Celebrity magazines are in danger of being "killed off" by over-protective PR minders and "boring" stars who refuse to say anything interesting, according to the editor of Hello! magazine
Phil Hall, a veteran popular journalist and former editor of the News of the World, laid the blame on a new generation of celebrity "gatekeepers", whose interference often makes it impossible for magazines to obtain anything more than "bland photos" and second-hand quotes that "say nothing". Hall, who is leaving after just 18 months to pursue a new career as a contract publisher, says glossy interview-based titles are having the "life strangled out of them" because they cannot find out anything interesting about their subjects.
"I think magazines are getting the life strangled out of them by publicists," he said. "The weddings and baby stories are now very difficult to arrange. The stars keep saying, 'we won't do this, we won't do that'. People say the celebrity bubble won't burst, but I think it will. We are in danger of killing off celebrity magazines."
Hall, 47, said that, while Hello! focused on images of "celebrity success" involving "beautiful people with beautiful homes and beautiful babies", its most talked-about features were the ones that hinged on genuine stories.
"If you haven't got a headline on the front cover, you can forget it," he said. "We've had Kate Winslet on the front holding her baby – it bombed. We had Kate Winslet on 'how I lost four stone in a year' and sales were huge.
He adds: "If you can get to the stars themselves, they're usually fine – but that's if you can get past the publicists."
His remarks come in the wake of mounting evidence that the bottom is finally falling out of the celebrity magazine market. The latest six-monthly UK circulation figures for Hello! and its main rival, OK!, show sharp declines. While the latter fell from 598,000 copies a week between January and June 2001 to 487,000 in the period July to December, the former plummeted from 843,000 to 527,000.
In the same period, sales of the magazines' "candid camera-style" competitor, Heat, doubled to around 550,000, while Now's circulation has soared since it adopted a similar editorial approach.
Phil Hall says sales of Hello! rose 5 per cent in his first year in the post. But this tally was inflated by two major promotions. One involved a mass give-away of seven million copies, while the other saw the cover price slashed to a penny in a deal with the Daily Mail designed to blunt the impact of a similar push by OK! owner Richard Desmond following his acquisition of the Express and Star newspapers.
The phenomenon of the tough-dealing celebrity PR is viewed by many as a disease imported from the US, where magazines have to guarantee Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez copy and picture approval before they can use even the most banal quote or image. Nor are those markets immune to the slump. Earlier this year, Talk magazine, the "upmarket" glossy founded by former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, collapsed amid reported monthly losses of $800,000.
The decline of more docile interview-based celebrity magazines has corresponded with an increase in the number of outlets for irreverent showbiz gossip, ranging from the Popbitch website to The 3am column in The Mirror, whose editor, Piers Morgan, recently issued a "declaration of war" on stars and their PRs.
Last night, Hall's views were endorsed by publicist Max Clifford, who said interview negotiations between journalists and celebrities had become "like games of chess".
"Most of the time, what PRs are doing is far more about protection than promotion," he said. "We get paid vast sums of money to make sure what comes out is only what the star wants, which means the first thing that goes is the truth. The second thing is anything remotely interesting or shows any insight into their personalities or views."
And who's responsible for that? He blames the rise of the defensive publicist on the increasingly aggressive style of British journalists.
"People are less interested in the kind of celebrity who would want to sell their wedding for a million quid. Zoe Ball and Kate Winslet were seen as heroes for refusing to sell their weddings." Mark Frith, editor of 'Heat'.
"I remember sitting in my office one night watching this garbage [Big Brother], thinking: has it come to this? Is my journalistic career going to depend on whether I can persuade some half-wit from Wales called Helen to take my company's £250,000 and reveal she's even more stupid that we first feared?" Piers Morgan, 'Daily Mirror' editor.
"A celebrity face just doesn't sell anymore. Even Tom Cruise has got to say something interesting – highly unlikely. Stuff that would have constituted a diary item in the past is now being blown up into some giant feature that's just a big load of nothing. " Tina Brown, editor of defunct 'Talk' magazine.
"Celebrities fear us ... If they're at parties and not surrounded by PR people and they meet people like us something clicks. They're usually drunk or on drugs... and they lose it. It's brilliant." Jessica Callan, 'Mirror' 3am girl .
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