Helen Fielding: Beyond Bridget

The author of 'Bridget Jones's Diary', who has a new book, a new film and a new baby on the way, owes her millionaire LA lifestyle to her dippy, neurotic creation. But her latest heroine - a tough, sexy, 'ass-kicking' secret agent - couldn't be more different
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Unlike her fictional alter ego, the famously neurotic and ill-fated Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding seems to have it all: a new film, a new book and a new baby. As filming starts in London this week on the second Bridget Jones movie, Fielding, who moved to Los Angeles four years ago, has announced she is expecting her first child at the age of 43 with boyfriend Kevin Curran ("Hollywood Kevin" to Fielding's friends), a writer-producer on The Simpsons. Meanwhile, Fielding's new novel, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, a comedy spy thriller, is due out in November.

Fielding's life as a millionaire author and founder of "chick lit" reads like a feminist success story. Bridget Jones, however - obsessed with her weight, drinking and smoking too much and in a panic over her "singleton" status - is a feminist bête noire. Critic Camille Paglia called the character "a boring, dithery twit" while Beryl Bainbridge dubbed Bridget Jones's Diary "a froth sort of thing. As people spend so little time reading, it is a pity perhaps they can't read something a bit deeper, a bit more profound".

It's an irony Fielding herself appreciates, while defending her global bestseller and its sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, on the grounds that "if we can't have a comic female character... without having a panic attack about what it says about women, then we haven't got very far with our equality".

The direct, common-sense approach is typical of Fielding, who began her career as a journalist and is remembered by ex-colleagues at The Independent on Sunday as cheerful, unassuming and "down to earth, because she's from the north". The daughter of a mill manager, she grew up in Morley, near Leeds. She read English at Oxford, where she was a friend of screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary), then won a coveted traineeship at the BBC. Though she spent 10 years in television, making Comic Relief documentaries in Africa, which provided the material for her first novel, Cause Celeb in 1994, Fielding always wanted to be a writer. In the 1980s and early 1990s, she hung out in the showbiz circle of writers and comics that gathered around Curtis. She went into freelance journalism, then regular work on The Independent on Sunday.

Jan Dalley, who was literary editor at the time, recalls "a freewheeling, creative culture at the paper in those days. Everyone was very young and trying stuff out. It was an extraordinary collection of talent - Lynn Barber was there, Allison Pearson, Zoe Heller. Sebastian Faulks was on the daily paper. A lot of people went on to be mega-famous."

The origins of Bridget Jones have become the stuff of legend. There are various versions. Fielding herself has said she was struggling to write her second novel, needed extra cash and suggested she try a column. Asked to write in the first person, she thought it was too embarrassing and instead put forward a fictional character she was considering for a possible TV sitcom, "a girl who is the embodiment of the banana skin joke". When her idea was rejected, she took it to the daily Independent, who commissioned Bridget Jones's first appearance on 28 February 1995. Even then, Fielding expected the column to be cancelled "in six weeks" as too trivial.

Replacing her unfinished second novel in a two-book contract, Bridget Jones's Diary, with its plot loosely based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, sold modestly in hardback. But when it appeared in paperback, word of mouth kept it on the UK bestseller lists for months. Jan Dalley recalls: "It built slowly. Many of us assumed it was completely tongue- in-cheek, so it was a shock when young women started to identify with this daffy character who we saw as an extreme spoof. Then, when readers went beyond identifying with Bridget and started treating her as a role model, that was even more scary." Former IoS editor Ian Jack, now editor of Granta, said: "That kind of global success is always surprising. Bridget Jones was bought by readers who wouldn't otherwise buy many books. It enlarged the reading class."

A metropolitan thirtysomething with a job in publishing PR, a ticking biological clock and a Greek chorus of "smug marrieds", Bridget struck a chord with young women at a time when "ladette culture" with girls drinking and behaving badly (Bridget spends drunken nights with her best friends, slagging off men) was in its early stages. It was an equal hit in the US, where Sex and the City deals with Bridget's slicker, more successful New York counterparts. Both countries have populations with increasing numbers of single young women who no longer identify with traditional romantic fiction, or with the "glitz and glamour" blockbusters churned out by writers such as Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz.

Fielding single-handedly transformed this market. Her success created the chick lit genre which currently dominates publishing, in America especially, where chick lit books earned more than $71m (£43m) in 2001. A number of Bridget-inspired films are in the pipeline.

Today Fielding lives in the Hollywood Hills, in a $1.5m mansion complete with swimming pool. Having sold a reported 15 million copies of the Bridget Jones books, she can afford it, although there was a typical Jones crisis when her new house developed a leaky roof, blocked sewage lines, faulty heating and trouble with the pool, causing Fielding to sue the estate agent who sold it to her. Otherwise, she and Curran live quietly, avoiding the Hollywood party scene. Not surprisingly, she turned up as a character on The Simpsons where she visited Marge's book group and declared that "Americans can't understand the sophisticated subtlety of British humour". Like many Brits before her, she seems to have taken to the LA lifestyle with enthusiasm, telling the Los Angeles Times: "It's brilliant, especially for a writer, to come to LA. Even if things go wrong, there is so much to write about."

A brilliant comic writer, Fielding's talent exceeds any sociological explanation. She's among the handful of authors to create a character instantly recognisable by his or her name alone, such as Sherlock Holmes, Bertie Wooster or Charles Pooter in George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody. Fielding has also coined new words and phrases (or borrowed them from friends), such as "emotional fuckwittage" for male commitment phobia, and forged a unique, telegraphic style, born out of writing columns to length and on deadline.

Her latest volume is said to have caused Fielding far more problems than Bridget ever did. After working out the plot of the spy thriller she later realised that she had given the entire story away by chapter three and had to start again, submitting the book just weeks ahead of publication next month. According to Fielding's publicist, the heroine of the new book is an "ass-kicking, all-action, man-chewing woman". As far from Bridget, in fact, as it is possible to get.