How ‘Hello!’ has sailed through the stormy waters of celebrity
For 25 years the celeb magazine has chronicled the births, marriages and lovely homes of the stars — and it has changed the media’s agenda, says Vanessa Thorpe
By Vanessa Thorpe
SO MANY contracts have been signed and so many celebrity parties photographed since the first edition of Hello! went on sale in Britain 25 years ago, it is hard to pick out the most celebrated. Would it perhaps be the wedding of Paul and Sheryl Gascoigne in 1996, or perhaps one of Elton John’s regular white tie and tiara affairs? Only a few of the big ones, such as Madonna’s marriage to Guy Ritchie at Skibo castle in 2000, have eluded its pages.
Although Hello! is a key player in what is often dubbed ‘celebrity culture’, the magazine has always set itself apart from other, less established titles in the marketplace. From the beginning its tone has been supportive, not to say sugary, when it chronicles the births, marriages, divorces and health scares of some of the most famous people in the western world.
Joint editor Rosie Nixon does accept, though, that the magazine’s success changed the agenda for the British media. Hello! was groundbreaking in 1988, when it created the brand new celebrity sector of weekly publishing – and today our steady, continued popularity is testament to our position in the fabric of Britain’s popular culture,” she said.
Its mothership is the Spanish magazine ¡Hola!, launched in 1944 by husband and wife team Antonio Sánchez Gómez and Mercedes Junco Calderón, which now has magazine franchises in an extraordinary 24 other countries. Nixon, who came to Hello! via the magazines Grazia and Glamour, says that she and Sullivan speak to the current owner and publisher, Eduardo Sánchez Perez, every day.
And the formula still seems to be working. As Nixon points out, in increasingly tough times for women’s magazines, as evidenced by the recent closure of More! and the announcement that Easy Living is shutting its print edition, Hello! has managed to ride out pressure to cut its cover price. “We have remained steady and consistent at £2 in the UK, giving the best retail sales value per copy sold of any other weekly in our sector,” said Nixon. The magazine’s UK circulation at the moment is 305,567.
In a recent episode of the BBC Two television sketch show Watson and Oliver, the two comedians had fun with the idea that news values have been so debased by our obsession with celebrities that important international stories and investigations no longer have any currency. In their parody of the sort of 1940s newspaper newsroom seen in the film His Girl Friday, an ambitious reporter pushes all rival news off the front page with the ‘scoop’ that a famous actress has been photographed with cellulite on her thighs.
Hello!, according to Sullivan, shares this distaste for stories that reveal details about the private lives or bodies of the famous, regardless of the fact they sell millions of copies.
“It is simply disrespectful and we would not dream of doing it,” she said. “It is very much the ethos of the magazine to collaborate with the people we write about.” Nixon agrees: “We are not a publication which has a salacious agenda — on occasions we have been criticised for our positive portrayal of celebrities, but we are proud and protective of this philosophy.”
It is a certainly a philosophy in which the tenet ‘do not bite the hand that feeds you’ is key. And the gentle approach to news can be seen on the magazine’s website, which is updated throughout the day. Under the heading “Hot topics”, the menu includes Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry, Kim Kardashian, Kate Middleton, William and Kate and David Beckham.
“The Hello! formula has not changed at all, that is the thing. It is a mix of showbusiness and royalty,” said Nixon. “When it launched in 1988 we had a big exclusive with Princess Anne at Buckingham Palace. We have always said every picture tells a story and promised we would always give enough space to tell the whole thing. You don’t find speculation here because we believe in letting people speak for themselves. As a result, over time, we have become the magazine of record.”
If Hello!’s strategy has not changed, the world around it has. The demand for news about the lives of the famous has grown since Liz Hurley, initially known for wearing a skimpy dress, first drew a distinction between her celebrity friends and the “civilians” out there in the surrounding world.
The press intrusion paraded at the Leveson inquiry on the News International phone hacking scandal has made it obvious that many famous people now regard their life as a conflict zone, a perilous place where the nature of their “collaboration” with the media is in doubt. So Sienna Miller talked of being chased down the road by a phalanx of burly paparazzi, while F1 boss Max Mosley was forced to explain the nature of his sexual proclivities to the public.
Hello!, in contrast, is still proving that you can make money by giving out only sanctioned information; but it does have to have exclusivity. In 2006 the magazine launched legal action against an American magazine website that had leaked two shots of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s newborn daughter, Shiloh Nouvel. Three years before, Hello! had been at the other end of a media tussle over photographs of the wedding of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. Their competitor, OK! magazine, had an exclusive contract with the couple, who successfully sued, as did OK! The writer Cosmo Landesman, author of the book Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me, believes the advent of Twitter has created new competition for Hello! Celebrities are now expected to account for themselves directly to fans, giving their own side of the story. “Fans used to be crazy people you avoided. Now they are handed personal revelations on Twitter. Fans rightly feel that if they tweet the stars, they might be answered,” said Landesman. Far from kept at bay, fanbases are fed and watered as a matter of professional duty.
“In the 1990s the question was posed, ‘Is the obsession with celebrity debasing our culture?’ Well, the battle is over. We all like it,” Landesman added, pointing out that reality television shows had done at least as much to feed public interest in celebrity, although they had also caused some established stars to wish to dissociate themselves from the concept of fame.
“Now that it appears to be something anyone can have, fame has been made common and vulgar, so that high-powered celebrities don’t like it any more,” he said. “It is a bit like the way the aristocracy used to feel about new money. They can’t appear too snooty though.”
An example of this contradiction appeared on Hello!’s website recently. Gwyneth Paltrow’s criticisms of the annual Met ball given by Vogue in New York were clearly designed to mark her out from the vulgar throng. It was, she said, too hot and too crowded. However, the film star also took the opportunity to indicate that she and her husband, Chris Martin of Coldplay, were just like anyone else when it comes to star-spotting. The couple did not leave without picking up a photo of themselves with the internet sensation Psy that they could send on to their children, who are reportedly big fans.
The clinical psychologist Oliver James acknowledges that celebrities provide a soap opera cast for the nation, but fears their existence is pernicious for the rest of us. “When I used to watch Pathé newsreels as a child, the celebrities were either royalty or film stars and very clearly living in a different world. Since reality television, there is a feeling that ‘It could be you’, which is a catastrophic misrepesentation.” James, the author of Affluenza, believes children are being encouraged to think they can only find their individual worth through public recognition.
“The evidence is there that children were hopelessly unrealistic in their ideas about how this could happen,” he said. “They all want to be Premiership footballers and models, whereas only a tiny minority are ever going to do this. And there is no sense of how this high level of achievement might be related to conscientiousness.”
For Landesman, the frequent complaint that fame is no longer related to talent is entirely irrelevant, and always has been. “People have been famous for just being famous since the 18th century. It is a question of providing a narrative for the public to follow.”
Ruth at Hello! has a similar view. She sees her magazine as satisfying a natural appetite. “It is a really human impulse to be interested in other people and in their lives,” she said.
Oscar Wilde put it more bleakly, as he usually did. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lord Darlington says: “My own business always bores me to death. I prefer other people’s.”
© The Observer 25 YEARS OF WEDDING SCOOPS
KARDASHIAN & HUMPHRIES
US reality television star Kim Kardashian’s marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries (below right) appeared on the title’s front page in August 2011. She filed for divorce after 72 days.
TIMBERLAKE & BIEL
Hollywood stars Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel (right) shared their wedding photos for a reported £200,000, which would have gone a little way to helping out with the estimated £4m cost of their Italian nuptials.
HUMES & WISEMAN
Former JLS star Marvin Humes and the Saturdays’ Rochelle Wiseman cashed in on their big day after their 2012 nuptials. They tied the knot in a lavish ceremony at Blenheim Palace, with guests including the couple’s bandmates and One Direction’s Harry Styles.
HURLEY & NAYAR
Liz Hurley, the actress, and Arun Nayar, the Indian textile heir, appeared on the cover twice in 2007 and were married for four years before divorcing. Their nuptials cost a reported £2m, said to have been partly funded by the magazine.
WILLIAMS & FIELD
Robbie Williams and bride Adya Field shared their wedding photos in 2010 for a reported sum of £1m. Speaking in the magazine, the Take That star said: “I’m the happiest man alive.”
GASCOIGNE & FAILES
Paul Gascoigne married Sheryl Failes in 1996 and the couple were paid £150,000 for the photos. Chris Evans called for three cheers for the bride and groom, who hit the dancefloor as soon as they finished posing for the magazine. They divorced two years later.
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