True life is not a freak show

Only one sector of the women’s magazine market has been unaffected by the tsunami of celebrity culture: the lowest end of the weeklies.

As the latest ABC figures show, the classic titles – Woman (-10 per cent), Woman’s Own (-7 per cent), Bella (-11 per cent) and Best (-2 per cent) – are on an unstoppable downward trajectory.

They can change editors, spruce up their design, put soap stars on the cover or step upmarket, but nothing has the slightest effect. Their day has simply passed.

Readers can get their fix of emotional issues, homes, health and beauty from Now or Closer, but on better paper, in a more modern format and with the opportunity to bitch about Liz Hurley’s gnarled feet or to watch Tracey Shaw part company with her tit tape.

Sales in the mass-market weeklies, however, are solid if not rather perky.

Bauer’s Take a Break was up 2 per cent and its stablemate That’s Life! was static, while IPC’s Chat had a minirevival, up 12 per cent.

The reason, I believe, is that while a huge chunk of womankind will lap up any celebrity coverage they can find, the C2DE woman is repelled by it. As she attempts to survive on benefits or low wages, to raise her kids in crime-ridden estates with absent or errant fathers, she couldn’t give a McCain oven chip about J-Lo’s prenup or Kelly Brook’s lip-liner. She’ll never have Madonna’s home or even her handbag. Celebrities make her dismayed with her own life.

This is a reader even the tabloids find too downmarket, a bit “fish and chippy”. She only gets column inches when she is being blamed for her wayward children or scolded and mocked for her morals.

Only a true life magazine is interested in lives like hers, her battles, her feckless romances and, too often, her tragedies. It validates her life, doesn’t patronise or exclude, indeed encourages her to appear in its pages with “come-ons” on every page.

Take a Break, which has never dropped below one million since its first year and sells double its nearest rival, is the megalith of this sector. To the outsider it is a very odd magazine, with its mix of puzzles and readers’ stories. But there is a warmth about Take a Break, an unflinching engagement with its readers, however ugly, old or poor.

The oddball passions of its veteran editor John Dale sometimes take over.

He had a God-bothering phase, when features all carried a religious message, a royal period when fantasies about the Queen Mother were accompanied by terrible lookalike pictures, and he makes occasional excursions into the psychic world.

But largely Take a Break shows a genuine struggle for verity. The pictures are mostly grainy snaps, with no attempt to airbrush eye bags or beer guts. The words are told as unfolding narratives, a far more difficult writing style than it looks. Street names, not just towns, are given on readers’ letters. The message is: “We’re not making this up.”

That’s Life!, which I launched in 1995, was designed by Bauer as a cheaper, smaller, me-too title to mop up excess demand for Take a Break.

Readers loved true life so much, it was believed, that they’d buy both. But over time That’s Life! evolved a younger, bolder, saucier personality of its own.

Whereas Take a Break’s sense of humour rests on the comic potential of old people’s underwear, That’s Life! had rude jokes, which, judging from this week’s issue, are as magnificently filthy as ever.

The great mystery when I was editing That’s Life! was always the Chat reader. At focus groups you could tell which magazine women read just from their appearance. Take a Break readers tended to be mumsy, slightly conservative and tidily dressed: think friendly tea lady. That’s Life! readers were a bit more modern, lewd and raucous: think Margi Clarke in Letter to Brezhnev. But the Chat reader, hair scraped up in what Popbitch calls a “Croydon facelift”, would have a dull, vacant expression: think Waynetta Slob.

Chat readers would, without fail, diss every single page of their magazine, but still preferred it over rivals.

“Why?” we asked. They never knew.

We came to believe that here was a magazine buyer with the lowest level of literacy. She didn’t actually read the features. But in contrast to the Bauer titles, Chat had a nice shiny cover.

Chat also has a newish editor, Paul Merrill, who has added 100,000 sales in his tenure. He has done it in three ways.

First, he has applied journalistic talent and humour to pages once full of badly written, boring, irrelevant or just starkly grim features. He has gripping coverlines and this week Chat has a great scoop: a finger-pointing barney between the mother and sister of murderess Rena Salmon.

Second, he has improved the design by old-fashioned plagiarism. He’s ripped the opening spread off Take a Break and added it to the body of That’s Life!.

Third, he is engaging in a game of “how low dare I go?” and in the process often mocks his readers, treating their lives as a freak show. Like having beauty tips about how to cover up your black eyes after the old man’s given you a pasting. Domestic violence; so amusing. Or a flippant triedandtested feature on different brands of antidepressants. Mental illness – another rib-tickler.

Or take an article Merrill wrote in IPC’s house journal. “She [the chief sub] was querying a coverline for a touching true story about a young mum who had just given birth when a sudden release of air from her bowls [sic] caused a heart attack and killed her. So heartbreaking, so sad,” he writes. “Are you certain you want to call it ‘Gone with the wind?'” These are jokes to be kept in the office. Laughing at your readers is the first step to losing touch with them.

And when they are as powerless and downtrodden as the people who buy Chat, it shows a very ill grace. Merrill should show respect and a little responsibility for the women who pay his wages.

After my assault on She last month for its addiction to psychobabble, the magazine’s departing editor Eve Cameron sent me a little present. It was a self-help book entitled Nasty people: How to stop being hurt by them without stooping to their level. Quite droll, I thought.

If only the same wit was evident in the magazine. But with the National Magazine Company’s baffling appointment of Terry Tavner as She’s new editor, that seems ever more unlikely.  Janice Turner is a columnist for The Times on Saturday 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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