Rachel Johnson- this Lady is not for turning
Boris Johnson’s tough talking sister gives a true account of her new role, her book and why she took them on
�There are two Rachel Johnsons. The charming, witty one who furiously networks with People Who Matter. And the self-important one who considers you beneath her attention.
She’ll call me chippy, but it seems the Ham&High warrants only the second version.
Despite arranging in advance to interview the editor of The Lady ahead of her appearance at the Ham&High sponsored Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival, she was too busy to come to the phone at the appointed time, or when I phoned back at a re-arranged slot.
Reader, if she’d had the grace to fulfil her agreed commitment, I’d have happily filed reams of no-doubt insightful, humorous quotes.
As it was, when I was finally granted a moment on the phone, she was curt, defensive and abruptly sawed me off at the knees after nine minutes with a hollow promise to call back.
A shame, because I was well-disposed towards Johnson after thoroughly enjoying her acutely-observed book about taking over the 128-year-old women’s weekly.
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A Diary of The Lady – My First Year As Editor (Penguin �8.99) and a previous Channel 4 documentary both revel in the collision between the brutally frank, irreverent Johnson, and the kind of dowdy, genteel magazine that advertises butlers and nannies for the aristocracy.
Much of the joy of her warts and all portrait is that it spares neither herself nor her colleagues in The Lady’s doyley-strewn offices in Covent Garden.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson, who has previously admitted to ‘flaming a friend and burning bridges’ – not to say revealing her 15-year-old daughter’s Brazilian bikini wax – in the cause of good copy, saw little value in discretion.
“There are two sorts of diary. One like Sarah Brown’s where everyone’s lovely and sweet, and the real diaries where you tell it how it is. I didn’t see the point in writing a diary that didn’t tell the truth as amusingly as possible. If it didn’t make me laugh then it wouldn’t make the reader laugh.”
Although any magazine with a dying readership, running tedious articles on the magical properties of vinegar, had to be overhauled, Johnson, a columnist with no previous experience of magazine editing, wasn’t the obvious choice for the job.
But her reputation as a brilliantly connected, ruthless self-publicist helped seal the deal with proprietor Ben Budworth over the numerous other applicants who were better writers with more experience.
“Ben was looking for someone he could rub along with, with an eye for publicity and an appetite for the challenge,” says Johnson, who like her brother Boris, comes across as tough-hided and nigh on impervious to criticism.
It’s a character trait that doesn’t emerge well from either book or documentary, as we witness Johnson’s battles with The Lady’s owners the Budworths, and bitchy cruelty towards longstanding staff.
So when she crows that there’s been “hardly any comeback” from magazine employees about being skewered in print, you wonder whether it’s because half the ‘characters’ got the heave-ho, and the remainder daren’t venture an opinion.
“They had to see the bigger picture, which is that desperate measures are called for in the world of magazine publishing at the moment,” declares Johnson.
“If Penguin are prepared to bring out a 460 page paperback promoting a magazine then it’s worth the candle.”
Since taking over The Lady nearly two years ago, Johnson has surely grasped that candle with both hands, becoming ubiquitous in diary and gossip columns, ever eager to supply an outrageous quote, or attend the opening of a crisp packet – wherever there’s a photo op and a Burberry goodie bag.
The Lady’s matriarch Julia Budworth has accused her of raising her own profile at the expense of the magazine, but Johnson now faces the tougher, more serious business of attracting new readers.
“Half the battle is raising the profile, the rest of the battle is coming up with an offering that people won’t live without.
“Raising the profile was surprisingly easy. There was a fantastic story, a jolly Wodehousian jape of my coming to The Lady, but now there are 40 people’s livelihood at stake and a family business that’s been part of our publishing heritage, and I feel responsible.”
Johnson has re-launched the website and promoted stories about notable women of achievement. She has plans for an iPhone app and an online forum for silver surfer bloggers.
“There is no magic bullet or little blue pill to aid circulation when it comes to magazines,” says Johnson, who admits to “a turnover” of readers, losing 10 of the old guard for every 10 younger ones she’s attracted, lowering the average reader age from 78 to 52.
“I always saw the job as a challenge, it’s wonderful because the only way is up. It was looking dowdy and with a light respray a lot could be done but it’s impossible to under-estimate how difficult it is to get people to change their reading habits and shell out �2 for a magazine.
“Unless you have something other people haven’t got, a gold-plated USP like Vogue or The Economist then general interest magazines are on the whole struggling. How can you sell a magazine that gives you the history of the cherry tomato or the magical properties of vinegar?”
Johnson has perhaps inevitably had human resources difficulties. She recently admitted to an unfair dismissal tribunal after a member of staff was sacked for gross misconduct, but today she’s cagey about discussing her management methods.
“I didn’t find managing people difficult, maybe I should have,” she says.
“I am probably a very bad manager. I try to deal with problems as they come up and to be human. I can put myself in their shoes, I have been a trainee, a person sending in copy and I have been on the other side of that.”
Now the novelty of her appointment has worn, off, Johnson is undoubtedly under pressure to deliver. And while running a magazine for old ladies is a far cry from running London, you suspect that no Johnson –with their hugely privileged background, connections, and iron-clad confidence – likes to fail.
“You have to stay true to your core readers, you can’t take on Heat, Grazia and Hello.
“I feel in my waters that there is space for a title that celebrates women and their achievements and doesn’t judge them, that isn’t obsessed by celebrity, gossip and sex,” says Johnson.
“You have to be commercial and human at the same time, which is difficult in English journalism.”
So has she ever regretted taking on the job?
“Never, I have the best job in the world and the best boss.”
Which Rachel Johnson will turn up to be interviewed by Ham&High editor Geoff Martin on September 11 is anyone’s guess.
Why not buy a ticket and find out?
n Bookings on www.hamhighlitfest.com.