I sold my bizarre true-life story!

Buttock implants, obese children, man-eating pets...Simon Usborne lifts the lid on the weird – and lucrative – world of 'real life' magazines

If your orgasms were "so loud you got an Asbo", your pet snake had "eaten your mum", or your "pussy was on Question Time", your first instinct might not be to shout about it.

Yet thousands do, and millions more lap up "true-life stories" like these with the thirst of a missing cat (the pussy, if you were at all confused, was an errant tom called Tango who strayed in front of the BBC's cameras).

From the print equivalents of the Jeremy Kyle Show – magazines such as Love It!, Real People and Take A Break – to the loftiest Sunday supplements, "triumphs over tragedies" and "womb tremblers" (to use the vernacular for anything scary involving pregnancy or babies) are read by an estimated 7 million people a week. The burgeoning market for stories about the extraordinary lives of the ordinary man on the bus or lady upstairs is buoying a floundering magazine industry, and reveals much about the new confessional age into which we've sailed. But what motivates someone to admit that their "best friend is a cannibal" or that their baby "looks like a snail"? Who writes these stories and their often preposterous headlines – and are they true? Cutting Edge: My Daughter Grew Another Head and Other True Life Stories, screened on Channel 4 this week, lands a fly on the wall of an often weird world in which writers, researchers and cheque-wielding agents race to discover the next big exclusive.

Henry, from Essex, was the first man in Britain to have buttock implants. He hated his flat, skinny bottom but didn't have £7,000 to blow on surgery. So he approached an agency called Talk to the Press.

Launched two years ago by freelance journalist, Natasha Courtenay-Smith, the London firm receives more than 20 emails a day from people with tales to tell. Courtenay-Smith sold the buttock story to the Sunday Mirror and New! magazine and is seen in the documentary talking to Henry about a follow-up. As the narrator puts it, "For everyone involved, Henry's bottom has become a goldmine."

But how much do you get for a story about your behind? "Henry made about a grand," says Courtenay-Smith, whose agency received roughly the same amount. "It's hardly a gold mine when you think those implants cost about £7,000."

Indeed, Courtenay-Smith says that subjects can be rewarded with as little as £300 for, say, a weight-loss story, and that money "isn't why most people talk".

Sam Harris is a mother from south London whose son, Nathan, weighed 17 stone by the time he was 12. When she saw a family in a similar predicament on daytime TV, she was moved to bare all. "Nathan was born with a congenital heart defect and has had four major operations," Harris, 34, says on the phone. "He wasn't able to go to the park or do normal activities and I would comfort him with food. He has been bullied and victimised his whole life and I felt judged. I also feel responsible, but I wanted to show there are reasons why people get fat – I wanted them to understand." Courtenay-Smith sold Harris's story to Closer magazine ("I'm Killing my Son with Love"). "We were stopped by a woman on the street," Harris recalls. "She wished Nathan good luck, rubbed my arm and said, 'Well done'. It meant so much."

Harris's story is an example of what might be called "real" true-life stories. Angela Epstein is a journalist and founder of the Manchester-based agency, Sell That Story. She has worked with, among other subjects, the parents of two boys killed in a crash involving the former Plymouth goalkeeper, Luke McCormick (who was jailed for seven years in 2008). "You can sell as many silly stories as you want; but I, and a lot of readers, are more interested in awful things happening that come and hit you in the face," she says. "That's real life. But sometimes the industry forgets because it's so bogged down in the quirky and the bizarre."

It's the sensational end of the market that, for many, defines the trade – and leads to the most criticism.

Hannah Duguid is a freelance journalist who specialised in true-life stories for four years. She appears in the film as the voice of the darker side of the industry (although she reveals more on this page than in the documentary).

"I found it very difficult feeling like a voyeur intruding on people's lives," says Duguid. "I was doing stories told by vulnerable people that, often, I could see no good reason to write about. And sometimes they were complete fabrications. I've had things rewritten by an editor to be completely false." It's standard in the true-life story industry to read articles to subjects over the phone before they are printed, but Duguid – who has since left behind the true-life world to write for newspapers including The Independent – says this courtesy was open to abuse. "Quite often – and I admit I did this – you would read really fast or even skip over the bad bits." Courtenay-Smith says all stories that pass through her office are fully fact-checked and her clients are given every opportunity to approve copy.

Whether they're dressed-up and sensationalised, or important and genuinely affecting, all these stories arguably hold up a mirror to modern society, reflecting a new trend towards openness. "Where once we gossiped over the garden fence, we now read magazines," Courtenay-Smith says. "People are getting used to confessing, and when Gordon Brown has to go on television to talk about losing a baby, it's exactly the same thing."

The story about the mum-eating snake, by the way, turns out to be only partly true: the python bit its prey but was then fought off with a cheese grater.

Cutting Edge: My Daughter Grew Another Head and Other True Life Stories is on Channel 4 on Thursday at 9pm.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - London - £40K plus benefits - Salary negotiable

£38000 - £40000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: A leading consu...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Sheridan Maine: Are you an experienced Accounts Assista...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her