The god­fa­ther of glossies

Celia Walden meets pub­lisher ex­traor­di­naire Ni­cholas Co­leridge

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Of all the ‘se­lected’ mem­o­ries Ni­cholas Co­leridge has de­cided to share in his forth­com­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, The Glossy

Years, the only one still able to re­duce the for­mer Condé Nast pres­i­dent to the stam­mer­ing Eton school­boy he once was con­cerns the Princess of Wales’s breasts.

‘Ni­cholas, can I ask you some­thing?’ Princess Diana once mur­mured to Co­leridge at a Vogue House lun­cheon held for for­mer US

Van­ity Fair ed­i­tor Gray­don Carter. ‘Please be truth­ful. Did you see the pho­to­graph of me in the Daily Mir­ror? The top­less one?’

‘Um, Your Royal High­ness, yes, we get all the news­pa­pers in my of­fice. I think I did glance at it,’ Co­leridge man­aged, ‘not that it was very clear.’

‘Wil­liam rang me from Eton,’ she went on. ‘Poor boy, he’s only 14. He was up­set. He said some of the other boys were teas­ing him, say­ing my tits are too small.’ At this point she gripped Co­leridge’s el­bow. ‘Ni­cholas, please be frank, I want to know your real view. Are my breasts too small, do you think?’

How the now 62-year-old for­mer head of ti­tles such as Vogue, Glam­our, Tatler, GQ and

Brides was able to for­mu­late a co­her­ent re­ply, he doesn’t know even now, two and a half decades on. But even­tu­ally Co­leridge heard him­self blurt out: ‘Er, Your Royal High­ness, in as much as I can see un­der your suit, they seem, um, per­fect to me.’

You’d think some­one who spent 45 years work­ing in the pre­dom­i­nantly fe­male mag­a­zine world would be bet­ter equipped than most to deal with such a query. Af­ter all, this is the man ed­i­tors would con­sult about their cov­ers, fash­ion fea­tures and in­ter­views. A man who, de­spite him­self, will have ab­sorbed decades of fem­i­nine men­tal clut­ter on ev­ery­thing from cel­lulite bust­ing and des­ti­na­tion-wed­ding gowns to fe­male fore­play tips. This is a man who two years af­ter step­ping down from his Condé Nast role – and now chair­man of the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum – is still able to ace our Glossy Quiz (see page 32). But the Princess of Wales was a spe­cial case, he sup­poses, ‘be­cause I just found her com­pletely be­witch­ing’.

In the book and in the flesh, Lon­don-born Co­leridge is re­as­sur­ingly male. Which might have come as a sur­prise to me if I hadn’t in­ter­viewed him be­fore (and writ­ten for him at Glam­our and GQ for over a decade). So I’m ex­pect­ing our meet­ing to take place in a very male mem­bers’ club, such as Ge­orge in Maybe fair. I’m ex­pect­ing him to tanned, white­teethed and sparkly-eyed be­neath those slightly de­monic brows, wear­ing a vari­ant on the Sav­ile Row uni­form he wore to Vogue House ev­ery day for 28 years – with, most likely, a set of chunky gold cuff­links. I’m ex­pect­ing him to rise to greet me like the old-school gent that he is, wait un­til I’m seated to seat him­self, and prob­a­bly in­vite me to en­joy a flute of cham­pagne with him – a plea­sure the es­ti­mated ‘15,000 par­ties’ Co­leridge has at­tended over ‘the glossy years’ mirac­u­lously haven’t killed for him.

It’s how few of life’s plea­sures haven’t been damp­ened for the Mr Big of mag­a­zines that hits you as you ca­reer through the 368page mem­oir his one-time boss Tina Brown rightly de­scribes as ‘a rol­lick­ing read’. From his early days as the small­est cog in the glossy ma­chine (Co­leridge be­gan as an in­tern at

Harpers & Queen, be­fore work­ing his way up to ed­i­tor) to his decades at the top through­out the in­dus­try’s zenith in the 1980s and ’90s (he joined Condé Nast as edi­to­rial direc­tor in 1989, ‘when you could walk down a train car­riage and ev­ery woman there was ei­ther read­ing Cos­mopoli­tan or Marie

Claire), and the 21st-cen­tury chal­lenge of di­vert­ing to dig­i­tal, Co­leridge’s amused fas­ci­na­tion with mag­a­zines has never waned.

Amused, be­cause ‘the truth is that the world I’ve been work­ing in for the past 40 years isn’t ac­tu­ally a very se­ri­ous world’, he as­sures me – his voice car­ry­ing the length of Mount Street. ‘I mean it’s se­ri­ous in that mag­a­zines make an aw­ful lot of money. But it’s not se­ri­ous like sci­ence or fi­nance, where you’re look­ing af­ter some­body’s bil­lions. Yes, mag­a­zines carry a cer­tain clout and wield power in their own de­fined world, but to be pompous about them would be risible.’

In­stead of puff­ing out his chest, Co­leridge in­vites the reader to laugh along with him at his Devil Wears Prada-style aperçus into a world he has de­scribed as one-third edi­to­rial, one-third busi­ness and one-third ‘ego con­trol – and I don’t mean mine, ob­vi­ously’. And it’s his at­tempt to har­ness those buck­ing-bronco egos – be­long­ing to ev­ery­one from ed­i­tors, cover girls and busi­ness­men to celebrity-event hosts – that pro­vides the most en­ter­tain­ment.

He doc­u­ments the sack­ing of one em­ployee, who hav­ing stared at him ‘with wild eyes, like Bambi’s mother in the Dis­ney film dur­ing the for­est fire scene’, while he broke the news, then pro­ceeded to throw open Co­leridge’s fourth-floor of­fice win­dow and at­tempt to climb out on to the ledge. He de­scribes how tricky it was when Condé Nast’s ed­i­tors ‘were stalk­ing the same cover celebri­ties si­mul­ta­ne­ously’ – and he was of­ten the only one to know. ‘We’ve got Keira Knight­ley lined up for Au­gust, Nick,’ Vogue’s for­mer ed­i­tor Alexan­dra Shul­man would tell him. ‘And I’d know Ge­ordie Greig had her on his July cover of Tatler, and Jo Elvin had her for Au­gust Glam­our as well. Mean­while, at

GQ, Dy­lan Jones was try­ing for a semi-naked Keira sprawled across a fur rug.’

At least a mul­ti­ple pile-up of Keiras would sell. ‘Yes, she sold very well,’ he nods, ‘along with Kate Moss, for years. And the Princess of Wales was also a big seller un­til she died. In fact, if a mag­a­zine had three dif­fi­cult is­sues in a row, they al­ways knew they could make up for it with a Princess of Wales cover.’ Wouldn’t that be the case with all

‘The cov­ers that ac­tu­ally sold showed gor­geous, young su­per­stars’

roy­alty? ‘No,’ although the Duchesses of Cam­bridge and Sus­sex can cer­tainly shift copies, he adds. ‘The Duchess of Cam­bridge’s cen­te­nary Vogue cover sold like blazes – even if, per­son­ally, I thought she looked rather like Boy Ge­orge in that funny hat she was wear­ing.’ Other non-royal cover stars, mean­while, could sell one year but not the next, or on one ti­tle, but not another. ‘Vic­to­ria Beck­ham sold like crazy on Glam­our at one point but when we tried her on

Tatler much less so.’ Be­cause Glam­our read­ers felt they could work their way up to her? ‘I ex­pect so,’ he shrugs. ‘Whereas I think

Tatler read­ers would sniff out that she wasn’t quite the real thing.’

The lessons on what didn’t sell were painfully learnt. ‘Male celebri­ties, on a women’s mag­a­zine, never sell,’ Co­leridge stip­u­lates in

The Glossy Years. And nei­ther did the older or plus-size cover stars that fo­cus groups in­sisted they wanted, he tells me. ‘Tatler once put Norma Ma­jor on the cover af­ter some fo­cus groups had all come in say­ing, “I wish we could have some­one our age on the cover.” It sold 30 per cent less than usual. And when peo­ple say that they want to see older or plus-size mod­els, they mean it. But when they get to the tills and the point where they have to hand over £4, they sud­denly de­cide they don’t. That’s when they swap it for some­thing more glam­orous.’ In short, ‘the cov­ers that ac­tu­ally sold showed skinny, gor­geous, young su­per­stars’.

When two of Co­leridge’s skinny, gor­geous young god­chil­dren ended up grac­ing mul­ti­ple Condé Nast cov­ers, he swears he had noth­ing to do with it. An oath you’re more in­clined to be­lieve once you find out they are Cara Delev­ingne and Edie Camp­bell. ‘And it was amaz­ing when they sud­denly emerged as su­per­mod­els,’ he chuck­les. ‘I was a use­less god­fa­ther in terms of help­ing them out in that re­spect.’ Per­haps in an at­tempt to make up for this, Co­leridge sent them £100 each for Christ­mas a few years ago. ‘And when I told Cara’s agent what I’d done at a party a few months later, she roared with laugh­ter.’ Hav­ing just done the ac­counts of the model – who, at 24, was al­ready the top-earn­ing Bri­tish model, mak­ing tens of thou­sands of pounds a day – she ad­vised Co­leridge ‘not to bother with the yearly cheque from now on’. ‘So af­ter that I called it a day,’ he sighs.

Co­leridge’s prose is at its punchi­est when, in a kind of breezy so­cial short­hand, he keeps his sum­ma­tions of glob­ally fa­mous fig­ures to a sin­gle line, or even in paren­the­ses. ‘Heidi Klum (un­ex­pect­edly amus­ing)’, ‘Elle Macpher­son (a bit flaky)’, ‘Kim Kar­dashian (talked about how much in love she was with her fi­ancé; the mar­riage lasted two months)’, ‘Ch­eryl (tiny, not much small talk)’, ‘Pippa Mid­dle­ton ( gor­geous)’, and ‘Jeremy Cor­byn (we dis­cussed Pink Floyd and the Cor­byns’ re­cent sum­mer hol­i­day to a Pre­mier Inn ho­tel in Dundee)’. Only the likes of Diana, Sa­man­tha Cameron and the Prince of Wales are de­scribed at greater length. ‘I did slightly have a crush on her,’ he says of the for­mer prime min­is­ter’s wife. Hav­ing been seated be­side Sam Cam at an in­dus­try event, he called his wife of 30 years, Ge­or­gia Met­calfe – the mother of their four chil­dren, Alexan­der, Fred­die, So­phie and Tommy – to tell her: ‘I’ve just been talk­ing to Sa­man­tha Cameron and I re­ally think she’s mar­vel­lous.’ To which the healer and au­thor replied, ‘I haven’t heard you this ex­cited since you sat next to the Princess of Wales. What is it about you and the wives of pow­er­ful men?’

As for the Prince of Wales, whom he had to es­cort down a line of de­sign­ers at the Bri­tish Fash­ion Awards in 2001, Co­leridge wit­tily de­tails his man­ner like the suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist he is, iden­ti­fy­ing his ‘neat way of dis­en­gag­ing from a con­ver­sa­tion group when it is time to move on. He makes a fi­nal point, laughs, shrugs, looks re­gret­ful, al­lows him­self to be moved on, but then as he walks off, turns again, some­times point­ing in a joc­u­lar man­ner, as if to say, “You!”’ And although in­tro­duc­ing him to de­signer Lee Alexan­der Mcqueen pre­cip­i­tated a few pal­pi­ta­tions – ‘Mcqueen had form for anti-royal out­bursts (hav­ing fa­mously sewn the words ‘I am a c–t’ into HRH’S suit lin­ing while work­ing at a Sav­ile Row tai­lor)’ – the mo­ment bless­edly passed without in­ci­dent.

Dis­graced Top­shop ty­coon Sir Philip Green gets more than a sin­gle men­tion. ‘Well, I saw a lot of him in ac­tion,’ gri­maces Co­leridge, as he re­mem­bers how the re­newal of the re­tail mogul’s an­nual ad­ver­tis­ing con­tract with Condé Nast would al­ways ‘run into a quag­mire’. ‘With Philip Green it’s al­ways about Philip Green, so although we both knew that he was go­ing to go ahead and book his ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign for Top­shop in Vogue, for ex­am­ple, we had to go through this great den­i­gra­tion of the mag­a­zine ev­ery time. “I don’t know why I’m even both­er­ing,” he would ex­plode. “I mean, no one f—king reads Vogue, do they? Only

c—ts re­ally. They’re the only peo­ple who f— king read it. You can’t demon­strate to me that I’ve sold a sin­gle shirt or skirt be­cause of f—king Vogue.”’

Pic­tur­ing Co­leridge, with his jovial Ber­tie Wooster in­flec­tions, smil­ing his way through these tirades (‘You just had to let the thun­der roll past, and then Green would say, “Oh, go on, if you give me five quid off I’ll take it”’) is al­most as amus­ing as his deal­ings with another dis­graced ti­tan, Har­vey We­in­stein, who is only men­tioned in pass­ing in the book ‘ogling [su­per­model] Karolína Kurková’ at the fundrais­ing gala Fash­ion Rocks, but whom Co­leridge tells me was ‘a most un­sat­is­fac­tory co-host’ at the pre-bafta party he, Shul­man and We­in­stein would throw an­nu­ally. ‘He would ar­rive with a beau­ti­ful star­let on each arm and be pho­tographed in­ces­santly by the 50 or so pa­parazzi buzzing around’ be­fore ‘get­ting up and go­ing af­ter the starter, leav­ing a gap in the mid­dle of the ta­ble – so I never got the sense that we were proper co-hosts at all.’

What au­to­bi­og­ra­phers choose to leave out is of­ten more in­ter­est­ing than what they’ve kept in. But the leav­ing out of both We­in­stein’s use­less host­ing skills and Russell Brand’s ac­cep­tance speech at the GQ Men of the Year awards in 2013, when he em­barked on a tirade against the event’s spon­sor, Hugo Boss, and its his­tor­i­cal links to the Nazis back in the 1930s, which left Co­leridge ‘frozen as the hideous drama un­folded be­fore our very eyes’, only tells me what I al­ready knew: that Co­leridge is not a bitchy man and

The Glossy Years was never go­ing to be a ‘tel­lall’. Apart from any­thing else, as chair­man of both the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert and the Bri­tish Fash­ion Coun­cil still, the cast of char­ac­ters in his life now aren’t so very dif­fer­ent.

As for what Co­leridge de­cided to keep in (as his four chil­dren proof­read the book over the sum­mer at their Worces­ter­shire pile, he con­fesses to the odd ‘Re­ally, Dad?’ be­ing heck­led out across the pool), the most sur­pris­ing is a throw­away line he de­cided to in­clude in the first few pages.

Af­ter a de­scrip­tion of the ‘near-per­fect’ child­hood the son of the one-time chair­man of Lloyd’s of Lon­don – him­self a de­scen­dant of poet Samuel Tay­lor Co­leridge – and his two younger brothers en­joyed in Chelsea Park Gar­dens, ‘with young and in­volved par­ents, and struc­tured, repet­i­tive days’, Co­leridge moves on to his school­days at Ash­down House and Eton, which Co­leridge ‘scraped into by the skin of my teeth’ with the same what-ho cheer. It all runs along so nicely that the reader al­most misses a sen­tence about one of Co­leridge’s teach­ers at Ash­down ‘who drove me to his home in For­est Row to col­lect a to­bog­gan from an at­tic and, while hold­ing me up to re­trieve it from the over­head trap­door, non­cha­lantly slipped his fin­gers in­side my gym shorts and ex­plored away’. Co­leridge shifts ever so slightly in his chair when I read the sen­tence back to him: ‘I know, but this isn’t a mis­ery mem­oir.’ I see that. But…? ‘Well, it’s a funny thing when you write a mem­oir, be­cause it causes you to think about times in your life, and…’ But that was clearcut sex­ual as­sault. What if he is still alive? ‘I can’t imag­ine he is. And I just thought I’d put in what was true. I cer­tainly don’t have all sorts of pho­bias tied up with that mo­ment.’

If there is a dark or trou­bled layer to Co­leridge, it’s in­vis­i­ble to the naked eye. Only once in our chat, when he tells me that one of the rea­sons be­hind the writ­ing of the book was the ‘early Alzheimer’s so many peo­ple are suf­fer­ing from, which makes one think how nice it is to have it all down on paper’, do we catch a glimpse of any­thing less than an ex­tremely op­ti­mistic out­look.

This out­look ex­tends to the fu­ture of mag­a­zines. ‘Ed­ward En­nin­ful [Vogue’s ed­i­tor-inchief ] was a very good choice be­cause he has a strong point of view. And whether it’s

Vogue or other top ti­tles, sales have so far held up sur­pris­ingly strongly.’ Be­cause

Vogue on your cof­fee ta­ble isn’t just an ob­ject of beauty but a sta­tus sym­bol?

‘Ex­actly: mag­a­zines are a badge’ – and Co­leridge ad­mits to be­ing as mes­merised by them now as he was when he first came across his mother’s Harpers & Queen at 15. ‘It’s rare to be able to date the pre­cise mo­ment that you be­come in­ter­ested in some­thing, but I re­mem­ber how lux­u­ri­ous it felt to turn the pages, and that scent strip smell. They oozed…’ He smiles. ‘Mag­a­zines have al­ways been some­thing that sit on a very in­ter­est­ing cusp be­tween real life and fan­tasy to me. Like a bowl of cher­ries, an ob­ject of beauty that makes peo­ple dream.’

‘Mag­a­zines sit on a very in­ter­est­ing cusp be­tween real life and fan­tasy to me’

The Glossy Years, by Ni­cholas Co­leridge (Pen­guin, £25) , is out now

Leav­ing the Vogue of­fices in 1991 with Diana, Princess of Wales

With god­daugh­ter Cara Delev­ingne at the Bri­tish Fash­ion Awards in 2012

Along­side US Vogue ed­i­tor-in-chief Anna Win­tour in 2013

Meet­ing David Bowie in 2003, with then Vogue ed­i­tor Alexan­dra Shul­man and cre­ative direc­tor Robin Der­rick

Top-sell­ing faces: June 1990 and De­cem­ber 1991

… the Prince of Wales in 2012

At work at Condé Nast back in 2000

With the Duchess of Cam­bridge in 2017

… and Dame Joan Collins

… Sa­man­tha Cameron in 2009

With his wife (sec­ond right) and chil­dren at a fam­ily party last year

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