A battle to satisfy our passion for the stars

As Hello! faces weekly competition for the first time from OK!, Rebecca Fowler meets two editors vying for the schmaltziest celebrity photo-shoots
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The Independent Online
At home with Hello!, in its discreetoffices overlooking the Thames, there are few clues as to how the magazine has coaxed 2 million readers into its shiny, smiling, wide-eyed PR world each week, or how it has won access to the biggest stars. Only the signed photographs - Joan Collins, Beau Bridges and Ali MacGraw - the blow-up cover of Viscount Linley's wedding, and the constantly ringing telephones give a sense of its empire.

But in a fortnight's time the apparent serenity of the nine-year-old enterprise and its core of 14 staff may be shaken. Hello! will face its first head-on competition when OK!, previously a monthly collection of starry at-home interviews, goes weekly, exactly three years after it started in 1993, in a shameless rip-off of Hello!'s style.

Amid speculation over just how insatiable the British appetite for celebrity is, the battle for readers - Hello! currently has 500,000 a week, OK! has 250,000 a month - will be fought in the living rooms of the famous. How many interviews on love and life in the fast lane can we take?Do we want more?

Yes, according to Maggie Koumi, the editor of Hello!. She explains the magazine was launched to capture "the froth of life." Behind her is a framed cartoon of Saddam Hussein welcoming Hello! into his home; a Private Eye parody of its apparently fawning style.

Elegantly dressed in black, with bobbed grey hair, Koumi smokes from a cigarette holder. She is surprisingly shy but, one senses, determined. She claims Hello! has grown up, and while there is still froth in abundance, there is more. "Everyone sneered at the beginning. They said no one was interested in the crowned prince of Denmark. But that's the magic of it. You don't know what you're going to get next - there was nothing else like it in Britain."

Since its start in 1988, when it was cloned from its parent Spanish magazine, Hola!, Hello! has become a British institution. The Marquesa de Varela and a team of "people who know people" are charged with persuading the stars to open their doors and talk. Koumi is anxious to suggest these spreads can have an edge - Kenny Everitt "spoke of Aids for the first time in Hello!"; Major Ron Ferguson's wife talked of her husband's adultery; Paula Yates talked of her split from Bob Geldof - while wearing a tiara.

And even the list of people that Hello! previously would not interview has changed: "There are certain leaders who were considered dodgy, but then become accepted. We had Yasser Arafat's wife and new-born baby recently."

Koumi is also adamant that payment is rare, despite what critics, including Barber, say. The famous and the royal are invariably very rich, and the rich are "more likely to ask for a donation to their favourite charity". The most she has ever paid is pounds 70,000, and that was for exclusive access to Elizabeth Taylor, the woman who has provided both Hello! and OK! with best-selling covers.

"They still say we paid pounds 70,000 for Raine Spencer's wedding. They should know better, because it wasn't exclusive. We paid for access to Elizabeth's Taylor's wedding. That was exclusive. The money went to her Aids charity. It works just like the tabloids."

Hello!'s competition has traditionally been the tabloids. When the magazine arrived newspapers were still in black and white and Hello! had colour. When that advantage went, it still had space - it could tell its big story in 30 pictures, not one.

Koumi says the magazine's topicality will be its sharpest weapon against OK!. Nothing is pre-prepared, apart from spreads on new-born babies of the famous. But arrangements with the Spanish printers are unusually flexible. If a major story breaks beyond their printing deadlines - a grand wedding, an important death - the printers can shift deadlines.

When Jackie Onassis died, Hello! produced a 30-page retrospective and new cover in two hours. Two weeks ago Koumi did much the same when exclusive pictures of the Princess of Wales came in from Lahore. Says Koumi: "I'd be very surprised if OK! can compete with that."

The decision to take OK! weekly, was based largely on the fact it has built up a steady readership. That and the recession easing off, says Richard Barber, the editor. Barber is a personable gossip with a schoolboy twinkle in his eye, and he chatters cheerfully against his own view of the Thames in OK!'s Docklands offices. He agrees that OK! may not have the topicality of Hello! but he plans to play the British-is-best card. Didn't OK! get Julie Goodyear on the cover the week she announced she was leaving Coronation Street, track down Tom Hanks's sister in Bournemouth, and feature Shirley Conran topless after reductive breast surgery?

"Hello! has become part of our culture. It's an institution. But we're not trying to clone it," Barber says. No? "We were born British for a British market. People aren't interested in the crowned Prince of Denmark getting married. But they are interested in that little box in their living room. Hello! doesn't really touch the soaps, and I'm not interested in aristocrats."

He claims that OK!, part of a chain that also includes Chic magazine, has a harder edge than Hello!, and is amused by his rival's nororious curse; the supposed regularity with which couples featured in its pages split. "It's their fault," he says. "If you say, 'Tell us again, Mrs X, why you're so wonderful and have the most perfect husband', that's bound to blow up in your face."

Koumi demurs. "We ran Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley on the cover. If you'd asked me how long I thought they were going to last I would have said a week. For every couple that has broken up, we have featured people who are still together. This is just nastiness."

Although OK! has its fair share of blandness - cover star Claudia Schiffer recently opined"modelling is a serious job, but it's important to have a laugh" - Barber insists that he also runs darker stories. He cites the daughter of Ken Stronach, the former valet to the Prince of Wales, and how she told of her father's abuse while they lived on the Highgrove estate.

For Barber the choice of interviewees in OK! isn't commercially calculated. While he steers clear of politicians (although there's a request lodged for an at-home with Tony Blair), as his own chief interviewer he can make a personal selection. "I wouldn't have Sean Penn. I don't like him. I wouldn't have Mickey Rourke, Lord Archer. I wouldn't have had Sharon Stone until Casino. I hated that no-knickers business. Women readers don't like stars who don't wear knickers."

But can OK! really compete with Hello!, which has become an institution, parodied on Spitting Image, the first magazine to win an at-home with a royal (remember when the Duchess of York opened her doors?).

Barber is coolly confident. "We've done well, but we haven't been a real threat to Hello! yet. I'm not seeking to blow Hello! out of the water ... I just want some of the action. And people are nosy. They want to see into other people's homes." He shrugs. He doesn't believe the British are bored wth fame, not just yet: "There will always be a market for escapism."


Familiar faces and features from the most recent issue of Hello! (pounds 1.25)

Cover line: "Princess Diana and Jemima Goldsmith - two women working for the welfare of others."

Prose style: "It is difficult to remember now that two years ago she withdrew from public life, unable to cope.... No longer a royal wife, yet still a royal mother, she was living in limbo."

They're just like us: "We hadn't expected the third (child) to come so quickly. If we're not careful we will soon fill the house!" - Paul Young

Plug: The Paul Young feature mentions that he has a new album out in the spring.

The magazine's message: "I like the feeling of love that envelops one when surrounded by one's kids ... When you have your own children ... you become a better person" - Paul Young

Animal magic: Little Tippi - "the five-year-old who fearlessly befriends the wild animals of Africa" - poses with a snake, elephant and cheetah.

Fearless editorial: "Social welfare in all its manifestations is something very close to Princess Diana's heart."

Recipes: Black Soup - "so mushroomy you won't believe it!"

Advert count: 9.


Familiar faces and features from OK! (pounds 1.20)

Cover line: "Why people are so wrong about David and me, by Claudia Schiffer."

Prose style: "Although her job is the envy of a million wannabes, the German glamour girl admits her jet-set lifestyle can be a drag."

They're just like us: "I'm naturally lazy - which is why I budget for a personal trainer" - John Barrowman, star of flop US soap

'Central Park West'.

Plug: One picture of Claudia Schiffer clearly showcases her two new exercise videos.

The magazine's message: "I call my mother every day to chat. She helps me in so many, many ways. She looks after my business affairs, but she also provides that rock and shoulder that every girl needs" - Claudia Schiffer.

Animal magic:

Mystic Meg talks about her cats: "All cats are psychic. Hilda in particular likes to look into the crystal ball."

Fearless editorial: "Not in the least, Julia. You are, in fact, quite a unique talent." OK! replies to actress Julia Ormond's comment "Aren't I unoriginal?"

Recipes: Fabada, a soup from northern Spain.

Advert count: 17.