Could Harper's Bazaar with its inside wink at the fashion world be the shape of women's magazines to come?
The shape of magazines to come?
While the fascinatingly awful Anna Wintour is said to be grudgingly considering giving into mass-market appeal by featuring Victoria Beckham on the cover of October's US Vogue, the US edition of Harper's Bazaar has gone one step further by featuring the YouTube singing sensation Susan Boyle, fully revamped, in a fashion shoot photographed by Hugh Stewart at the British stately home of Cliveden. Boyle's emergence, butterfly-like, from her frumpy cocoon in West Lothian, Scotland, has been a joy to behold, her confidence growing in inverse proportion to the width of her eyebrows. But her appearance in one of the world's most snooty fashion magazines marks a different kind of makeover for Harper's Bazaar in particular and style tomes in general. Fashion magazines will go to great lengths to steal a march on their rivals for the September issue - traditionally the most important issue of the year - and never more so than when there is a recession. For the readers who have to flick through 40 pages of adverts before even reaching the contents page, it may seem like a good thing that advertisers are cutting back on their spending. For magazines, however, it can be the death knell: revenue from the cover price is never going to pay for all those expensive fashion shoots and celebrity interviews.
That's why this September has seen a sort of reckless, all-or-nothing madness among the major magazines internationally, from UK Harper's Bazaar's supersized edition to Esquire's hardback version, US Vogue's 427 ad pages (which still represents a decline of 36.7 per cent from last year), and Vanity Fair's macabre two-cover edition (choose between Michael Jackson or Farrah Fawcett). Yet none has the sheer and unlikely chutzpah of Bazaar's SuBo makeover.
The magazine, after all, has long had a reputation as something of a high-society handbook (the middle ground between Vanity Fair and Vogue), with a heritage of fashion gurus such as Diana Vreeland, photographers of the calibre of Peter Lindbergh and the sort of perfectly starry interviewees the fashion world loves, from Kate Winslet to American aristocracy such as Jacqui Getty. Those fastidious style mavens in the fashion department at Bazaar may well have found themselves suppressing a shudder at the prospect of dressing a rather dumpy 48-year-old whose rather cruel media-coined moniker was the "hairy angel", so-called because of those eyebrows and her fluffy, grey-tinged barnet.
When I worked on Harper's Bazaar Dubai, and before that at the now-defunct Eve magazine in London, beautiful visuals were everything: designers and editors were constantly alert to any sign of lumpy hips, wrinkled skin and flyaway hair. The scrutiny and subsequent Photoshopping (yes, that is now a verb) that an image of, say, Naomi Campbell or Shakira would receive was intense, time-consuming and uncompromising, so the prospect of dealing with, gosh, a real person was always a daunting one.
Of course, even those of us who were dimly aware of the intrinsic nastiness of this approach were complicit in many ways. At Eve, one of the less image-obsessed women's glossies, we used to have a monthly feature about inspiring women who had broken convention and started fabulous, creative businesses, called Women Doing Their Own Thing. In the search for subjects we had certain things to bear in mind: had they overcome hurdles? Were they successful in their business? And, most importantly, did they pass the Eve Beauty Test? In other words, were they a UK size 12 or less, with glossy hair, glowing skin, nice clothes and photogenic features - a test that, incidentally, many of us working on the magazine would have failed miserably. This is far from a unique phenomenon in women's magazines, which rely on beautiful pictures for their glossy, attractive package.
Boyle would never have made it in her original guise, but arguably it is because of this sort of feature that her story has seemed so remarkable to a general public conditioned to believe that only shiny, beautiful, confident people can make it in life. In fact, though, the US edition of Harper's Bazaar, unlike its more status-conscious sister publications, often defies its Park Avenue reputation with a touch of humour - The Simpsons-meets-Linda-Evangelista-in-Paris story in the August 2007 issue, drawn by the series' cartoonist Julius Preite, has to be one of the most memorable fashion shoots ever conceived. Bazaar's editor-in-chief, Glenda Bailey, is a very different proposition from her frosty counterpart at US Vogue, and the magazine's remit is more about style than fashion. Regular features such as Fabulous At Every Age are designed to make clothes relevant to readers who don't fit the Vogue ideal of the emaciated twentysomething. To the fashion hardliners this may feel like selling out, and no doubt there will be mean-spirited sniggers from some of the cattier corners of the industry. But simple pragmatism wins out here: for the newsstand sales, for advertisers' returns, for the designers used in the shoot, such as Michael Kors and Donna Karan, whose clothes are demonstrably wearable, for Boyle's publicity machine and her own fragile ego, and for the readers to whom glamour suddenly seems that little bit more achievable, Harper's Bazaar has the last laugh.