What's in it for me? Grazia's world uncovered | Woman | The Observer

What's in it for me? Grazia's world uncovered

One magazine is setting the agenda for the media - and tapping the psyche of British women. No wonder its getting its own fly-on-the-wall show, says Louise France

Sunday March 11, 2007
The Observer

Walking into the Monday morning Grazia news conference feels like gate-crashing a very fashionable hen party. The room is full of women, everyone is wearing black and there's a great deal of excited shrieking going on.
'What is Kate up to this week?' asks Jane Bruton, the editor. 'Is there any more on that Viagra-breaks-up-marriages story? What about the 16-year-old's sex change?'
The news editor, Laura Benjamin, has bagged a story on each of the favourite Grazia girls. She refers to them all by their first names only, as though they've just finished speaking on the phone. Kate (Moss) is worried that she's losing her looks so she's thinking about becoming a jazz singer. Angelina (Jolie) has made friends with Brad's mum and dad. Victoria (Beckham) has made an offer on a multi-million-dollar pad in Malibu. And my favourite, this one, Jennifer (Aniston) has a new nose and a new man.
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For gossip junkies like me there's nothing quite like this whirlwind tour through celebrity dating and ditching. From who is wearing control knickers to who is showing a tell-tale pregnancy bump, no detail is too innocuous. I discover that a certain A-lister is so mean she nicks all the goody bags at awards dos. That another one is definitely a lesbian. An infamous pop diva is one step away from becoming a Scientologist. One Hollywood new mum wants to go back to work but her über-hubby won't let her.
Laura Benjamin: 'Lindsay Lohan's rehab is the funniest thing I've ever seen. She just goes shopping every day.'
Victoria Harper, associate editor: 'Have you seen the Britney pictures? She looks like she's gone out dressed as Vicky Pollard!'
Laura: 'Nicole Kidman's friends say she's got really boring because she never goes out any more.'
'She's got really boring?' hoots Marianne Jones, the deputy editor.
Next up is Grazia's fashion team. The shopping editor, Stefan Lindemann, has recently been named as one of the most powerful people on the high street, such is his ability to shift this season's handbag or It dress. Even a line of grey woolly tights in John Lewis sold out after they were mentioned in the magazine. Style director Paula Reed tells everyone she is looking forward to what will be in the shops next season. 'Very Fifties, very glamorous, very long. Which is great. No more short shorts, thank God.'
'This is how the week works,' explains Bruton, who comes from Wigan and has a cheery demeanour. 'Monday - we all come in with lots of lovely ideas and leads. All buoyant. Monday afternoon - a false sense of security. The following day is Black Tuesday. Everything falls apart. All the leads go wrong. By Tuesday afternoon I usually want to slit my wrists. Wednesday is when we never go out of the office. Ever. Thursday I get to see the whole magazine in dummy format and say everything is awful. And then by Friday I decide that actually it's quite good and we're all brilliant.'
'It's like being pre-menstrual,' says Marianne. 'All week.'
Every now and again a magazine comes along that captures the moment. Marie Claire did it in the Eighties, the lads' mag Loaded did it in the Nineties. Grazia's news-'n'-shoes format is doing it right now. The word its readers use again and again is 'addicted'.
Grazia was launched two years ago based on the hunch that there was a gap in the market for a weekly magazine for women who buy monthlies. The format was inspired by Italian Grazia, a highly successful weekly fashion glossy which began in 1938. However lots of media experts said the idea would never work in Britain. Weekly magazines are notoriously expensive to pull off. EMAP, the company behind British Grazia, shelled out £16 million for the launch, making it the priciest magazine start-up ever. Meanwhile there were whispers that designer brands would not want to buy into a celebrity weekly format. 'People thought we were barking,' recalls EMAP's CEO Paul Keenan.
But over 100 issues later Grazia has left its Jimmy Choo footprints all over the rest of the British media and become one of those publications that seem instinctively to understand the culture we live in. In last month's ABC figures its circulation had risen by 23 per cent. Combined sales over a month exceed 700,000, which means it outsells Glamour - the biggest-selling women's monthly magazine. Although this is nowhere near what traditional women's weeklies used to sell in the Seventies - and one monthly women's magazine editor tells me that, in focus groups, readers outside London have often not heard of Grazia - for a certain kind of urban woman, it is her guilty pleasure. Every week.
Grazia has managed to tap into a group of women aged between 25 and 45, a constituency whose decisions increasingly influence the economy and public policy. These are the women pursued by everyone, from car ad men to politicians to television executives. Never before have they earned quite so much or seemed to have so many lifestyle choices. Their concerns, from fertility issues to school dinners, are now mainstream. Accordingly, the BBC has decided Grazia is worthy of a prime-time slot. For the past six months a television crew has been following the team.
'I still have sleepless nights about it,' says Bruton. 'I wake up at 3am and think, "How are they going to make us look?" But, you know, we are who we are. What have we got to hide?'
In a way, the very success of the magazine lies in this unpretentious 'does-what-it-says-on-the-tin' style of publishing. Grazia is neither highbrow nor lowbrow. In fact, it is 'nobrow'. The launch team realised that old-fashioned class distinctions no longer work in Britain and that people are much more complex than their old socio-economic brackets suggest. In fact, actual social mobility is slower than it's been in generations but culturally we Brits pride ourselves on our ability to move both up and down. We can be intelligent and like disposable, trivial things; be broke but still hanker after quality.
We're as comfortable analysing the Man Booker shortlist as we are dissecting last night's I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. We live in a time when the chancellor is asked to comment on Big Brother and Madonna is interviewed on Newsnight. The same applies to fashion. Take your pick - Primark or Prada? Lanvin or New Look? Legions of fortysomethings prowl Topshop while teenagers buy £600 Mulberry handbags.
Grazia exploits these apparent paradoxes every week. 'We're comfortable turning from a spread on a woman being lashed in Indonesia to something about Jennifer Aniston to a story about shoes,' says Bruton. 'I think that is how modern women live their lives now. I might listen to Radio 4 in the morning, flick through the Daily Mirror for some gossip, listen to Magic FM on the way to work and walk past a shoe shop after I've parked the car. All of this before I've even got to work. I think women do that - we switch between subjects without a problem.'
One could argue that what makes up the essence of Grazia is still traditional women's magazine fodder - diets, kids, celebrities, love affairs, shoes, recipes, dating, parties, lipstick. Critics go so far as to dismiss it as a polished re-hash magazine or a glossy rag. Nicholas Coleridge, the managing director of Condé Nast, which publishes Vogue and Tatler, was recently heard to dismiss Grazia by saying, 'it's only read by au pairs'. But people like Julie Burchill are fans - 'I love it,' she tells me. 'They run very good stories about the disgusting attitude of Islamic countries to women.'
Writer Linda Grant agrees. She's a one-time winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, who has written books on everything from foreign affairs to the sexual revolution. She also buys her copy of Grazia every Tuesday morning, as soon as it comes out on the newsstand. 'You never know what's going to be in it. I like it in the same way that I like South Park. Its lack of morality, the edge to the humour. There is nothing soft about it. It has a toxic edge to it that is evidently not good for you. It's like drinking a Cosmopolitan.' Now she's converted her sister Michele, a senior television executive based in Washington DC, to Grazia. She buys it whenever she comes back to Britain and wishes there was a magazine like it in America. 'It absolutely reflects the conversations I have with my girlfriends. We will slide seamlessly from Zimbabwe to Chanel handbags to Gordon Brown and I make no apologies for that. After all, men talk about sport and no one criticises them for that.'
The following classic Grazia moment perhaps best sums it up. On the day TV producer Harry Thompson died in 2005 he had married his girlfriend in hospital that morning. Grazia published an exclusive interview in which she told them that for the ceremony she'd been wearing a green Jigsaw skirt. As the Guardian said at the time: 'That neat triangle connecting celebrity, true-life experience and fashion perfectly defines the Grazia universe. It provides a passport to the world of gawping at others for those few people who had previously thought they were too smart.'
This all-inclusive mix is a clever trick. It means successful women, who thought women's weeklies were for their grandmothers, aren't embarrassed to be seen buying the magazine.
'I would argue that there's virtually no reading matter in it at all,' says Angela McRobbie, professor of communications at Goldsmiths College London and an expert on women's magazines. 'At the same time the tone is such that it is perfectly acceptable for a middle-class graduate to read it.' McRobbie has profound concerns from a feminist point of view - 'it still manages to make women feel fearful and anxious and full of self-loathing' - but at the same time she acknowledges its compelling qualities. 'There is something incredibly attractive about it. There is a perfect understanding of women's magazines today - short attention spans, rich glossy visuals, with a common denominator of gossip that no one can deny we don't have.'
Everyone agrees that Grazia can be read in five minutes - but the irony is that no one seems to care. We revel in this read it, trash it attitude. Sally O'Sullivan has edited women's magazines in Britain for the past 25 years. She even published her own weekly glossy 18 years ago but it folded after seven issues. ('It's not clever to be too early,' she says drily.) She thinks Grazia is ideal for a Tube journey, or during a TV commercial break. 'It's not a knife-and-fork read. You don't have to sit down with a napkin.' But that doesn't seem to stop us from wanting our weekly fix.
It's Wednesday morning in the Grazia office. Jane sits with the rest of the team - unlike most editors she doesn't have her own office. Sky television is on in the background with news of suspected terrorist arrests in Birmingham. A story has just come in about a British woman who has married an Afghan warlord. The fashion designer Giles Deacon has agreed to write a couture report. Melanie Rickey, the fashion news and features editor, is trying to commission someone to wear a pair of Prada pants. The only bad news is that no one has a picture of Jen with either her new nose and/or her new man.
The atmosphere is much the same as a newspaper office but with two crucial differences - most of the staff members are women and many of them are mothers. (There have been 22 Grazia babies born since the magazine launched.) At a time when mostly male-staffed newspapers are desperate to find new female readers, here's a magazine that instinctively knows what a certain kind of woman wants to read. Its genius is in its simplicity: skim off the glamorous stories of the week and give women who have busy, complicated lives an edited-down version of the news agenda. 'We know exactly who our readers are,' says Jane. 'Because we're living the same lives as they are. I'm a different person in the office than I am at home. We are a bit chameleon-like.'
Today the team gathers together to discuss the coverlines. The office joke is that the essence of a Grazia cover is 'stylish woman in a crisis ... but still looking fabulous.' Today is no exception. They have decided that Kylie Minogue is this week's water-cooler story. The rumour is that she is about to split up from boyfriend Olivier Martinez.
Jane: 'Can we say it's over for Kylie and Olivier?'
Laura: 'I'm not sure. What if they are seen walking down the street together next week?'
Michelle Davies, assistant editor: 'What about new heartache over affair rumours?'
Jane: 'I'm worried. We don't want to kick someone when they're down. Nobody wants to wade in with a negative story after everything she's been through.'
Grazia's cover images have become instantly recognisable on the newsstands - where, incidentally, the traditional monthlies now struggle to stand out. In the early days, when the magazine was still in research, the team followed Italian Grazia's lead and used models on the covers. 'But in focus groups they bombed,' says Nicola Jeal, editor of Observer Woman, who was a consultant on the launch of Grazia. 'Then we tried beautiful air-brushed pictures of celebrities but they didn't take off either. It wasn't until we tried glossy real-life paparazzi pictures that the reaction totally changed. Women loved it.'
Despite appearances, our obsession with celebrity is a relatively new phenomenon - mushrooming in the past 10 years, partly due to the gap left by Princess Diana and partly encouraged by the popularity of bitchy gossip sites on the internet. The selling power of a handful of A-list women is difficult to underestimate. The Grazia cover girls are a select band: so far Kate Moss has featured 12 times, Jennifer Aniston 13 times, Victoria Beckham 17 times. We can't, it seems, get enough of them. Other favourites are Angelina Jolie, Sienna Miller and Madonna (although spoilsport Madge deliberately foils the paparazzi by leaving whichever house she happens to be staying in looking as drab as possible in tracksuit and sunglasses and carrying a takeaway cappuccino).
The right cover image is crucial. So is the right story to go with it. By publishing weekly, Grazia has managed to turn these beautiful women's lives - both pampered and chaotic - into soap operas. As Linda Grant says: 'I am truly fascinated by whether Jennifer Aniston will ever recover from Brad Pitt. Or whether Kate Moss will ever see the truth about Pete.'
Unlike Hello! magazine, Grazia tries not to be sycophantic. On the other hand this is not the place for Heat-style visual gags where a celebrity's cellulite gets circled by a pink arrow.
This attention to tone is key to the magazine's success, argues Suzanne Moore, journalist, author and another high-profile fan who fights her 16-year-old daughter to read the magazine first. 'You could say, "Why do people care about these disintegrating relationships?" But for some reason I do. The key is successful women in trauma but unlike the Daily Mail, Grazia seems as if it is on their side. That's really clever.' She also likes the idea that buying into a celebrity story makes her feel younger.
'Many lifestyle monthlies leave me feeling middle-aged. Do I really care about kitchen tiles or the perfect duvet cover? Sometimes you feel as if you can follow your life in magazines, from acne to the menopause. Grazia is much cheerier than that. I'd much rather read about Jennifer Aniston because she makes me feel hip.'
As well as celebrity, the magazine's other great draw is its fashion coverage. The British high street is unique and British women love to shop. Stores like Topshop change their stock every week and, unlike the monthly magazines, Grazia is able to keep up with the turnaround.
Tania Littlehales is the PR for Marks & Spencer. 'Our designers definitely have Grazia and Grazia's readers in mind,' she says. Last season a navy-blue trapeze-style mac which was featured in the pages immediately sold out. 'Our designers can translate looks on the catwalk to the shop so quickly these days. We call it "fast fashion". We even hold back some of our budget specifically so we can respond quickly to new trends. Fashion is quicker and a weekly magazine like Grazia can cover that.'
The question of where Grazia leaves monthly magazines is now obsessing media pundits. In a world where speed is increasingly of the essence and where four weeks seems like forever, Grazia can trump them to the latest celebrity story. How can the monthly magazines compete?
Sally O'Sullivan, who has seen these media trends come and go, thinks there's still room for both. 'There are still some fantastic magazines out there. The magazine audience in this country is huge and we produce the best in the world. A woman will very happily buy Grazia as well as her favourite monthly, be it Vogue or Marie Claire. A monthly gives you a totally different experience.' By Friday morning Jane Bruton is still changing the page plan. If something is 'too monthly' it gets dropped. She's decided to give an emotive picture of polar bears stranded on a melting ice cap her opening slot. A story about a footballer's girlfriend who drops to size 0 in 30 days gets mentioned on the cover. There's news from Kylie (heartbroken but coping) and Sienna (new love, new hair) inside. Plus precisely 259 hot spring buys in the fashion pages and a £1,070 Gucci bag to give away. Not bad for a week. Meanwhile the next issue's stories are already bubbling under. Jennifer's been spotted with her new nose and the word is her new chap is a cameraman called Mike ...