Liz Jones: True confessions

No other journalist in Fleet Street is so nakedly self-obsessed, but no one else has written so honestly about female insecurities

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The Independent Online

Is Liz Jones brave, or bonkers, or both?

This week, the Daily Mail's resident confession specialist admitted that she once "stole" a boyfriend's sperm with the intention of becoming pregnant. "One night, after sex," she wrote, "I took the used condom and, in the privacy of the bathroom, I did what I had to do. Bingo." For hours after its publication, Jones was a trending topic on Twitter, as thousands of users expressed amazement at her behaviour, not to mention her subsequent candour.

Not long ago, Jones was derided online for a "brutally honest" account of her £13,000 facelift. Not long before that, she retraced the final steps of murder victim Joanna Yeates, and expressed a wish that Yeates could have spent her last hours "somewhere lovelier" than the Bristol Ram bar. One esteemed media commentator declared the piece "fatuous". Twitter users were less polite. In July, she ranted about the NHS because the nurse at her local GP surgery was too busy to give her the jabs for a trip to Africa at 24 hours' notice. Jones, who normally pays for her healthcare – "a private GP, gynaecologist, two therapists and a dentist who charges £900 for a root-canal filling" – compared this with the physical abuse of patients at a care home revealed in Panorama.

And then there was that trip to Africa: that a fashion journalist, let alone Jones, should be sent to cover the famine in the Horn of Africa was enough to generate a popular satirical Twitter feed, @LizJonesSomalia (sample: "Being here I finally understand the meaning of hunger. My room service is over 2 hours late. I'm literally starving to death"), and an angry article in The Guardian. "Isn't it grotesque," asked Ros Coward, "to send someone who represents the worst excesses of the fashion industry's obsession with dieting and appearance into situations where people are struggling to survive?"

In fact, Jones – undeniably a fine writer – filed a sensitive piece that surelyreached many more readers than would normally have taken notice of Somalia's plight. Meanwhile, @LizJonesSomalia asked for donations towards the DEC East Africa appeal, raising about £30,000 from his/her followers in a few days.

It's possible that Jones's quest for attention at any cost came of being the youngest of seven children. Despite a sometime reluctance to reveal her real age, it's now known that she was born in Essex in September 1958, to an army father and ex-ballerina mother who already had three sons and three daughters. She was not an especially happy child. "I was six when I first realised how hideous I looked," she once wrote. "My eyes are too close together, my skin sallow and crooked."

Her struggle with anorexia began when she was 11, and lasted into her late twenties. She adored animals, and became a vegetarian at 12. At 16, she fell in love with fashion after buying her first copy of Vogue. Soon, she was studying journalism at the London College of Printing. From there, she went to Company magazine, where she eventually became a staff writer. For 10 years, she was a fashion journalist at The Sunday Times. And then, in 1999, she was appointed editor of Marie Claire UK.

Frustrated by the fashion industry's failure to acknowledge the body shape of the everyday woman, she published two covers for the same edition of the magazine: one featuring the falsely enhanced Pamela Anderson, the other the naturally curvy Sophie Dahl. Dahl outsold Anderson by a wide margin, and Jones suggested she and her fellow glossy editors formulate, as she put it, "guidelines on using girls under a certain body size and weight". Her fellow editors were not enthusiastic. Jones claims she was finally fired in 2002, after publishing a long list of all the freebies she'd been offered by fashion PRs.

"I think she's one of the very best fashion writers in Britain," says journalist Tanya Gold, who has written confessionals about her own alcoholism and battle with an eating disorder. "She's the only one who, on a regular basis, calls out the fashion industry on its appalling abuses: on the way its advertising affects anorexia in young girls, on its use of cheap labour. Most of the British fashion press just sits in the front row clapping skirts... She's done a lot for women with eating disorders, because she puts them on the front page of the Daily Mail [which she joined in 2006] and tells them there's nothing to be ashamed about."

Jones is, she claims, banned from attending many fashion shows, which may explain why she turned her hand to confessional journalism, a modern discipline that is often criticised and, more often than not, practised by women. (There are notable exceptions: in the 1990s, William Leith wrote a scabrously self-analytical column for The Independent on Sunday; John Diamond narrated his own slow death from throat cancer in The Times; Tim Dowling's family members are the co-stars of his Saturday Guardian column.)

What sets Jones apart from other female columnists, however, is her merciless introspection. She doesn't write about her broken dishwasher, or her precarious work-life balance. Instead, she explores the depths of female insecurity and, gasping for air, returns to report back to her readers. No other writer in Fleet Street is so unashamedly self-obsessed; she crosses the line between sharing and over-sharing, then she keeps on going.

Thanks to her columns, we know she didn't have sex until her thirties, and finds it "quite tiring and repetitive". We know the grisly details of her four-year marriage to writer Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, a "fat, self-obsessed bastard" 14 years her junior, guilty of infidelity, poor personal hygiene, unbridled spending of Jones's cash and a callous disregard for her beloved cats.

We know how, after they split in 2007, she moved from her plush Islington townhouse to a 46-acre farm in the Exmoor village of Dulverton, with her cats (or "fur babies"), dogs (such as Michael, a sheepdog she found shivering by the side of a road), horses (including Lizzie, an abandoned racehorse), chickens (formerly battery hens) and sheep.

We know she often regrets it. "There are days when I long to be back in my warm, clean house in London," she wrote, "with my nice things and Space NK up the road". She complained that the country was cold and muddy, that the neighbours were unfashionable bumpkins. The neighbours shot at her postbox in retaliation. When she claimed she couldn't afford the upkeep of her animal sanctuary, readers sent her money – which, she says, she returned or donated to charity. In fact, her "wreck of a farmhouse" is reportedly rather more comfortable than she let on in her book, The Exmoor Files.

Some who've worked alongside Jones are convinced her print persona is entirely authentic. Others suggest she exaggerates compulsively. She has a huge number of critics, an equally huge (or huger) number of fans, and the five-figure salary to match. Though she joined Twitter herself only last month, its users' dissemination of her work has given her a reach and impact far beyond that of her confessional predecessors.

When she writes something controversial, it resonates through medialand. Last year, she claimed to have begun a relationship with an anonymous "rock star". The Evening Standard published a lengthy investigation into his identity. (If he exists, he may – or may not – be Jim Kerr of Simple Minds.) The Daily Telegraph commissioned another Dulverton resident to rebut her claims about the village. This very profile came about thanks to a used condom discarded by her ex-boyfriend. Jones is a brand in her own right: as exasperating, compelling and ever-present as a meerkat advertising car insurance.

"I think there's a lot of snobbery around Liz Jones's writing because she writes for the Daily Mail," says Gold. "If she wrote it for The Independent it would be fine. I also think there's a lot of misogyny involved; there are plenty of male journalists who write more icky, ruthless and misjudged journalism than Liz does at her worst, who never get called out on it." What, after all, is the job of the confessional columnist? To provoke, to entertain, to normalise taboo topics; often to shock, occasionally to overstep the mark. And which of those does Liz Jones not do?

A life in brief

Born: Elizabeth Ann Jones, 5 September 1958, Essex.

Family: Daughter of an army father and a former ballerina, Jones is the youngest of seven children. Married to Nirpal Dhaliwal 2003-2007.

Education: Brentwood County High School for Girls, then journalism at the London College of Printing.

Career: Worked at Company magazine 1980-85, freelanced until 1989, joined The Sunday Times, becoming deputy editor of its Style magazine in 1998. Appointed editor of Marie Claire in 1999 but was sacked two years later. She has published four books and currently writes for the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday.

She says: "To fit in. I've always only ever wanted to fit in."

They say: "Very gifted writer and apparently very flaky human being." Deborah Orr, journalist