advertising is healthy: in America, clients queue up to buy pages at up to $87,000 a go. And its influence is huge: Vanity Fair calls itself "The world's most talked about magazine", and for once the hype might well be true.

Part of what's talked about, at least among journalists not on the VF gravy train, is the magazine's extravagance. It has an editorial staff of about 55 (enormous by British standards) and will pay up to $50,000 for a single article (munificent by anyone's standards). Its writers are given as long as they need on a story: one journalist spent five weeks in a hotel in Havana at the magazine's expense waiting for an interview with Castro. For its British issue in March it transported an editorial team of five to London and set up its offices in the Dorchester. The costs of its cover shoots are the stuff of legend; it's said that the magazine has paid up to $2m to get the right image.

Vanity Fair revels in stories of its lavish spending. It fits its image as the magazine for the upwardly mobile, for the "affluent intelligentsia" who want "a sense of being in with the in-crowd", as Porter describes it. The ideal Vanity Fair issue will carry "a scandal, social and fashion, a business story, a great life". It has a weakness for minor European aristocracy, as well as the American aristocracy of business and industry.

The magazine is also addicted to lists. It was the first to identify "The New Establishment", the leaders of America's new communications and entertainment-based economy; in its "Swinging London" issue it chronicled the rise of Britchic; last month it listed the "50 Leaders of the Information Age"; and once a year it records the shifts in power in Hollywood.

Amid all this, however, is a large dollop of what can only be called celeb journalism. Vanity Fair is still keen on movie star interviews, some of them written in a distinctly stomach-churning style. Of Mel Gibson, a recent issue gushed, "very few male stars have what Gibson has: the kind of voice you want to slip on like a mink coat; a voice so low and dusky you don't know whether to weep or cross your legs". Guff like this has led critics to call Vanity Fair "People magazine for those who can read without moving their lips".

The magazine's editor, Graydon Carter, justifies the movie star features by pointing out that film actors are international icons. "It's a different world from 25 years ago when magazines could put a scientist or an engineer on the cover. You need figures who translate into 35 different countries, and the world's cultural currency is movies and television."

VF is said to enter into "agreements" with agents and publicists who control access to the stars it needs for its front cover. These are small-time deals: a cover shoot with Arnold Schwarzenegger, say, in exchange for a plug for a small-time actress in another part of the magazine. Or perhaps a couple of tickets to the annual Vanity Fair Academy Awards party.

Such inducements matter much less to entrepreneurs and world leaders. For them, the payoff has to be the simple thrill of being in the magazine. "It counts for something to be in Vanity Fair," insists Porter. "If you're in the primary glossy magazine in America, it's good publicity."

IF IT can fairly be said that the magazine pioneered the journalism of grand ideas - the new establishment, a portrait of world power - then it appears to have started a trend, at least in the States. Tomorrow a special double issue of the New Yorker is published, devoted simply to "Next": "its what's next in politics, communication, science, morality... It's what you need to know about the future," a spokeswoman for the magazine explains.

To complement the issue, the New Yorker has organised a one-day conference on "the future of media, entertainment and culture" at the Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida. There will be 150 participants - among them many of the people who have figured in Vanity Fair's various lists over the years. The New Yorker has yet to come up with its own list of the world's movers and shakers. But it might make interesting reading.

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