Sally Cartwright allows herself a wry smile at the mention of that paparazzo picture she published of Catherine Zeta-Jones being fed wedding-cake by her husband, Michael Douglas, at their wedding in New York three years ago. A picture, it should be pointed out, that later appeared in a tabloid under the headline "Catherine Eater-Jones". The star claimed that the snatched picture was "distressing" and left her feeling "violated".
But Hello!'s publishing director is apparently unrepentant about using the shot, and others like it: "Come on! I find the level of distress allegedly caused by the picture completely ridiculous. Especially if you consider that the authorised shots published in OK! included a picture of her putting a piece of wedding-cake into Michael Douglas's mouth. I find it extraordinary... People eat wedding-cake at their weddings."
Cartwright is the executive who steered Hello! through its epic legal tussle with the Hollywood couple and OK! magazine, the rival celebrity glossy which had secured the exclusive rights to cover the wedding. Speaking for the first time at length about the case - which resulted in Hello! having to pay most of its opponents' legal bill, more than £1m in damages (including a mere £14,000 to Zeta-Jones and Douglas), and a large sum in interest - Cartwright admits that if they are unsuccessful at appeal, her magazine faces a bill of up to £4m. A high price to pay for grainy pictures shot at
hip-level by a freelance snapper, Rupert Thorpe, son of the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe.
Nevertheless, she thinks that the Hollywood stars seriously miscalculated by going to court. "I think they were unwise - it was ill-judged, certainly, in terms of the effect it has had on their image in this country. It has not gone down well with the media or the public. I still don't understand why they did it, because the results for them cannot have been pleasing. I mean, they got £14,000, which is loose change in their terms, and they had very bad press throughout."
Does Hello! have a message for the couple now? A short peal of laughter. "We wish them every success in their illustrious careers," replies Cartwright. "Having said that, we will continue to feature them in the magazine. We've had them both on the cover since the trial, and I'm sure we will again. We don't have any hard feelings in that sense, because it would be cutting off our nose to spite our face."
The drawn-out case has left relations with Richard Desmond's OK! magazine - which has a circulation of 570,927 to Hello!'s 350,374 - at an all-time low. Cartwright, who joined Hello! in 1990, just 18 months after its launch, believes that the magazine should have sued Northern & Shell (Desmond's company) as soon as OK! arrived on the news-stands. "We had the market all to ourselves for five glorious years before they came along," she sighs at the memory, "but I think we should have sued them when they started producing something that was clearly a direct copy of Hello!. I wanted to, but others were against it...
"We let them get away with it. We let them walk up to the wardrobe and steal our clothes. We didn't take it seriously enough as a threat. All credit to Desmond, he's a very clever man - he copies brilliantly."
Apart from that, I ask, what does she make of Desmond? "I couldn't work for him ever, not that he would want me to in any case," she answers. "He's a very difficult man to compete with. Because - and I have to be careful here as he's also a very litigious man - he uses tactics that we in this company would not, could not consider."
Despite the mutual antipathy, for a brief period in 2002, Hello! and OK! called a truce, agreeing not to outbid each other for celebrity exclusives. The so-called "Madrid treaty" - struck in May of that year between Desmond and Hello!'s billionaire Spanish owner, Eduardo Sanchez Junco - is estimated to have saved the magazines a combined total of £100m, and left many a celebrity's nose distinctly out of joint.
Cartwright - a Patricia Hodge lookalike who lives in the countryside and could have been plucked from the social pages of Tatler - says that the deal, while "not in existence at the moment", was a qualified success. "There was a realisation that the amounts that celebrities were asking for exclusives were becoming ludicrous, to the extent that it made no commercial sense for us," she explains. "Stars were using Hello! and OK! just to ratchet fees up, so there was an agreement for a while. And it has proved effective in some senses because things are a bit more under control now."
The magazine has paid certain A-list stars more than £1m for an exclusive photo-shoot and "soft" interview, usually offering copy and picture approval to boot. The assorted B- and C-list "stars" from the ranks of TV, pop music and high society can command up to £50,000 a time.
The irony, muses Cartwright, is that the agreement with OK! took place after the Zeta-Jones/Douglas wedding. "The timing made the whole thing very curious. I was never happy with the deal. It was a case of supping with the devil, and I didn't think that our spoon was sufficiently long. Richard Desmond is a cunning man. And I think this company is too upright to be able to compete properly with somebody like that."
But Hello! wasn't merely outmanoeuvred by Desmond's upwardly mobile OK!. The runaway success of Heat (circulation 566,731), Now (592,076) and Closer (385,036) reflects a change in attitude towards celebrities. Readers, says Cartwright, have grown tired of publicists micro-managing and calling the shots. "I think celebrities and their publicists have a dangerously high level of control, which is why you've got such a growth in the more irreverent coverage, in the paparazzi pictures, in the stars without make-up, stars with spots, stars who sweat, because that isn't controlled by the PRs. Magazines such as Heat and Now have undoubtedly changed the market."
However, she won't be tempted to move Hello! in that direction. "You can't sell Hello! on that basis. Glamour is what readers expect from the magazine. We can't do it without glamour. That's our niche. Gwyneth Paltrow with spots wouldn't work for us. We've done qualitative research. Our readers love to look at the glamour, but then they love to pick holes in it and say, 'Look at her hands!', or, 'Look at that awful mantelpiece!'"
Critics of Hello! - which has a "huge readership crossover with the Daily Mail" - say that the magazine became over-dependent on Diana, Princess of Wales, who boosted sales virtually every time she appeared on the cover, and they've been struggling to replace her ever since.
Sally Cartwright concedes that the Royals, though still a major draw for Hello! readers, don't shift copies like they used to. "The Queen is not a winner on a Hello! cover, unless it's linked to a major event such as the Golden Jubilee. Charles and Camilla sell to an extent... Helen Windsor is good. The Duchess of York doesn't have... intrinsic appeal. Princes William and Harry do very well, but nobody has filled the gap that Diana left."Reuse content