Magazines: time for a reality check

The astonishing growth of weekly real-life magazines is one of publishing's few success stories. But is it just feeding an appetite for freakish tales?
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A traveller at Victoria station, inspecting the magazine racks at WH Smith for something to read on the train, could not fail to notice a modern phenomenon: the virtual sea of magazines devoted to "real-life" stories. There seem to be dozens of them, elbowing the male speciality journals, on computers or golf or girls' breasts, out of the way. They occupy a territory next door to their first cousins, the celebrity magazines such as Heat and Grazia, and come yelping off the shelf in a blaze of garish colours and shouty headlines. Their titles are full of upbeat mateyness - Love It!, Take a Break, Real People, Pick Me Up and Chat - but their covers offer mixed signals.

Take Pick Me Up. Its cheery title is echoed by the cover image of a sweet-looking girl next door in a thrift-store summer frock and a dazzling smile. She looks set for an evening of giggly misbehaviour drinking Lambrini with her zany pals. The magazine's cover lines, however, do not share her positive outlook. Under her left armpit, a witchy-looking goth couple are pictured with the words, "I lost my Nigel to the Dark Side." Look across the cover, and you read: "A BEAST ate my baby - But I got the blame." Pausing to marvel at the second half of that headline (as if the baby's death were of far less importance than the blame), you glance at the bottom of the page, to read: "Horror by the roadside - Our Darren's head in a bag." In case you haven't grasped the nature of Darren's decapitated state, they include a little picture of a bloody axe.

Or clock the current Take a Break where another generically inoffensive, mid-20s woman beams from a cover festooned with tragic news: "I was a child sex victim and got over it." "I asked: 'Did you kill her, Dad?'" "Tragic Mum explains - Why My Love Must End." Slide your eyes along the shelf, and you encounter Love It! magazine, whose cover image of a grinning redhead in a Claire's Accessories necklace is almost obliterated by the splash line "Seduced While My Hubby Lay Dying", and a procession of smaller bad-news splashlets: "My Boob Exploded While Breastfeeding," "Crazy Lover Tried to Hack Off My Head."

Who on earth, you ask, wants to read this stuff? And the answer is: millions of people. Every week, a combined market of nine million readers shells out their 60p or £1 for their weekly fix of family secrets, ghastly revelations, sick babies, traumatised oldsters, deformed body parts and shocking news from abroad. It's a market that has grown steadily over the past three years.

"The weekly magazine market is absolutely on fire in the UK," says Colin Morrison, chief executive of ACP-NatMag magazines, which owns Real People, Reveal and Best. "There's a great deal of activity. We're aware that, almost every day of the week, young women and older women go to the newsstands looking for something to buy. You know how unpromising newspaper sales are now. A fair number of monthly magazines are struggling. But weekly magazines are selling a lot more copies than they ever did before."

Once the true-life story was confined to the pages of Take a Break magazine, which was launched 17 years ago. It was, and remains, a staid, old-fashioned production, its page quality and colour register reminiscent of a 1950s knitting magazine. Its cosy letters page is called "Take a Break Street - where everyone's friendly" and the editors shamelessly solicit contributions from readers (especially ones about "... love ... betrayal ... loss ... sin") at up to £500 a time. The magazine's circulation is now a whopping 1.1 million, and it's the market leader. So phenomenal was its success that Tony Blair made it part of his pre-election strategy to call in for tea at its office HQ in 2001. The magazine and its heartwarming tales ("I Begged the Judge to Lock Me Up") have passed into the national consciousness. The Edinburgh Fringe last week saw the premiere of Take-a-Break Tales, a celebration of grotesque stories. (The editor, John Dale, went to a preview and liked the show, while regretting "the absence of a story about a woman with a giant cyst, mistakenly believed to be a five-year pregnancy. We have one of those every week.") Presumably to Mr Dale's annoyance, Take a Break has had to share the market in the past couple of years with the arrival of Chat, then a flood of others: That's Life, Pick Me Up, Full House, most recently Real People in January this year and Love It! in April.

So successful were these exclusively real-story magazines that the weekly celebrity journals were forced to take notice and incorporate real-life tales into their coverage of what Brad and Angelina may be getting up to. Thus, Closer will reveal "Why Kate, 26, Burnt Her 76-Year-Old Husband Alive". First can tell you how "He Threw Acid on My Face Thinking I Was Someone Else". Now can exclusively reveal "My Big Sister Is a Two-Foot-Six-Inch Midget". Reveal pulls no punches in describing how "Toby's Wife Barbecued Him and Fed Him to Tigers", while in New! you can read "Lesbian Jailbird Couple Tell How They Turned Their Back on Drugs After Birth of Their Daughter".

Most of the major magazine publishers became involved. IPC brought out Chat, Now and Pick Me Up. Emap gave the world Closer and First. National Magazines pitched in with Real People and Reveal. And the importance of the weekly-mag market became vividly apparent when Rupert Murdoch entered the fray with Love It!.

What's the reason for all this headlong proliferation? "It's the growth of celebrity culture and reality TV," says Morrison. "These things encourage not only celebrity magazines but an interest in real lives too. And I believe it's also to do with the growth of public transport and commuting in the UK. It's one of the reasons why newspapers went compact - and if you're looking for a magazine to read, weeklies are topical and hot. They're relatively cheap to buy and very portable. "

But why do so many people want to read about the ghastly misfortunes and ghastly lives of others? "We've found people like this kind of magazine on several levels," says Morrison. "There's a bit of There-but-for-the-grace-of-God about it. There are lessons to be learned, along the lines of 'Well I wouldn't have done that,' or 'I wouldn't do it this way.' A lot of these stories, no matter how gritty or tough they seem, are about triumphing over tragedy - or at least they have somebody coming to terms with something. There's some point, some inspiration and stimulation there."

Kirsty Mouett agrees. She is the editor of New!, one of the most successful celebs-and-real-life hybrid magazines. It's owned by Northern & Shell, the publishing empire of Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Express. "We love true stories that show how resilient people can be," she says. "Like the one about the woman who was on her way to her wedding, was run over by a cart and lost both her legs. She got better, was given prosthetic legs and went back to the church for a wedding. It was uplifting that she came through this extreme tragedy, and made it up the aisle." She is not joking. Weren't lots of her stories drenched in misery? "We like to be a light-hearted and fun magazine, so we try to veer towards stories which offer some kind of hope at the end. We like something positive, a piece with some joy in it. Like 'Britain's Tallest Teenager'..."

A phenomenon of real-life stories is the effect they have on the magazine's post-bag. "When we launched New!," says Mouett, "we didn't carry as many stories as now, but the response from readers was so huge, we just had to. Readers write in saying how much they sympathise or relate to the subjects of the stories, or they write asking us to forward a letter offering them advice. There's a great fascination out there with other people's lives."

The tales themselves come from all over. Most of the magazines encourage readers to send in true stories about their own or their friends' lives. Stories can come from local journalists, who have followed up a slice-of-life story in the national press and found a dysfunctional family or a doomed marriage in the background. Some come from agencies, offered to all the magazines in turn. (This can lead to some overlap - last week, both Closer and Reveal published their versions of "Toby's Wife Barbecued Him and Fed Him to Tigers".) "It happens very occasionally," says Colin Morrison, "but this is not a market dominated by agencies, because real-life stories obviously involve real people who are different every week. The market can't get cornered in the way that Brad Pitt's wedding can get cornered by an agency."

"There's a lot of stories out there," says Kirsty Mouett with enthusiasm. "We have about 25 coming in every week. And we're getting to see the emergence of something new: the real-life celebrity, an ordinary person whose personal life is so fascinating they get done again and again, and become famous. Louise Woodward, the nanny who was in court accused of baby-battering, is one.

"There are stories that break in the papers or on TV that everyone wants. The woman heroin addict who appeared on Sky News - she was a young, attractive blonde whose forearms were rotting away from injecting drugs and no clinics would let her in. She went on TV and everyone picked up on that story."

The average age of her readers is 27. They are, by a vast preponderance, women. And their interests are sharply focused. "Stories about extremes of weight gain or loss are very popular, and anything about babies." Did they carry sexually frank material? "Um, let me see. We had a story about chubby chasers - fat men who desire fat women. That's the sexiest thing we've done lately. But I don't see it as murky. It's fascinating to know what people find attractive."

The guiding principle seems to be an apophthegm by Terence, the Roman dramatist: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto ("I am a man: nothing that is human is foreign to me"). Ask Louise Court, editorial director of Real People, what she has turned down on taste grounds, and she'll have to think hard for a few minutes. "There was a lady who lost 15 stone, and who had cosmetic surgery on her excess skin, but it became infected. Some of the pictures were just too shocking, and we felt we couldn't use them." Pictures that might be regarded as grotesque by readers of the genteel (and now extinct) Family Circle are meat and drink to the real-life mags. "We had a woman write in recently about her son, who was born with a condition that meant the bones in his face hadn't formed properly. She wrote to us because she wanted some help setting up a charity called Face the Future, for facially deformed children. There was an absolutely massive response from readers, and she was very pleased with the way we handled the story."

But Louise Court, what if some cynical outsider looked at the contents of real-life magazines and suggested that there was a strong whiff of the freak show about it? "Oh, I don't think it's anything like that," says Court, sounding shocked. "We're not poking fun. The reason people are in the magazine is because we're giving them a platform to tell their story. We take a lot of time and great care, and everything we do is written with empathy and compassion.

Back at New! magazine, I ask Kirsty Mouett the same question. "We get offered lots of pictures of people with hideous deformities, whether by birth or accident. They want cash for them. I admit there is a bit of a freak-show aspect about them. But then, if you've been disfigured through an accident, the money might come in useful."

So the money-spinning chronicles of misery go from strength to strength. The tongue-in-cheek advertisement for one of them reads: "Murder, babies and some really tricky puzzles. Chat magazine, out every Thursday." The come-on line that encourages you to buy next week's Pick Me Up is: "Fountains of blood as my son killed my LOVER."