Queen bee Johnson's strategy to bring Closer to the top

Ask Jane Johnson if there are secrets of the stars so heinous, so saucy, so jawdroppingly libellous, that she cannot print them, and she says: "We always try to get the story and put it out there."

Darn. What I really meant is, go on Jane, tell us some really juicy gossip.

Johnson is officially the queen bee of magazine celebrity stories. Her title, Closer, which is a hybrid of celebrity gossip and real life, came out top of its sector in last month's ABCs. It came down to a two- horse race with Emap stablemate Heat, selling more than a million copies a week between them.

Closer took top spot for the first time in its four-year history — it celebrates its birthday this month — with sales of 590,211 a week.

The trick, which Emap has applied since to Grazia and First, is marrying newspaper tactics with magazine gloss.

Johnson calls it "the bringing together of two cultures" where designers add the fluorescent pinks and yellows and a bundle of writers from either newspaper or weekly backgrounds break hardedged celebrity exclusives.

But is it as simple as putting newspaper stories in nice pink packaging? "You give it more emotional depth," says Johnson. "A newspaper, certainly a daily, is very fast paced, you're just concentrating on hard facts a lot of the time. What we try to do, whether we're breaking it or following it up, is put an emotional depth to it, and I think that's what women respond to."

As a former women's editor on a national newspaper, Johnson knows only too well that — unlike magazines — newspapers have struggled to attract female readers. Rightly or wrongly, women trust magazines more, says Johnson, and will pour their heart out to the likes of Closer before a Sunday tabloid.

"A lot of people nowadays think their stories get over-sensationalised in the newspapers whereas [at] a magazine," she says, "because we can have more emotional depth, we can look at it from different angles, and there doesn't always have to be that hard line to it."

A typical coverline in a recent issue is tagged "Hated and Humiliated" over twin stories of footballer's wife Alex Curran allegedly bottling someone in a Liverpool nightclub, and Heather Mills McCartney's apparent feuding with estranged husband Paul over their child. I ask, is this a case of the tabloid wolf in magazine's softer clothing?

Because if this isn't a hard line, then what is? Johnson tackles this by saying Closer is like two magazines in one, and draws a distinction between its treatment of real-life stories and celebrity, with real- life participants enjoying a much softer, sympathetic approach.

Celebrities, basically, are fair game.

"Women think celebrities put themselves out there, they're getting lots of money, things are going on in their lives and we'd like to know about them. We treat the celebrities differently — if they deserve criticism, we'll give them criticism."

There's advice to Charlotte Church on the same cover, doled out by TV diet guru Dr Gillian. The coverline may say "Ditch the junk food Charlotte" — but the deeply unflattering photo suggests the magazine's real message is: Ban the burgers you fat bitch.

Johnson says the star is very open about her weight, Dr Gillian thinks she needs to have a healthier diet and the mag couldn't be advising her to lose the flab without printing the picture "everyone is talking about".

"Anyway", adds Johnson wryly, "she doesn't look really thin at the moment."

But Charlotte Church didn't even ask for a diet plan. Isn't this just bitchiness masked as motherly counselling?

"I don't think we're being bitchy; I'd call it down to earth and straight talking.

Because you know Charlotte has got double chins in that picture and she admits she eats all the wrong food — that's down to earth."

Johnson, the Oxford English literature graduate who moved into tabloid journalism, comes across as down to earth herself. At college, she penned a piece on Brideshead Revisited fops for the Daily Mail and joined the Southport Star in 1991, earning her stripes as crime correspondent for two years.

After stints at IPC's Chat and Bauer's Bella, she became the Daily Mirror's features and then women's editor between 1995 and 97 at the height of the Spice Girls' fame and left to become assistant editor to Martin Clarke at The Scotsman in 1997-8. Johnson says it was a complete contrast to her previous post, trying to make the title "more relevant" as it was "too old fashioned".

"That was interesting," she deadpans, "going from the Spice Girls to 2,000- word pieces on devolution".

Broadsheet flirtation The broadsheet flirtation was brief, with Johnson going tabloid again as an assistant editor on the Daily Record in the same year, and then achieving executive editor status at the Sunday Mirror.

She joined Closer in August 2002, a month before it launched.

She says: "I've always wanted to do mainstream, so when I was at Oxford and all my friends were saying, ‘I want to go work at The Telegraph or The Guardian' I was saying, ‘no, I really want to work at the Mirror, work for a mass market publication'."

Johnson admits some Oxford contemporaries thought she was mad, but her friend Dan Chambers also went against the grain and is now director of programmes at Five. She adds, "there's nothing wrong with being different anyway, is there?"

Celebrity news may be beyond the pale for many of Johnson's Oxford alumni, but the rest of society can't seem to get enough of it. Gossip is everywhere, from Popbitch and the 3am girls to middle market diarists and broadsheet takes on celebrity culture. In August's magazine circulation figures, every celebrity title put on sales, bar the market original, IPC's Now, which still shifts 539,902 copies a week. Even the me-toos of celebrity gossip mags, such as Northern & Shell's Star and New and Natmags' Reveal were up between 20 and 50 per cent year on year.

Johnson says the insatiable appetite for gossip comes from age-old intrigue about personal relationships, as prevalent in Shakespeare and Chaucer as Closer and Corrie. "While Closer's not about that obviously," she says, "I think that a lot of it is the breakdown of communities — that you don't know your neighbour, that when you go out with your friends, celebrity is the common currency and what you discuss. I can be at a posh dinner party and people can ask me as much about Jordan the person as about Jordan the place. It's about bringing together different levels of society as well."

She pauses, delivers a knowing smile, and adds: "That's the deep version. The other version is we all like gossip, because it's a bit of excitement in our day, isn't it?"

Closer's other currency is real life, another slice of the women's market that's remained buoyant despite a rush of publishers into the sector. With such keen competition, Johnson says the price of real-life stories has gone up and can be as expensive as celebrity pieces.

"When I first started out on Chat, a real-life story interviewee would be thrilled with a couple of hundred quid, but now it's in the thousands, [similar to] what we're paying the people in Big Brother for interviews."

Star columnist Though she declines to pinpoint a typical Closer reader — because its demographic crosses generations — she does say that Closer is about "raising a smile" and entertaining women who slog all day between rearing kids and doing jobs. Its concerns are with working class heroines — Jade, Jordan and Kerry Katona — and their star columnist is Coleen McLoughlin, girlfriend of Wayne Rooney, Asda pin-up girl and shopper extraordinaire.

Johnson says her readers like these confessional celebrities, willing to bare it all instead of insisting on no-go areas in an interview. She says a backlash against PR-driven content began when celebrities started penning their own kiss'n'tell books and realised the public likes to read about their woes.

"With the advent of magazines such as Closer, they're realising it's no bad thing showing that you are human, rather than pretending you haven't got feelings or problems." Besides, she adds: "We might not get Liz Hurley wanting to do an interview, but I don't think our readers are that interested in Hurley, and the interviews would be so PRed there'd be nothing of interest in them."

Closer has its own star system, albeit a grittier one than Elle or Grazia, with McLoughlin at the top of its tree.

Johnson says McLoughlin "sums up the spirit of Closer's down to earth spirit" and smiles when I ask if she actually pens the shopping list that makes up her one-page column. "Of course! She's got a Blackberry."

What if Johnson got a really juicy scoop on McLoughlin's beau that was too good not to splash on? Johnson says, faux naively, "Wayne never does anything wrong."

The visit to the massage parlour?

"That is deep in his past. We're not anticipating that, because they seem very happy. We're more fascinated with Coleen anyway, so it would be to our advantage, because we obviously have then got a communication line to her that no other magazine has — she would hopefully talk to us."

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