Sex'n'celebs - it's kids' stuff

A clutch of teen magazines is doing its best to part teenagers from their pocket money. Does it just mean sex, gossip and celebrity for adolescents? John Walsh looks at what they're reading, while, his 14-year-old daughter puts the pick of the bottom-shelf titles through their paces

"Which celeb would you like to see on our cover?"
Cosmo Girl! asks its young readers this month, in a slightly desperate-sounding bit of market research. "Which hot guys should be
CG! posters? Your vote decides." The questions are more vital than they may seem. A lot of people in the magazine world are dying to know what will grab the attention of the modern teenager. Celebrities? Pop music? Film stars? Adoring fan-club stuff? Paparazzi photo stuff? Sex-and-relationships stuff? Dealing with the interest areas of modern British youth is a delicate business, as publishers tread the line between playing up to the sassy minx and reassuring the responsible young adult.

"Which celeb would you like to see on our cover?" Cosmo Girl! asks its young readers this month, in a slightly desperate-sounding bit of market research. "Which hot guys should be CG! posters? Your vote decides." The questions are more vital than they may seem. A lot of people in the magazine world are dying to know what will grab the attention of the modern teenager. Celebrities? Pop music? Film stars? Adoring fan-club stuff? Paparazzi photo stuff? Sex-and-relationships stuff? Dealing with the interest areas of modern British youth is a delicate business, as publishers tread the line between playing up to the sassy minx and reassuring the responsible young adult.

Teen magazines come under the regular scrutiny of moral watchdogs – remember the trouble over Sugar magazine six years ago, because of its casual allusions to oral sex? – and are taken seriously as the teenager's primary source of sex education. This week, an Ofsted report criticised the power of magazines to peddle stories of casual sex and suggest that under-age fornication is normal.

Heaven knows what magazines Ofsted has been reading. While trawling through the outpourings of the teen-mag industry, I found not a single instance of pre-16 sexual intercourse, but a phenomenal interest in kissing as an end in itself. But "teenage magazines" are not all about, or even mostly about sex. The total market (teenagers spend a stonking £8.4bn on mags a year) includes film magazines, such as Empire; computer magazines, such as PC User; and entertainment magazines, such as the phenomenally successful Heat, as well as the pubescent-babe magazines so avidly read by moralising MPs and teachers. But it's in the latter two segments where the cutting-edge is to be found, and new readers to be discovered.

"The whole teenage market has declined in the last two years," said Alfie Lewis, 34, the publisher of Top of the Pops magazine. "In January 2000, two million copies were sold every month, making about £3.6m. Now it's down to 1.3m a month, and the revenue is down to £2.3m. But you have to think of the teenage market in two segments. There are the girl's-best-friend titles for 13- to 18-year-olds – Sugar, J-17, Bliss, Cosmo Girl! and Elle Girl – they're known as 'baby glossies', and deal in boys, make-up, problem pages and relationships – and the slightly younger 'teen entertainment' titles, invariably with pop stars on the cover, such as CD:UK, It's Hot!, Top of the Pops and TV Hits, whose median age is 12, though they'll be read by advanced nine-year-olds and immature 14-year-olds."

Now two heavyweight organisations, both of them adept at trend-spotting and market-leading, have launched new magazines designed to part scores of thousands of teenagers from their pocket money.

Sneak is from Emap, which has given the world Q, Mojo, Empire and Heat, and seen the last-named become a success. Heat's unique selling proposition is to provide celebrity gossip from the worlds of movies, pop music, television and fashion, and to take its gossip seriously. Part of its appeal is the chatty, knowing, irreverent tone of voice that informs the articles and the witty picture captions. They're trying the same package with Sneak, but with adjustments for an audience of 12- to 16-year-olds.

It's Hot! magazine is out this week from the BBC, covering broadly the same pop material as Sneak but aimed at a younger audience of nine- to 13-year-olds. The pages of both magazines pullulate with the faces of vapid young men from bands called Blue and A1, lots of frantic graphics and style tips, and stories of personal embarrassment, featuring farts, knickers and facefuls of food. The limited sophistication of It's Hot! is signalled by its posters, its strip cartoons (the EastEnders one is "100% official", apparently), its pages of pop-concert details and wholesale lack of smut.

Sneak, by contrast, assumes its 12- to 16-year-olds will be riveted by the subject of snogging. Snogs, thongs, farts and frocks appear to be its main constituents. There's a sweet air of playground mischief about its photographs of celebrities looking foolish, or misbehaving (or snogging), to which rude speech balloons have been appended. Sneak deals in breezy teen-slang and droll teen abbreviations – vid, spesh, bezzie, fave, lad, goss, laydeez, charidee, ker-ching! – while a column tells you who, this week, is blingin' and who, tragically, is mingin'. But what surprises the anxious parent is the no-nonsense moral tone you can detect all through this apparently libertarian journal. Girls are sternly advised not to have sex, "unless you're in a committed and trusting relationship"; a "Loser of the week" slot ticks off Kym Marsh, for ignoring her former friends; readers are invited to laugh at thong-wearers, to be disgusted by Slipknot, to be shocked by the guy from So Solid Crew who bought a shooter, and to marvel at the extravagant lifestyles of some pop stars and the meanness of others. It's a relief to find such ethical dirigisme among 13-year-olds, just as it's a relief to open Cosmo Girl!'s sealed envelope of Sex Questions and find nothing about troilism or bestiality.

" Sneak and Heat are celebrity gossip magazines, but Sneak is dealing with a different palette of celebrities,' said Emap's Maureen Corish. "We're very focused on the teenager's world and the UK. We wouldn't deal with Liz Hurley's baby or Elton John's party because the readers wouldn't be interested; Liz Hurley's old enough to be their mother. Sneak is rooted in playground power – what's being talked about every day on the school bus or in the playground. We give readers the information they need, so they can be included in the conversation. And because we're weekly, unlike the other titles we're dealing in hot news, things that happened in the last seven days." Sneak is printed on Fridays, to hit the stands on Tuesdays; but such is their commitment to topicality, they will move their print deadline to Saturday for the duration of Big Brother 3, in order to incorporate the TV show's Friday-night-eviction bombshell.

"The idea behind It's Hot!," said Alfie Lewis, its publisher, "is to offer a broader range of editorial from the other magazines – pop music with EastEnders, David Beckham, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Pop Idol, S Club Juniors – but target younger readers. The design's much brighter, there's not too much copy, it's very easy to read. Basically, after Beano, Dandy and Girl Talk, it's the nine- or 10-year-old girl's introduction into the media-celebrity world."

Will it work? The BBC's last foray into celeb-mag-land was called Star. It dealt with the glamorous, poolside lifestyle of starry Americans, but it packed up in the autumn after disappointing sales. "It was a beautiful thing," says Lewis wistfully, "and it was popular – it sold 130,000 copies a month. But we'd envisaged a bigger market and it just didn't get there." Perhaps it just proved that British teenagers would rather look at pictures of Dani Behr looking a fright, or Duncan-from-Blue kissing a mystery blonde, than gawp at images of the rich and famous in their unreachable celebrity orbit.

'Just a load of Heat clones'

My favourite magazine at the moment is Heat. It's full of gossip about people you actually want to know about, it has good film reviews, good style, and it's written as though by an old friend who loves gossip just as much as you do. Everyone I know reads Heat (including my dad, much though he denies it) so imagine my surprise when all these new gossip magazines came out. What do they think they've got that Heat hasn't?

The most recent newcomer is Sneak. It's the new gossip bible for teens, apparently. Flicking through it I couldn't find anything vaguely original that I hadn't seen before. I know it's supposed to be a junior Heat, but come on, guys – "Steal her style" with Holly Valance? Didn't Heat just do her this week with exactly the same picture? More like "Steal their style".

Next up was the girlie teen-dream magazine (and my friend's current favourite) Cosmo Girl! This is aimed at 13-15-year-olds as a kind of safer version of more grown-up and more risqué Cosmopolitan. This month comes with a (gulp) sealed envelope that promises to answer all your sex questions, 67 beauty tips from the stars and the "hottest" guys to plaster all over your bedroom wall.

But Cosmo Girl! is surprisingly good. I was amazed because I'd never read it properly before, and had always thought it was a bit of a joke. It's not. It's well-written, and in a friendly way that's never patronising. They have top tips from the stylists to the stars (June Sarpong wears things that flatter her assets and hide the rest, and according to Alesha from Misteeq, the brown trilby is back... if it was ever actually around), real-life dramas, how to get fab abs, and a quiz that lets you know if you're a blabbermouth... (You know that's going to come in useful.)

Another magazine out recently is Hot Stars, given away free with OK! Title sound familiar? It should. The front cover is an exact replica of Heat. And it doesn't stop there: the contents page, the Hollywood gossip, the star style, and the "celebrity" column by Hollyoaks' Joanna Taylor are all identical. This thing is like an attack of the clones. But it's so badly written that no one could ever really compare it to Heat. It's just not in the same league. Hot Stars is not aimed at the same teen audience – it's for older women who buy OK! to see pictures of footballers, their wives and their weddings.

Last and not least (that's Hot Stars) is It's Hot!, published by the same gossip-mongers who brought you Top of the Pops. Here's a tip – it's not hot at all (and neither is the free purple Westlife alarm clock stuck on the front). Don't get me wrong; I'm sure my little sister (age seven) and her mates would appreciate it, but it's not for me. The whole thing seems a bit frantic, as if, in their rush to impress the gossip-hungry 10-year-olds of the world, they had a small nervous breakdown and shoved everything on to the page at once. It's Hot! is aimed at a younger readership, and although the tinies may enjoy reading about Duncan from Blue's love of doughnuts and Aaron Carter's ongoing love of the Queen, there's no difference between it and any other magazine the BBC has produced ( Top of the Pops, Smash Hits, Live and Kicking). I wouldn't read it. But I'm coming round to the purple alarm clock.

Sophie Hart-Walsh

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