Why put a celebrity in the editor's chair?

Janice Turner

MAGAZINE EDITORS — well the best ones, anyway — are despotic control freaks. So why would they cede hard-won and absolute power to someone as spoiled, mercurial, late-running and wacko as a celebrity?

And yet guest editors are so this season, with Kate Moss at the helm of January’s French Vogue, former Gucci emperor Tom Ford talking the pants off Scarlett Johansson for Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue and Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld overseeing the April edition of British Elle.

So what is to be gained from having a star push you off your own masthead? It depends on two factors: what the magazine wishes to achieve and the level of involvement your chosen star is prepared to offer. This can range from faxing through a few scribbled thoughts she had in her limo to, in rare cases, poring over Cromalins.

Under previous editors, Elle has been a girlie lightweight shopping title and a celebrity vehicle. But since Lorraine Candy took charge 18 months ago, her mission has been to reassert its credentials as a serious and authoritative fashion title, able to compete with Vogue. This is a strategy which not only delights advertisers, but has won readers too: Elle is expected to show a 3 per cent increase in the forthcoming ABCs. An association with Lagerfeld, the world’s foremost designer, underlines Elle’s fashion credentials.

It took two months of negotiations before Candy and her team were granted an audience at his Versailles-style Paris apartment. Given his capricious nature and low boredom threshold, they feared it might be terminated in a flick of his famous fan. But the meeting lasted five hours and — a scree of faxes and countless conference calls later — Lagerfeld agreed to oversee 40 pages of editorial, much of which he photographed himself. He also included the diet on which he lost six stone, which consists of protein sachets and tasting food then spitting it out.

The deal had mutual benefits. Lagerfeld’s name meant Elle could secure top models — including the bug-eyed fille du jour Lily Cole — and persuade Christina Aguilera to be restyled as Jean Harlow. Likewise, could Vanity Fair, for all its kudos, have persuaded Hollywood’s A-list to disrobe without the aid of Tom Ford’s status and particular erotic glamour?

What’s more, Elle’s ad department won’t now be losing sleep about winning business from Chanel, a notoriously demanding client.

And for Lagerfeld, who designs for high-street label H&M, the collaboration demonstrated he still has cutting-edge cool to Elle’s 18- to 32-year-old readers who might only associate him with the more middle-aged Chanel.

Besides slow-burning prestige, a celebrity editor can also generate vast instant publicity, none more so than Cherie Blair, who, in 1996, was persuaded by Lindsay Nicholson to guest edit Prima. With the general election approaching, Cherie was keen to reveal herself to voters as an ordinary working mother, but without submitting to possibly critical interviews.

The deal was set up through Nicholson’s friend Fiona Millar (whose partner Alastair Campbell thought it was a crap idea) and Cherie diligently filled the Prima flatplan. Her ideas included 30- minute recipes for the time-strapped QC, and a guide to the best-fitting trousers (Cherie loathes her legs). She even sketched out a sweater for the knitting pattern, later reworking the stitching around the shoulders for a better fit.

Prima, a successful but little-discussed title, was featured on Newsnight and Have I Got News For You. Advertisers took notice. And seven months later the Blairs were in Number 10, whereupon they began a policy of inviting magazine editors to endless briefings and lunches, when previous government press officers would not deign to return their calls.

Not all guest editors are so involved. Kate Moss was somewhat indisposed when it came to fulfilling her promise to French Vogue and the scandaleus beauté did little more than allow herself to be photographed and worshipped in an adoring homage by Sheryl Garrett. Meanwhile, French Vogue could declare itself "brave" for standing by the disgraced model, although Moss is currently on so many covers her "drug hell" has started to resemble a clever rebranding.

French Vogue has over many years brought in an eclectic range of celebrities — Sofia Coppola, Catherine Deneuve and the Dalai Lama — less as sleeves-rolled-up editors and more as totems of cool.

The Guardian’s Weekend magazine and G2 drag in artists and arty folk such as Tracey Emin and Franz Ferdinand to inject a little edge. But Gillian Wearing’s infamous G2 coverline "Fuck Cilla Black" demonstrated the dangers of handing editorial control to mischievous outsiders who don’t stick around to field the angry phone calls.

For frequent publications like newspapers or weekly magazines, guest editors provide a chance to surprise your regular readers. London listings title Time Out has a longestablished guest editor tradition, beginning with the Monty Python team in the 1970s. Recently, Elton John revealed his favourite Christmas shopping haunts, eulogised Watford FC and was delighted to be given a skipful of singles to review — from which he extracted and raved about the then unknown James Blunt.

But the best fit between any magazine and a guest editor was Time Out and Nick Hornby, a listings title in human form. What’s more, Hornby was working there years ago as a jobbing writer/sub the day his publisher sent over the proofs to Fever Pitch. Hornby was overjoyed to return in triumph. He commissioned a profile of Arsenal striker Robert Pires, interviewed the Magic Numbers and wrote a fulsome editor’s letter.

Hornby was still in the office late in the evening, writing picture captions just as he had before publishers started giving him £2 million advances, the magazine world’s only celebrity guest sub.

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