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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Sauce Recruitment: Programme Sales Executive - Independent Distributor

£25000 - £28000 per annum + circa 28K + 20% bonus opportunity: Sauce Recruitme...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Are you an ambitious, money mot...

Guru Careers: Investment Writer / Stock Picker

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A freelance Investment Writer / Stock Picker ...

Guru Careers: PPC Account Executive / Paid Search Executive

£20 - 24K + Benefits: Guru Careers: An enthusiastic PPC Account / Paid Search ...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project