So the other day I finally finished reading The Celeb Diaries, which purports to be a sort-of week-by-week (except sometimes it’s day-by-day, and sometimes month-by-month) diary of Mark Frith’s time as editor of Heat magazine – from right back in the days when it was struggling to sell 70,000 copies per week, through to its triumphant days when in one glorious week it managed more than 700,000.
So here’s what I learnt:
- Posh Spice gave him an interview that effectively saved the magazine on its relaunch because it was exclusive, and newspapers picked it up.
- paparazzi send you lots of photos all the time and you have to choose between them. Some of them aren’t very nice really.
- Simon Cowell smokes Kool cigarettes.
- PR people sometimes are helpful in getting stories, but sometimes they block you, which can be annoying.
- Portakabin wrote a legal letter to Heat pointing out that the word “Portakabin” should be capitalised and only applied to its products. Other similar-functioning things should be called “portable toilets”. At Heat they found this letter amusing.
- Some celebs are very talkative. Others aren’t. Film stars are very untalkative and try to control publicity about themselves.
- Heat goes to press on Friday night and is printed on Saturdays, which can be a bother when Big Brother is on because people get evicted on Friday night.
- Big Brother was – is? – very popular with Heat’s readers.
- Sometimes celebrities tell bare-faced lies to you in interviews.
- He doesn’t drink, except when he has real problems or wins a really big prize.
Things I didn’t learn from Frith’s book:
- what effect the rise of the internet has had on celebrity magazines. By the end (finally, in spring 2008, after editing since 2000) he’s quietly mentioning that circulation has fallen from its peak. But although he does mention too that Heat set up a website (heatworld.com, apparently) and that it would post stories there, there’s no indication of how important the growth of celeb-spotting websites is to Heat. Has it taken circulation away? Become an important source of stories? What? Nary a mention.
- what the real commercial pressures were on him. While everything was going up, you’d expect that he could do no wrong. He does mention that Heat was constantly chasing after OK! – the Richard Desmond-owned magazine which kept doing celeb buyups (such as Ashley and Cheryl Cole’s wedding). How is it that OK! had so much more heft with the celebs?
- what he really, honestly thought of the whole celebrity culture thing. He mentions a couple of times that he would think of the celebs he featured as like playthings – it brings to mind a quote from Shakespeare about gods and wanton children – but the suggestion is that at the end (around new year of 2008) he suddenly got sick of it all, as Amy Whitehouse and Briney Spears imploded. (The two of them, and the paparazzi pictures, seem – from the book’s narrative – to have driven him to early retirement.)
- any idea of what he thinks of the people he had to deal with. Is Simon Cowell a wicked manipulator, who thought Gareth Gates would be the winner of Pop Idol (Will Young won, you’ll recall), or just someone who likes a fag and lunch from time to time?
- how he really viewed the difference between national newspapers – especially the tabloids – and what he was doing. Celeb exposes in the tabs are fodder to follow up; but there’s hardly ever a clear idea of whether he viewed Heat as a vehicle for finding stuff out before others, even though he had ex-journos from the Sun and the News of the World working there.
- why he didn’t elevate Heat’s complaint that some models were dangerously (for their health, for mimicking readers’ health) thin from a repeated trope into a full-blown campaign. Did he propose it and get knocked back at the executive level? Did the idea simply never occur (even though magazines all over the place try campaigns of one sort of another)? Did he shy away from the political necessity involved?
- whether he liked (or thought of) the idea of including readers’ mobile-phone-snapped photos of celebs out and about.
- what his special skills are. He must have some – you don’t take a magazine from the ground floor to the penthouse and keep it there without being especially brilliant at something. I guessed that it might be keeping on the right side of people (PR people, celebs, staff, managers) and always being engaging and listening to them. (Yes, yes, I’d love to have that trait too.) But I’m only guessing – there’s no way of knowing what he really brought to the table.
Actually the list – both lists – could go on and on. It’s a breathless stream; I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone could be so puppy-doggishly enthusiastic and unworried as Frith. As I read further and further in, and noted how he seemed to avoid those difficult judgements – about Cowell, for example, who surely deserves some commentary on how he used or dropped winners of Pop Idol and, subsequently, X Factor (followed by some reflection on Frith’s part about how he was effectively doing the same as Cowell to the graduates of the Big Brother house) – a suspicion began to grow:
He’s not judging them – in fact he’s holding back all but the foolish detail – because he doesn’t want to get into anyone’s bad books. These are people who he might need to give him a job in the future.
After all, he was only 38 when he left Heat (to go where? Where has he turned up since? Answers in the comments please). There’s a lot more to do. Hell, I wouldn’t write a memoir telling all if I were in his position. But I might think, as I wrote, of how the landscape was changing, and perhaps even inject some of that into the book. (Update: he’s been appointed editor of Time Out – thanks Louise in the comments – as of Friday 24 July 2009 – just the time I was finishing off reading his book. Which reinforces all those suspicions, then.)
I find it hard to believe too that he really kept a contemporaneous diary of life on Heat. You have to be a severely organised person to do that; Piers Morgan’s alleged “diary” The Insider was demonstrably written well after the fact. (Morgan’s claim to have described Cherie Blair and her new-age guru as members of the “Axis of Evil” at a No.10 dinner before the phrase came into use is telling. Durr.) I think that Frith left the job and then had to slog back through the issues, and recall what things had happened when. If he did keep a diary, well, I’m impressed, amazed and even more surprised that it doesn’t have any sort of reflection. Most people are reflective in their diary. Also, most people when writing a diary don’t shift about between tenses within a sentence or paragraph in the way that Frith frequently does. Which to me is another clue that it’s a post-op job.
The one place where you really need Frith to have a bit of insight is in the days after the foolish and infamous “stickers” issue – the one which had giveaway stickers such as “I’m not on drugs, I’m bipolar” (an oblique – to me – reference to Kerry Katona, who denied repeatedly she was taking drugs while some, um, journalists on a tabloid got her bang to rights) and, calamitously, “Harvey wants to eat me” – referring to Jordan’s multiply disabled child.
Wow. The effects of that issue – which Frith, formerly of Smash Hits (and who brought pretty much that sensibility to Heat: have fun, take nobody seriously; except life isn’t like that) thought would just be a laugh – were nuclear. Suddenly the radio, TV and newspapers wanted to talk to him. The phone would ring. Reporters came to Emap to ask him questions. But he could get other people to answer the phone. He could get security to turn away the reporters. Even so, the pressure on him for a week or more was immense.
But in that time, he wasn’t pursued by paparazzi; he wasn’t doorstepped. Let’s crank it up: he didn’t have semi-professional photographers whose rent payments depend on selling a photo to magazines and websites around the world walking three steps in front of him taking pictures constantly and shouting his name – and swearwords – to try to get a photo of him. He didn’t have notes shoved through his letterbox. His relatives weren’t bothered. His partner didn’t get calls. Snatched shots of him walking to and from work weren’t posted with big circles pointing to his clothing mistakes.
In short, he never really found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of what he – well, created is the wrong word, but of the flames that Heat helped to fan. And so he never sits down and thinks “what the hell have I done to these people, if this is what it’s like for me?”
Instead it’s left to Amy and Britney, whose travails (and constant stream of papped photos showing Frith the underside of the world; he swears, for example, that he won’t feature anything about Kate Moss and Pete Doherty because he thinks they’re scuzzy) finally show him that it’s not fun any more. For him, that is. Obviously, for them the fun of ordinary living went out of it a long time back.
It’s a pity, because Frith could have given such a marvellous insider view: how you really turn a failing magazine around – including the extent to which better advertising and marketing play a part, and how much editorial budget makes a difference (for those celebrity buyups) – and then how you keep a small but dedicated staff going even while they’re constantly No.2.
But somehow the emptiness of the book is summed up, for me, by the jacket quote provided by Cowell. It’s the only such quote on the book – surprising, if Frith knew so many people and won so many favours; you’d think they’d be happy to be quoted. But no, Cowell’s sits alone.
And it is this: “Nobody knows celebrities like Mark Frith.”
Think about it for a moment. Why didn’t he say “Nobody knows celebrities as well as Mark Frith”? It doesn’t quite mean the same, what he said. There’s a subtle implication – if it’s indeed direct from Cowell – of “there are no celebrities who are like Mark Frith”. Or, equally, “Mark Frith knows celebrities, but not as anyone else does.” Which might include him, Cowell, who knows a few.
The more you untangle, the more tangled it gets. The more you look, the less there is. It’s entirely apposite for the book. You go looking for something but you find there’s nothing when you arrive. There’s no there, there.
A bit like modern celebrity, in fact.