Sex and the social whirl

Lucy Yeomans, editor of Harpers & Queen, tells Ciar Byrne why the real action is after dark
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The Independent Online

Move over Betty Kenward. The latest successor to the doyenne of social diarists - whose faithful reports from Royal Ascot, garden parties at Buckingham Palace and après ski in St Moritz were rewarded with an MBE - is a fashionable lesbian writer.

Stephanie Theobald, whose raunchy debut novel Biche told the tale of a bisexual English girl in Paris, is about to take over the reins of Harpers & Queen's new gossip column, Flash!.

Six months ago, the Harpers editor Lucy Yeomans ditched Jennifer's Diary, the legendary social column over which Mrs Kenward presided from 1959 to 1991, in favour of the more "chi-chi" Flash!, which is as likely to cover Glastonbury as Glorious Goodwood.

Having firmly nailed shut the coffin lid on the Sloane Ranger, a creature invented by the magazine in the 1980s, Yeomans is now determined to take social reportage to the next level. "I think social commentary is so important. When you look at parties and you see who's out with whom, you learn so much. Who's doing deals with who, who knows who - it's an exciting arena and it has traditionally been covered in quite a staid way."

"What I really wanted to do - and it's taken me a while to find the right person - was to have somebody commenting like Truman Capote and Dorothy Parker. I wanted somebody who has that kind of wit and loves observing people, different tribes and how they move together."

Theobald has just returned from the Venice Film Festival, where at the premiere to the film The Merchant of Venice, she took Jeremy Irons' advice on how to approach Al Pacino. Irons told her to go up to Pacino and say: "I'm just going to sit on your knee for 10 minutes and then I'm going." She ended up hanging out with the film star and partying on a boat until dawn. Crucially, she took a photographer with her.

"I've been so frustrated in the past," says Yeomans. "I threw a party for David Bailey at Claridge's about three years ago. At the end of the evening you had Ronnie Wood playing the piano, with Kate Moss lying on top of the piano and Alex James from Blur sitting alongside him, and the photographers had gone. There was no one there to capture that moment. What I want Flash! to be about is capturing those out-of-hours moments when the rest of the paparazzi have gone to bed."

Yeomans first met Theobald briefly in Paris, where the Harpers editor worked on Boulevard magazine after graduating from St Andrews University in psychology and history of art.

They worked together on The European, where Yeomans wrote about films and books and Theobald on fashion. "The section editor thought it would be fun to pit us against one another. He called us into his office and said: 'Stephanie, I want you to write about a day in the life of a Doc Marten and, Lucy, I want you to write about a day in the life of a stiletto.' We looked at each other and then both turned round and said: 'Absolutely no way'."

From The European, Yeomans went to work for Tatler magazine where she rose to become deputy editor under Jane Procter and then Geordie Greig. She spent a day on Vogue as features director before moving to Harpers. "I was offered the job at lunchtime on my first day at Vogue. It was one of the most awful 12-hour periods of my life. My assistant told me afterwards that she thought I was on drugs."

She is quick to rebuff the suggestion, voiced earlier this year by the Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, that Harpers' recent revamp was "unashamedly derivative". The main bones of contention were a "Harpers Handbag and Shoes" supplement that Shulman believed was uncannily similar to a shoe supplement Vogue had brought out five months earlier, and a page in Harpers called Spirit Level which, like Vogue's Spirit page, covers the mind and body.

"We were the first people to do an accessories guide in March 2002. I think Spirit Level is very different from Spirit. The fact the word 'spirit' was used - it's like saying 'Ooh, gosh, you're not allowed to use fashion.' These are areas that every magazine is writing about."

When Harper's Bazaar launched in the UK in 1929, it posed a direct challenge to British Vogue, which had launched in 1916. Both were aimed at the rich and fashionable. But after Harper's merged with the society magazine Queen on 1 November 1970 - the day Yeomans was born - it turned into the bible of the twin-set and pearls crowd, while Vogue kept its catwalk cool.

While Yeomans has no intention of slavishly following fashion, she is aiming for a younger, more fashion-conscious reader. She is reluctant to talk about age - "It's more about an attitude" - but when pressed admits that when she joined the average age of a Harpers reader was 45, it has now dropped to 40 and her target is 35.

"I aim it at what I want to read about and I'm 33. Before, it was aimed at an older woman and I want it to be ageless. By that happening the average age will come down. The main thing we have found from our reader research is that 80 per cent of our women work."

To cater for the working reader, the National Magazine Company recently launched a biannual Harpers Business supplement, with features on female entrepreneurs, career advice and fashion shoots of outfits for the office.

It seems the Hooray Henriettas will have to make do with Tatler. "We've put a very healthy distance between us and Tatler," says Yeomans. (Harpers' latest circulation figure of nearly 98,000 is up 10 per cent from 2003, ahead of Tatler's stable 84,500.)

"I think now we're very different magazines. Tatler is a very society-driven magazine about a section of London society. We are much broader than that. When you read Tatler you have to know and care about that group of people. At Harpers the people we are writing about are much more accessible."

The old Harper's Bazaar boasted a cast of writers including Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman and Simone de Beauvoir. Yeomans hopes to recapture this spirit with a line-up of contributors including Jeanette Winterson, Paolo Coelho, Ismael Merchant and Anthony Minghella.

Recent Harpers features include Germaine Greer writing about the artist Sam Taylor-Wood's new exhibition and a look at 21st-century heroes from the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim to a woman who runs a support group for prostitutes in Tower Hamlets, east London. Coming up is an interview with Alexandra Kerry on the presidential campaign trail with her father.

Yeomans is scathing about the current offering of women's magazines. "It amazes me when I look at the news stand. I think if you were an alien and you landed on earth, if you looked at the magazines you might think that women didn't have any brains at all."

In contrast, she believes Harper's readers want to get the most out of life, whether it's watching a great new play or Six Feet Under on television, going on a walking tour in Tibet, or learning about a cutting-edge young British designer. The little green men might just be impressed.