Praise the Lord, pass the toyboy

"I live a clean and sober life and I think it's really hard when the press have a go at somebody who's basically just working hard and doing a decent job," says Rosemary Conley.

She's referring to a couple of articles published about her in the last 12 months by the Daily Mail and the Sunday Mirror, which she says were full of inaccuracies and for both of which she received letters of apology from the respective editors. The experience has left her suspicious of the press in general and I don't think I've ever met a more wary interviewee. But the plain truth of the matter is that there are no skeletons in Rosemary Conley's cupboard.

She was 50 last December and her voice and manner are spookily suggestive of an older version of Anthea Turner. The two of them share that weird TV ability to speak and smile at the same time, but in Conley's case she can also perform exhausting aerobic routines into the bargain, as evidenced by her latest video, Ultimate Fat Burner, which goes on sale this week.

It's the latest in a long line of videos and books which began in 1988 with Rosemary Conley's Hip and Thigh Diet. In 1993 she also launched the Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs, which are run by 170 franchisees who have each paid pounds 6,000 for the use of the Conley name and a further pounds 6,000 for training and kit. There are 70,000 members attending around 2,300 classes a week throughout the country, and Conley receives pounds 10.50 for every class that's held. I'm sure you don't need me to do the calculation for you. (Note for school-leavers: 2,300 multiplied by 10.5 equals pounds 24,150 a week.)

"That sounds like ever such a lot of money," she says. "But we've got a very big office, 25 or 30 staff, our running costs are huge. So the actual net amount that we make out of our franchise fees is about 10 per cent."

The Conley success story hinges around a somewhat unlikely event, that is to say her visit to hospital in 1986 with a gall stone problem. She was put on a low-fat diet and discovered that she was losing weight in ways that 15 years of calorie counting had failed to achieve. It was to be the inspiration for her first book and the ones that followed - cut down on fat intake and the pounds fall away.

But something else happened during that hospital visit. Conley saw an advertisement for a book called The Power of Living, endorsed by, among others, Cliff Richard. She sent away for a free copy, and it changed her life. She firmly believes that her new-found Christianity was responsible for the worldly success which followed.

"I do believe that, for whatever reason, the Lord thought it was a good idea for people to eat healthily and do more exercise and I was the person to be the messenger," she says. "I feel that being a Christian has given me the confidence to go out there and do all sorts of things that I wouldn't otherwise have had the confidence to do."

One of those things was to propose to Mike Rimmington, 13 years her junior ("please don't call him my toyboy, he absolutely hates that"), the boyfriend she'd met on a pony-trekking holiday. "I felt the Lord say to me I should marry him," she says. The pair now live in a Leicestershire manor house and are partners in the business.

She attributes a lot of her success to the fact that she's an "ordinary" person, like most of her readers. "I think I'm ordinary insofar as I'm not a film star and I do ordinary things," she says. Her ordinary hobbies include horse-riding, flower-arranging, walking her two Alsatians and watching TV - The Bill, EastEnders, Animal Hospital, that sort of thing. She never reads books. "I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to that," she says.

But a genuinely nice, well-meaning philistine, it has to be said. As I was leaving, she brought up the subject again and actually apologised for the fact that she's not an avid reader. I think she felt I'd been disappointed. "And if there's anything you're unclear about, please ring me," she added, clearly still worried about dealing with the press. "I wouldn't want you to make any mistakes."

Hair today, editor tomorrow

"It's like when a bloke really wants to get into bed with you and you erect an ever-increasing number of obstacles and you think, 'Well if he can jump over that one ... No, not good enough. But if he can jump over that one ... And then finally you think, well maybe he deserves me'." This is former Cosmopolitan editor Marcelle d'Argy Smith on how she was wooed back into the editorship cauldron, She starts her new job at Woman's Journal tomorrow.

As far as dieting goes, Marcelle describes herself as "genetically lucky" in that she can eat eight doughnuts and not have to worry about the consequences. She's more concerned about her flyaway hair. "A woman has three relationships with herself," she says. "One with her body, one with her face, and one with her hair. I've always had a great relationship with my body, as I've never had to think about it. With my face, there were good days and bad days. And I probably had the relationship with my hair that women who diet and drive themselves nuts have with their bodies. In fact I used to run articles in Cosmo called 'How to look sensational with fine, flyaway hair' just to console myself."

Utopia on a set of stilts

I thought I'd come across another candidate for Crank of the Week, but now I'm not so sure. Surfing my way around the Internet I came across Lazarus Long and his plans to found a new country. The site of New Utopia, as it is to be called, is a group of three submerged islands in international waters in the Caribbean on which will be built platforms supporting homes, office buildings, hotels, theatres and shopping centres. It all sounded a bit far fetched, so I called New Utopia headquarters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and spoke to the 66-year-old Mr Long. "Oh yes, it's actually going to happen," he told me confidently. "In April we'll start putting down pylons and on the 1 December next year we'll start floating the first platform out there. " A New Utopia government has already been formed, at the head of which is Mr Long, or Prince Lazarus as he should properly be known. A letter has also been sent to the United Nations asking for recognition. Exactly where the $131m needed to finance the project's initial stage is coming from is somewhat unclear and I have to admit my doubts increased when Mr Long told me that Lazarus Long is his real name - he changed it when he began the project a year ago, taking the name of a character in a science fiction novel who was exceptionally long-lived. Ageing is a bit of an obsession for him and the hospital on New Utopia will specialise in anti-ageing treatments. So have people been calling him a crank? "No, I haven't heard that at all," he said. "People think it's very optimistic and it's a huge challenge, and it is, but no more than any other business." Time will tell. Watch this space.

Spelling out my

word prowess

"So you think you can spell well?" said the headline of a press release from Oxford dictionaries. "You may be able to spell some, or even most, of the words in the following list of impossible spellings, but we defy you to get them all right without an Oxford dictionary!"

Naturally I took up the challenge and studied the list, which included words such as acquiescence, jejune, onomatopoeic, suzerainty and coelacanth, and I have to say, without wanting to sound big-headed, that I could spell all of them.

But there's one word I can never spell without looking it up, so I rang Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and told him about my problem.

"It's weird," I said. "I can't spell the word 'weird'. I'm never sure if it's weird or wierd." Mr Weiner was reassuring. "Weird's a difficult one because it breaks the 'i'' before 'e' rule," he said, adding that people also have a lot of trouble with seize and siege.

I wondered if such an eminent etymologist as himself ever had similar problems. "Actually I once wrote a book on English usage," he told me. "And in it there was a list of words that are tricky to spell, including 'embarrass'.

"Fortunately before it got published my colleagues pointed out that I'd only put one 'r' in it. I have to really think every time I write 'embarrass' now.

Hi, it's Harrison Ford calling

Imagine this. A production meeting is going on at the studios of Youth Cable Television in Notting Hill, west London, a charitable operation aimed at giving young people the chance to have hands-on experience in making TV programmes.

The phone rings. It's Harrison Ford calling to say that his new film Airforce One is opening in London in September and he's chosen YCTV to benefit from the proceeds of the charity premiere. "To have this call out of the blue is really impressive," says Sabrina Guinness, the Project Director, who had told Ford about YCTV during a meeting in New York but hadn't asked him for a donation. After Ford's initial offer, Guinness faxed him to ask if he would come to the studio to do an interview for the station, which broadcasts on the local cable network. He agreed, which means a few sleepless nights for 17-year-old Rachel Hopping, who'll produce the show. "We're all really excited about it," she says. Tickets are still available for next Thursday's premiere. Call 0181 222 1865.

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