profile; Glenda Bailey; What she wants

She's loud, she's focused. Suzi Feay on the latest British editor to seduce the US

Suzi Feay
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:07

"THERE are signs that the fad for British editors running American magazines is fading," reported the Times two years ago, when the top job at US Marie Claire went to Canadian Bonnie Fuller, after a series of high-profile British appointees to the all-American likes of Harper's Bazaar and, heaven forbid, the New Yorker. An anonymous source griped: "I guess we are getting a bit sick of it. American patriotism is taking hold."

They spoke too soon. Fuller is already moving on, and Britain's Glenda Bailey will be stepping into her Robert Clergerie pumps, American patriotism notwithstanding. But Bailey is very different from the trio who preceded her across the pond: Tina Brown, the grande dame of the New Yorker; power- bobbed Anna "Nuclear" Wintour of Vogue, who keeps her designer shades clamped to her dainty nose even at the hairdresser's; elegant, silver- haired Liz Tilberis of Harper's Bazaar. Bailey, who has been unkindly dubbed "Jimmy Nail in a fright wig", comes across as a caricature provincial forever squealing her enthusiasm in a broad Derby accent.

That voice grated on television audiences last year in the Chan- nel 4 documentary Absolutely Marie Claire. Purporting to be a sober portrait of a multi-faceted magazine, it came across as character-assassination, though Bailey did herself no favours as the camera captured her sucking up shamelessly to American designers (and heavy advertisers) during New York fashion week. She nearly had an orgasm over a new Estee Lauder blusher, shrieked "I want everything!" to Donna Karan, and assailed a bemused Ralph Lauren with an anecdote about how the first time she met him, her stockings had drooped.

Bailey was reportedly horrified when she saw a tape, but she knows how to turn a situation to her advantage: she invited Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders, in their Patsy and Edina modes, to edit a special supplement, slapped "As Seen On TV" on the cover of the Christmas issue and ordered an extra 100,000 print run. And she was back on television in a recent Amex ad, tossing her auburn corkscrew curls and braying about "my reedahs".

Despite her apparent gaucherie, Bailey has received accolade after accolade for her work on British Marie Claire, netting the magazine 16 awards during its short existence, including ones for beauty and food, several from Amnesty for its reportage, and three consumer magazine of the year awards. Bailey herself has been Women's Magazine Editor of the Year twice and Editor's Editor of the Year in 1992. Terry Mansfield, managing director of National Magazine Company, which publishes Cosmopolitan and She, is reputed to terrorise his stable of editors by regularly slamming the latest copy of Marie Claire on their desks and shouting: "Why can't you give me this?" "The truth is that both Marie Claire and Glenda are a one- off," commented an ex-NatMag editor ruefully.

The three myths Glenda Bailey most dislikes reading about herself are that she is a "Lancashire lass", that her mother was a dinner lady, and that her long-standing boyfriend drives her to and from work: "I was amazed to read that, since he hasn't passed his test and we haven't got a car." She was born in Derby 36 years ago, her father was a manual worker and her mother "didn't have a career as such, and much of the time she didn't have a job at all". They both died when Bailey was in her early twenties.

Bailey always wanted to work in fashion and funded herself through Blackpool School of Art by a stint in a lingerie factory. A fellow student remembers her as a punk dressed in a binliner. At Blackpool, aged 18, she met Stephen Sumner. A graphic designer and still her boyfriend, he's now preparing to accompany her to Manhattan.

From Blackpool she went to Kingston College, whence she emerged with a BA in fashion design. Her final-year dissertation analysed the treatment of fashion within IPC magazines. Bailey introduced herself to all its fashion editors, spent her summer holidays on work experience and ended up knowing more, she says, about the workings of IPC than many of its employees, figuring cunningly that if they didn't employ her, she'd sell the information to the opposition.

BAILEY'S RISE was not meteoric. It was instantaneous. Not many journalists get a first job as editor with no relevant experience. She was convinced there was a gap in the market for a mix of hard-hitting reportage, chic fashion and lifestyle features, the recipe that in the mid-Eighties was making French Marie Claire one of the most widely admired publications in the industry. She pitched her ideas for a new magazine to IPC director Colin Reeves-Smith. He responded by giving the untried newcomer an existing magazine to play with: the ailing Honey, about to be relaunched. "Everyone was horrified. She was clueless and incapable of fulfilling her responsibilities," said an ex-staffer. The staff gave a vote of no confidence in the inexperienced Bailey, and Honey folded within a month.

"There is no one, no one who could have turned Honey around," affirms Heather Love, then publisher of Honey and now publisher of Marie Claire. "It was dated and tired; even the staff couldn't be bothered with it." "I was a quick learner," recalls Bailey of this baptism of fire. "I didn't become an editor because I wanted to be liked, but you hope people will respect you."

In the flesh she seems smaller and less overbearing than her public persona suggests. The face is pallid, attractively asymmetrical, and unadorned by make-up; the hair is brown, the simple, black clothing doesn't scream "designer". But she radiates intensity and self-belief, without arrogance.

Bailey emerged unscathed from the closure of Honey in 1986 and IPC showed its continued confidence in the 26-year-old - to the astonishment of industry insiders - by offering Bailey a new magazine called Folio.

Bailey immediately set to work, tinkering with "her" formula of fashion and news, and initial reports were good: the first issue sold 90,000, not bad from a standing start. She was working on issue four when news came that the French owner of Marie Claire was in talks with another publisher and editor looking to produce an English edition. She leapt from her sickbed (she had pneumonia), tracked down Reeves-Smith at a party, and danced with him to "Satisfaction", pleading with him to back her. He told her to go and get it. Within days the deal was wrapped up, Folio was hastily scrapped, and Marie Claire prepared for its 1988 launch.

"I remember when she first started at Marie Claire, all those stuck-up cows at Elle and Vogue were so snooty about her," says a former colleague, "and she's wiped the floor with them." Readers and advertisers might have been startled by the mix of briskly treated sex, Third World horror stories, and lavish fashion and beauty, but the circulation began its inexorable rise. "When I was first editor the aim, and IPC would have been very happy with it, was 250,000, because that was as high as Elle, and Elle was very successful at the time," says Bailey demurely. Now Marie Claire is the top-selling upmarket fashion magazine with a circulation of more than 450,000.

These days Bailey seems not to attract the bitchiness associated with that world, not just because she is powerful, but also because she seems genuinely to be liked. She's hands-on and an interferer, convinced that she is at one with her readers. "She's a difficult person to work for. Nothing's ever enough, ever," says a former colleague.

Eight years down the line and trawling further and further for bizarre true-life stories, Bailey's Marie Claire has, like many a distinctive magazine before it, become a parody of itself. February's coverlines include "The Man Who Gave Birth" and "My Mother Pays To Look Younger Than Me".

"There's little room for children in Marie Claire," reflects a former feature writer (Bailey has reportedly said she doesn't want children). "The only child-centred feature in the latest issue is about girls who become sexually mature at the age of four. They have got as weird as they can get with these 'I was having a Caesarean while my husband had sex with my sister' stories."

Marie Claire's foreign reportage is often cited as its Unique Selling Point, but Linda McDougall, producer of the "Absolutely Marie Claire" documentary, is sceptical of the magazine's claims to investigative journalism: "I think the supposedly hard-hitting articles are for people who don't read much. If you were really into Third World issues, I don't think you'd go to Marie Claire for your information."

She maintains that her portrait was faithful to life in Marie Claire's grungy SE1 headquarters. "Glenda agreed to have the cameras in but then tried to control what we saw. It was supposed to be fly-on-the-wall, but she ended up taking centre-stage because she was so protective of her team and wouldn't let us film them, and if she looked a bit of an airhead it's because there's a side to her that is rather airhead."

Bailey cites as her favourite feature an account of the treatment of rape victims in Pakistan, which led to her latest Amnesty award. But it is clear that she cares just as much about sex and dinner and the new shade of plum lipstick. Perhaps she belongs not so much to the grand Tilberis- Wintour-Brown axis as to the down-to-earth tradition of Helen Gurley Brown, well into her seventies with US Cosmopolitan still in her gnarled, if loosening, grasp. They are both working class, enthusiastic, politely indifferent to children, workaholic, with an endearing coarseness that connects them to ordinary readers. US Marie Claire's circulation is 525,000, small fry compared with Cosmo's 2.5 million, but if anyone can turn it around, Bailey can.

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