She lives on a farm and takes a dim view of fashion. Annie, Real Life's sartorial agony aunt, talks to Annalisa Barbieri, the woman who knows her best
In the three years since Annie started writing her column in Real Life, it has grown to near cult status. She is a fashion agony aunt but people with little interest in clothes lap up her waspish style and wise asides. The point for her, though, is still her core readers; those with nagging problems in the wardrobe department.

"I love getting all those letters," she says (she gets an average 150 per week). "Sometimes I get fed up and think 'how ever am I going to find the answers this week?' and then I'll get a lovely letter and that makes all the difference."

Annie - no surname is forthcoming - lives "somewhere between the river Taw and the river Carron" with her five children and her husband of 17 years. He is a pig farmer. "We met when I was 16 and I married him a year later. He's 10 years older - that's very glamorous when you're 16." I tell her that everyone thinks she is about 50. "Yes I know," she says, "but I'm not." She is, in fact, 34.

Annie grew up in London and only moved to the country nine years ago. This is reflected in her wardrobe, which is surprisingly metropolitan. "I don't dress constantly in wellingtons. I go through stages. In May I went through a pedal pusher and mules stage and I wore them constantly, even on the farm.

"It's especially important to look good when you live on a farm, otherwise you can just neglect yourself. I would wear my 'whore mules' - four inch heels with furry cow print from Senso. Fabulous things. It took me ages to do anything but I didn't care because I felt great."

Other "stages" have included a barmaid look - "I had my cleavage on show 24 hours a day. The male teachers at my son's school kept calling me in to discuss his progress" - and a "wafting chiffon Thirties look in which I would run from room to room clutching the doorframes".

Despite her massive mailbag, Annie only answers three or four questions a week. "I don't have a databank or anything so I can't answer many more than that," she explains. "Most of the information is in my head. I have to know who is doing what at the moment, which is difficult because I don't go to the shows. But I'll have an idea of who has done the sort of boots that 'Sally from Bristol' wants. Then it's a case of ringing round and round and round until I find an answer."

She keeps big files marked "Bible, A-D" with information sent in from readers or suppliers. For the past 18 months she has also had a research assistant, which she says is "bliss".

Annie answers questions on all matters of fashion but she has a speciality; she is an authority on bras and breasts. "I have a huge male readership and they tell me they read it for mentions of breasts and the like, which I find both funny and a little sad," she says. "The bra is the most important item of clothing in most women's wardrobe. It symbolises so much and a good bra can make you feel fantastic."

She knows just about every trick for concealing a bra strap. "Sometimes you have to just sew your bra straps into your dress to stop it showing but equally sometimes an escaped bra strap is highly sexy." Where does she buy her bras? "Marks & Spencer because it's so easy but they should make more styles in black. And the odd La Perla bra for when I'm going through a Sophia Loren period."

Does she love clothes? "Sometimes, it depends on how I'm feeling about my body. I much prefer buying stuff for the house. If I were 5ft 10in and really skinny I would probably love clothes much more. But not being so makes me able to write the column. If I were tall and skinny I'd spend my whole time showing off at cocktail parties."

One of the services Annie offers through her column are the directories, nationwide lists of dressmakers, manufacturers of big shoes, underwear etc. "When I was a child, I would read my mother's Woman's Own and on the problem page the agony aunt would say 'write in for my fact sheet on impotence or spots'. After doing the column for a while, it became obvious that certain sartorial problems were just as pressing."

If there is such a need, I ask her, why does she think no one has done a column like this before? "The amount of research needed is phenomenal and the column lives or dies on its meticulous research. You can't be woolly, you have to tailor the answer to the reader."

We take a tour of the house. There is a piano which Annie's husband plays, and a very big library - "I like having the answers." Who is her favourite author? "I'm not very good on finishing books, not even those Penguin Classics that cost 60p. I'm reading Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters at the moment which is fantastic. And I'm re-reading the St Clare's series by Enid Blyton."

Last year, Annie was approached by Faber & Faber to put her column into book form. Julian Loose, Faber's editorial director, explains what attracted him: "I was first aware of Anniebecause (like all men) I am secretly a fascinated reader of women's fashion and problem pages and it soon dawned on me that the column was much more than this. Not only did she deal with men's many clothing issues, but Annie was a true authority on all matters sartorial, she was genuinely witty and fun, and wise and down to earth, as only those close to pig farmers can be."

'dear annie, a no-nonsense guide to getting dressed' is published on 16 November by Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99. To order your copy at a reduced price, turn to the order form on page 6. Annie makes her first public appearance on 24 November at Waterstones in Hampstead, tel: 0171 794 1098 for further details

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