It takes Gaul to challenge our obsession with celebs

WHICH
OF THE following is a cover-line on a downmarket weekly magazine: a)
“Keira Knightly talks lap dancing, bottoms and Johnny Depp’s Y-fronts”,
b) “Rooney’s girl: Coleen and her passion for fashion” or c) “J-Lo:
everyone’s had a laugh at my expense”?

It is a truth universally
unchallenged in modern publishing that women do not wish to read
anything which requires an IQ higher than that of Coleen McLoughlin’s
fiancé. Celebrity is all. It provides a title’s cover image, directs
its style pages and is the portal through which a reader can enter a
serious issue: Pamela Anderson exposes domestic violence, Kate Moss
solves world poverty.

And so coverline a) is from this month’s
Marie Claire, once a gold standard of women’s journalism, which is now
– apart from a token foreign report – lighter than Lindsay Lohan’s
lunch; b) is, of course, from the much-publicised June issue of Vogue
and although the brilliant Justine Picardie does her damnedest to
examine Coleen as a cultural phenomenon, her interview still amounts to
3,000 words on a numbskull 19-year-old who shops a lot. Coverline c) is
from the current Now magazine.

The after-effect of the two most
influential launches of the last decade – Glamour and Heat – is that
every women’s title, high or low, now covers the exact same shopping
‘n’ celebs ground. So is there room on the shelves for something
completely different?

In September, Hachette Filipacchi will launch a magazine of most unfashionable austerity and seriousness.

Psychologies,
France’s third best-selling women’s magazine after Cosmo and Marie
Claire, contains no fashion, gossip, celebrity or shopping. It forsakes
outer fripperies for a deep exploration of the inner self and how to
live a more fulfilled and healthy existence.

The cover is usually a haughty arthouse French actress like Carole Bouquet cracking the thinnest of smiles.

The
fact that this sounds to most British women like an introspective
yawnfest reveals much about how we differ from our French sisters.

In
France, where philosophy is taught in schools as part of the
Baccalaureate, abstract discussion is not seen as pretentious, indeed
ideas are sexy. Also it must remembered, as Moliere portrayed in his
17th century comedy Le Malade Imaginaire, France is a nation of
hypochondriacs.

If
the French are not downing an unneeded antibiotic they’re inserting a
suppository. They are suckers for therapy and mood altering
prescription drugs, consuming around three times as many
anti-depressants as we do.

So it is clear why Psychologies sells
300,000 copies a month in a culture where emotional intensity,
health-obsession and spiritual navelgazing are encouraged rather than
routinely mocked. But it is uncertain how it will meld with the British
approach to existential angst: have a drink, laugh at yourself or just
bloody well get on with it.

Psychologies was a small-circulation
academic journal for French shrinks until it was bought by
publisher-guru Jean-Louis Servan Schreiber, who still writes a
ponderous letter to readers in every issue. Described as “like a French
philosopher as conceived by central casting”, he favours minimalist
grey and black clothing, is very thin with cropped hair and
eerily-youthful skin for his 68 years.

Schreiber is the author of
several philosophical texts including The Art of Time, which sounds a
real page-turner: “a journey of self-discovery, offering wisdom,
inspiration and the power of transformation”. Psychologies is his
dearest baby and one reason for the delay of the British launch, which
was scheduled for this spring, was his dissatisfaction with how
Hachette Filipacchi was interpreting his vision for the British market,
with revised dummy pages pinging between London and Paris.

An early notion was to dispense with the French title and call the magazine Being.

Eventually
that was discarded as sounding too nebulous and likely to relegate the
magazine to the health racks with Top Santé. Psychologies also has the
advantage of being an international brand – Spanish and Italian
editions were launched recently by Hachette, with plans for America,
China and Russia in the pipeline – and a French-sounding title could
suggest cachet and chic to a Chanel-wearing British reader.

Although some feel it sounds too much like an inaccessible, learned journal.

So
will it translate? The key, of course, is in the execution. There are
few journalists who better combine women’s magazine experience with
broadsheet gravitas than Psychologies editor Maureen Rice, who edited
19 and Options, worked on the launches of InStyle and Eve and wrote
regularly for The Observer. Her deputy is Claire Longrigg, a former
Guardian woman’s editor and Independent features editor, and the author
of a book about women in the Mafia.

Can they create a
thought-provoking magazine about how we live now, with depth and
intelligence, for women who can read without moving their lips? Maureen
Rice says the British version will take the DNA of French Psychologies
rather than its content: “I realise that what is considered
intellectual there is considered pseudo- intellectual here. We plan to
make the magazine much more pragmatic and applicable to daily life
rather than purely abstract.”

The magazine’s mission, she says,
is to present the findings of medical and academic research into a
digestible and entertaining form.

Psychologies will also use male contributors.

Not,
as in other women’s titles, to provide “a bloke’s view” but because
they are experts in a particular field. In France, Psychologies has a
30 per cent male readership – but then French men are famously vain,
intense and neurotic – although Rice says she is not trying to create a
unisex magazine.

It is brave of Hachette Filipacchi to choose
something so against the publishing tide for its first launch since
winning control of Elle and Red from Emap. Seriousness has not sold
well on the British newsstand. Eve’s first incarnation as a slightly
whacky blue stocking bombed, as did Red when Sally Brampton tried to
ramp up its IQ. Both mags have since moved to the middlebrow and
increased sales.

It would seem that the kind of clever, older
(35-55) women who fancy Alain de Botton, do not go to the glossies for
their brainfood: they buy The Economist, Granta or a broadsheet.

Women’s mags – if they buy them – provide their relax-in-the-bath light relief.

However,
there is a recent growth in Psychologies’ brand of holistic journalism.
The Times health and well-being pull-out, Body & Soul, is one of
the Saturday paper’s best read sections and hugely popular among women
readers.

And Condé Nast’s new launch, Easy Living, contains a substantial emotional intelligence section.

Maybe
affluent middle class women who have enough handbags and scented
candles to last a lifetime are turning inwards to examine why they are
not happier. Is dumbing up the new dumbing down? Perhaps Vogue could
ask Coleen.

Janice Turner is a columnist on The Times Next week: Tom Loxley

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