Pressing the right buttons

With the shockwaves from the launch of Glamour still rattling the younger glossies in the latest ABCs – Cosmo (–2 per cent), Marie Claire (–4 per cent) and New Woman, ouch, (–9 per cent) it was the turn of their older sisters to smile.

For once, all the thirtysomething women’s titles gained: Red was up 4 per cent, She up 2 per cent and most surprising of all Eve, a title long rumoured to be on death row, climbed 10 per cent.

But the question is why, after years of unimpressive figures, have these magazines suddenly found their groove? Well, I would contend that all three now have editors firmly attuned to the mainstream of their generation. And unlike their predecessors, Eve Cameron (She), Jane Bruton (Eve) and Trish Halpin (Red) are not prone to making claims about the extraordinary complexity of their readers.

Previously, Gill Hudson (Eve’s first editor) liked to say that women of her age were eclectic creatures, as interested in architecture as handbags.

Sally Brampton (Red’s second editor) believed they were intellectual, well-informed political players. And Kath Brown (Red’s first editor) that they were haute consumers, aspiring to a super-luxe international lifestyle.

The three current editors of these titles are playing much more to the centre. They know their readers are not very extraordinary at all: they are nice suburban girls who aspire to minibreaks and spa days, wonder when to have a baby and how to make risotto, enjoy looking at the designs of Armani or Gucci but can only afford to buy their perfume.

When the concept of “middle youth” woman was identified at Red’s launch in the late Nineties, it was felt that a rich new market of women was waiting to be tapped. However, although women aged 30 to 44 comprise a substantial baby-boom population blip, a great number of ABC1 women stop buying magazines in their 30s and Red has never yet reached the magical 200,000 mark.

At this stage of life, potential readers are simply too busy or have huge demands on their income. Others have acquired with age a jaded, cynical attitude to what they read, outgrowing the notion that a magazine is a “friend” who can show you how to live. And those who are really more interested in architecture than handbags probably buy a newspaper.

But as the 30-plus market has finally worked out what presses older women’s buttons, the three titles now feel very similar. Indeed Red is so furious that its ideas and design have been ripped off that staff refer to their two rivals as “Eve-il” and “She-vil”.

But, by and large, an orthodoxy about how to please the maturer lady has emerged:

1. Everything is sexy except sex – hair, clothes, boots and even a hotel can all be described as “sexy”. But if you run a sex feature you either apologise for it or turn it into a joke or, like the Good Housekeeping “vibrators” piece, present it as medical/scientific research. No rudery: we’re all too old and tired for that.

2. A woman can never have too many aromatherapy candles – any spare “me” time should be spent pampering.

Perhaps, à la September She, you should “Turn Your Bathroom Into A Spa-throom” (sack that sub, now).

3. Everyday objects look better blurred – food, fluffy cushions, “teaglasses”, which Red never tires of and, of course, aromatherapy candles should be photographed through a myopic fug.

4. Children should be heard but not seen – we may want to read about kids, but actually seeing them on the page would destroy the “me” moment.

5.We are all hypochondriacs now – female mid-life crisis manifests itself in an obsession with St John’s Wort, the salt content of food or the 1,000 other nag-nag-nag items on the endless health pages.

The new Red under Halpin is much warmer and safer than its launch incarnation when it was almost too gorgeous for its own good. If reading, say, Elle left you hating your imperfect body, reading Red under Brown made you also hate your shabby home and garden, the food you were capable of cooking, the fact that you are not married to a sexy photographer living in a groovy Manhattan loft filled with antiques and a perfect golden-haired baby.

Halpin has aimed and succeeded in making the magazine far less deflating. Red’s design has warmed up: features are illustrated by real people, not just chilly still-lifes. Models are no longer unattainably beautiful but tend towards a quirky, Helen Baxendale-esque prettiness.

There is more to read too: Brown, a very visual editor, tended to undercook the features content. Now it is better written and even at times – how rare this in glossies – humorous.

Meanwhile under Bruton, Eve has moved away from its rather oddball, deliberately different, launch persona.

The off-putting black-and-white covers, which made every issue look the same, have gone. So has the left-field choice of content: a picture spread on President Putin and fashion pages featuring Valerie Singleton, anyone? Hudson, who worked previously in men’s mags, believed a male obsession with trivia and “How to” features would work in a women’s title. Brave though it was – and personally I’d rather read GQ than Marie Claire any day – the strange subject matter made Eve too often seem like Mrs Irrelevant railing in the corner on her own.

Fact fans can still enjoy “1001 things” – where this issue you learn why you close your eyes when you sneeze. But most of the other boysy stuff has gone.

The “How to…” section remains but instead of how to “assemble an Armalite rifle”, or “survive a bear attack”, you can learn how to “clutterproof your handbag”. Shame, really.

And apart from Rosie Millard’s inane column, Bruton has also swept aside Eve’s BBC baggage, those annoying features to plug programmes and Radio 4 presenters.

However, despite its many improvements, the magazine I would still least like to be stuck in a lift with is She. If She were a woman, she would say: “I take that on board” and “I hear what you’re saying”. It is full of that infuriating blend of management-speak and sub-psychology which is the wine bar blah of our age.

If you want to be empowered or visualise success, if you require “8 steps to reinvent yourself” or “8 good habits to take up today” or feel inclined to “discover your energy type”, She’s the one. It is as if every selfhelp book in the world has been consumed, semi-digested and then puked onto the page.

If these three magazines are now as alike as the Corr sisters, She is the one playing the violin who my husband doesn’t want to sleep with.

Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Bill Hagerty

by Janice Turner

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