Real life is but a dream

The gritty ‘real-life’ sector is often considered to be the poor relation in the women’s magazine family.

But
to June Smith-Sheppard, who is currently editing two of the titles at
the same time, there’s only one word to describe her job: “Heaven!”

Promoted
to editor of IPC’s Chat in January last year, she is also acting as
launch editor of Pick Me Up , intended, in marketing-speak, to be “a
category defining new product that will reshape the weekly real life
sector”.

Flitting between the two magazines’ offices, on
different levels of IPC’s 29-floor King’s Reach Tower, Smith-Sheppard
has been rewriting Chat coverlines while attempting to produce a new
magazine that plans to convert women whose only usual contact with
“real life” reading is brushing past it while reaching for more
upmarket glossies.

A double dose of exploding stomachs and voodoo
lovers might seem too much for even the most devoted editor, but
Smith-Sheppard, who has worked in magazines since she left school at
16, says the experience has been “the most exciting thing that’s ever
happened”.

“My first ever job was as a trainee sub at a teen magazine called OK, which I thought was the best job ever,” she says.

“But when I arrived at Chat [where Keith Kendrick was then editor] I realised I’d found my Utopia and it was heaven.

“One
of us would come up with an idea and then the rest of us would push it
a bit further. I need to laugh a certain amount in any given day and we
were laughing all the time.”

The result of the Chat Utopia, which
continued with new editor Paul Merrill, was a series of Daily
Mail-baiting stunts – ranging from a Teen Mum of the Year competition
to a make-up special on covering black eyes – and a sales hike of 25
per cent in two years.

Since Merrill’s departure to launch men’s
magazine Zoo, Smith-Sheppard has been stamping her own personality on
the magazine, while keeping it as lurid as ever.

The current
issue includes the coverlines “Stabbed And Paralysed By The Witch
Doctor Who Loved Me” and “I Had A Rubber Duck Surgically Removed”,
while page three features a “You Called Them WHAT?” section devoted to
the tackiest children’s names inflicted on offspring by Chat readers.

“Getting the Chat editorship was just unbelievable.

I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to be editing a mag I loved so much,” says Smith-Sheppard.

“We
changed the mix of stories. We used to have a lot of domestic violence
and I changed that because I was bored stiff of it and I usually hope I
will get bored before my readers do. I also think we increased the
humour.

“The wonderful thing about real life is that you can’t
make it up. It is much more interesting than anything a celebrity is
doing.

“If you saw it on a soap you’d say: ‘That would never
happen.’ But with real life you think that if it happened to Doreen in
Sidcup then it could happen to you.

“You’re right in there, it’s
happening as you read, and because of that you actually care what’s
happening to the person. It’s not unusual for me to cry over a story. I
get laughed at, but I still do it.”

Smith-Sheppard’s
identification with her readers has led to her being described as the
embodiment of all things Chat , but she is keen to discount any theory
that she is not versatile enough to make Pick Me Up a new proposition.

“For
some people, there’s the question of whether I can only do Chat . But
Pick Me Up will prove this isn’t the case. If you understand the market
thoroughly and if you understand the different attitudes of its
readers, it’s not an issue.

” Pick Me Up is completely different
to Chat ,” she insists. “It’s about growing the whole sector, bringing
people in who wouldn’t have thought to buy a real life mag before,
while bringing with us the people who are dedicated to real life mags.

“It’s very clean, bright and fresh, not only in the way we design the pages, but in the use of photographs and the cover.

“The last launch in this sector was in 1995, so it’s time for something new,” she adds.

The
consensus is that Pick Me Up certainly looks different from Chat , with
its fluorescent pink and yellow updating Chat ‘s reds and oranges. But
the emphasis on shock value remains the same.

Pick Me Up ‘s
launch issue – given away free last week with all IPC women’s titles –
features the coverlines: “My fat friend: I thought she was sad but she
was BAD” and “Tell the dead to leave me alone Mum!” While inside, the
“True shocker” section tells the story of a man who came close to a
truly dreadful end: “Death By CHIPS”.

“We’re giving the readers more of what they love, but presented in this new way that is totally satisfying,”

says Smith-Sheppard.

But
with copycat launches expected from rival publishers this year, will
Pick Me Up be able to match the competition and if so, is there a
danger that it could encroach on Chat ‘s 600,000 ABC?

“New
launches come into a market and change everything,” she admits. “But
Chat knows exactly what it is and there will be no knee-jerk reaction.

I’m not fearful for Chat at all.

“There’s room for all of us in the market and then it’s a case of survival of the fittest.”

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