Cherie is no prima donna

By editing a popular women's magazine, the prospective First Lady seems to have shown her true, non-political colours. By Meg Carter
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You would think she'd have enough on her plate: a practising QC with an eye on becoming a judge, mother of three and wife of the Leader of the Opposition. But then Cherie Blair loves a good challenge, which is why monthly women's magazine Prima thought she'd be the ideal guest editor for its October issue, which goes on sale on Thursday.

Cherie Blair's involvement is anything but a publicity stunt, says full- time editor Lindsay Nicholson: "Cherie had just the same input I would usually have." Approached back in January via a mutual acquaintance, Blair put together the October edition, which also marks the title's 10th anniversary, during fortnightly visits to Prima's editorial office over the past six months. Her involvement ranged from developing features and ideas for regular sections to discussing dressmaking patterns and recipes. "Cherie's interest in battered women and children was among the areas she wanted to pursue," Nicholson says. Blair is involved in a women's refuge in Chiswick.

"Cherie is also a keen knitter and spent quite some time discussing patterns, colours and yarns," she adds. Blair's knitting design features in the October issue, along with a cookery article ("Dinners in Half An Hour" - she penned the headline herself), another subject close to the heart of the wife of the Labour leader, Nicholson explains. "Like most women, Cherie gets in from work and cooks."

This may surprise those who can only imagine the prospective First Lady leafing though the pages of Vanity Fair or the New Yorker. Yet it turns out that her tastes are far more home-spun. Blair is a regular Prima reader, committed to the title's monthly diet of human interest, health, homes and practical tips. Indeed, Nicholson insists: "She just blew my mind because she knew the magazine so well, with sharp ideas and a sound understanding of the technicalities of publishing."

When copy came in, it went straight to Blair for suggestions, she adds. Luckily, there appear to have been no major areas of disagreement. "There were no clashes - actually, it was the reverse. Working in magazines can distance you at times. Cherie picked us up on a number of points, saying 'No. I don't think people think like that, let's do this'."

She also got involved with a reader conference at the Ritz, the highlights of which feature in the October issue along with the results of a Prima survey of 2,000 women, "The State of the Female Nation". The findings appear to underline the reasons for the popularity of the magazine's editorial mix (which regularly delivers sales exceeding 550,000). Sadly, she did not feature among the 18 role models nominated: Delia Smith (14 per cent), Joanna Lumley (9 per cent) and Anita Roddick (7 per cent) came first.

Cherie Blair's editorship of Prima follows a period in which many politicians have courted women through the pages of top-selling magazines. In July, the editors of Good Housekeeping, Bella and Chat each visited John Major with six of their readers. Meanwhile, Parents magazine carried an exclusive interview with Tony Blair talking about his family.

Just last week, Norma Major emerged from the shadows to join her husband in his election campaign - the Tories hope her natural homeliness will appeal to female voters - giving rise to speculation that both wives will play an increasingly important role in winning votes. This month also sees the publication of Norma Major's second book, a history of Chequers. Nicholson insists, however, that Cherie Blair's Prima participation is no political stunt. "It's about adding extra value for our readers - providing a fresh twist."

And this despite Nicholson's self-confessed scepticism about the merits of using guest editors at all. "In my view, they don't generally tend to work," she concedes. "Either they're so high profile their involvement is unbelievable or they're just not right for the magazine."

The problem is, just how can anyone be expected to believe that the Dalai Lama actually edited a recent special edition of French Vogue? Or Nelson Mandela, for that matter - another guest editor? Others who have flirted with publishing include Roseanne (she guest edited the New Yorker) and, closer to home, comedienne Jenny Eclair, who edited a special "ladied" version of Loaded; Joan Collins and the absolutely fabulous Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley (Marie Claire); Jarvis Cocker and Blur (NME).

Marie Claire publisher Heather Love denies Joan Collins's involvement was merely a publicity stunt. Despite her fame, Collins was heavily involved with the issue, she insists. "It was quite simply a fun idea at a slow time of year [January]." Nicholas Coleridge, managing editor of Vogue's publisher, Conde Nast, is not so sure. "Really the only purpose is publicity - I don't think readers mind one way or the other," he says.

The guest editors can also lack the basic skills needed to get a magazine out, which can place an unnecessary extra burden on the staff. "Guest editors can come up with fun ideas and their own cast of characters but, inevitably, it is the full-timers who end up doing 90 per cent of the work." It is a point borne out by insiders at the New Yorker who criticised comedienne Roseanne's recent guest editorship claiming she didn't pull her weight. According to one: "What she did was sit about LA for a couple of 'meetings' with friends like Carrie Fisher and Ruby Wax. It was a stunt - not the New Yorker way of doing things."

Adds NME publisher Robert Tame: "If we could get in someone like Oasis we'd do it. Although obviously you'd be worried that they wouldn't be up to speed on libel law. I'd certainly be somewhat anxious that week."

Opinion is divided as to whether a guest editor can actually increase sales. The edition of French Vogue edited by the Dalai Lama was "an astonishing success" - attracting a completely different mix of readership, Coleridge says. "If it doesn't win extra readers, I can't really see any other reason for doing it," says Tame. However, Heather Love adds, as sales tend to fluctuate from month to month, it is often impossible to say.

While publicity may boost readers for one issue, steady circulation and rising sales depend on continued quality and a consistent approach to tone and content, Nicholson says, which is why she is confident Cherie Blair's contribution will please her readership. "I hope regular readers will recognise all the elements they love with an added, extra edge," she says.

"At Prima, we shy away from phrases like 'typical reader' - we don't make judgments, but think hard about common interests and experiences." Cherie Blair, it seems, proves this point - and understands it as well. So well, in fact, that she could enjoy a productive second career. "If my bosses found out how good she was, perhaps I'd be out of a job," Nicholson gushes. "Although, thankfully, she probably earns so much she wouldn't need it."