But in the wake of Sept. 11, the high-gloss celebrity culture that spawned celebrity editors like Anna Wintour and Tina Brown has been downgraded, while the publishing world labors under the gloom of a grim economy. And as the industry awaits the possible anointing of a new celebrity-editor, Glenda Bailey, whose first official issue of Harper’s Bazaar is due out Jan. 14, the question now is: Will celebrity-editors sink in the would-be post-narcissistic culture of 2002, or does the financially challenged magazine industry need its stars now more than ever?
Last year was arguably the high-water mark of the editor-turned-celebrity. During the June executive house-cleanings at Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, and Marie Claire, the media coverage of the Bailey-Betts-Fuller merry-go-round rivaled, at least in New York, that of the Kidman-Cruise divorce. Even the New York Times enthusiastically prophesied that “[Glenda] Bailey will soon join the ranks of the other celebrity editors, both past and present, like Tina Brown, Helen Gurley Brown and [Anna] Wintour.”
Meanwhile, Ruth Reichl, editor in chief at Gourmet magazine — not exactly a personality vehicle — snagged a cameo in the HBO film “Dinner with Friends” starring Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell, and Jane magazine’s editor in chief Jane Pratt has a cameo role in the Cameron Crowe film “Vanilla Sky” playing Tom Cruise’s editorial rival.
The current celebrity-editor frenzy is in many ways the culmination of a phenomenon dating back several decades. Henry Luce, the Time magazine magnate, was a prototype of the editor who was one part power broker, one part celebrity, one part visionary. The tradition of the editor-as-impresario carried on at Time, as evidenced by the famed 75th anniversary party for the magazine, held in 1998, that was emceed by then-managing editor Walter Isaacson. The party, where stars like Tom Hanks mingled with Mikhail Gorbachev, Sophia Loren and Leonardo DiCaprio, was so closely associated with Isaacson that the New York Times dubbed it “Walter’s bar mitzvah” — but the much-hyped event also left Isaacson open to charges that his celebrity fixation was tarnishing his journalistic integrity. It’s a charge similarly made about many of today’s celebrity-editors.
The current model may owe even more to the pioneering efforts of a woman whose reputation centered around pushing boundaries: Helen Gurley Brown. Foreshadow-ing contemporary media titans Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, Gurley Brown was a celebrity and cultural icon before she became an editor, having published the orgasm-foraging manual Sex and the Single Girl in 1962 — a bestselling book that became a movie in 1964, with Natalie Wood cast as Gurley Brown.
The following year, she began her 31-year-long stint as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, and while Gurley Brown credits her preexisting celebrity status with jump-starting her editorial career, she believes that Cosmopolitan’s ultimate success owed more to its content than to any celebrity cachet she may have brought with her. “I came to Cosmo straight out of Sex and the Single Girl, and throughout my career I continued to have a media presence — I think I was ranked among the top ten most popular guests on the Tonight Show,” she told WWD.
“While I felt that those TV appearances never hurt circulation, no amount of promotion of that sort will help sell a magazine. I devoutly believe that only the product itself can do that. That’s what I always said to our publishers when they worried that Cosmo was too racy — that the readers are ultimately the ones who decide. We had a 90 percent sell-through rate in the early years. Advertisers might not like their sisters or daughters reading it, but with those kind of numbers they’re going to come along for the ride.”
Grace Mirabella, who shepherded Vogue magazine between the Vreeland and Wintour eras before running her own eponymous publication, Mirabella, for four years, also agrees that celebrity in and of itself was never the end-game. “This may sound naive, but I never believed that what I did for a living made me a celebrity,” Mirabella said. “In fact, not only did I eschew celebrity for myself, I also resented someone telling me what I had to do to snag other celebrities for covers. I didn’t realize that the editor-celebrity was part of an evolving phenomenon that has become, at this point, a guiding concept.”
Like Gurley Brown, Mirabella feels that content itself is the true test of an editor’s prowess. “Back in the Sixties and Seventies, Vogue competed with Bazaar, but it was never about the editors, or editor-celebrities, or whatever you want to call them; it was about the concept,” said Mirabella, drawing an implicit contrast with contemporary Vogue-versus-Bazaar coverage centered around battling editors. “Maybe the celebrity-editor phenomenon began with Vreeland, but still, you didn’t really think of her as a celebrity. Celebrity status is ultimately very shallow, and Diana Vreeland wasn’t shallow.”
The question of whether a celebrity editor can prop up a magazine’s bottom line still elicits diverse responses. David Abrahamson, professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and author of “Magazine-Made America,” characterized the celebrity-editor trend as a double-edged sword for magazines struggling in a sluggish ad environment. “The celebrity editor phenomenon promises short-term gains but entails long-term, probably negative, consequences,” he said. “We live in the age of celebritude; it’s an organizing principle, and magazines that make their editors celebrities or that center themselves around celebrities may gain short-term life in newsstand sales.
“But ultimately, these periodicals have to sell themselves over and again to the same audience, and if their celebrity orientation makes them indistinguishable from each other, then they’re simply diluting their brand, they’re not building a franchise.”
While he considers the celebrity editor fetish to be a “mistaken path,” Abrahamson also acknowledged the rationale behind it. “Magazines gain no credibility by not having a celebrity editor, and given the ad revenue slump, it’s no surprise that celebrity editors would flourish,” he said.
Sam Shahid, owner of ad agency Shahid & Co., takes a different position on the matter: that star power translates more or less directly into ad revenue. “It does pay to have a star editor, providing you have the right star,” he said. “Anna Wintour — that’s a star. When Liz Tilberis first started at Bazaar, there was a rush in the ad community — everyone was looking to place ads. They didn’t even care what the circulation was.”
In Shahid’s estimation, many of the recent failures in the magazine world can be attributed to a lack of star power — even if many of the more-visible editors seek stardom by hiring their own public relations people. “The problem with Kate Betts is that she wasn’t a celebrity,” he said. “She’d walk into a room and it was like she was dead, she had no life to her. She was all posse and no presence. Glenda [Bailey], on the other hand, is dying to be a star — that’s why the Fabien Baron thing was so played up,” referring to whether or not Baron would return to Bazaar as creative director (he didn’t).
Serena Duff, media director of TBWA Chiat/Day/New York, believes that editor-stars can bring new life to magazines, at least in the short-term. “Whether it’s Rosie or Oprah or Jane Pratt, there are certain editors who hold some sway because they come with their own audience,” said Duff. “Having an editor-star will make advertisers overlook certain things — like circulation — that they would otherwise notice, but that lasts only so long. The editor will eventually have to prove that she can deliver.”
In the pre-9/11 America, the celebrity editor took on numerous permutations. There was the celebrity-as-editor, as when the Bailey-run Marie Claire put “guest editor” Gwyneth Paltrow in charge of one issue. Then there are those synergy titans Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, and Rosie O’Donnell, who parlayed their fame into an eponymous publication. But the most pervasive (and to many insiders, disturbing) development involves the professional editor-turned-celebrity.
“It’s been the rage: being a star first and an editor second,” said Marian McEvoy, editor in chief of the Hearst Corp.-owned House Beautiful. “But readers don’t want their editors to be movie stars. They want the fix they get from reading the magazine.”
“I hate this celebrity editor thing,” said Jane magazine’s Pratt. “It’s like the supermodel thing: it wasn’t enough to be a model, you had to be a supermodel. Now it’s not enough to just be an editor. I mean, Glenda Bailey is a really good editor — there’s no need for her to be more that that.”
Bailey, for her part, agrees. “For an editor, it would be professional suicide to want to make oneself into a star,” she said. “It amuses me that an editor would want to be a celebrity, and I often joke that I had to leave Britain because I was a question on [TV show] ‘Celebrity Squares.”‘ This skulking away from celebrity may come as a surprise to those Britons who remember Bailey’s appearance in an American Express commercial and a TV documentary, supposedly for the purposes of gaining publicity and boosting sales figures.
Bailey insists that her passage from Marie Claire to Harper’s Bazaar does not entail a full-blown entree into celebrity-hood, but simply underscores her proven ability as editor in chief. “You’re only as good as the last issue you produce, and editors are like race horses,” she said. “They have track records, and the advertisers want to bet on who’s actually likely to win. People judge me by my sales success, so it’s no secret that Armani’s business is coming back because I’m here, or that beauty business is coming back because of the people who work here now.”
Toby Young, whose current book “How To Lose Friends and Alienate People” chronicles his declining fortunes as Vanity Fair contributing editor during the late Nineties, believes that part of being a celebrity editor involves denying that one is a celebrity editor. “Ideally, the essential attribute for a celebrity editor would be an ‘invisibility cloak’, like the one Harry Potter wears, that they can turn on and off. Because they have to know when to be adornments and when to be self-effacing.”
Young applied his ‘invisibility cloak’ metaphor to the various celebrity editors he knew while spiraling downward during his tumultuous New York media career. “Tina Brown discarded her invisibility cloak a long time ago — she doesn’t have one anymore. As for Graydon Carter, it’s important to him that people think he’s not interested in publicity,” he argued.
(Carter’s ‘regular guy’ image is, of course, annually subverted by the Vanity Fair Oscar party, arguably the most elite Oscar-night ticket for A-listers since its inception in 1994. The party now gets almost as much media coverage as the award ceremony itself.)
If there’s a moral lesson surrounding the editor-as-star, it inevitably centers on Talk magazine’s Tina Brown, who represents to many in the publishing world the perils of celebrity editorship. “Tina was enormously talented — she wasn’t entirely obsessed with buzz, at least not initially,” Judy Bachrach, author of the scorching biography “Tina and Harry Come to America,” said. “But what happened is that she became wedded to buzz — any and all kinds of publicity became valuable to her. She has become a parody.”
Tina Brown declined to be interviewed for this story.
Indeed, Talk’s in-your-face synergy — the profiling of Talk/Miramax authors, the Ben Affleck covers tied to Miramax movies — have become the bane of many in the industry. Even in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, in a “Tina Brown’s Diary” entry affirming that “everyone’s priorities have changed,” Brown’s subsequent comments confirmed that one thing hadn’t changed — her instinct for publicity. “I join a food run to the epicenter of the violence, to ground zero,” Brown wrote, “sponsored by Drew Nieporent of the TriBeca Grill, Robert DeNiro, and Talk’s partner, Miramax films.”
One can argue that Tina Brown’s buzz-driven ethic is the exact inverse of her progenitor Helen Gurley Brown’s belief that at the end of the day, buzz doesn’t pay the bills. “Tina’s a friend of mine, but I used to get so irritated when she was on the cover of the New York Times magazine, when her face was everywhere,” Gurley Brown said. “So one time I was out with a New York Times reporter, and I said ‘would you like to see some of Cosmo’s actual figures? And then compare them to those of Vanity Fair [when Tina was running it]?’ Tina’s very talented, but the fact is that she’s a profligate spender, and she’s lost money for every company she’s worked for. Me, I treated Hearst money like it was my own.”
Other observers attribute the editor-as-star syndrome to a self-obsessed New York media culture — a microcosm that mistakes itself for a universe where executive shuffles take on the dimensions of grand opera. “The celebrity editor is really a New York phenomenon, because publishing is considered a glamorous business here,” argued Stephen Colvin, president of Dennis Publishing U.S., which publishes the successful laddie mag Maxim.
“The way Keith Kelly has developed his column in the Post is an interesting example of how publishing has become about these individuals that everyone is trying to make into brands,” he said. “I mean, his column is often indistinguishable from Page Six. In both places, the names in bold are what stand out, not the companies.
“We have never believed in the celebrity editor,” asserted Colvin. “The strength of a magazine is a clearly defined DNA, and that’s what makes Maxim successful. Our readers honestly don’t care who’s running it.” Clearly not: Maxim has been one of the industry’s fastest-growing magazines, zooming to a circulation of 2.5 million at the end of June 2001 from a total paid circulation of 481,000 three years ago.
House Beautiful’s McEvoy believes that remembering who actually buys the magazine is the best formula for an editors’ survival. “Editors can make such mistakes if they get too self-involved,” she said. “For me, the best way to stay on track is to answer reader e-mails. That’s the surest way to keep grounded in what really counts.”
Whether as branding cynosures or lightning rods for media hype, celebrity editors must still match their public images to those of their magazines and, perhaps more importantly, to its corporate parent. The issue of corporate culture came to the fore during the Fuller-Betts-Bailey shakeup this past summer. Media outlets like the New York Times and the New York Observer hazarded that Conde Nast alum Betts may have been too crispy for the Hearst-owned Bazaar, but also worried that Bailey might be too crunchy. Others considered Bonnie Fuller too ‘Hearsty’ for the Conde Nast-owned Glamour. Underlying the various hypotheses was the assumption that Conde Nast was the more glamorous magazine empire, while Hearst was the hardworking frump.
“Si Newhouse runs Conde Nast like a movie studio,” said one magazine executive who preferred to remain anonymous. “It treats its editors like stars until the box office drops off. And then they’re out. Hearst is trying to assimilate Conde Nast’s star mentality.”
In arguing against one specific template for the celebrity editor, Duff honed in on the differing strengths of Bailey versus Wintour. “Glenda’s strength is in understanding the reader, which is a huge asset in terms of attracting advertisers,” he mused. “Anna’s different — she’s an authority, a style director. If Glenda knows that a huge new fashion trend won’t be appreciated by her readers, she might not run it, whereas Anna will run it regardless of how it plays.”
In the end, any editor simply has to do what is best for their magazine — including publicity. According to McEvoy, editors have to walk a fine line between creating a buzz around their title and becoming fodder for the New York Post’s Page Six. “Let’s face it: if you’re a dish-mop, you’re not going to have a good magazine,” she said. “It’s up to you to be the center of power and do more than just edit. I consider myself a cheerleader for decorating, the center of enthusiasm. But I also know that if any editor leaves her publication tomorrow, 92 percent of her ‘friends’ will stop calling her. That’s what a lot of editors forget: it’s not about you. It’s about your position at the magazine.”