With half an hour to kill in Victoria station, I found myself in WH Smith observing magazine buyers. Down in the glossy racks, women slowly weighed the merits of a covermounted CD against a free beauty bag, air-brushed movie star versus supermodel, before finally deciding which title to buy this month.
But in the celebrity weekly stands, women zoomed in like smart missiles and, without a flick, snatched up their favoured brand.
There is currently a burning compulsion to buy celebrity magazines that the editors of Red or Elle or even Glamour can but dream of. Leave a copy of Heat on your desk and many will pick it up, but some will say – like a dieter treating herself to one truffle – “No, don’t let me look now. I want to buy my own later and enjoy it on the train.”
This unquenchable appetite has turned celebrity into the UK’s most dynamic magazine market with current total weekly sales of up to 2.3 million and with fabulous year-on-year ABC increases all round (Now 14 per cent, Heat 56 per cent and OK! 30 per cent).
Yet already we’re hearing the words “bubble” and “burst”. The question is whether the celebrity market will endure or, like other past growth markets – teen titles, the men’s market of the Nineties – will go into sudden freefall. And when it does, who will survive?
When a market appears saturated, there’s only one last thing to do: a cheapo spoiler. With the launch of New! last month, it was obviously Richard Desmond’s dream to be the What’s on TV of the celebrity sector: give the reader a low-grade fix at half the price of competitors and rake in monumental sales. (Not to mention cap further growth of Heat and improve his market share to advertisers.)
Even at 60p it will not be hard to make New! profitable. Based within the Express empire, it has low overheads and access to a huge newspaper picture archive. Moreover, Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, is notorious for flogging a skeletal staff long and very hard.
The magazine seems to spend its entire week’s budget on one set of little-seen pictures: this week Jude & Sadie out with their kids. And with six titles now in the bidding, these don’t come cheap. Today paparazzi sell first rights to a tabloid for perhaps a tenth of what they will get for second rights from a magazine.
Certainly Desmond, the copycat king, doesn’t waste cash developing new ideas. New!, in its replication of Now, is probably the most shameless dopplegÃ¤nger ever launched. Does editor Kirsty Mouatt have no journalistic pride? Could she not even find a different way to design her travel pages? But then she was editor of Hot Stars, OK!’s paparazzi pullout – a Heat with a 30 per cent lower IQ.
New! carries the assumption that being cheapest is enough to win readers. But will it be enough to keep them? There are early indications that it has bitten hard into sales of Closer, Emap’s seven-month-old baby and its nearest in price at £1. Closer is selling 300,000 for some issues, but is still not entirely steady on its feet.
After launching as a mediocre muddle of true life and cuts-job interviews, it has now found its editorial voice as queen bitch. “J-Lo bums out” is their verdict on The Great Controv-arsey, with spiteful little arrows pointing to Ms Lopez’s “badly applied lipstick”, “bad bra” and “uneven fake tan”.
The harsh tone is tempered by much-improved real life, celeb features are better executed, if worthy of Vic & Bob (“Kate Thornton believes in the power of tea”) and editor Jane Johnson has lately shown her tabloid credentials with stories which have made the nationals. These include turning Jordan into Virginia Woolf (next week: Bloomsbury girl-on-girl action when Sam Fox is Vita Sackville West).
Emap must be pleased, however, that Closer has not affected its brilliant sister title, Heat. At first, skimming through, I wondered whether it had lost its edge. The opening pages were so-so. What’s this obsession with Jade from Big Brother? Why was its J-Lo bum story 100
In it’s replication of Now, New! is probably the most shameless dopplegÃ¤nger ever launched. Does editor Kirsty Mouatt have no journalistic pride?
per cent gag-free? But Heat’s strength goes beyond getting the hottest set of snaps. From the picture captions to the TV listings blurbs there is a coherence; a bubbling, infectious enjoyment of the new, a solid understanding of its restless, metropolitan reader.
Perhaps only the teen titles are more powered by tiny shifts in the zeitgeist. But with editor Mark Frith – who knows complacency could be fatal – Heat is well placed to survive any market crash.
However, for sheer value, it is hard to beat OK!, The Sunday Times of celebrity mags. For £1.95 you get 148 pages of sucking up – Westlife babies, Liza Minnelli in bed with her embalmed husband – and, in its pullout alter ego Hot Stars, 88 pages of bitching them up. Why would a star slagged off in one later agree to pose prettily in the other? Well, apart from a very, very big chequeÃ‰
OK! is one example of Desmond plagiarism which eclipsed the thing it set out to copy. When did Hello! (£1.85 and just 116 pages) get so bad? I’m not surprised proprietor Eduardo Sanchez Junco flew in from Spain to sack a few staff and fund the Zeta-Jones court battle. With only a 3 per cent ABC increase and the Prime Minister’s wife’s half-sister’s new baby counting as a lead story, he has reason aplenty.
Despite revolution all around it, like a haughty European aristocrat Hello! never disdained to change with the times. Obscure royalty are now replaced by obscurer TV presenters. But now even a brand-new issue has the musty tang of the dentist’s waiting room. Where’s the Marquesa when they need her?
Loathsome Things About Magazines No.1: fashion shoots accessorised with Third World children.
Marie Claire cannot stop bragging about its courageous coverage of world events, its countless humanitarian awards. So I was surprised in the April issue to see street children – in Hanoi and some uncredited North African location – being used to add exotic background colour to fashion stories. How cute the little urchins look in their grubby jelabas beside the pristine model in her £500 outfit. Poverty is so picturesque (as long as it’s abroad). Well, I’ve heard that Eritrea is sooo this season. Darling, everyone is sample size. n
Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks
lNext week: Alison Hastings