Meida: New king of the vanity fair: Michael Leapman meets the man many thought had a mission impossible - topping Tina Brown

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One of the things that Graydon Carter enjoys about editing Vanity Fair is living out at second-hand the adventures of his reporters. He talks with relish, for instance, about Ann Louise Bardach, author of a 9,000-word interview in the July issue with Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico: 'When Ann Louise went down there, the reporter from the New York Times told her he had been there for weeks and there was no hope of getting an interview with this man. But she travelled for days and had to go through at least six checkpoints. When she did see him he told her he had learnt English from reading Vanity Fair.' He pauses. 'I don't know what the advertisers would think of that.'

Certainly a masked revolutionary, based in the Mexican jungle, is not among the high-living, style-conscious readers that the advertisers of cars, clothes and fragrances are targeting when they buy space on Vanity Fair's glossy pages. Nor is he probably (his actual identity is a secret) among the 'affluent intelligentsia' that Carter edits his monthly magazine for.

But then the contents of Vanity Fair have always come as something of a surprise to people who know it only by its reputation as part of the compulsory decor of fashionable coffee tables in Manhattan and London. They will look in vain, for instance, for practical tips on how to live out the lifestyle that the magazine's advertisers urge upon them.

'It's one of the few magazines in the world that makes no concession whatever to consumerism,' says Carter. 'Unlike a men's magazine, there are no columns in the front about driving or aftershave lotion or wine, and unlike a women's magazine there are no beauty tips. From page one it's a magazine of pure stories.'

If that makes it sound a bit like the Economist but on glossier paper, that too is a mistake. For Carter's view of the interests of his readers is a broad one. 'The affluent intelligentsia can be interested in what's going on in the Whitechapel Gallery as well as what's going on in Wall Street, the latest shuffle in the Clinton Cabinet, an emerging tycoon in Hong Kong, who's getting hired in the latest studio melee in Hollywood.'

Hollywood, yes. While Carter is proud of editing one of the few magazines in the world that would run a 12,000-word article on Yasser Arafat, he is also besotted with show business. Of the 10 main articles in his July issue, five are about film stars. The cover story in the August issue, now on sale, is about Cindy Crawford.

'The one industry in America that has been number one since it started is the movie business,' he explains. 'When you go to a dinner party, what people have in common is the magazine article they've just read or the movie they've just seen, rather than the newspaper article or book they've just read.'

Vanity Fair, part of the Conde Nast magazine group, sells 1.2 million copies a month in the United States, while the British edition (price pounds 2.20) - launched three years ago with the same editorial content but different advertisements - is up to 78,000. Since 1984, when the British journalist Tina Brown went to New York to relaunch it, circulation has multiplied by four. Many feared that when she departed to edit the New Yorker two years ago Vanity Fair would languish, but it has continued to grow under Carter, a Canadian who had edited Spy magazine and the New York Observer.

'Friends advised me not to take the job because the received wisdom is that if you take on something that's absolutely ailing, you look like a hero from day one, whereas Vanity Fair was a very healthy magazine. But it did have built-in problems. One was that it was widely identified with the Eighties and was a great champion of the overdog.'

As such it won enemies as well as friends. The writer Garrison Keillor has said it is the magazine he least liked in the world, and he stopped writing for the New Yorker when Brown became editor.

Some of Carter's innovations did not come off. He hired Lynn Barber, queen of the 'killer' interview, from the Independent on Sunday but found it impossible to get Americans to agree to talk to her. She has left the staff but will continue to write for the magazine.

'Her stuff is so wonderful and brilliant that - well, would you sit down with her? Americans are touchier and less brave about sitting down with somebody like Lynn than the English are. The English see it as a challenge, the Americans as an impossibility.'

He believes one of the secrets of success is to pay contributors generously and let them take as long on a story as it needs. Before her sortie to Mexico, Bardach spent five weeks in a hotel in Havana at the magazine's expense, waiting for an interview with Fidel Castro. One future contributor is being paid dollars 50,000 (pounds 33,000) for a single article - around pounds 3 a word.

Carter believes pictures are important, too. 'There's still great power in the photographic image in the television age. The two most memorable images of Vietnam are still photos - children running down the road after a napalm attack and the general shooting the soldier in the head.'

The October issue will feature a 70-page portfolio of pictures by Annie Liebovitz, depicting what Carter calls the new American establishment. 'It will be devoted to this dramatic shift as we move towards a communications and entertainment based economy. America is an entertainment society. As a result the leaders of the establishment are involved in that industry - Ted Turner, Steven Spielberg, the heads of all the movie companies. They're all in the portfolio.'

Only one person refused to take part. 'Rupert Murdoch was the only one who wasn't interested,' Carter says, sounding a little puzzled. 'Everyone else said yes.'

It is not really so surprising, for the Murdoch philosophy of journalism is exactly the reverse of Vanity Fair's. Rather than investing in writers, he believes that you can create a quality press by cutting your costs to the bone and lowering your price. The growth of Vanity Fair is a comforting signal that publishers with other priorities can still thrive.

(Photograph omitted)