Celebs? Don't knock them

Readers are tired of pictures of stars with cellulite, says the new editor of OK!. Niceness is making a comeback, she tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

David Beckham might find it difficult to believe at the moment, but the days of the media being spiteful to celebrities are over. At least, that's the reasoning of the new editor of OK! magazine, a convent-educated, medieval-history graduate who will base her editorial strategy on the prognosis that the public is tired of the vogue for bitchi- ness, and wants its stars back on their pedestals.

If Lisa Palta is right, it could mean an end to those fashion-disaster spreads, and a ban on snatched pictures of A-listers without make-up. What's more, the day of the kiss-and-tell would be over.

"Certain magazines have gone off on a tangent. They are doing celebrity surgery week after week; celebrities with no make-up," she says. "At OK! we would never go down that route." Of course, Palta, who took over at the helm of OK! this week, has a vested interest in this theory. The magazine already has a reputation for giving its subjects an easy ride. Nevertheless, she is convinced that being nice to celebs is the future, and that rival magazines will have to fall into line with a new public mood.

"I have spoken to agents and they have told me that they will not deal with certain magazines. They don't like the way their celebrities are being [treated] in such a derogatory manner," she says. Her view is confirmed by informed sources at the heart of the celebrity picture market.

Palta's benign treatment of the likes of "David and Victoria", Westlife and Elton John does not mean she is incapable of speaking with an acid tongue when talking about the rest of the celebrity magazine market. Heat and Hello! are her favourite targets. Heat, she acknowledges, was until recently "quite a cult magazine" that would "get good celebrities coming to them". That has changed, she claims, because of the hostility of agents and celebrities to the vogue for knocking copy.

"For the past six months to a year they are not getting the A-list celebrities any more - they are getting more the TV presenters," she says. "I think celebrities see the magazines and they don't want to be involved in them any more."

Palta says that Emap's Heat and IPC's Now are starting to see their circulation falter due to reader fatigue over their hostile treatment of some of their subjects. "Their sales did go up, but now they are declining because people are fed up with it," she says.

In fact, Now is still the narrow leader in the celebrity magazine market, with 592,076 sales. Heat's circulation is solid at 566,731. By contrast, Hello! magazine, which is known for being even more sycophantic than Richard Desmond's OK!, has seen its sales fall 36 per cent in 12 months to 350,374.

"I don't understand what is going on over there. A number of their covers have just gone so badly for them," sideswipes Palta, citing one cover that featured the wedding of Mikhail Gorbachev's daughter.

OK! posted a circulation of 570,927 at the last ABCs, which is down 10 per cent year on year. But the figure represented a 17 per cent rise on the previous quarter, a far better performance than any of its rivals. So maybe it is on to something. And Palta, 34, is clearly besotted with the celebrity magazine world and the opportunities it offers to meet the stars. "It's great working in the celebrity field and going behind the scenes and seeing what life is really like," she says.

In her five years at the magazine (Palta is stepping up from her current post of deputy editor) she has moved in glitzy circles. Most prominently, she covered Liza Minnelli's wedding in New York, where she rubbed shoulders with Liz Taylor, and Michael Jackson.

The magazine, she says, has a "brilliant relationship" with "Catherine and Michael" (Douglas), with whom it was aligned in a bitter legal battle with Hello! over pictures of the couple's wedding.

Similarly, everything to do with "David and Victoria" is meat and drink to the magazine. "The Beckham name is just connected to OK!" she says, claiming that the magazine must publish every set of Beckham pictures.

The key date on the OK! social calendar is Elton John's annual White Tie and Tiara Ball, which she describes as "one of the most upmarket and fantastic events of the year". Elton is reckoned to be a key player on the celebrity scene ("David and Victoria are fantastic friends with him").

Educated at the Bar Convent in York (the oldest convent in England, and a school until 1985), Palta was a teenage "magazine fiend", who devoured Honey and Just 17 before graduating to Elle and Vogue. She read medieval history at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

"The celebrity magazines really appealed to me," she says. "I find all the celebrity culture really interesting. Even though I would never want to be a celebrity myself, it's almost like the country has become obsessed with showbusiness and celebrity lifestyles, with top programmes at the moment like Footballers' Wives, which is fantastic escapism."

But good relationships with celebs and their agents come at a price. "We look after them and they look after us," she says. "The most important thing is to go out to lunches with agents and get to know them on a personal level, so that when one of their clients is pregnant or getting married we get it."

The most important agents for OK! are Alan Edwards (who has Westlife on his books) and Simon Fuller and his company 19 Management - "they've got David and Victoria".

Palta believes that it is imperative that agents feel they can "trust" the OK! team with their clients "when we are invited into their homes or invited on holiday with them".

But such a cosy relationship must surely compromise the magazine's journalism? "We try not to give approval. Only if it's demanded of us will we give approval," says Palta, who claims that agents are realists and that, in her experience, "hardly anything has been changed" even with the most "graphic, revealing" interviews. Picture approval "does not always happen". "Maybe they will occasionally change one or two pictures," she says.

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