MARK FRITH: Beyond the celebrity world

Mark Frith, former editor of celebrity magazine Heat, has asked me to meet him at a fashionable Italian restaurant in Primrose Hill – the kind of eatery where celebrities are safely tucked up among their own inside while the paparazzi fall off their ladde

Mark Frith, former editor of celebrity magazine Heat, has asked me to meet him at a fashionable Italian restaurant in Primrose Hill - the kind of eatery where celebrities are safely tucked up among their own inside while the paparazzi fall off their ladders outside.

During Frith's 10-year reign at the helm, Heat attracted a fair degree of hostility if not neurosis among the good show business folk of the village he calls "celebrity central".

After resigning last May, he wrote The Celeb Diaries, chronicling his 10 years at Heat, which stars many of the Primrose Hill brigade ably supported by their counterparts in Hampstead and Highgate.

Actors, comedians, singers, chat show hosts and would-be television reality stars - all feature prominently.

He admits he was "inspired" by Piers Morgan's book The Insider in that he wanted to "document the front row seat" that he had during his time running a magazine in a similar way to that Morgan used with a national newspaper (The Mirror). It's apparent that Frith feels the world of celebrity has changed markedly from when he edited his two previous publications, Smash Hits and Sky Magazine - and not for the better.

He feels the cult of celebrity has become "terribly dark" and he'd had enough of seeing pictures of tormented famous celebrities who were becoming increasingly distraught.

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A decade at Heat led to the grim realisation that it had all gone too far, which prompted his resignation.

"When I was at Smash Hits, my aim was to make a magazine that was fun and light hearted. It's important for people to feel entertained by magazines and that it's part of their life," says the 39-year-old, who lives in Primrose Hill and is now editorial consultant for London listings bible Time Out.

"Latterly at Heat, my mind became jarred, initially with the problems concerning Kate Moss and Pete Doherty followed by Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse.

These stories were grim at times. One of the other problems I had as an editor making these choices on a day to day basis was that it is difficult for people to identify with someone like Amy Winehouse because we cannot begin to imagine the stuff that's going on in her head."

Conversely, he emphasises that some stars who come up through the reality television route are "literally just like you and me".

He adds: "They are so hyper normal: they go through normal things like relationships, career dilemmas and health issues so people can instantly relate to them, but it's more difficult to relate to someone who is going through a uniquely tough time like Amy Winehouse.

"My other issue is that the paparazzi aren't helping and they need to be reigned in. I have issues with how some of the paparazzi behave - I see it in Primrose Hill and it's a pretty frightening thing."

It might sound like a sudden act of contrition but, to be fair, it's his morality that emerges strongly throughout his conversation. Some may say it's at odds with the image they might have of a celebrity magazine or Red Top tabloid newspaper.

"I always had scruples and morals," he insists. "I was sometimes in denial about how some of the paparazzi pictures were taken and I was probably a bit naive about that, but I've always been moral about the things I've done. I had so many decisions to make every week at Heat and I don't think I always got them right. I feel though, that I was moral about what I did and there was a certain way to do things.

But I don't feel that this celebrity culture is to blame for Amy Winehouse's situation. I think she may well be troubled if she worked behind the counter at Boots."

That said, it's important to note that Frith has become the man with the midas touch when it comes to celebrity magazines: in a segment of the market that has become increasingly competitive, Frith turned around the fortunes of Heat and increased its weekly circulation. So what's the secret?

"You have to know what readers want week after week and that became my mantra," insists Frith who in 2005 was recipient of the acclaimed Mark Boxer Award from his peers at the British Society of Magazine Editors.

"It's what the reader's want to read that really matters. I wanted to do a magazine that readers would find interesting and I do it for the way they are rather than what they aspire to be. I looked at how they talk, how they see the world and, in my case, how they see celebrities. And how they really are is that they have strong opinions about celebrities.

When a celebrity comes on television, a 25-year-old will say I really like her or I don't. That's how people are because of the advent of reality television and the growth of it: people are a lot more involved and opinionated."

Frith would like to think he and his Heat team may have shaped the way people saw the celebrity world or talked about it.

Magazines have always been crucial to Frith's life. As a young lad growing up in Sheffield, he would devour comics, magazines and even his grandmother's Woman's Own. As he turned each page, he'd let out a groan with the sad reality that he was getting one page nearer the end.

In relating this story, he pauses to think about his three-year-old son lying on the floor, looking at his comic at the local newsagents in Primrose Hill.

"That really reminded me of when I read magazines as a child and how important they were to me. I was very shy as a teenager and magazines were my whole world, they were everything to me."

After working on his university newspaper, he got the job of editing Smash Hits aged 23. A regular panellist and contributor to radio and television shows including Liquid News and The Apprentice: You're Fired, Frith's media profile has increased but unlike some, he's not prone to revelling in his new found fame. The question is, after spending half his life eating, sleeping and even living among celebrities, can he exist without it or does he still need his daily fix?

Frith concedes: "I was never able to switch off, I found it difficult and now, I don't want to be plugged in all the time. I don't miss that world except for the team I worked with."

He wants to spend more time with his partner and young son. He hopes to write a second book on, what else, celebrity and is in talks with a production company to turn The Celeb Diaries into a television comedy drama.

He certainly won't miss the legal letters, which would often keep him in a hot sweat until the early hours.

"We never ended up in court," says Frith with a relieved expression on his face. "But it's a hollow feeling. I remember those days of getting back to the office and there's the letter face down on the keyboard - you never get used to that."

And celebrities or no celebrities, he's staying put in Primrose Hill. He says: "I think having a journalist living among them must have made them feel that they were being watched - they weren't. I was just intrigued to live amongst them partly because of their reaction but I wasn't looking through too many letter boxes - even though they might think I was."

o The Celeb Diaries by Mark Frith is published by Ebury Press at �7.99 in paperback.