Why every mag has its awards bash

In a showbiz world dominated by Oscars and Baftas, what makes magazines hold gongs parties and celebrities attend? Guy Adams explains the system
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The Independent Online

There's been no shortage of divas at the Royal Opera House over the years, but I doubt the historic building has ever held quite as many under its roof at one time as last week, when it hosted GQ magazine's seventh annual Man of the Year awards.

The guest list for the bash read like aWho's Who of celebrity. It mixed pop stars past and present - from Jay-Z to Burt Bacharach - with Hollywood stalwarts Pierce Brosnan and Alicia Silverstone. On the dance floor, Nancy Dell'Olio jostled for elbow room with the gossip columns' couple of the moment Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson.

Elsewhere, you had sporting heroes (Jenson Button), TV stars (Vorderman, Bremner, Lucas and Walliams), supermodels, actors, and at least four national newspaper editors. Every table held a household name. Bryan Ferry met Bob Geldof; Jay-Z pressed flesh with Simon Cowell. It was as if Oscars night had landed in London W1.

Except, that is, for one crucial difference. For, while most awards - Oscars, Golden Globes, Baftas and Brits - mark the pinnacle of any show-business career, GQ's Man of the Year gongs represent something entirely different. They don't reward artistic excellence, but merely indicate that a gentlemen's magazine happens to think someone is a good egg.

It was, therefore, significant that GQ attracted such stellar guests. Tuesday coincided with the Mercury Music Prize, a long-running and prestigious event that (on paper) ought to have Hoovered up all the record industry's biggest names. Against this opposition, GQ's success highlights an important publishing trend: the rise and rise of magazine awards dos.

Time was when such bashes would be greeted by a shrug of celebrity shoulders, and a raspberry from the general direction of Fleet Street. Now things are different. We are entering what is loosely termed "party season", and the number of hot tickets dished out by glossy magazines is nothing short of remarkable.

Not long ago, Loaded held its first Laftas (for comedians). On Monday, TV Quick lauded soap stars. Elsewhere, Empire does film awards. Elle does style, and FHM glad-hands the fashion industry. Tatler even holds a "100 most invited" bash, for the beautiful people who have time to attend all these glitzy events. Emap titles Q and Mojo both hold glittering bashes for the crème de la crème of the music business.

But what's the point? Given that they are, at best, ambivalent about actually winning awards, what persuades celebrities to pay homage to a magazine? And what makes publishers spend hundreds of thousands of pounds - and months of work - making them happen?

Editors speak of a complicated exercise in branding, a crucial part of the two-way relationship that magazines, as style arbiters, must develop with their cover stars. Asked to explain the purpose of her annual bash, Glamour's editor, Jo Elvin, talks about building "celebrity authority".

"Although Glamour isn't primarily a celebrity magazine, we have a lot of celebrity authority, and the awards help build on that," she says. "It's a huge event for us, important for the coverage it gets, and the doors it opens in terms of celebrity access." Celebs court the exposure of appearing in an "awards special" issue of a magazine. Editors need them on board, because without famous faces, their party's an expensive disaster.

One man who can turn on the charm when it matters is GQ's editor, Dylan Jones. He admits that celebrities are never going to rate his Perspex gongs as highly as an Oscar or a Bafta, but says stars are still eternally grateful for "recognition".

Speaking before last week's bash, he said you can "never legislate" on people turning up. "You can have contracts. You can give them airline tickets or cars, but you can never guarantee that they'll come."

By "contracts", Jones means verbal agreements, insisting he'd never actually pay someone to show. This is a standard line: no editor will admit to paying celebrities to attend. Off the record, it emerges that the party circuit is run on a quasi-commercial form of agreements.

Take Glamour's Women of the Year bash earlier this summer. This made front pages after the actress Teri Hatcher won a prize for being something to do with the TV series Desperate Housewives. The key to its commercial success was persuading Hatcher - who hadn't appeared on the UK party circuit since achieving stardom - to cross the Atlantic to pick up her trophy.

By way of persuasion, Glamour's publisher, Condé Nast, paid for Hatcher's flights to the UK, and her tab at one of London's finest hotels for the best part of a week. A car and driver were left at her disposal. There is nothing dishonest or unusual in this arrangement, but it does demonstrate how the system can work to the benefit of stars. For Hatcher, it provided an economical way for her to "break" the UK market. In the week of her subsidised visit, she also managed to pop up on Jonathan Ross's TV show.

Other star guests can be even more demanding. Some insist on being guaranteed a gong in order to attend; others will show only if a chum is paid to "manage" the guest list. A couple of years back, it was controversially suggested (and denied by the magazine) that David Furnish had been offered a gong by GQ in order to persuade his partner, Sir Elton John, to turn up.

But whatever really goes on behind the scenes, one thing's for sure: the magazine industry takes its partying seriously. Entire departments of publishing houses are now dedicated to event management.

In days of old, a magazine editor's job ended with putting together a readable product. Now they are exotic creatures: part brand manager, part impresario, part friend to the stars. For them, the red carpet has become a home from home.

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