New woman at the frontier of the sex war

The recently-appointed editor of `Elle', Marie O'Riordan, believes that shock tactics are no way to win readers.

Marie O'Riordan was appointed editor of Elle just over six weeks ago. She has a clear idea of where her competition lies: "Marie Claire has led the way in the last five years," she says. "It married very tabloid news stories to designer fashion features. It set a form. But I think it now looks an uncomfortable juxtaposition. There's now a sea change. Elle will capitalise on it. ... Elle is about sophistication, opening desires and fantasy. I'm grateful we don't have to attract readers in a lowest- common-denominator way, deploying the shock tactics that other glossies do."

Fighting talk. And fight O'Riordan must in a highly competitive battle for upmarket young women. Since its late-Eighties peak of about 250,000, Elle's circulation has dropped to the current figure of 204,000. Cosmopolitan, meanwhile, remains the market leader with an ABC of 456,394, with Marie Claire an extremely close second at 452,521. These figures are by no means static. In the last six months, the market has been in a state of flux, what with a rapid change of editors and sustained controversy about what female readers in their twenties and early thirties really want. Last July, Marcelle D'Argy Smith left Cosmopolitan to be replaced by Mandi Norwood, who promptly opted for more hard-hitting news and sex features. Meanwhile, Marie Claire's maverick but visionary Glenda Bailey has departed to the United States to edit the US version of Marie Claire. The announcement of a successor was delayed until two weeks ago, when Juliet Warkentin, currently working out her notice as editor of the trade fashion weekly Draper's Record, took on the daunting appointment. Now, of course, there is speculation about the new editorial direction of the three mass-market glossies.

O'Riordan, 35, has a good track record. Under her editorship, the teen glossy More! had four successive circulation increases, taking it to the 400,000 mark. But Elle is altogether a trickier proposition. Taking her cue from successful men's magazines such as Esquire (which has a surprisingly high proportion of female readers), O'Riordan is wooing big-name writers and columnists - "opinion formers who have attitude and wit, like Martin Amis, Suzanne Moore and Joseph O'Connor" - and opting for features with a "non-gender-specific" angle. As for sex pieces, the current staple, O'Riordan intends to shift emphasis away from the "nitty gritty" to court the Elle woman as an independent intellect who has her sex life "sorted".

"In Marie Claire, they're competing slightly with men," O'Riordan opines. "With Cosmopolitan, they're trying to get, nab and keep the man satisfied. But the Elle woman is comfortable with her sexuality. There probably is a man in her life, but it's not a source of battle. She wants to be treated in the same way as her male peers ... vaguely androgynous."

The Elle androgyne may be too subtle a model in a market that in the last five years has moved towards the attention-grabbing cover line. Marie Claire has been singled out as leading the way in this respect, with articles that some claim are now blatantly sensationalist. "The basic blueprint of the magazine has remained the same since its launch," says Heather Love, publisher of Marie Claire. "It's just that we have been much emulated by other women's magazines that have parodied the style and misunderstood the sex content. There's a world of difference between features about sex and sexy features. The market has changed rather than us."

The success of Marie Claire, which has quadrupled in circulation since it was first published here in 1988, has had an explosive impact. Although Mandi Norwood denies that Marie Claire is an influence, her "new look" Cosmopolitan has that distinctive combination of hard-edged, documentary- style features and top-to-toe fashion. "I've brought a new kind of modern- ness to Cosmopolitan," Norwood says. "I felt it needed to be a lot more aggressive, and had to address a new breed of women."

As part of this assertive bid to broaden the readership, Cosmopolitan's April issue, for example, has features ranging from "I survived a serial killer" to "Couples who go to prostitutes" and from extra-terrestrial aliens to "dry sex" in Zambia. From the magazine that once placed reflective articles about the Bloomsbury set alongside the obligatory feature on the female orgasm, Cosmopolitan is now more in line with the busy, bitty, commercial feel of younger magazines such as More! and Company. In answer to accusations that she has taken the title downmarket, Norwood says: "Cosmopolitan will never be a `luvvy' mag. Critics will always say it's gone downmarket when it sells more copies. It's just become more populist."

That rigorous trend in women's glossies is having far-reaching effects. Eyebrows have been raised at Vogue's April issue, which is devoted to high street fashion, with Kate Moss singing the delights of Warehouse and designer buyers lauding Top Shop. "An early estimate on that issue shows a 25 per cent increase in sales," says Vogue's editor, Alexandra Shulman, before quickly adding, "but it was conceived as a one-off. The high street is particularly strong at this point. ... I wanted to do something to celebrate it."

Cynics might add that it would just need one such issue every six months to give a very healthy boost to circulation figures. "I wouldn't do it four times a year. With an ABC of about 188,000, Vogue isn't meant to be about the high street. It's not mass market," says Shulman. "In a way, it's an outsider to the women's magazine market and in following their agenda, I would lose the core of what the brand is. Vogue is unique - it leads rather than follows."

There is speculation, however, that even Vogue will succumb to the pressure for higher sales. Maybe Marie O'Riordan is right to look to her male peers for clues as to the next direction for female glossies. "The only booming area at the moment is in men's magazines, a trend set by Loaded," says Adam Smallman, magazines editor at the UK Press Gazette. "I never ceased to be amazed by the number of educated women who pick up Loaded. It has a substantial female readership. There are heavy rumours going round IPC and Emap of a Loaded for women. The Girlie Show was panned on TV, but a really leery print version of that would work. In the women's glossy market, that's one to watch, for sure."

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