Monday, 18 February 2008

If You Can’t Stand The Heat

Title: Heat
Cover date: 26 January-1 February 2008

Heat was created as a sort of Holy Grail of magazine publishing, an all-round entertainment title that would attract both male and female readers over a wide age range. At £4m, its launch in 1999 was among the most expensive in UK magazine history (I seem to remember reading that it was the most expensive but I can’t find confirmation of this on the web, no doubt because the internet was a bit rubbish in those days and not because I’m wrong), demonstrating publisher EMAP’s determination to create a hugely successful magazine with near-universal appeal. It bombed. Within a year it was struggling to make money with sales of around 100,000 and it was in danger of being binned altogether. Then Big Brother happened, Nasty Nick, Craig and the rest appeared on the front cover, and a publishing phenomenon was belatedly born.

Heat still regularly sells over half a million copies and is one of the most influential magazine brands in the UK. Its success has made editor Mark Frith one of the best-known names in British publishing, and its name is synonymous with our prurient interest in celebrity. Surprisingly, though, it isn’t the country’s best-selling celeb mag (its sister title Closer has a circulation over 10,000 higher). This may be because it’s aimed a slightly different audience from most of the other celebrity mags – it gives greater prominence to film, music and TV than most of its rivals, while largely eschewing beauty products, decorating tips and agony columns. However, it is still included in the criticism when hand-wringing commentators and editorials blame celebrity mags for the moral decline of modern humanity. These magazines, we’re told, are not only creating eating disorders and cosmetic surgery addictions, they’re also destroying any sense of community we’ve ever felt by transforming us all into snide, snarky, contemptuous finger-pointers.

So, with celebrity mags coming under increasing pressure for their supposedly irresponsible activities, and with Big Brother and the other reality shows Heat relies on to create new celebrities losing their lustre, what’s the future for Heat?

Canyon kindly pointed out recently that I seem obsessed with women’s bottoms and will buy any magazine that features one. Heat knows that this is a shared, possibly national, obsession.

This is an ambiguous cover. Are we supposed to point and laugh at these celebrities who have said “Diet? Not us!”? Or are we meant to celebrate their refusal to pander to society’s expectations of female gorgeousness? The latter, evidently. It is significant that these cover stars are both women of a certain age: Linda Evangelista is 42, Kim Cattrall 51. (Official ages both.) It’s hard to imagine that if, say, Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston whacked on a few kilos over Christmas, they’d be lauded on the cover for their nonconformism. Just in case these ageing beauties and an antlered arse aren’t enough to pull in the readers, Heat crams in a few celeb-mag favourites as well, both people and stories: Britney/downward spiral, Kerry/baby news, Kate/rampant partying. Well done, Heat! All bases covered. It’s only a minor disappointment that you didn’t get Victoria Beckham on there as well.

Page 4 This is a slightly rejigged issue of Heat, according to the contents page, with a few new sections. The first is The Big Picture, a double-page story-of-the-week photospread. This week it was – get ready to be shocked – Britney Spears and her ongoing battle with mental health, the authorities and haters. For this spread, Heat has chosen a photo that shows the scrum of paparazzi snapping Spears outside Los Angeles’s Superior Court, which might seem an odd choice, but will make sense when we get to the full story on page 16.

Page 6 Kate Moss went on a bender for her 34th birthday! This is news? I thought Kate Moss went on a bender every other day. I thought going on benders was more or less her job. Ah, but this was a 34-hour bender for her 34th birthday! You see? Eh, no. The only surprising thing is that Moss is only 34. She doesn’t look a day under 45.

This goes to the very heart of what I just don’t understand about celeb mags. If a famous person has done something worth celebrating or something outrageous, or worn something horrible, or lost weight, or anything even slightly out of the ordinary, I get why it’s publication-worthy. Pictures of Moss walking into or out of bars – how is this remarkable? Yet Heat takes three pages to show us this story. I shake my head. ::shakes head::

Page 10 Life is too short to diet, isn’t it? That’s pretty much the basis of all magazines aimed at women. You’ll never find any diet tips in them, or the weight of any given woman being discussed. Actually, from what I’ve seen, it’s unfair on the celebrity mags to accuse them of “body fascism”; this story is typical. It’s the more downmarket “real-life” mags that are obsessed with weight-loss stories and low-fat food, while the high-end fashion glossies are the ones guilty of having only the stickiest stick-thin models in their pages. It’s vaguely heartwarming to see these women celebrated on magazine pages, although the caveats I mentioned above still apply. It’s also a little alarming to see that Heat consider Chanelle Hayes’s decidedly not-sizeable bottom (yes, that’s whose it is on the cover – what do you mean, you didn’t guess?) symptomatic of a “Life’s too short to diet” mentality, but I’m not sure whose fault that is.

Page 16 “Move back. I’m scared. Stop it. Stop it.” This is the headline on Heat’s big story about Britney Spears. It’s accompanied by a large picture of Spears surrounded by police officers, seemingly protecting the pop singer from a crush of people. A crush of photographers. One of whom has taken the picture that Heat has acquired and published here. The people at whom the words were presumably directed by Spears.

Heat’s problem here is twofold: one, finding a way to present the story that is not exploitative or distasteful; two, finding a new way to present the story given that Spears’s life takes up serious chunks of tabloid newspaper pagination every single day. This leads to a fairly po-faced presentation with plenty of detail, but it leaves Heat open to accusations of hypocrisy. It reports on Spears’s “maddest day yet” in a way that is disingenuous at best and repugnant at worst. Spears is obviously not having a good time, dealing with mental health problems and alleged drug problems and losing custody of her children, but it’s just possible that her life would not be nearly so crazy if there were not 150 photographers following her every move. And yet Heat’s description of her day in court includes the paps as a matter of course, captioning pictures of the scrum chasing her “Paparazzi frenzy” and “Hysteria”. Yes, because there’s a bloody huge market for their bloody photos of which you are a part, Heat!

This problem – troubled celebrities whose lives are made more difficult by the constant media attention – has come to a head recently. Veteran tabloid photographer Nick Stern resigned in disgust from picture agency Splash, citing the dangerous behaviour of some fellow paps and a lack of regulation, while gossip site Holy Moly has taken up the cause, pledging not to publish intrusive photos and calling on tabloids and magazines to follow its lead. I wonder if Heat thinks that reporting the media circus, as well as being part of it, counts as responsible journalism. I hope not. Especially not when it ends with an expert prediction, made by a rent-a-quote psychologist to the National Enquirer, that Spears could be dead in six months. Yes, or she could not be. I rather suspect she would have a better chance of making it if she were left alone.

Page 24 With the abundance of gossip sites, which you’d imagine most Heat readers visit frequently if not every day, not to mention the celeb-filled daily tabloids, it must be difficult to find news that’s break-ey enough to fill the Breaking News section. They go with fairly fluffy stuff that probably wouldn’t make most sites: Johnny Depp visiting a children’s hospital, Pete Doherty’s new girlfriend. There’s a faintly yucky story about how Kerry Katona is going to name her new baby after publicist Max Clifford, because he has been such a “tower of strength” for Katona. However, since the quotes are not from Clifford, Katona or Katona’s husband (they’re credited to “a family friend”), we can safely assume that this is merely an excuse for Heat to amusingly mock up a picture of Max Clifford as a baby.

Page 32 The perennial problem faced by magazines who want to expand on to the web is this: creating a successful or even viable website without cannibalising the content of your paper publication, which people won’t buy any more if they can read it for free on the web. You could create unique web content, but websites are rarely profitable enough to finance the staff and resources this requires. Heat’s way around this problem is to create web content but trail it extensively in the mag, thereby filling a few pages and, hopefully, driving readers to the site. This is one of the best solutions I’ve seen. It means that the website doesn’t just have the same wire stories that all the other gossip sites have, and generates a mini-feature for the mag as well. I especially like You Interview, in which readers supply the questions for celeb interviews. Magazines have long done this but it seems like a ideal feature for the website, and I’m surprised more mags don’t do it.

Page 36 Love & Stuff is mostly idle speculation with no quotes and hence fairly inconsequential, but it does give Heat the opportunity for some of the gentle piss-taking it does so well.

Awwww. Seriously, that’s sweet – it’s funny, it’s not mean, it’s going along with what the celebs in question said anyway, it genuinely is harmless fun. When I hear that celeb mags are creating a vicious culture of ridicule I think of things like this, which don’t harm anyone. Then I think of the Britney Spears story. Oh, I’m so conflicted.

Page 40 Again, Heat takes a fairly gentle and even witty approach to The Week In Pictures. Rather than just print a picture of Amy Winehouse’s ill-advised bleach job, it focuses on Kelly Osbourne’s unguarded reaction to it; instead of mocking Ben Affleck for dancing like a fool in the street, it points out the undeniable cuteness of his daughter.

Even when the pictures are less flattering, Heat is rarely rude – you’d think it would be difficult to be, given that the mag’s existence largely depends on the collaboration of celebrities. Again, no evidence of the point-and-laugh culture here.

Page 48 Oh, here it is. The Circle Of Shame is arguably Heat’s best known and most reviled feature. In January 2007, the Guardian’s women’s editor Kira Cochrane wrote:
Each week Heat magazine offers up a “circle of shame” feature, in which attention is drawn to some celebrity’s tiny, otherwise imperceptible “flaw”. It can be almost anything – from Katie Holmes’s knobbly knuckles to Kate Beckinsale’s tiny bald patch to a Big Brother contestant with a blemish on her cleavage. The message is strong and persistent. It is not enough to be slim. It is not enough to be toned. It is certainly not enough to be healthy. For women especially, perfection is the only viable endgame.

It’s unsettling the way Heat seems to relish identifying all the tiniest celebrity flaws and mistakes and foibles in this section. This is a fairly tame instalment, but the mag still finds time to rag on Eva Mendes for wearing – gasp! – a white bra under a black top and Serena Williams for having – no! – a perceptible sweat patch (an athlete!). Some of them are just ridiculous – a picture of Kelly Brook with one sunglass lens missing and evidently giggling about how silly it looks has zero to do with shame – but it’s easy to perceive an undercurrent of malice in all these pictures, a desperation to point out that not only are celebrities flawed just like us, they’re risible, moronic creatures who don’t know how to dress themselves.

I think it’s the use of the adjective “shame” that I object to most. Most of the mockery in the mag is lighthearted, superficial, harmless – but describing these trifling gaffes as sources of shame suggests contempt, disgust, even humiliation. The editorial line would no doubt be that readers lap this sort of thing up, and they’re just giving their audience what it wants. If Heat didn’t give the readers these pictures, would readers be calling and emailing demanding to see celebrities called out and shamed? Although one of the less vicious editions, this is still unpleasant, and it sits uneasily alongside the soft ribbing found elsewhere in the mag.

Page 53 Probably Heat’s other best known feature is Torso Of The Week. If nothing else, this feature tells us how far the unsavoury habit of chest-waxing has spread. This week’s torso is that of Jason Lewis, a model turned actor I’d never heard of. He looks a bit like a young Robert Redford, except I doubt Redford was ever that creepily smooth-skinned.

Page 55 Ten pages of Star Style start here and this is what these magazines excel at, showing readers how to dress a bit like a famous person, only at Primark. I imagine this is why, in essence, most Heat readers buy the mag, and they’re given plenty of tips in a no-nonsense, non-patronising fashion. There’s also “best dressed” and “worst dressed” spreads; again, it’s a fine line between gentle piss-taking and cruel mockery but, unlike Circle Of Shame, I think this qualifies as a bit of fun. If you saw these people in the street, you’d laugh.

A bit later there’s a new section, Fashion Spy, which takes to the streets to find out what people are wearing. Again, spot-on for the readers, but I don’t know why it’s not part of or at least next to Star Style.

Page 68 We all like to spot celebrities, don’t we? I saw John Hurt on Tottenham Court Road last week and I was made up. I told everyone about it. I don’t know why. Celebrities have to go from place to place like everyone else. But I can understand the impulse to email Heat and tell them that you saw Simon and Yasmin Le Bon in Waitrose, or Ainsley Harriott on a train. I’m not so keen on the idea of taking surreptitious photos of celebs and sending them in, though. That’s icky.

Page 74 Now here’s an odd thing.

In another new feature, Heat addresses a serious subject and writes a proper grown-up article about it. No mocking, no silly captions, no circles of shame. A five-page report about a pressing social issue, in this case bipolar disorder (although naturally it takes a celebrity angle). It’s strangely gratifying to see this here; it’s as if Heat has owned up to its trivial, occasionally childish nature and tried to remedy it. My question is: why? What’s it doing here? If you asked a reader what Heat was missing, I can guarantee you the answer would not be, “Lengthy, sober-minded investigations into real-life issues such as mental illness”. The senior staff know this sort of thing is not exactly a reader magnet. Two recent launches that attempted to target women readers by mixing celeb gossip with straight news, In The Know and Heat’s stablemate First, failed miserably and were both closed.

It’s possible that this is a genuine attempt to do whatever the opposite of dumb down is (smart up?), instigated by Mark Frith or the deputy editor Jo Carnegie (who wrote the article) or the magazine’s new paymaster, German publisher H Bauer, which recently acquired EMAP’s consumer division. (This is unlikely, since Bauer launched and shut In The Know and its first act when taking over EMAP was to can First.) The cynic in me suspects that this is a far cheaper way of filling five pages than lots of expensive celebrity shots from picture agencies and much less hassle than trying to arrange interviews. But I’m prepared to give Heat the benefit of the doubt and assume its motives are pure – it really wants to be more intelligent.

Page 82 Kelly Osbourne might have been made for the Heat Interview: she’s outspoken, artless, occasionally even funny, and she’s worn enough shocking outfits to fill half a page.

Although they don’t exactly pull in the A-listers for this feature, the interviewers to tend to be pleasingly frank. “Were you not a spoilt brat?” and “Were you a slut?” are two questions. Heat readers demand to know this stuff. Me, I’m pretty sure I know everything I want to about Osbourne (she’s Ozzy’s daughter, and... that’s it) but people buy celeb mags to find out about celebs. Even celebs they don’t particularly like or aspire to be.

Page 88 Film reviews kick off the entertainment section, followed by music, DVD and books and these are great – Heat really takes care to tailor its reviews to its audience, crafting top tens of everything and taking into account feedback from readers. I sure hope that reader feedback will encourage them to scale back the four-star rating for the yawnsome Sweeney Todd.

Page 97 Heat also has a chunky TV preview section, which again is carefully targeted at its readers. There’s not much point complaining that Heat doesn’t preview The Art Of Spain on BBC4 – that’s not what it’s for. It is unapologetically upbeat about everything – according to this issue Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack “won us over despite our scepticism”, which flies in the face of everyone else’s opinion including the viewers – but that isn’t out of place here. It’s a little annoying that instead of daring to say any show is bad, the previews have a little box called “Random Or What?”, but this does include a little subeditors’ joke about the meaning of the word “Ultimate”, so I’ll let it off.

Page 122 Heat asks every celebrity who appears on its last page the same ten potentially revealing questions – what’s your most embarrassing moment, when were you last naked in front of someone, etc. Denise Van Outen’s ten questions afford me two revelations: (1) She just cannot get away from her cheeky-chappy-with-breasts persona and is compelled to assume a horribly ingratiating pose that makes me want to slap the page; (2) she’s going out with Lee Mead. That’s Lee Mead, winner of the BBC reality show Any Dream Will Do. The show on which Denise Van Outen was a judge. So either she spent 11 weeks judging him, not morally, not silently, but actually literally judging his good and bad points live on Saturday night television, and then they started going out; or they were already happily two-backed-beast-making while the show was going on, in which case Mead had something of an advantage over the other contestants, no?

When you care even slightly about such things, perhaps it’s time to admit that this is a world of Heat’s making. Other titles may be longer established or sell more, but there’s a reason that Heat has become a byword for celeb mags – it’s lively, it’s funny, it doesn’t take celebrities or itself too seriously, it’s not slathered in horrible hot pink like many of its rivals – all in all it’s highly readable. I’m impressed with the way it has addressed the web issue, and heartened that it’s seen fit to include some serious and informative journalism, whatever the motive behind this. It also doesn’t have a celebrity column from some no-mark like Nancy Sorrell or Sophie Anderton telling us what they’ve done with their vacuous lives over the past week. In fact, Heat tends to focus on genuine celebrities, people who have done something to merit their fame. Faint praise, no doubt, but in an era when I somehow know who bloody Andy Scott-Lee is, it’s something to be grateful for.

Dear old Julie Burchill did her usual good job of missing the point recently when she turned the disapproval of celebrity magazines and their circles of shame into a class-war issue (I know, can you believe it?), arguing that detractors of Heat/Reveal/Closer/Now just don’t like to see proles having any fun. The real criticism is not the supposedly downmarket nature of these mags (which are read by plenty of middle-class women anyway) – it’s that we’re supposed to be past the point where we judge women by their appearance. (Men too, of course, but that’s less of a problem generally.) Not to mention the fact that Burchill inevitably limits working-class women by defending them in this way, suggesting that the only reason they might buy a magazine is to “get a cheap laugh out of someone wealthier’s imperfections” and celebrate the wondrousness of “chav princesses” such as Jordan and Kerry Katona.

Crucially, that’s not what I got from this issue of Heat. Generally speaking, the mag mocks people only for their poor sartorial choices and silly behaviour, and there’s a notable lack of anyone being attacked over their weight or looks or anything else that could be said to be “body fascism” – even on the cover. It may be that Heat is treading carefully after the controversy over its ill-advised Harvey stickers, especially with new bosses in place, but I don’t think so – there’s an overall sense of fun that runs through the whole mag, and it certainly doesn’t leave the sour taste that reading, say, the Daily Mail does. The disagreeable Circle Of Shame is the exception to the general rule. Perhaps Heat would do well to quietly ditch it.


McCy said...

Me & Heat: A diary...

1999 launch: I bought it (picked up something like the 3rd issue which had Johnny Vaughan & Kelly Brook on the cover, I believe, due to her start on the Big Breakfast), and I liked it. Hence it was doomed. It was a decent, cross-media, entertainment magazine. Reviews, features, not much of that celeb stuff.

2000: Offering a year's subscription for something like 50p. Ohh, the smell of desperation.

2003-04: It was a weekly staple at the shop where I worked, mostly due to our shared obsession with Nigel Harman (don't judge us, please! We're really not proud of that terrible period in our lives). The height, I'd guess, of its wide appeal.

2006-ish: Went shite. Even my (imaginary, according to certain quarters) sister stopped buying it, because the diet crap had got too much, and the celeb stuff was too trashy, even for her. I held a similar opinion. The aversion to the diet stuff is much akin to my complete refusal to buy a magazine that has Victoria Beckham on the cover. You've got to have principles.

I know I haven't picked up a copy since my 2006 subscription (paid for by my aforementioned imaginary sister) ran out because of all of the body-shape related crap.

Masticator said...

It's funny, though, because the body-shape related crap is not really what Heat's about, at least according to the issue I read. I guess they have to put that on the cover to compete with the rival titles on the newsstand, but the coverage given to the story inside the actual mag was derisory. There you go.

The Nigel Harman phase is unforgivable. Begone!

McCy said...

Ahh, but it led to such fascinating conversations like "Can you imagine calling a baby Nigel?"

I've seen him in person. He actually was quite hott.


But yeah, until Heat takes that diet crap off of the cover (cf Beckham rule), I ain't buying it.