More balls, not beach bags

Way back in what publishers now term my “freedom years”, I and many friends aspired to be the Marie Claire woman.

Other titles offered you the man, the frock, the body. With Marie Claire you got all those and the world too.

Marie Claire woman’s mind was as well-stocked as her wardrobe, her intelligence as honed as her abs. Even if we didn’t actually read gritty reportage on the mating rituals of the Wakawaka people, it made us feel less bimboid while we pored over the latest cure for cellulite.

But Marie Claire is in trouble. Its latest ABC was down 9.8 per cent year-on-year, a loss of some 40,000 readers. While Cosmopolitan has maintained a tense stability since the launch of Glamour, Marie Claire has taken hit after hit. And, as its publisher was forced to admit, it needs covermounts to hold readers: weaning itself down to just two gifts in the past six months caused the latest steep drop and so Marie Claire is back on the market tat.

I find it rather poignant that a once proud, brave title, has to trade off cheapo make-up bags rather than award-winning editorial. And the Marie Claire of old was way too cool to put a lightweight TV star like Jennifer Aniston on the cover just because she’s a heavyweight reader magnet.

But it’s difficult being a title whose brand promise is “style with substance” in a marketplace awash with disposable, star-sucker, lowattentionspan trivia. In the current climate, the kiss-of-death insult for any title is “worthy”.

And no one can blame editor Marie O’Riordan for playing the celebrity game. Indeed, her recent haul of covers – Beckham, Timberlake, Kidman and Cruise – is more A-list than most.

But it means that on the news-stands, Marie Claire, once so unique, looks much like everything else.

Inside, however, there are glimpses of the old school. The April edition has a line-up of starkly shot topless women talking about their breasts and a report on Rwanda 10 years after genocide. Part of O’Riordan’s declared mission was to restore the magazine to the Glenda Bailey glory days.

The trouble is that Marie Claire’s best old tricks have been pillaged by other magazines and media. The reality features – of the “guess which of these 10 naked people are lovers” ilk – are now a TV staple. The famed international reportage has been widely ripped off: even Glamour occasionally throws a bone to our oppressed sisters in Afghanistan. And Marie Claire’s up-market true life is now a major component of, among many, Cosmo.

No longer can young women be clearly delineated as Marie Claire or Cosmo readers. The monthly magazine market is now a very cloudy pool: reader loyalty is shot to pieces, traded for a pair of sweat-shop flip-flops. Glamour, at £1.90 (to MC’s £3), has not only changed what women think a magazine should cost, it has also shifted their relationship with their magazine. Glamour is not a weighty bible of cool to be treated with awe and reverence. It is to be shoved in your bag, it comes to work on the Tube. And then – as its low readership figure suggests – it isn’t passed on but chucked away.

Readers are treating this monthly like a weekly. And, moreover, with the growth of Heat, an unprecedented number of up-market glossy buyers are getting used to weekly magazines themselves.

And so to these young women, a 400-page, ad-bloated Marie Claire seems a huge weight to drag around.

Its bigger pages seem slow in pace.

Even though it has lost much of its old hauteur and every feature screams accessibility, it still has seven-page features with loads and loads of those unfashionable things – words.

Also, the past five years have seen a narrowing between high and low cultural forms which has thrown up-market publications – broadsheet newspapers and glossies – into disarray.

High-street fashion is a breath away from copying the designers, I’m a Celebrity… is discussed in The Daily Telegraph. But there is a fine line between appearing post-modern and modish and looking naff and downmarket.

A line I think was breached when Marie Claire last year devoted four pages to an interview with Ant and Dec.

Of all the glossy editors, O’Riordan’s position is the toughest. Cosmo simply has to keep reinterpreting what sex means to the modern girl.

But substance, even with style, is harder to sell. Yet the prospect of a Glamour-size, cut-price, watered-down Marie Claire – which its publishers will not rule out in the future – is not only dispiriting but will not work.

What Marie Claire needs is to keep its nerve. The features need to take more risks, not fewer. There used to be a wow on every page, five brilliant kick-yourself ideas in every issue.

But now surprises – apart from the marvellous Cherie Blair exclusive in the 15th anniversary issue – are rare.

In April, the Rwanda report feels like a box being ticked, a feature on quickie Vegas marriages (even with the Britney hook) has been done, done, done.

The writing, too, lacks all edge. The Cherie Blair piece, although a coup, was far safer and blander than the version author Barbara Ellen wrote for The Observer. Marie Claire readers are not easily offended or overly polite: they are bold, unshockable and broadminded. Yet an interview with Cate Blanchett this month was, even though the magazine claims not to give copy control, publicistpandering piffle. Cate likes to eat. Er, that’s it.

Along with those beautiful fashion pages and A-list celebs, O’Riordan needs some young newspaper gunslingers with balls and big ideas in her team of mostly nicey-nicey magazine ladies. They could steer Marie Claire away from the obvious and readbefore – such as having Sarah Payne’s mother as an inspirational figure this month – and stop international stories feeling charity-led rather than news-driven.

And then IPC and Groupe Marie Claire need to invest – not in more beach bags, but in a big campaign to remind a new generation what the title stands for. My age group has grown away and I suspect many in the 25 to 34 age group have judged it from its covers as no different from the rest.

Women don’t want to read serious stuff any more, everyone says. I wonder. Watching hundreds of thousands march against the war in Iraq, I spotted many chic twentysomethings, iPod earpieces dangling from designer pockets. One group carried a banner saying “Well dressed persons for peace”. They want you, Marie Claire.  Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real.

She’ll be back in four weeks Next week: Chris Shaw

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