The godfather of glossies
Celia Walden meets publisher extraordinaire Nicholas Coleridge
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