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'.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas