Wanted: Editors. No experience necessary

Getting a celebrity to run your magazine for an issue may give sales a boost, but are they up to the job? Mark Adams reports
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The Independent Online
Strange how two magazines on either side of the Atlantic have come up with the same idea at the same time. In the US, the witty and urbane New Yorker produced a "women's issue" with a controversial guest editor: Roseanne. As if propelled by some bizarre zeitgeist, the UK's own journal of wit and urbane cynicism, Loaded, recruited the comedienne Jenny Eclair to "edit" the March "ladied" issue.

Spooky, but not without precedent. These days if you're a celebrity of any worth it sometimes seems you have to swan into the offices of a glossy magazine and bash out an issue. January 1994 saw Joan Collins hunched over a keyboard at Marie Claire. So successful was she in the opinion of the full-time editor, Glenda Bailey, that exactly a year later (January is a slow month for most magazines) Marie Claire called on Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley to bring out an Ab Fab version.

To show that it isn't all fluff and nonsense, French Voguehad Nelson Mandela argue with contributors and rewrite copy in December 1993, while Elle Decoration brings in designers such as Terence Conran (May 1995) and Joseph (October 1994). Moving from the sublime to the most sublime, French Vogue turned over an edition to the Dalai Lama. Which nearly (but not quite) tops the New Musical Express pulling in Blur, and last week Jarvis Cocker, from Pulp, to keep staff in line and meet those all-important deadlines.

So is the public expected to believe that Nelson Mandela's 25-year imprisonment in South Africa equipped him to deal with prima donna writers? Did the Dalai Lama's previous lives include fashion reporter? Celebrities bring you publicity, but can they do the job?

Some think not. " 'Special' issues don't cut any ice with readers," says Stephen Quinn, publishing editor of Vogue in the UK. "The Dalai Lama issue performed badly at the news-stands. It's a self-indulgent act on the editor's behalf. I'm thinking particularly of Glenda Bailey's rather obsessive love affair with Joan Collins. That issue of Marie Claire was not a great success. The content was feeble, it wasn't very professionally edited and the features were badly constructed. It's a gimmick, and an editor is compromised from the moment they agree to do it over a glass of Dom Perignon at Harry's Bar."

Heather Love, the publishing director of Marie Claire, disagrees. "I would say that our celebrity editor magazines put on roughly 10 per cent in circulation terms. They don't bring in extra ads, but it enhanced the brand and created a buzz.

"In the celebrity editor issues, the actual editor, at that time Glenda, takes on the role of editorial director. When Joan Collins edited, for instance, she would spend a lot of time in the office. She conducted interviews and went on photo shoots.The only real danger in doing this is if your magazine is not too important and you can only get B-list celebs."

From the A-list group, Jenny Eclair had a whale of a time at Loaded. "It all came about at a raucous lunch with the editor, James Brown. Then my PR company pushed it through because they thought it was a good idea. I was a bit scared at first, thinking I had to write everything, including the ads. But then I realised all I had to do was get stroppy and boss other people around.

"With someone like James Brown - he is such a control freak - some of my ideas did get vetoed. I can't tell you which, they're too rude. But I was able to lig a few photo sessions where young boxers took their clothes off."

Loaded staff speak highly of Eclair's professionalism and level of involvement. Reports from the New Yorker, however, suggest that the staff agree with Mr Quinn on celeb contributions. Apparently, Roseanne didn't pull her weight. "It was a joke," says one employee. "What she did was sit about LA for a couple of 'meetings' with friends like Carrie Fisher and Ruby Wax. It was a stunt - not the New Yorker way of doing things."

Perhaps it's the culture clash that causes such resentment. The louche living expected of idols contrasts with the image of the hard-working journalist, sleeves rolled up, drooping fag, and a tough deadline to meet.

With editors, it's different: indeed, some have garnered celebrity status for themselves. Witness the fame of the late Michael VerMeulen, editor of GQ in the UK until his lifestyle caught up with him last year; Diana Vreeland, cataclysmic editor of American Vogue during the Fifties and model for Kay Thompson's extravagant turn in the musical Funny Face; and the Pet Shop singer Neil Tennant, a former editor of Smash Hits, who took things just a bit too far by becoming a pop star himself. (He did return for a one-off issue a few years later. There were no complaints that he was slumming.)

Where does it go from here? Maybe out of control. Sharon Stone is tipped to mastermind an issue of Vanity Fair. Country Life is 100 years old in 1997 and is planning three celebratory supplements, each edited by a mover and shaker. The magazine is in discussions with members of the Royal Family.

Country Life has already been outdone by the Windsors' most loathed tabloid, the Sun. It recruited the guest editor to end all guest editors on 9 December 1993, when Kelvin MacKenzie's chair was filled by Mr Blobby. Seems it was a particularly pithy issue that day.