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Media: My mother always said I had champagne taste on beer wages

Elaina Henderson, aged five, would look out on the lights of Glasgow from her council tower block and think it was fairyland. Now she looks out from the 44th-floor offices of American `Elle' as New York's latest Brit editor. Audrey Gillan finds out how the dream came true.

The editor of American Elle scans the skyline that skirts the Castlemilk housing estate in Glasgow. Elaina Richardson has not come to Clydeside to check out the claim that this is Britain's premier shopping city. For once, Versace and Armani are far from her mind. She has gone back to her roots ...

Elaina Henderson grew up in Glasgow, in one of Europe's toughest and most deprived housing projects. Some time back, her 17th-floor flat in Castlemilk was swapped for a 44th-floor office suite in the historic Belnord building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Now she rides to work in a limousine and shares offices and dinners with John F Kennedy Jnr.

"My mother always used to say I had champagne taste on beer wages," she recalls with a fond smile.

Her attractive appearance, unmistakably Celtic, has been sculpted to suit the Big Apple's high-maintenance milieu. Her toenails are painted red to match her Ferragamo sandals and the clothes are Klein and Karan, Jacobs, Magli and Agnes B. Castlemilk may have been long ago but it is the place that gave Richardson much of the tenacious characteristics that got her where she is. It is also where her parents still live. Sadly, she is here because her father is seriously ill.

Al Henderson was also plagued by illness in her youth. But, after a year in hospital, he managed to resume his work as a printer.

"I remember the move to Castlemilk being incredibly exciting. The four of us went to look at the apartment when my dad got out of hospital and we loved it," Richardson explains. "I remember my father telling me that the lights of the city were fairy lights and that we lived in fairyland.

"There's still magic for me looking out at a city at night. I have the same memory of awe when I moved to New York. I think city lights became synonymous with glamour for me."

She was five years old when she moved to Castlemilk, a new estate on the edge of Glasgow which initially inspired in its proud inhabitants the same optimism as Americans had moving to the suburbs in the Fifties. But, by the time she left Castlemilk at the age of 17, the atmosphere there was one of deep depression. The people had slipped into a slough of despond. Stairways were covered in graffiti and smelled of urine, and drug-related crime crept up and up.

Now when she returns, she sees a Castlemilk that is trying to regenerate itself. It has a long way to go, but her parents wouldn't live anywhere else. Their daughter has offered to move them to the suburbs, into a nice little bungalow, and they won't hear of it. For them, Castlemilk is home.

There is only a slight trace of a Glasgow accent when Richardson tries to vocalise her feelings for Castlemilk. "I remember as a teenager flicking back and forth between a kind of romanticism about it and a complete hatred of it. The kind of mass desperation that hovered around I found hard," she says, in modulated, mid-Atlantic tones. "I felt at the time like really shaking people for their lack of energy."

As a small girl lolling around on the Cathkin Braes, she would fantasise about getting away. "Because of where I came from I was always made to feel embarrassed in Glasgow," she says. "That's why I decided that for sure I didn't want to stay there."

She studied hard and moved on from smoking on street corners - first to Edinburgh University followed by a postgraduate degree in 18th-century English literature at Oxford. It was while there that she met Kevin Richardson, son of Hamilton Ham Richardson, the number-one ranked US tennis player of the 1950s. It was a meeting that would change her life, take her to America and bring the couple a daughter, Caitlin, now six. "I don't think I would have moved to America minus Kevin," she explains.

When he heard about me doing this interview, my husband said: "Oh, no, not Elaina's Ashes," says Richardson, a reference to Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's bestselling account of life growing up in the grinding poverty of Limerick in Ireland.

It was Kevin and his family - his stepmother is Midge Richardson, former editor of Seventeen, an American teenage magazine - who gave her a sense that there were no longer limitations on her potential. The American sense of anyone can do anything helped her to shake off the feeling that she was a pretender. She moved to Washington DC to join Kevin and spent a few years freelancing. In 1986 the couple moved to New York, where she worked for The New York Post, then to the business of writing about luxury and conspicuous consumption at Mirabella and then Elle. She was promoted to the post of editor last October.

She joined a list of British women who have crossed the channel and are now editing American magazines: others are Anna Wintour of Vogue, Tina Brown of The New Yorker and Liz Tilberis of Harper's Bazaar. Richardson has what she calls an untested theory on why these British women are such a success. "Smart people in Britain will go into all kinds of journalism. Here, there's more stipulation on whether you are doing serious public- policy kind of journalism or lighter stuff. I would as likely assign a tabloid story to a serious editor. I like the mix."

She has succeeded in pushing up the circulation of Elle by giving it a more topical edge. "I tried really hard to bring a sense of timeliness to the magazine. To have some way of saying we are connected with the news world, whether it be a court case or some sort of profile," she explains.

She struggles to pinpoint what it has been about her upbringing that got her to the spot she occupies now. She tries to explain it through a dream that she frequently has where she returns to her high school to give a motivational speech to the children there.

"Always in the dream I am on the stage at my old school and I have put books in front of me. I am trying to explain to the kids that if they are ever going to get anywhere they need to have an education and a good sense of who they are. I try to tell them I know how hard it is," she says. "Sometimes it is a very poetic speech, but at other times I am pointing out faces in the crowd and saying I knew your mother. I think I am trying to work out myself why it was me who got away. I guess I am telling them I learnt pretty early you should always speak up. The thing is, in America people will listen."

Audrey Gillan is chief reporter with `Scotland on Sunday' and recently completed a Laurence Stern fellowship on `The Washington Post'.