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Hello! magazine celebrates its 20th birthday

It's the place where gloss meets goss – and a generation of celebrities have shared their most intimate secrets. As 'Hello!' celebrates its 20th birthday, John Walsh looks behind the cover of the magazine that shaped a billion-dollar industry

That's nice. Princess Anne's son Peter Phillips and his bride to be have invited you inside their lovely home, Aston Farm, on Peter's father's Gloucestershire estate. They are happy to pose for you on the carpet, to show off the original beams in the living room and to reveal, hilariously, that Peter proposed to his Canadian fiancée in a downpour of rain while taking the dog for a walk. Isn't that lovely?

If you find the process of leafing through 19 pages of this stuff attractive, it may be that you're a natural reader of Hello! magazine, the Rolls-Royce of celebrity titles, which celebrates its 20th birthday this week. If you have a nasty, suspicious streak, you may wonder why this privileged-but-flavourless pair have chosen to appear in this rose-tinted journal to tell you their life is just rosy.

But then everything is always rosy on Planet Hello!. Look at the current issue. Meg Matthews, the former high-spending wife of Noel Gallagher explains that she's delighted to be living in a two-storey shoe-box ("I was adamant that it had to be the opposite of the Gothic Regency townhouse.") Lembit Opik reveals that the announcement of his engagement to Cheeky Girl Gabriela Irimia was greeted with sober approval by fellow parliamentarians ("When she joined me in the Commons, a queue of MPs formed to give her a hug"). Lovely Kelly Brook may have split up from fiancée Billy Zane, but even the photos of a Budget removals lorry outside their former home cannot dent her lovely smile; but then, why should it when, we are assured, she's just "jetted to LA" in order to "discuss new projects" with several agents, and has "landed a job co-presenting a new TV entertainment show"?

As the brassy coven of bargain-basement chanteuses Girls Aloud pose for photographs with Kit Kat bars, Kit Kat mugs and, er, Kit Kat wallpaper, Kimberley Walsh's look is described by her stylist as "inspired by icons like Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren." The substantially built singer Chaka Khan – here described as "Legendary soul survivor Chaka Khan" – assures the magazine that "she's happy in her skin and finding peace with herself," shorthand for "doesn't care any more about being huge, and blames her history of drinking and drug addiction, not on any personal shortcomings, but on the pressure of early success".

As stories spread across the tabloids that Amy Winehouse has taken up with young Alex Haines, and that her husband, Blake, has been scheming with an old girlfriend to seize a wedge of Amy's millions and vamoose to the US, all Hello! wishes to report is: "One thing remains clear. Blake Fielder-Civil will fight from behind bars to win back the wife he adores." Horrid rumours that Gwyneth Paltrow's marriage to Chris Martin is in trouble (would that partially explain the run of knicker-skimming black frocks?) are explained as a misunderstanding based on the fact that "she and Chris are rarely photographed together". On being asked about her recent interest in Madame Whiplash stilettos, Paltrow remarks, "I never thought I'd be asked questions about my shoes," revealing herself as hopelessly out of touch with the Hello! perspective on the world. She's lucky they stopped at her shoes.

It's been going on like this for 20 years. Two decades of celebrity gossip, filth and scandal, without any actual filth or scandal. Two decades of welcoming the reader into the lovely homes of film stars, footballers, TV soap stars, fashion designers, glamour models, Big Brother contestants and girl bands. Twenty years of grovelling indulgence towards people temporarily gilded with stardom or luck or the arrival of a new partner in lurve.

The magazine has presided over a gigantic paradox: it deals in a world of wealth, renown, fabulous success, deranged consumer spending and the expectation that romance will always be around the corner – everything, in short, that the world associates with happiness. Even though the figures who populate this world seem to spend unconscionable amounts of time being unhappy, unwell, doomed to rehab clinics, socially maladroit, sexually incontinent and unable to look after their children, it has been Hello! magazine's unenviable task to put a brave face, and a positive construction, on the slow-motion motorway crash of famous people's lives.

The first issue appeared on 21 May 1988. Princess Anne was on the cover in what the magazine's international editor, Juliet Herd, claims was the first one-to-one royal interview ever published in a British glossy. On other pages, Donald Trump and his wife opened the tiny hatch doors of their new yacht, the Nabila; to the goggling reader, Burt Reynolds confided how much he fancied women of 45 and older – good news for Britt Ekland, who, just 45, told the magazine that she had "found a new interest in life [her son] and simply adores it". Danielle Mitterrand took the rubbernecking demographic "behind the scenes at the Elysée". Greta Scacchi revealed she was "fed up with fame", Princess Caroline of Monaco gave her name to a new rose, and we wiped our feet on the doormat when invited to hang out "with the film world's newest couple – Michael Winner and Jenny Seagrove."

The new arrival had a Spanish parent. It was called ¡Hola! had started 64 years ago in Barcelona when a young newspaper journalist, called Antonia Sanchez Gomez, dreamed of starting a weekly illustrated journal devoted to "the froth of life", showing readers the lives of the rich and famous as light relief from the ravages of war. The first issue, in a print run of 14,000, came out in September 1944 with a cover illustration. For the next issue, they had a brainwave and put a publicity still of Clark Gable on the magazine's cover. It sold out instantly. Celebrity journalism, ¡Hola!/ Hello!-style, was born.

Over the years, this juggernaut sucked up to royalty all over Europe: when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, the magazine sent the photographers in a private plane to cover the event.

Both magazines are still published every week, in 13 international language editions, reaching a total audience of eight million readers. The million, or perhaps multi-million pound question concerns how it achieved a position of such pre-eminence? Mark Borkowski, the leading PR guru and media commentator, attributes its success to a simple, age-old factor: money.

"¡Hola! was an odd little Spanish publication covering its cranky Euro-royals, Count von This and Baroness von That, but it specialised in picture-driven stories," he says. "Hello! arrived with perfect timing just when the collateral of celebrity was going through a change. It coincided with the rise of the big-cheese PR men, especially in California, who wanted copy-approval for interviews with their clients, who recognised how much the magazines needed them more than vice versa."

"The PR men could say to an editor: 'If you want to feature my star in your magazine, it'll be for one reason, which is to sell more copies. So you must get involved in the marketing.' Partly because of Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, magazines were running huge, photo-driven glossy features that were attracting lots of readers. Hello! stepped into that market and offered to pay celebrities to appear."

The financial deals with stars tended to be handled by the shadowy Marquesa de Varela, a Spanish grandee with a direct line to the current publisher, Eduardo Sanchez Junco. She has always come across as the heart and soul of the magazine, and is responsible for coordinating its most high-rolling features (such as the current issue's cover story about Phillips and Kelly.)

A popular urban myth convinced many down-at-heel ex-celebs that the Marquesa circulates at London parties with wads of £20 notes in her reticule, liberally dispensing them to anyone with a sad story to tell or a new house to brag about. But there's no doubt that the Hello! initiative of paying the famous to show us their fame, paid off.

"It pulled the rug from under the magazines and newspapers who had until then enjoyed free access and free rein with film and music stars," adds Borkowski. "Here was a contract for huge amount of money between the celebrity and the content that would drive the sales, and if you weren't bidding, you weren't in the race. It promised glossy pictures and inane words, and an undertaking that the subject wouldn't be turned over. It was jam for everyone."

Some of the glossy pictures in Hello! can be spectacularly handsome and well shot; some aspire to little more than a studio session in Pimlico; but hardly anyone has a good word for the actual prose style of Hello!. Most interviews seem couched in a bed of cotton-wool blandishments about "pursuing her dream" and living "a fairy-tale lifestyle", while "coming to terms with the past" when there was "a question mark over her health". The interviewers are not keen on being seen as purveyors of blandness.

"It irritates me," says a veteran contributor called Dominic, "the way people regard the Welcome-to-my-lovely-home features. These pieces are much more rigorous than the name suggests. Once they stars have been paid their money, you're free to ask them anything.

"Of course, you can't write bitchily about them, but you can ask them straight questions about why they've run off with someone's wife. Often, they'll be giving the only interview about their misdemeanour, because they know they won't be roughed up too much. But that doesn't mean you write a press release. You ask: 'How do you feel about the fact that you've left your wife and kids?'"

But doesn't the editor say, "Keep it light and positive now"? "No, no, the reverse. If we've paid £10,000 or £20,000 that gives the editor the right to say, 'Go back, we can't brush aside this central point. We want it in more depth.' My house rule is, the line of questioning should be intimate but not intrusive."

The magazine's Torquemadan interrogations apart, the glossy photographs and comprehensive coverage of A, B, C and D-list personages brought it rapid success. It soon settled into a readership of two million per issue. But there was trouble looming, in the shape of OK! magazine. The thinly disguised clone of Hello! (even down to the exclamation mark and the boxed-in title), appeared in 1990. It's owned by Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Express and Daily Star, and went straight for Hello!'s readership when it became a weekly in 1996.

Almost from the outset, it battled with its older rival for the exclusive rights to cover celebrity weddings, and won a spectacular victory by nailing the Beckham nuptials in 1999

"As soon as OK! joined in, the bottom fell out of the market," says Mark Borkowski. "Hello! was struggling because OK! had the Express group behind it and they could make lucrative cross-fertilisation deals with the papers. But then both magazines recognised the folly of competing and driving the price up. There was an unwritten agreement that both sides would stop throwing money at these people.

"Also, after OK! came an explosion of celeb magazines, Heat and Closer and so on, which didn't want the soft-pedalling, anodyne stuff; they wanted the plastic-surgery scars, the stories about celebrities in trouble."

Both magazines sail on in their curiously old-fashioned way, fighting over territory that seems, to the naked eye, to belong to both of them.

"There's some crossover between us," admits Juliet Herd, with distaste. "Of course, we're much more upmarket. We're the Rolls-Royce of celebrity journalism, and there are things you expect to see in our pages that you don't in OK!. This week's royal story, for instance."

"Sometimes we feature, say, Melinda Messenger or Girls Aloud who you might also find in OK!. But we don't do Jordan or –" she shudders, "Kerry Katona, that's OK!'s domain. Generally we distinguish ourselves by being more classy."

An earnest of Hello!'s classiness was the guest list at its 20th birthday party on Wednesday. Among the revellers were Joan Collins, Tamara Beckwith, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Gloria Hunniford, Ingrid Tarrant, former wife of Chris, and the Llewelyn-Bowens. It's an odd list. Most of the participants would have been on it 10 or more years ago. It resembles, not an index of the frenzy of British renown in 2008, but a long-running soap opera: its characters mostly tired, moth-eaten and over-exposed, still game to find an audience, but even more keen to be invited into your house for a drink and a little lie-down.