A women's magazine for the Helen Mirrens of this world? What is that Marcelle d'Argy Smith up to at `Woman's Journal'?
Monday 25 August 1997
It has been noted, you see, that no magazine addresses itself directly to you. You have nothing to read on the train. Rest assured, however, that this problem is being addressed.
My first thought on hearing that the former high-profile Cosmopolitan editor was to take over this particular title (a "stylish publication for the upmarket woman", as IPC would have it), was "Christ!" But second thoughts suggested that this could be an inspired piece of casting.
WJ's outgoing editor, Deirdre Vine, is moving on to some new project, all very hush-hush, and Heather Love is keen to stress her achievement over a decade, in "turning the oil tanker around". The challenge for d'Argy Smith, as she sees it, will be "to continue to improve it, to sharpen it, to give it more pizzazz". Journal, with a circulation pushing 150,000, already commands a readership of 455,000 in the 35-plus age group, and is therefore, Love believes, in a unique position to declare itself to them as a magazine for women with interests beyond home and family.
The first great thing d'Argy Smith has to offer is her own visibility. Few of us would recognise Deirdre Vine if we met her on the street, but most people could pick out Marcelle - that slight figure, the suntan, the extraordinary amber hair and eyes, the toothy smile, the aura of glamour - in a line-up.
Her second strength is her persona. She is that curious paradox, a strong and vulnerable woman, a super-self-confident nervous wreck. The reader she means to reach - affluent, successful, yet still prey to insecurity - should identify strongly with her.
"Don't look," she implored, as she led me into her beautiful garden flat, in a white stucco building off Bayswater Road. I averted my eyes from the mess of beak and feathers on the kitchen floor. The housekeeper was summoned to deal with the carnage, and two fluffy cats went swanning off to flop out in the sunshine. "Why do people always say of a woman, `Lives alone with her cats?' ", d'Argy Smith wonders, bringing mugs of tea. "No one ever says of a man, `Lives alone with his cats.' "
Here is someone who is game for public speaking, and for broadcasting, who was taking a party of journalists to the European Parliament on the day that she was approached by IPC, but who is too intimidated to cook for any but the closest friends, and who comes out in a cold sweat if she has to drive across the Chiswick fly-over.
She has enjoyed two years as a freelance since leaving Cosmo, and says she hesitated for a while before signing the contract. But now she sees her way clear, she sees what she must do. She's excited, but not anxious - for at this, after all, she is sure she's the business.
"If you look at the women in this country, the most powerful, achieving and interesting ones are in the 35-plus age group. We've got 118 women MPs. We've got barristers. We've got all those professional women, every woman who ever hit the business headlines. They are the most powerful group. But, while the powerful women I know sort of know it, there are those who don't know how powerful they are, they don't see what they've got, or how happy they could be, or what they could be doing. They're just aware of a kind of generalised frustration. It never actually stops them functioning, but they don't feel great. And they have to understand that, married, single, with kids or whatever, they could, I just know they could, feel great.
"Some women hit 40, as happened to friends of mine, and they were beached whales. I don't mean their size, they were often still incredibly attractive, but they were stunned that they weren't 21 any more. They started to panic as the ostensible gorgeousness began to wear off. I think women feel about their looks the way men feel about their wives, they don't spot them till they're walking out."
Journal, then, will presumably have a mission to encourage women, as they enter a new phase of life, to urge them to realise their potential. It was at this point that I mention Helen Mirren as maybe the sort of role model she has in mind, and Marcelle says, "Absolutely, absolutely, she is just the job."
To some extent this promises to be another repackaging of all the old magazine departments. There will still be beauty and fashion, because these things are, she says, "a big part of female confidence, it's incredibly important, so I think there will be a lot of that."
There is a hope, though, that it will make new connections with a different kind of audience, while not alienating the existing one. "I asked myself, `Why do I want to do this?', and I thought, `I know, it's because I have the desire to talk to women.' I found out through speaking that I can tell people things. It's wonderful when you can reach them."
Then, too, "One of the major draws has been Heather Love. I look forward to working on a women's magazine with a woman publishing director. And I've dealt with the staff before: I've written for them, and actually said to a couple of people - this is the God's honest truth - that I was stunned by the way I, as a writer, was treated, with such courtesy, with such precision, with such care over copy. One of the two said, `Yes, I've dealt with these people, they're so good and professional,' and the other said, `It's great that you've got this job. Can I write for you? I really like what they do.' "
The feeling, according to Heather Love, is mutual. "I have to say that when I told the staff, they were thrilled to bits to hear that it was going to be Marcelle. I had never been in this position where everyone was really sorry to see Deirdre go, but happy that Marcelle would be coming."
This augurs well, since every magazine's editorial content is to a high degree an expression of the mood of the editorial team: high motivation and enthusiasm shine through. Woman's Journal, or "Wo Jo" as d'Argy Smith has started calling it in her head, is 70 years old this year. If life begins at 40 for the Nineties woman, it may begin at 70 for this venerable title.
Reflecting on her chances of improving its fortunes, d'Argy Smith is pragmatic. "Three things can happen. I could go in and be brilliant. I could go in and it could be exactly the same as it was. And I could go in and fuck up. What else is there?" My money is on option one, or maybe three. Whatever WJ will be, it will never be the same again n
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