The cheekiest editor in town

Dawn Neesom is not your typical feminist - but she has put thousands of female readers in touch with the laddish Daily Star. Ian Burrell asks for her circulation secrets

Dawn Neesom, the editor of the Daily Star, has a calendar of topless women pinned to her wall, and her perfect weekend involves knocking back the Stella Artois and heading off to the football.

It would be fair to say that she is not the most obvious feminist, and yet she is adamant that she is turning the famously laddish red-top into a product that appeals to aspirant young women. "Most young girls don't tend to buy newspapers full stop now, they tend to buy magazines. So it's encouraging that they are reading the Daily Star," she says, claiming a surge in female readers since she became editor six months ago.

The Daily Star has become one of Fleet Street's few success stories. With a circulation of 883,084, it is the only red-top able to report an annual growth. Since she arrived last December, Neesom has delivered 55,000 new sales, many of them to female readers.

She claims to have given the paper "a bit more attitude, a bit more cheek". More cheek but less bottom, you could say. "I've taken some of the sexier pictures out. We used to have a lot of bare bottoms in the paper. There are fewer now," says Neesom.

This is hardly the case on the morning we meet, when a female punter at Royal Ascot makes the front page as she exposes her derrière in a picture to promote a special offer of a "free £1 bet for every reader". Page five features George Best's ex-wife Alex sunbathing in Majorca and points out that, "she took off her bikini top and sported a tiny thong to make sure she got an even bronzing on both cheeks."

Neesom defends this sort of content by claiming that women, as much as men, like looking at photographs of undressed women. "I just went through Heat magazine and there's more breasts and bottoms than in the Daily Star because women like looking at women's bodies more than men - you are constantly comparing yourself," she says.

This explains why Neesom's arrival at the Star has not coincided with the disappearance from the paper of the large-breasted model Katie "Jordan" Price, who became ubiquitous on its pages under the previous editor, Peter Hill. This particular morning, Jordan dominates the front of the paper, while the whole of page three is devoted to new pictures from the model's calendar.

"The interesting thing about Jordan is that she is more popular with females than males," argues Neesom. "People perceive her to have a nice celebrity lifestyle and our female readers want to be Jordan. They want to go shopping, to go to parties, to enjoy themselves and have a nice life."

Neesom, 39, has known the model since she was 17, and points out that a Jordan cover is seen by celebrity magazines as a guaranteed circulation winner. "That's not men buying that, it's women," she says.

In Neesom's estimation, it is not nudity that demeans women but the misogynistic lecturing from other quarters of the national press. "As a woman, I think that the Daily Mail is fairly hateful," she says. "I think it is patronising, demeaning and it constantly tries to tell me that I should be pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen. I don't want to be."

The Mail, she complains, specialises in case studies about "my life as a career woman and how I couldn't cope so I had to move to the country and buy an Aga and have two kids and now I'm very happy". "Get real! Most of us don't live in that world," she says. By comparison, the Daily Star is now about "encouraging young women... if you want to be a model, a pop star, a celebrity, you can do it. Go out and live life".

Neesom says she has introduced more "female-orientated features", citing a piece that morning about the £12,500 "bling" watches being brandished by the wives of England footballers in Portugal.

"In today's paper, our centre spread is our Search for a Beach Babe contest," she says. "That may sound sexist on the surface [but] we had well over 2,000 entries from beautiful young female readers who want to be a beach babe. They want to be Jordan."

She is a true Cockney, born in Bow and raised in Stratford. Her mother was a cleaner and her father was a lorry driver. The closest she came to having familial connections to the media was when her father moonlighted as a newspaper delivery driver. "He used to sign his tax forms as Mickey Mouse, and he got away with it an' all," she says.

A fervent West Ham United fan since the age of four, she still lives in east London, in Wapping, just round the corner from News International. "If Rebekah [Wade] gets fed up, I'm there, ready and waiting," she blurts out.

Pressed as to whether she sees herself as a future editor of The Sun, where she previously worked for five years (including a spell as women's editor), she claims that the rival paper has "lost its sense of humour big time, and is getting too pious".

Then she adds "but I'm not going anywhere, I love the Daily Star, it's got potential and I want to be there when it's outselling the Mirror and The Sun."

At the next election, she says, Neesom will not be backing any party. "The general feeling of Daily Star readers at the moment is that they don't trust any politicians." This is a markedly different approach from the Daily Express, which has come out for the Conservatives. "That's right for the Express. We may be sister papers, but we're totally different.

"What the Daily Star doesn't do is tell people what to think, how to vote. We don't preach to people. We think our readers are bright enough to make up their own minds," she says.

Neesom's paper has little interest in politics and not much more in news as a whole. "I want people to finish reading the Daily Star every day and be happy and cheerful and have a smile on their face," she says. "I personally don't want to get up in the morning and read 12 pages of doom and gloom and Iraq. It's hard enough at the moment living life here; you don't want to face that travelling into work. It makes you feel impotent and it just depresses you. What's the point in doing that?"

Given that an event as globally significant as the Iraq crisis is seen as being too dull for her readers, can Neesom see the day when populist newspapers will give up on conventional news altogether?

"I don't think it will happen in our lifetime, but I think that's the way things are going and newspapers will have to adapt," she says. "Our generation of readers can get the news and the information they want from television news and the internet, and they're getting their fill of news from that."

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