When I joined the Daily Telegraph many years ago, some guardians of journalism complained that I would infect the grand old institution with a strain of perky anarchy. Yet it was the old masters of the Telegraph who egged me on. Lord Deedes was recklessly light-hearted. Auberon Waugh made me swear that I would get a naked woman on the front page. I sidled towards it with some fashion models wearing diaphanous blouses and finally stuck a Lucian Freud portrait above the fold of the front page.
I was reminded of this picture, and of the undiminished power of nakedness in general, as I examined the striking portrait of Beth Ditto on the front of Love magazine. The gifted editor, Katie Grand, needed to make a splash with her debut issue. Beth is considered “edgy” on account of being a bit of a chubby chops. The magical part was having her get her kit off.
The depth of our Victorianism is touching. The Reader, which should win Kate Winslet her Oscar this evening, is about fascism and corruption and betrayal, but the subject that has caused most excitement in the press is Kate’s bottom. We may pride ourselves on post-watershed sophistication, but it takes only a dropped garment to make us blush.
Magazines have to fight a Darwinian battle on the newsstands to gain attention. The display under “Women’s Interest” is known in the trade as the “Wall of Sick”. The favoured colours are orange and pink. The favoured numbers are high and odd: 257 ways to decorate your shoes, etc. “Men’s Interest” comes down to cars, bikes, rippling male torsos and panting women in bustiers. Thankfully, my own magazine can nestle alongside National Geographic, away from this gaudy circus.
But if I were fighting for survival on the newsstand, I would consider making Auberon Waugh’s dare a permanent feature. There are a hundred magazine covers featuring Jennifer Aniston, but the one that caught the public’s attention was of her naked on the front of GQ. Amanda Foreman, the historian, has been widely interviewed, but it took Tatler to get the bluestocking to strip.
The trick is to find naked celebrities who fit your brand – Naomi Wolf for the liberal broadsheets, Kirstie Allsopp for the Telegraph. Then you need to sell the notion to the celebrities as a form of empowerment. Naked and defiant! Skilfully, breast cancer charities have cottoned on to this.
Friends of mine once posed for a book of photographs called Naked London. If you had called the book Naked, they would not have done it, but somehow the mention of a capital city dignified the project.
I don’t know at which stage of the Love planning process someone suggested Beth Ditto should appear naked. It is counter-intuitive for a magazine about clothes and style to advertise itself with a celebrity stripped bare, but it worked. It destroys the fashion wisdom that your personality lies in your wardrobe. American Vogue has just featured Michelle Obama on its cover. The editor, Anna Wintour, regards Mrs Obama’s clothes sense as inspired. Surely the magazine could have better captured the First Lady’s confident athleticism if she had been naked. And imagine the sales.
I’m beginning to understand how this world works. Bear Grylls, the explorer and heart-throb, is a forthcoming cover of Reader’s Digest. When we met, I shook his hand politely and asked him to “get ’em off”.
Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British ‘Reader’s Digest’