Sex and frocks and readers' real lives

Sam Baker has taken over as editor of Cosmopolitan from Lorraine Candy, who has landed the top job at Elle. Ciar Byrne hears the rivals' plans of attack
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Sam Baker was appointed editor of Cosmopolitan, a friend complained to her that the magazine was either aimed at young women just learning about sex, or at older women who aren't getting enough.

When Sam Baker was appointed editor of Cosmopolitan, a friend complained to her that the magazine was either aimed at young women just learning about sex, or at older women who aren't getting enough.

The comment encapsulates how far Cosmo had drifted from March 1972, when it launched in the UK with a message of female sexual liberation that was greeted as a controversial political stance rather than a gratuitous giggle, when articles about G-spots were met with grins rather than groans.

In the first three months of her editorship, Baker has been working to redress the balance and to put the campaigning politics back into Cosmo.

It is early days, but there are already signs that Cosmo could have more to talk about than how to send your man wild in bed. Concerned that many young women don't even realise that cutting the legal limit for abortions is on the political agenda, Baker has, this month, launched a new campaign to keep the limit at 24 weeks.

She has scrapped a 20-page section of the magazine called the "Passion Package", which she believes ghettoised sex, and in a further strike for equality has launched a motoring page by the novelist Victoria Routledge.

Baker is quick to dismiss reports that she is dropping sex from the magazine altogether. "Of course we are doing sex, because we're Cosmo. When Cosmo launched in 1972, for a magazine to speak freely about sex and the fact that women like sex and might want to have sex outside marriage was shocking. It wasn't gratuitous, it was controversial and a campaigning political position.

"Sex is part of our lives. We don't put it in a box and hide it under the bed any more. I wanted to bring the sex content into the rest of the magazine and to make it earn its keep."

Baker wants the title to discuss sex in the same way that women talk about it to their friends. "I felt that we were missing a trick and didn't have that inclusive girly tone, the way you sit with your friends in a bar and talk about your sex life, or lack of one."

She is also keen to include more men writing about sex, giving female readers an insight into "what they're thinking, what they want - they may also be concerned about lying in a way that doesn't show their beer belly".

The 37-year-old redhead is much happier, however, when the discussion turns to her plans to "go back to Cosmo's roots", taking a campaigning stance and engaging in more investigative journalism. "I feel strongly that if women's magazines don't stand up for women's rights, then who will?"

In her first weeks at Cosmo, Baker brought up the subject of moves to lower the legal limit for abortion at an editorial meeting, and was astonished to find that the women sitting around the table knew nothing about it. When a readers' poll revealed a similar level of ignorance, she decided to take action.

"This is about information, saying to our readers: 'You need to know about this.' There is an election coming up. There will be a lot of young women voting for the first time, and they need to be aware of what they are voting for." Baker is particularly concerned by the groundswell of pro-life MPs calling for the limit to be reduced to 12 weeks, a scenario that she fears would lead to a return to backstreet abortions.

Cosmo is also in discussions with the main political parties about ways of persuading young women to vote in the next general election.

"The job is to show young women why it's relevant. The major political parties are not very good at telling young women why they should vote at all. We need to relate back to them that politics isn't about pensions. They don't think politics is about your access to free contraception or the student loan."

Is Baker taking Cosmo in the same direction as Marie Claire, a magazine renowned for its serious coverage of issues affecting women around the globe? "God no!" she exclaims. "We're not going to be doing international reportage, because that's not Cosmo's heartland. What we're interested in is what's interesting to young women right here and now, on their doorstep."

A former editor of J17, minx and, most recently, Cosmo's younger sister Company, which she quit earlier this year to write her first novel, Baker was rejected by the London College of Printing at 17 because they didn't think she had "what it took to make it in magazines". She went instead to Birmingham University, where she studied politics and lived in a flat with four girls who, she says, "literally fought over Cosmo because it was very much about helping you be the best you could be and achieve the things that you want in life". This inspirational quality is something she wants to bring back to the magazine, with more features devoted to careers and life advice.

Is Baker suggesting that Cosmo had lost its way? She insists not, but her comments are revealing. "The crucial thing is for young women to look at the magazine and think, ' Cosmo is speaking my language'. I think there was a slight sense that it wasn't doing that."

Three years ago, Cosmo was presented with the greatest challenge in its 32-year history - a younger rival. Twentysomethings immediately fell in love with Glamour, and, less than two years after it was launched, the petite glossy had outstripped Cosmo to become the UK's best-selling women's magazine. Glamour now enjoys a monthly circulation of 605,000, compared with Cosmo's 456,000 - a difference that can only be attributed in part to a lower cover price. But Baker has a track record of fighting back. As editor of Company, she increased sales by 50 per cent - the only women's monthly to enjoy such growth in the wake of the Glamour bombshell.

The National Magazine Company has shied away from the topic of Cosmo versus Glamour, saying that the titles are aimed at different types of women, and pointing out that Cosmo's circulation has remained more or less stable in this period. Baker says, bluntly, that Cosmo would be crazy not to view Glamour as competition. " Glamour is a great magazine. It's very fashionable, beloved of media luvvies all over London. Cosmo hasn't been fashionable, but it's selling half a million copies a month to its readers. Glamour is number one and we're number two, and we've got it all to play for."

Baker is determined not to obsess about the competition. Her mission is to increase sales, and she says that this can only be achieved through confidence. "I said when I got here: 'Let's not dwell on Glamour. They do what they do very well, but let's focus on what we do, how we can bring Cosmo into the 21st century and make it the first choice for more young women.' You start to lose your way when you start looking at what everyone else is doing."


Publisher: National Magazines

Circulation: 456,447

Year-on-year change: -1.2%

Cover price: £2.85

Catchphrase: "The Best-Selling Magazine in the World"

Editor Sam Baker says: "I'd always wanted the things that my first ever copy of Cosmo made me believe I could have - not some success-crazed, unattainable version of life, but to live life on your own terms."


Publisher: Hachette Filipacchi

Circulation: 201,469

Year-on-year change: +0.3%

Cover price: £3

Catchphrase: "The World's Biggest-Selling Fashion Magazine"

Editor Lorraine Candy says: "It's easier now for you to define your style, to create your own personal kind of cool, if you like. 'Mixing it' is what great fashion and great style is all about."