- Karen advises Margie from Yorkshire, December 1996
Goddess, gay icon, the best thing since sliced Kleenex or Britain's Agony Aunt With Attitude, that's what I've been called in my role as "star" columnist with SKY magazine. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, SKY magazine is internationally famous as a glossy bible for the hipper-than- hip youth of today, well ahead with its reportage on celebrity and style news. And they have me, comfortably slinking around the back page and firing verbal bullets at those with personal problems.
I get letters from all over the world - every continent - and so far my readers love "Dear Karen"; well, probably not those who write in with hate mail which gets intercepted at the office. Even George Michael pulled me aside at a party a few years ago and begged me to be kinder in the column. Well, I reckon if people don't like what I write, they're idiots to read it - sort of like a bumper sticker I saw recently in the States which said: "Against abortion? Then don't have one." Now that's a bit of truly useful free advice.
Writing for SKY since its inception hasn't always been agony, Through SKY I've met the famous untouchables of the media, people I wouldn't normally have had the pleasure of talking to: Alanis Morrisette, Sharleen from Texas, Justine from Elastica, k.d. lang, among many others. I even got to write the most difficult article of my life: my brother's death.
Being SKY's agony aunt is a roller-coaster ride. I get stalked in stores by people who pounce: it sounds crazy, but people really do jump from behind cosmetic counters to say, "I love you!" I'm never prepared for this. I don't know how truly famous people do it. All I can think is, "I must have spinach in my teeth," or "Why didn't I wear scent today?" I want to run away, really.
Even worse is when I go to parties. I get treated normally until people make the connection. Then it all goes haywire: men's body language changes to a lurid openness (as if I sleep with everyone who's nice to me) while the women drag me into the corner to get advice on the peculiarities of their boyfriends. It's sort of like being a car mechanic, stockbroker or GP: everyone wants your advice right now. The fans I like best walk past with a nod and whisper, "I like your stuff." That's cool. Having my privacy taken away is one reason why my photo in SKY is me under a half ton of make-up.
SKY has changed a bit since my early days of roughing up the customers. The average readership age has always been 23, evenly split between the sexes. Still, issues with a girl on the cover outsell those with a boy. All of its former editors - including the current head honcho, Mark Frith - have kept the magazine a flexible success. Of course I'm biased, but SKY has been innovative: irreverent when other style mags were po-faced, fun when others were stuffy. "Dear Karen" - invented by Simon Mills, now at GQ Active - was the first agony column meant to be a nasty joke, something between "The Playboy Adviser" and my own rotten party stories. While the column aims at being funny and naughty, I've had to become a hardcore professional. The persona of "Dear Karen" has been on UK Living, The Time ... The Place, This Morning, MTV and about 40 other television programmes. Just goes to show what you can do if you write a lot, read even more and talk like a machine-gun.
Agony-aunting, like being the editor, I suppose, is a daily eye-opener. Growing up is getting harder. As for sex, there is a lot of it going on - mostly over the legal age, informed and safe. I am still angry and horrified by the letters I've received from sexually-active nine and 10-year-olds, or from children abused at home or school. Almost always anonymous and untraceable, I respond if I can and give help numbers to the most desperate. If they are brave enough to write in - "Dear Karen" is not a nice person - they are probably in serious trouble.
The best thing about writing agony for SKY is that its readers usually abound with good humour and good sense. It was only about a year ago that they started to write funny letters in kind - which, while it doesn't particularly help anyone, is certainly more fun. There are plenty of squishy, motherly agony aunties out there for those who want to be coddled. For me, I think putting the problem back into the lap of its owner works best. Call it American Can-Do, but if people come away from my column laughing at their problems, then I've done my bit for humanity. If they're even more confused, well, at least I triedn