The promotional campaign for Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles has been a textbook display of how to work your Rolodex, and then some. No politician or celebrity of any currency was left without an invite to the dual launch parties in London and New York. The press junket included highbrow talks at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and sitting on the couch with Richard and Judy. Like Brown says, referring to the magic she spun in magazines, this marketing drive ‘likes to mix the high and the low”.
It is this breathtaking sell between high and low culture (the Diana book combines intellectual rigour with more racy content) that has characterised Brown’s awesome career in magazines. She is famed for merging the literary world with high society at Tatler, politics with celebrity at Vanity Fair, and for shaking up America’s literary grande dame, the New Yorker, whether it wanted to be or not. She once said that that she was never satisfied with a magazine until everything had been done to seduce the reader: ‘I feel that we’re in a fight. A war.”
Right now, Brown, if you believe her critics, is in a fight to resurrect her career. Since 2002 and the demise of Talk, her much-hyped publishing empire with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, she has been gossiped about as a spent force in media.
Brown first came to prominence as a playwright, before working on the Sunday Times and winning the heart of its then-married editor Harold Evans, whom she eventually wed in 1981. At 25 she took on the editorship at struggling Tatler and quadrupled circulation until CondÃ© Nast bought the title and posted Brown across the Atlantic to the editor-in-chief role at Vanity Fair. She drew in ‘power writers”, she says, ruthlessly banishing who and what she didn’t want. The magazine’s circulation leapt from 200,000 to 1.2 million.
She was drafted into the New Yorker in 1992, adding 250,000 new readers, as well as photography and illustration. She replaced 65 staff with 72 of her own picking. Mudslinging was rife; former Vanity Fair writer Judy Bachrach’s book Tina and Harry Come to America leading the acid attacks on New York’s power couple.
When Talk closed within two years, blaming the downturn in advertising post 9/11, it seemed a spectacular fall for a woman whose reputation in magazines is rivalled only by Vogue’s Anna Wintour.
It is this reputation that is so difficult to penetrate with Brown. The consummate professional, she gives nothing away except the names of the literary greats she has managed to woo in her successive tenures. If she has one message about her editorships it is how successful she was at drawing in talent. Such is her talent, that last year Time Warner approached her about editing Time.
Although unlikely to return to magazines, Brown might relish a final fling to settle the claim to being the magazine legend to beat them all.
If you don’t have a budget, get yourself a point of view.
My father was a film producer so I was used to that collaborative process – film material, find writers, put it together. Producing and editing have a lot of similarities – it’s about making it happen, really. So I approached Tatler like putting on a show. There were six of us and we set about making a magazine which was far more attitudinal. I wanted to make a magazine that was both literary and social, with a lot of attitude. We couldn’t afford to buy articles so it was about our creative knockabout flair.
In London I could ring up Martin Amis and say, ‘Write an article for me”.
It was a very difficult situation at Vanity Fair because, unlike Tatler where I had no staff and had to hire everyone, there was already a big staff in place at Vanity Fair, one that was extremely hostile to me when I came in. That was scary for me. I didn’t have the same network.
How did I deal with that resentment? I fired them.
I kept some. When I come in, I always listen to people there. I don’t believe in coming in and firing everybody. I do believe in institutional memory and that there is buried talent doing things they shouldn’t be doing and needing a new direction. So I kept some of the people there who were very good. Others I replaced.
All the newspapers were writing that I was finished, that I was dead.
You’ve got to fight for what you believe in and you’ve got to fight like crazy. There was a piece in the New York Times – it was killing us because every time a story came out in the public domain it hurt advertising. New York Times ran a story saying Vanity Fair was about to fold into the New Yorker – everybody believed it, but credit to Si Newhouse [CondÃ© Nast owner]; he gave it another six months and Vanity Fair overtook the New Yorker.
There were all these terrible dead bodies all over town – writers who were fed up, photographers who were in a rage.
I don’t think it was particularly endearing of me to be this English girl who came in to fix this big thing. My two predecessors presided over such problems and spent so much money in the process and hired lots of staff, bought lots of articles, killed material and then I had to come in and kill half the material they had assigned – it doesn’t really make you many friends. The atmosphere towards the magazine was really hostile.
When they didn’t get in it they got very angry.
The truth is that as time goes by you do accumulate a lot of people whose stuff you have rejected; there’s no getting away from it, people don’t like being rejected. Vanity Fair became a very hot magazine and everyone wanted to be in it.
I was supposed to be what they called a ‘change agent”.
New Yorker staff had been there, many of them, 30 or 40 years. A lot of the staff were over 60, many of them brilliant and very much ones I wanted to keep. I also wanted to sweep out. One of the things the New Yorker had done was turn into a tenure for writers. They were given offices and they weren’t ever required to write anything. They were receiving money. There were literally people who had not written anything for 15 years who were still working on a piece they’d been assigned in 1985. And by the way, it didn’t make them happy, either.
Why would I get any special treatment by the press?
The feral beast is at large, who knows more
By the way, it bombed.
Oh God, that [the Judy Bachrach book]. My God it sank like a stone and lost the publishers a great deal of money. The thing about it is you also recognise where things are coming from. You have to develop a thick skin. I’m the editor of magazines that go after people so I understand about that.
There seems to be no guilt in editors these days about not responding.
My writer friends tell me all the time, ‘I sent it in on Monday and it’s Friday’and I’m thinking, ‘Fucking hell, what are they doing to this poor person?’I do feel like I know how to manage talent. With Annie Leibovitz [Vanity Fair photographer] she wanted collaboration, discussion and comment. So I do a lot of talking with writers before they go out on an assignment.
I always thought the post-modern
magazine has to combine the high and the low.
Where I take issue is when it all becomes the low. It seems to me what I tried to do is tap into the zest for popular culture and wrap it, use that as the packaging, and inside have serious reporting.
Culturally, Americans are desperate.
Vanity Fair was too lightweight. I realised that the American people are the most hungry autodidacts, because outside the big cities they live in places with one opera house or whatever and they just really want to know what’s going on culturally and intellectually. At Vanity Fair, I started to add more serious stuff.
Celebrity and politics are now
completely interwoven, that’s the amazing thing.
Any TV show would rather have a movie star talk about Darfur than a minister who really knows anything about it. It’s extraordinary. I think it’s gone too far in that direction, but I don’t see how you reverse it. I didn’t have Demi Moore talk about Darfur because in my opinion she doesn’t know anything about it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t [mix celebrity with politics]. I’ve always found intellectuals way sexier than celebrities. In some ways, my ultimate magazine formula is to make intellectuals look like movie stars and movie stars pretend to be intellectuals.
They came to talk to me about the
editorship of Time, but it was just
I couldn’t finish my book if I had taken Time. At that time, I was in my writing phase so it was all theoretical. I was under a gun, I had to get this done. I had accepted a huge advance, I could not have stopped.
It may have been that magazines have had their best moment.
What Talk magazine taught me is that logistics are very important. Until Talk I would have said, ‘Jump in, both feet, hooray! Let’s just get it done”. I now realise that you need a management that’s on the same page, the budget, the commitment, a person to control the marketing side.
Diana knew she had to charm the media and she did charm them.
Diana understood in her brilliant savvy way when she met Charles that she had three constituencies. One, she had to win him; two, she had to win the royal family; and three she had to win the media because the media had sabotaged so many of Charles’s girlfriends.
The media did push Charles into
When he was on tour in Australia before they were engaged, people in the press who were on that tour were saying he fell in love with Diana. The press became enamoured with her and Charles was looking at these pictures and began to fall in love with her from a distance. And they used to keep asking, ‘Is she the one? Is she the one?’and he was puzzled and used to say in those off-the-record press sessions, ‘Why is she the one?’It was like they were telling him she was the one.
They did turn into a savage pack.
Diana became a commodity and it became vicious. The paps used to shout hideous things at her when she came out of restaurants to get a picture of her looking upset. That’s the whole issue with the depravity of assets. It wasn’t enough to get a smiling picture, it had to be a picture of her crying – that would sell for more. It did turn into a very dangerous situation.
They brought their combativeness, treating it all as war and death.
Many of those photographers [on the night of Diana’s death] were war photographers. They weren’t soft feature celebrity photographers at all. They were people who had been in Vietnam as war photographers. Now why were war photographers photographing Diana? Answer: because the market for photojournalism had virtually disappeared.
The Queen has this catchphrase, ‘We don’t want another media queen”.
It will repeat itself, sadly, with anyone William gets involved with. Because if they’re beautiful they are immediately going to become an icon and a cover girl and a commodity. Then how does a commodity girl play it? It annoys the royal family when you upstage them. It’s death, actually. They vowed, the royal family, never to let that happen again. They are determined.
So there’s trouble afoot.
The trouble is William’s quite a debonair, handsome young man and he’s quite likely to want to marry someone gorgeous and attractive and outgoing.
I don’t go in for the confessional.
Well, I think you definitely don’t want to be in a situation like Diana was, calling up the press all the time and confiding your secrets. I don’t think that’s very wise. You don’t want to think aloud with the press if you can help it.
It didn’t seem like journalism at all.
I’d been out of England from 1984. I realised that it was a different profession [when she returned to research the Diana book]. The stories that they were doing, to me seemed like a different profession of journalism. The stories, the naked willingness to take a half-cocked soundbite and blow it up in a way which they know is utterly distorted, even wrong. It really was amazing to me.
What I find depressing is that so much creativity can go into being so negative.
The only difference is there is not nearly such a demarcation between high and low. It doesn’t bother me except when it crosses over and invades the rest of it. I’m terribly in awe of the creativity of the tabloid journalists in the UK. No one can rival them when it’s a huge event. They do it so well. If all this time spent doing something went into doing something morally exciting, it would be fantastic, but unfortunately there isn’t much interest.
Can celebrity culture go any further? I think it probably can.
I do think that everyone’s famous and nobody’s interesting. That’s the danger, that it’s just so wall to wall that nobody cares because everyone’s got a camera, everyone’s on YouTube, having your face out there doesn’t count. In which case, content becomes sexy again. I left Vanity Fair in 1992 because I thought celebrity journalism had tapped out and that’s why it was so exciting to go to the New Yorker where there were no celebrities on the cover. But actually celebrity culture has burgeoned 30-fold since then.
Perhaps you’re going to see more and more celebrity politicians.
If Arnold Schwarzenegger had been born in America there’s no question he would be the next president – he’s superb – and maybe you need that ability to manage the media that comes from being a major celebrity. You could argue that Hilary Clinton is running much more on her celebrity as the wife of Bill Clinton than she is on her senatorial record, which happens to be superb, but is not why people will vote for her.
The thing is you have to figure out what to do next and try to do it as well as you can to get back in the winner’s box.
America is a place of winners and losers. There’s really nothing in between. Also the nice thing about America is that you are allowed to lose as long as you do get up, dust yourself pretty fast and figure out how to become a winner again.