Inside Story: the best advice gurus

The world is full of sad, confused and sex-starved people. Luckily there is plenty of advice on hand to help. Sophie Morris examines the best
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The Independent Online


Crowned "Britain's answer to Frasier Crane" by Men's Health magazine, Phillip Hodson has written advice columns for the Daily Star, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, She, Cosmopolitan and Woman's Journal as well as hosting Phillip Hodson Hour on LBC for 15 years. "It's hard work and you open yourself up to a lot of people who are very needy and a lot of people who are actually quite mad," he says. His career has been dogged by "sexism in Fleet Street" and "aggressive, egocentric male publishers" who see men as news reporters and want a woman writing the agony pages. Hodson was sacked by Piers Morgan from the News of the World, where he was asked to write more about sex but wasn't allowed to write about homosexuality, and was replaced by Diana Dors at the Star. He's currently spokesperson for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and would return to writing if the price was right, as he thinks the field is still suffering from a lack of men. "I think I've been a pioneer." But, he says, "My bust just wasn't big enough."


"It's an irresistible job," says Virginia Ironside about being The Independent's resident agony aunt, where she prints readers' solutions alongside her own opinions. Ironside took over from Anna Raeburn at Woman when she was in her early 30s and has written advice columns for the Sunday Mirror, the Sunday Post and many teenage magazines. She compares her job to "repairing furniture", adding: "People who enjoy writing problem pages are a bit weird. We're all trying to put something right in ourselves. You need to be compassionate, strong and fucked up. I'm always certain that my advice is right. You wouldn't be much use as an agony aunt if you weren't sure of your opinion."


Claire Rayner, 74, is one of the nation's best-known agony aunts but she gave it all up a few years ago, feeling the availability of advice on the internet had made her role dispensable. She's seen it all during her 50-year career in the business, which has included time at Woman's Own, TV-am, the Sunday Mirror, and The Sun among many other publications. "It's a serious job with a strong ethic. I wouldn't let editors get their hands on my column and I refused to sex up the letters." Rayner never believed she had all the answers. "You have to refer people on. You're a map to point the way to further sources of solid help." She was also at the helm of various important health campaigns which opened up the channels of information about issues such as cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections.


Mariella Frostrup wasn't sure whether to be flattered or insulted when offered the advice gig in the Observer magazine, as she says in Dear Mariella, a collection of her columns. She said to editor Allan Jenkins: "I'm straight to Claire Rayner. I'm not even 40 yet." Luckily, she realised that the chance to "rant away in a national paper, get paid and voice my opinions" was a dream job. Rayner rates Frostrup as "a sensible, grown-up, intelligent woman who knows how to research her subject and write it well". Of her qualifications, Frostrup says: "The fact that my life to date hadn't been an Eden of exemplary living was finally paying off." Marie Claire editor Marie O'Riordan is writing the column while Frostrup is on maternity leave.


Anna Raeburn first started opening readers' letters at a sex magazine over 30 years ago. When Evelyn Home, the doyenne of the agony industry who strictly upheld conventional morality from her post at Woman magazine, retired, Raeburn took her place. Shortly afterwards she began presenting a phone-in for Capital radio dealing with personal, sexual and emotional problems which ran for 14 years. "People fascinate me," says Raeburn. "I don't always trust or like them but they are endlessly interesting. I believe that talking to each other - really, honestly and openly - is profoundly political with a small p. It's a good thing to do."

The necessary qualifications?

"It's about age, latitude and writing."


Miriam Stoppard, 68, has been answering the public's personal dilemmas and health problems for decades on a host of magazines including Family Circle and Woman's Own. Her daily column in the Daily Mirror, for which she also writes health and opinion pieces, has been running for 10 years. "I'm not sure I give advice. What I hope to do is to give the reader, for a moment, a new pair of spectacles which might put a different slant of light on their problem." She trained as a doctor and has run her own surgery and worked in the pharmaceuticals industry, but now prefers writing her prescriptions in newsprint. "I get letters from people saying, 'You're my last resort. I had no one else to turn to.' That justifies the existence of the column."


Anne Atkins became The Daily Telegraph's agony aunt in 1996 after Marje Proops died, and stayed there for more than three years while also hosting a dilemma slot on ITV and writing a parenting column for "Marje broke the mould of the traditional agony aunt and I think they thought it was time for a change," she says. This "change" was Atkins' Christian faith, as her religious beliefs informed the advice she gave. She has just completed a history of her column, Agony Atkins, which gave her the chance to revisit some of the lives she has helped in the past, and currently writes a parenting column in the Daily Express. "Having five children makes a difference, but there are some very good young agony aunts," she says.


Jane Butterworth, 57, trained for her role as the News of the World's chief advice guru under the veteran agony uncle Phillip Hodson. Piers Morgan gave her her own page 11 years ago. She finds that most of the letters she opens are about sex. "You tread a very fine line between entertainment and information," she admits. "You can't be an agony aunt in a tabloid newspaper without being able to write." She had previously written about health and teenage sex issues and took a counselling course, although she doesn't think professional training is necessary to do the job well: "You have to be so careful. You have to give people options and choices and empower them to make their own decisions."


Since Dear Deidre set up shop in The Sun 25 years ago, more than four million readers have sought her counsel. The Proclaimers even dedicated a song to her. "I'm someone very safe to write to," she says. "You can tell me all about it and choose whether or not to take my advice." Despite her photo casebook and sex-heavy letters, she insists she is not out to arouse eager Sun readers, 10,000 of whom asked for her educational leaflet on orgasms. "I want the page to be an entertaining read. I don't think I ever write titillating copy." Sanders, 59, receives up to 1,000 letters a week, but is still shocked by some of the things she reads. She believes the ready availability of pornography on the internet is destroying relationships.


"I've never had anything which has brought me such an appreciative response from both peers and punters," says Bel Mooney of her advice column in T2, which she began writing earlier this year after a varied career in newspapers, radio and novel-writing. At 59, she believes the key skills of an agony aunt (a term she thinks is a cliché) are life experience and being able to write. "I take it very seriously and lose sleep over it. I don't want advice from someone who I don't feel has lived. I had a very long marriage, which broke up two years ago [to the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby], and I can honestly tell you that had that not happened, I don't think I could do this job. A little bit of suffering is a good qualification."


Mike Gayle was teen magazine Bliss's first agony uncle a decade ago. He has written several novels about relationships and freelanced for FHM and Cosmopolitan on the topic. "The questions were basically about boys," he found at Bliss. "The basics of getting a boyfriend and keeping one, and having once been a teenage boy myself, I could help them. Teenagers are at a vulnerable age. They give the impression of being worldly wise when in truth they're quite naive." Gayle says the staff on magazines he's worked on always turned to the agony pages first, and would pretend to be laughing at readers' problems while secretly seeking advice themselves. "They serve a purpose, even if it's only writing down a problem. It's nice to see what neuroses are floating round."


Denise Robertson has been This Morning's agony aunt for 18 years, though she originally planned to stay in the job for just a year. She first found herself giving out advice on Metro radio in Newcastle in the 1970s after a difficult period in her own life. She was headhunted by BBC Breakfast, and then worked on Open Air and the Today newspaper before settling on ITV's show. At present she also writes a column in Chat and runs a free web-based agony service. "The great trap of being an agony aunt is to play God," she warns. "I never tell people what to do, I simply say - here are your options and here are your sources of help. You have to feel they're getting something out of it. Otherwise it's very gruesome."


Irma Kurtz, 70, gained her agony-aunt pedigree solving the problems of young women all over the world with a column in Cosmopolitan's international editions. She has been writing advice in the media for more than 30 years, and has been at Body & Soul in the Saturday Times for two years. No stranger to the hard news side of journalism, Kurtz reported from Vietnam in the 1970s and is an experienced travel writer. To be able to give good advice, she says, "you need lots of common sense and masses of experience." However, the field has changed with the advent of the internet. "You used to be able to read things into the colour of the ink and the tear-stains on a letter, but there's no patina now. People present problems as if they were a chest complaint, but luckily that's not the case on Body & Soul."


Zelda West-Meads has been You magazine's very popular agony aunt for 10 years. She has trained as a counsellor and as a psychosexual therapist, and she believes that more people in her position are taking professional courses than ever before. This, she maintains, is a positive step. "Training helps. You can build up a huge experience, but psychodynamic training allows you to understand the depths of the problems you are dealing with," she says. The onset of the celebrity agony-aunt is a "worrying trend", she says. "It is a job I take very, very seriously, because people trust you. You have to be very perceptive and understanding."


Vicki Woods and her daughter Octavia Walker write a unique "intergenerational" advice column in The Sunday Telegraph's Stella magazine. They agree that you need to be bossy and opinionated to do the job well, and approach their letters separately to ensure the readers get two perspectives. "Sometimes I write a conservative mother's answer and Octavia writes an irritable daughter's answer; sometimes it's completely the opposite," says Vicki. "We are quite chalk and cheese," adds Octavia, 26. "But it is designed to be problems about families and we are family: we know about family relationships."