'I don't just do sex. There's room for intelligence'

As Cosmopolitan prepares for a relaunch, does this mean the days of the multiple orgasm are numbered? Editor Lorraine Butler faces the challenge of making a magazine nearly three decades old stand out from its newsstand rivals
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The unwary visitor to the offices of Cosmopolitan last week would have had to negotiate their way past not just the usual security staff and receptionists, but a desk full of five dildos "in the process of being tested by staff", a cut-out of Latino pop star Jennifer Lopez and a selection of nipple tassles.

The unwary visitor to the offices of Cosmopolitan last week would have had to negotiate their way past not just the usual security staff and receptionists, but a desk full of five dildos "in the process of being tested by staff", a cut-out of Latino pop star Jennifer Lopez and a selection of nipple tassles.

That said, Lorraine Butler, the magazine's new editor, doesn't want you to think Cosmopolitan is just about sex. "I'm amazed when people say to me 'it's just full of sex'. Firstly, there's nothing wrong with that, but secondly, it's not. We've campaigned to have the date rape drug GHB banned, and for various people who were wrongly convicted. If I was here just to do sex, as a former features editor of The Times I would be completely the wrong person for the job."

If she sounds a little impassioned, it's not surprising. What people think about Cosmopolitan is at the forefront of Butler's thoughts at the moment, as she prepares for her relaunched magazine to hit the stands next week.

The 32-year-old, who succeeded Mandi Norwood at the helm of Britain's best-selling women's glossy in June, is about to unveil some radical changes - and with them, attempt to buck the trend of drip-drip decline in the sector's circulation. The cover design and inside typefaces, which have remained constant for years, have been overhauled, and new sections added. But Butler, a pert, slim blonde who, like her blunt predecessor, claims to embody " Cosmo spirit" to a "t", is keen to stress that the tone of the magazine will remain much as it always has. "I would never change what it's about. It's an award-winning, number one formula, I'd be daft to change it. We're refreshing and modernising it."

Set against a plethora of new titles, the 28-year-old magazine was starting to look its age, its "orgasm" quips a little spent. While the covers were right for their time, says Butler, they had begun to feel "old-fashioned. The October cover is more glamorous and modern. I'm a big fan of spending hours on cover lines and while we won't change the tone, I think we can be cleverer, make them work a bit harder."

It is not just design that is getting a makeover. Butler is to introduce a new section at the front of the magazine, a mixture of celebrity, fashion and beauty, a formula that has seen "celeb fashion" mags such as Now carve their way into the circulation war, and has prompted rivals to include some of the same. Celebrity, she acknowledges, is now a necessary offering in the women's market, although she adds that they don't "need" to do it to sell the magazine.

But what the editor really wants is to recover some of the edgy controversy that characterised Cosmo in its younger years, largely through what she terms "intelligent" writing, and from names more often seen in newspaper columns. "Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf used to write for Cosmo and in the last five years, it's been a hit, but we've lost a bit of that. We're never going to become Granta, but there is room for intelligent think pieces," she says.

In mind, she has writers such as Bitch author Elizabeth Wurtzel, as well as newspaper journalists who she believes could be encouraged to write for a women's magazine. The relaunch, she says, is about "giving Cosmo that voice back", and tackling issues that other women's magazines might not want to.

Considering just what has appeared in women's magazines over the past few years, it is a little hard to imagine what that might be. But what the new Cosmo will retain is its relentless positivity. And the sex. "The Cosmo reader is as happy to see naked male centrefolds as she is to read a serious piece about date rape today. It's a fantastic formula; Mandi Norwood did great things and Marcelle (d'Argy Smith) did what she did with it as well... I hope I'm not the one who makes history by grinding it into the ground."

This last is spoken too gaily for her to consider it a real possibility. Certainly, based on her past history, it's unlikely. Butler has enjoyed a Formula One race through some of the top jobs in journalism. From deputy editor of Marie Claire, she was appointed features editor of the Times, where, within three months of starting she was approached by Duncan Edwards, National Magazines' deputy managing director. As someone who read the magazine from age 12, she considered it her dream job, and accepted with only the smallest of backward glances at her most recent employers.

"I've been moving fast," she says. "My only regret is that I've moved quite quickly through jobs, but it's only because something has always come up that was unmissable."

Butler's career beginnings were inauspicious. She left school without qualifications and began work on her local paper, the Cornish Times. It was that newspaper grounding, "spelling people's names correctly", that has stood her in good stead - and it's one she values in her own staff. "I almost make it a prerequisite because you know how things work, you've learned about the importance of accuracy and how things are put together." No surprise, then, that she has just appointed a new deputy with a print pedigree, Helen Johnston from Femail.

Cosmopolitan's last ABC, while down 4.3 per cent year on year, was still 20,000 ahead of its nearest rival, Marie Claire. And Butler, while admitting that the imminent UK launches of Condé Nast's Glamour and Time Life's In Style are likely to have some impact, is bullish about the magazine's position. Despite the plethora of recent "intelligent" launches, from Emap's Red to the BBC's Eve, she says she doesn't even count them as rivals. "I think Eve is boring. Cosmo is fun and happy, it's about keeping it positive. Look, I've been up against Marie Claire, who've been covermounting like mad and we've moved even further ahead. If you're giving the reader what she wants - and we are, although it sounds arrogant - we should be OK."

She insists that there is enough point of difference to keep Cosmopolitan in the top slot. "The formula will keep us unique. It teaches you every aspect of women's lives, it's about what's most important to them, relationships. You don't find that anywhere else alongside news and tongue-in-cheek sex features. We are the only magazine that does that package."

Self-confidence, then, appears to be a prerequisite in the Cosmo girl of today. Either way, she stresses that to survive on the magazine, one has to "lead a bit of a Cosmo life". (In Butler's case, this currently involves fretting about whether the weather will hold for her imminent beachside wedding). Most Cosmopolitan editors last between five and seven years. Butler believes she will probably last around the same.

"I think that would be sensible. I would be too old and unfashionable to carry on then. And one has to have lots of sex to be editor of Cosmo, and with kids and things I probably wouldn't be." She is keen to stress afterwards that she is joking. But not that keen. Lorraine Butler is a Cosmo girl, after all.