Old-timers are feeling the 'Heat' as celebrity gossip gets down and dirty

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The Independent Online

It's hello Heat, but goodbye Hello!

The latest set of magazine readership figures reveals the celebrity weekly market is booming, but the old-timers in the sector are losing their touch.

Headlines such as Heat's "Gareth: I slept with pregnant Jordan" are pulling in the punters at the newsstands. Hello!'s current front page, featuring the wedding of Westlife's Nicky Byrne and the daughter of the Irish Prime Minister can scarcely compete.

Heat is one of several new celebrity weeklies to have launched in recent years. Its circulation started to take off in 2001 and it has since transformed the gossip market (see table below) with its warts-and-all take on Victoria Beckham, Sarah Jessica Parker and other celebrities.

Along with increased circulation has come an increase in advertising revenue. In 2000, when Hello! and OK! were the two colossuses among celebrity weeklies, the advertising market in the sector pulled in a total of £48m. But in the last 12 months to the end of June, this figure stood at £95m, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research.

The commercial success of magazines such as Heat prompted the launch of New! by the newspaper and pornography publisher Richard Desmond, owner of the larger and more sanitised OK!

Heat's publisher, Emap, has itself waded further into the market with the launch of Closer. Despite speculation that the new magazine would cannibalise its older sister, Heat carried on growing, increasing its circulation by 18 per cent year on year in the first half of this year. Closer's editor, former newspaper executive Jane Johnson, says its real-life stories and its aim to be first with the celebrity news have made it stand out from its rivals. "We have tried to create a new market," she says. "We weren't looking to take off others. We understand that readers don't want to see the same stories they see in the newspapers every day - they want to read something completely new about Ulrika or Jordan."

Some think the fascination with celebrities is evidence of a sociological shift. "At a dinner party, with a group of people with different backgrounds, ages and occupations, what they all have in common is that they can talk about Sarah Jessica Parker's dress at a premier," says Mark Frith, editor of Heat. "It's a huge thing and a huge difference [in society], and I don't see any sign of it ending."

The market is even larger if tabloid newspapers are included. Richard Desmond's own paper, the Daily Star, has gained 400,000 readers since January 2000. Like Emap, his publishing empire has benefited handsomely from the public's obsession with celebrity snaps and gossip.

But it is the irreverent style of Heat and some of the tabloids that is making the waves rather than the public relations-led interviews of OK! and Hello!

"When Hello! launched, I remember thinking, 'Wow! [celebrities] letting a camera in their bar mitzvahs and weddings,'" says Marc Mendoza, chief executive of the Media Planning Group, a media buying firm. "That was new, but it's not so new any more."

"The market is very sophisticated now," says Ms Johnson. "Readers want to see the real-life problems of celebrities, not just the PR side of things. They want to know the truth about celebrities ... They want the minutiae, the marriage break-ups, the weddings, but not a sanitised version of them."

However, analysts in the City are not convinced that the public's appetite for celebrity gossip is entirely insatiable. A research note from Investec Securities, an investment bank, reads: "The only negative [in the ABCs] we can find is that the growth rate is starting to slow as Heat and Closer mature."

A relative old-timer, Now magazine has shown more subdued growth than its younger rivals, up 4 per cent year on year for the first half, while Heat's 18 per cent falls far short of the 100 per cent rise it enjoyed the year before.

But the publishers involved have faith that growth will continue. Heat's Mr Frith says further Emap launches are not out of the question: "The market keeps going up and up all the time. [The customers] are people who have fallen under the spell of the world of celebrity."