My advice to Vanessa? Don't give up the day job

First came a politician's ex-wife. Then the grieving girlfriend of a dead rock star. Now daytime talk-show host and recent divorcee Vanessa Feltz is about to join Margaret Cook and Paula Yates in the ranks of unlikely agony aunts. And that, says Virginia Ironside, could make readers' problems a whole lot worse
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The Independent Online

Last month, a letter was published in Woman's Own. "I just wanted to send a great big hug to your agony aunt, Suzie Hayman," it read. "I love her honesty and the way she tells it like it is. If ever I had a need to write to a problem page I'd write to hers. Suzie's the gal for me. So thanks, Suzie, you're one of the many reasons I read such a great mag."

Three weeks later, this reason for Woman's Own being such a great mag, this wise, compassionate, Relate-trained journalist, with 15 years experience in the problem-page field, was out on her ear, shoved out by none other than that famous celebrity shambles, Vanessa Feltz. Vanessa is the third "celeb" to be a made an agony aunt recently, sweeping aside people with vast sources of information and experienced in helping people with problems. Paula Yates was recently made agony aunt of the new Aura magazine. Last year Margaret Cook, one-time wife of Robin Cook, and author of a vitriolic book about her ex, was made agony aunt of Woman's Journal.

But Vanessa takes the biscuit. For years, as Claire Rayner has pointed out, she has been hosting a television show that abused viewers' trust; she's made money out of luring sad folk onto television screens and poking fun at their lives; worse, despite having young children who must be dreadfully embarrassed to hear their parents' problems aired in public, she's been eager to vilify their father in the press.

The agony column has traditionally been the soft underbelly, the heartbeat of newspapers and women's magazines. True, it's always been a journalistic exercise, because if the agony column isn't interesting then no one will read it, but readers will usually find quite a bit of medicine in the jam. Not only is there illumination, explanation and compassion, but, almost more important, there is information. Most agony aunts have reams of addresses of specialists, self-help groups, titles of books, contacts - and masses of knowledge about rights and services that the ordinary person doesn't know exist. And agony aunts with long reputations, like Deidre Sanders of The Sun, Tricia Kreitman at Prima, Ann Lovell at Bella, Gill Cox of Woman's Realm and, indeed, myself here at The Independent and the Sunday Mirror, all answer every single letter that comes in to them. The agony column is only the tip of a huge, free, helping agency.

While the agony column may sometimes be seen as entertaining, the people who write into it aren't entertainers. Only today I'm answering, privately, 23 letters: including one from Colin, who wants to kill himself because he's been unemployed for eight years, and who, at 45, has never had a girlfriend; Maria, who's 15 and has started cutting herself; Jenny, whose husband has left her and taken the children without telling her where they are; Reg, who's convinced that he is hideously ugly, despite a photograph that shows him to be perfectly normal-looking...

What is Vanessa going to do with such letters? Throw them in the bin, like some columnists? And if she does reply, how will she be able to do it? Does she have 100 or so leaflets, as I do, crammed with information and sources of help? Does she know the addresses of unusual places, like centres where men can get help with their violence? Does she know where people with obsessional compulsive disorders can find answers? Does she know of all the 700-odd different groups, apart from Cruse, that help with bereavement - agencies that deal specifically with stillbirth, miscarriages, suicides, abortion, pet-death...

Deidre Sanders, who employs nine people to answer the thousands of problem letters that come to The Sun, says: "The appointment of people like Vanessa is very cynical of publishers, who are simply trying to cash in on the publicity resulting from their personal problems. People in the public eye may think they're qualified to advise on how to sort out others' problems because they had some trouble themselves. But these experiences don't mean you have any expertise on how to answer people's problems. These days, to do the job of an agony aunt requires sophisticated data-bases, as well as counselling skills, and to come at the job cold without any of that is to short-change the people who come to you with their problems."

In other words, the message: "I've been there too" isn't sufficient qualification to help desperate people.

Irma Kurtz, the long-standing columnist at Cosmopolitan, thinks an agony aunt is the modern-day equivalent of the wise old woman who lives down the end of the village. Agony aunts still inspire a slight fear - in nearly every magazine and newspaper I've worked for over the last 25 years, I've been shunted to the edge of the office, marginalised, stuck on a different floor, pushed down a back corridor. Because we are a little frightening, people use humour to reassure themselves when we, or our columns, are around. Agony aunts are not taken seriously. We're hilarious. Journalist friends of mine still ask me why I'm not doing something "proper", rather than producing weekly a newspaper page that it makes them comfortable to see as trivial.

It's interesting, too, that agony columns have always been considered lightweight, partly because, historically, emotional problems have always been "women's" stuff, ergo silly, tearful, helpless, moody and so on. Although the question and answer format was apparently devised by a John Dunton in the 18th century for the Atheneum Gazette (Daniel Defoe had a brief stint as a problem-page editor), agony columns came into their own in the late 19th century, with ladies like the editor of Ladies' Home Journal, who advised readers, when they were depressed, to turn to God. Agony columns in the Twenties and Thirties became, briefly, sources of etiquette advice - when I arrived at Woman in the Seventies, I found a leaflet called "How to Eat an Avocado Pear". Then, up to the Sixties, they addressed more emotional problems, featuring charitable and kindly Quaker or Humanist advice from agony aunt greats like Peggy Makins and Angela Willans, who both wrote variously for Woman and Woman's Own. (Problems of an "intimate nature" were responded to privately.)

In the Sixties it was Anna Raeburn at Woman, my predecessor, who first used words such as "vagina" "penis" and "orgasm" on the page, and opened up the postbag to endless queries about sexual problems - queries which are only just starting to dwindle today as attention becomes more focused on the success of relationships. Her concerned but fiery style of answering: "Don't be a doormat! Get up and give yourself a good shake!" still has reverberations in some of the agony columns today.

The agony column was never popular with broadsheet newspapers, which saw them as appealing to CD readers, rather than AB ones. Until, that is, six years ago when The Independent produced the "Dilemmas" column. This, because it asked readers to contribute their own views, as well as featuring those of the ag aunt, reflected the more democratic attitude to help and problems that was growing in society as a whole. People with problems were no longer looking solely to great gods in white coats to solve their problems (nor, indeed, middle-aged agony aunts with grey perms and kindly eyes); this was the age of self-help - groups, books, workshops, and complementary medicine. This method of presenting the problem page in a way acceptable to people who liked to see themselves as more self-determining than tabloid readers was so successful that it was immediately copied by The Guardian, the Daily Mail, and The Observer.

When I'm asked what I do, I crack jokes, laugh at myself. But, cheesy as it may sound, I know that I and my colleagues are doing a really worthwhile job on top of the journalistic one that most people see. If anyone writes to me they'll be astonished at the amount of information they get for free - leaflets that cover subjects ranging from contraception, to explanations of cognitive therapy, or how to cope with living with an alcoholic. Part of each working week is spent in dialogue with some of the most unhappy, poverty-stricken, inarticulate, wretched people around, many of whom don't want to live. Will Vanessa, like most responsible agony aunts - and like her predecessor, Suzie Hayman - not only reply to their tragic pleas for help, but also follow up their letters to make sure they're all right?

Vanessa's life is fascinating precisely because it is such a mess. And I'm not saying that genuine agony aunts are paragons of sanity - far from it. But shedding a few stone with the aid of an expensive personal trainer does not mean, in tabloid-speak, that you've "bounced back". And, even if you have, just being a celebrity does not give you the authority, experience and knowledge to help people who are truly, truly desperate.

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