"Would you?" asks Lynne Franks, looking hard at me across her kitchen table. At some point, every interviewee has to weigh up whether a journalist is just trying to provoke them, or whether a statement is worth an honest response. Franks, ex-public relations boss, nascent broadcaster and the original, allegedly, for Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous, has reached that point.
"Of course, I am furious. I am absolutely furious," she says, without a twinkle of irony. "Jennifer Saunders always says it wasn't based on me - she has to, for legal reasons - but I said to her, 'How many Buddhist PRs with children living in central London are there, Jennifer?'"
Franks shrugs. It is all very old hat for her, this endless picking and digging by journalists. She now has a new life. On 3 July, she launches her new venture, Viva! 963, a radio station for women that will broadcast in London and the southeast. If you haven't heard of it yet, you will. This is not just because radio is sexy at the moment, with deregulation pushing scores of little stations on to the air, but because acquiring publicity is something Franks is still very good at.
Indeed, it is probably one of the reasons why she was invited to head the project in the first place. For some, her very presence will signify fashionability. The station wasn't her idea - it was thought up by the (female) commercial director at London's jazz station, JFM, and is being funded by Golden Rose, JFM's (male-run) owner. But, if they wanted Franks to be merely a figurehead, they picked the wrong woman. Her title of "non- executive chairman" is not only anatomically and politically incorrect but also inaccurate, as she claims to be very hands-on, and says she needs to be - the Viva! team is very wary of the station being dismissed as "stridently feminist".
We are sitting in the kitchen in her newish flat in London's Maida Vale. Franks is talking nineteen to the dozen and engaging me in positive eye contact. She has begun with a long rap about the perils of exposing oneself to journalists, how they crawl all over your home, make rude remarks about your fixtures and fittings, tell people you are too fat, put in a whole load of subjective stuff that stays in the cuttings and gets regurgitated as gospel all the time - and women journalists are the worst...
It's a nice flat, with big, white, squidgy sofas, lots of bare wood and a phone that screeches every five minutes. Franks leaps up and down, long, hennaed hair flying, moaning about why no one else is picking it up. She means, mainly, her 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, currently her assistant (and yes, she does look a bit like Julia Sawalha in Absolutely Fabulous). Home is now her office, and that has its perils.
Friends consistently say two things about Lynne Franks. One, that her ambivalence about the press is understandable, given her depiction as a spaced-out, tree-hugging crank. And two, that much of it was justified: her gush-and-go lifestyle, her boho friends - designers, editors, comedians, other celebrity Buddhists such as Sandie Shaw - really were ripe for sending up.
But people tend to forget she was also a very sharp businesswoman. She built a fashion PR company that made her millions: she and her ex-husband, the designer Paul Howie, sold a 75 per cent stake for pounds 2.6 million in 1986. She then expanded it into a host of related areas. She was one of the first to see that money could be made linking mainstream business with "feelgood" concerns such as Amnesty International and Comic Relief, both former clients. Not for nothing was Franks, the butcher's daughter from north London, the best-known PR person this side of Sir Tim Bell in the Eighties.
An apparent life crisis three years ago ended all that. Feeling burnt out, she chucked in her job, her husband and Nichiren Buddhism, and worked her way through a host of New Agey beliefs. "I just thought life is too short," she explains. Now she has bounced back, trimmer and sparkier, if a little more vulnerable. She is still the non-executive chairman of the company which bears her name (and whose clients, incidentally, include the BBC's beleaguered Radio 1). She has had to sell the big house in Little Venice, pay off heaps to the taxman, and move into far less grand digs round the corner. But she is happier. At 47, she practises only her dancing; she is intent on her new career as broadcaster and campaigner on environmental, health and women's issues. And is she still rich? "No," she laughs. "I had a couple of good years, but I spent it all."
So, the obvious question first: why do women need their own radio station? Well, she explains, it is not really that women's interests are different, it is more that their whole way of thinking about things is different from men's, and that has yet to be reflected in the broadcast media. And things are changing. After a period in the Eighties when women took on male values to succeed - Margaret Thatcher is the prime example - women want to be successful on their own terms.
But hang on: does that mean she had to take on male values to succeed? Two years ago she had said as much to another writer, claiming she had suppressed her femininity for 20 years. She now denies it. "I think I had a very matriarchal role at my company." The problem was at home, where she wasn't seeing enough of her children (she also has a 19-year- old son, Joshua).
"We have all got the male and female inside us," says Franks. "They are different qualities. It is just a question of finding the inner harmonies." And what are those qualities? She mentions the old definitions: men are about action, are hunter-gatherers, while women are nurturers, more intuitive and receptive. These are the qualities women feel less inclined to sublimate but most media are too male-orientated to reflect. Enter Viva!
This is fine in theory, but how do you put it all into practice on a 24-hour radio station aimed at "ABC women aged 25 to 44"? Women's magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Elle and Marie Claire hit a similar target every month, but they are portable and visual. Put the same articles on tape and the package fails.
Franks says she doesn't want to compare Viva! to women's magazines or to Radio 4's Woman's Hour, or even television's mid-morning shows (Richard and Judy, Anne and Nick), which, traditionally, have a large female audience. But she won't say what it will be like exactly, claiming that detailed plans are under wraps. The only certainties are that the presenters will include Eve Pollard, Magenta de Vine and Franks herself, that the format will generally be half-music, half-talk, and that sex is likely to be a pretty regular topic: "Women talk about sex in far more detail than men do. Women love sharing experiences, but men don't. They can't handle that kind of intimacy."
There is no successful precedent in Europe or America for a women's station, and my own quick, highly unrepresentative straw poll of women in the media uncovered nothing but scepticism for the concept. Yet, for its backers, the economics are rather attractive. Viva!'s launch costs are probably less than pounds 1 million, as the station will be broadcasting out of JFM's studios and will need only a small permanent staff. Add to that the fact that the commercial radio market is booming: there are now 171 commercial stations on air, compared with about 50 in 1987, and ad revenue has grown faster than in any other sector of the media for two years running. So you can see why Golden Rose think it is worth the risk. According to its own licence application, to break even it needs 132,000 listeners seven hours a week, which is about a sixth of Capital FM's audience in the same age and sex range. Any more and the rewards could be lucrative.
Hence Franks, who has an eye for business, is maybe a bit disingenuous when she says she sees her role as simply being a "moral guardian" of the new station (a term applied to Richard Attenborough's chairmanship of Capital Radio's launch all those years ago). She has shares in Viva!, and her twice-a-week interview show, called Frankly Speaking, will satisfy her ambitions to become a broadcaster. I ask if she's any good at broadcasting. Silly question. "God, they love it!" she says, meaning the station bosses, though she confesses she hasn't actually done any dummy runs yet. Who will she have on? Oh, everyone from the Dalai Lama to Jo Brand, Anita Roddick and Annie Lennox. "I have access to people who are my friends and who are incredibly interesting people in their own right."
To which one is tempted to say "lucky you", but knowing people and fixing things are what Franks is about. No sooner had the photo session for this piece finished than she was offering the photographer a slot at the women's festival she is organising (August Bank Holiday, Royal Festival Hall, to tie in with September's UN women's conference in China).Then she asks me: would I be interested in working for a friend of hers managing a herb farm? It is not cynical, says one magazine editor who has known her for years; it's just how she operates: she wraps everyone up with her total enthusiasm and energy. Some are enchanted, others not.
But isn't interviewing her mates a bit too chummy? "No, but I wouldn't ask anyone nasty questions, anyway. It's not my style. There are ways of having extremely interesting conversations that aren't about asking people things that are going to make tabloid headlines. Ruby Wax, for example, who is another friend of mine, does wonderful interviews..."
Enough friends, please. But she is like a dog with a bone. She worries that I am setting up Viva! to be a kind of Hello! magazine on air. "I'm prepared to ask questions that other people are not prepared to ask, I'm going to be very diggy, but not in ways that are trying to destroy people, because I don't want to see someone reduced and humiliated."
Yet it is widely held that some of the best exponents of confrontational journalism are women. "Yes, and that horrifies me. You see women doing those kind of interviews on other women, knowing that their male editors have got them to do it. There is a real feeling among a lot of women, many of whom are my mates, that they get a very hard time from ambitious women journalists, and they just don't like being interviewed by women. In fact, Eve Pollard is heading up a big women in media group [Women in Journalism], and one of the things they are looking at is why women journalists are so destructive with women interviewees. Why are we all playing that male game?"
Oh, come on, I say - women don't need any assistance from men. Look at Jennifer Saunders's demolition job on women like herself. Some have even suggested that Absolutely Fabulous helped drive Franks out of PR. Is that true?
"Don't be stupid," she says. "I hardly think I could run my life around that."
But somebody, I begin, had told me... She explodes before I can finish. "Somebody said! Who the fuck is somebody? What do they know about me? I was out of the business when that came out."
It must surely have affected attitudes to her.
"In what way?"
In that maybe, foolishly and irrationally, people expect her to be a bit like...
"No, only journalists think that. No one else would dream of thinking anyone was like a character on TV. I guess I am wary of calling people 'sweetie darling' now, but I have never done that in my life. And I would be very cautious about getting off my head in front of people, but I have never done that either, except" - her eyes narrow - "for a couple of times with Jennifer...
"No," she continues, "it was an extraordinary position to be in, especially as I was going through a huge life change. I was looking at different aspects of my life, none of which were in Absolutely Fabulous..." She pauses. "But, if there was any connection, it was with the madness in my life. Seeing it on a programme, and then knowing that other people watching are being told it is me, is" - she searches again for the right words - "an extraordinary experience."
But it can also work in her favour. "Yeah, it makes me more of a celebrity. In America, where I'm talking to ABC about doing a programme, people just think: you must be really famous to have a programme based on you. But the thing is, I don't want to be a celebrity."
How ironic then, given her expertise as an image manipulator, that she now has a cartoon fame beyond her control. Recently, she stopped writing a column in the London Evening Standard because, she says, they were editing it into pretentious twaddle to make people laugh at her.
"I really want to make a difference in this world," she says. "I don't mean I, me, ego, want to leave my mark. I just want to be part of many, many people in a team who have had a chance to do something positive. If that meant I should go quietly off somewhere and look after old people, I was prepared to do that, but I happen to be a communicator, that's what I do. And I think that communication, which can be used so negatively, can be used positively. There's nothing wrong with being a PR - well, some things are wrong. I just didn't want to be a PR any more. Don't you ever want to change careers?"
I feel a job in a herb farm coming on. She is right, though; we are ridiculously censorious in this country about people who want to do something different with their lives. If I were her, I would be working hard on a savage send- up of female comedians, but she says it's not her style. Half an hour later, when I'm running down the stairs, she is shouting, "Don't be too cruel..."Reuse content