Meeting the People Behind the Grim Headlines of Women's Weekly Magazines
"I Breastfeed My Dad", "Lover Paid Thugs £50 to Burn Me Alive", "SOS! Psycho in Our Flowerbed!"
For most of the world, magazines reflect what people want: airport newsstands are all about how to spend vast amounts of money on a yacht or a big watch; city corner magazine stalls are high fashion and trendy lifestyles; any shop near a big Whole Foods is all about where to get the best £600 colonic and how to activate your almonds. Magazines, as a general rule, are aspirational.
Unless you're one of the UKs raft of 70p-or-thereabouts women's weeklies – you know, your Take a Breaks, your Pick Me Up!s. Because who aspires to live "My 52-Hour Rape Hell"? Who wants to wake up to "I Found Mum Murdered Under My Xmas Tree"? Who is buying this undulating wave of misery porn? As a rule: mums and nans. And as a result of their thirst for despair, the UK's weekly cover headlines have turned into a luminous collage of unimaginable horror:
Trophy Killer Wanted My Dead Brother's Fingers
My Stalker Burned My Son Alive And Took My Eyeballs Out
Headbutted By Pregnant Sis-in-Law
I Breastfeed My Dad
Lover Paid Thugs £50 to Burn Me Alive
SOS! Psycho in Our Flowerbed
These are standard cover lines that you can find at eye level in any supermarket in the UK, in magazines like That's Life, Pick Me Up, Real People and Love It! And they make up a huge business. At its height, the biggest consumer women's weekly, Take a Break, sold nearly a million copies a week. That's almost three times the weekly sales peak of 50 Shades of Grey, the best-selling book of all time.
To find out what it's like to produce these stories – and, more to the point, how the hell you find someone who breastfeeds their father – I spoke to two people who have worked at a selection of women's weeklies. Both of them appear here under assumed names.
"Certain magazines," says Ash, "have a weird way of working. Every week they have a headline meeting, and they [the editors] basically make up a headline. It could be something grotesque like 'Raped By My Sick Paedo Granddad', 'Eaten by Wolves', anything, and you have to find a story that fits that headline. At one magazine in particular – I'd rather not say which, but it's one of the best-selling ones – the editor is quite notorious for saying, 'Right, I want a rape story on there this week – go find one'."
"You're looking for anything with shock value", says Pat. "It could be someone dying in a horrific, bizarre circumstance, or it could be someone who had a collection of 10,000 novelty bells. The more bizarre the better."
"So then," says Ash, "you start looking – Google, local newspapers, the police and local journos. On community sites like Netmums you can type in the keywords – literally 'raped by dad' – and it'll come up with conversations that mums have had on the forums. Often they'll want a threesome story, and for that we contact Jeremy Kyle for case studies."
Finding a story is only the first step, though. Unless you lock it down with a contract, the story will go elsewhere. "If you've found a story," says Pat, "you try every possible method of hunting the person down as quickly as possible, because there will be other magazines looking for them. You message everyone on Facebook who has that name, you send letters. You cold-call them. That's quite hard, because for some stories the people might be in a situation where something horrible has happened to them quite recently, and you're trying to sound sympathetic while also saying, 'Can you sign a contract in the next half hour?'"
Ash agrees. "Sometimes the contract is literally at their door within an hour. If the magazine is desperate and they know a news agency in the area, they'll pay the agency to go and knock on the door. I've never done a proper door knock. It sounds horrible. If someone's kid has just died... I couldn't do it."
If a magazine gets there first to sign a story up then it's game over. But if a news agency gets there first, a bidding war ensues. "If it's a big story that's been in the news," says Ash, "there could be up to 20 magazines and up to 15 news agencies all wanting that story."
Pat remembers one story about "a girl who had got into a slanging match with another girl at a burger van. The other girl grabbed the deep-fat fryer and poured it over her. Her face was completely destroyed by burning chip fat. She had photographs of her after the incident, so there were lots of magazines bidding for that story. She had an agent working for her and they don't tell you exactly who else is bidding, they just tell you if you need to go higher."
Large sums for stories are mostly a thing of the past. These magazines are now part of an ailing print industry and, as circulations fall, the market value of one person's misery and pain falls with them.
"If they [the magazines] can get a story for £50," says Ash, "They will. But they still pay a lot for some really big stories. I found a woman whose mum and sister were murdered by her ex-husband. He shot them, and she heard it on the phone. She got two grand. I think that's about the maximum you could get at the moment."
It's difficult to see the business side of this operation as anything but vulturine – the doorstep contracts, the frantic bidding for pictures of a wounded face – but when Ash and Pat talk about the interviews themselves, it's obvious they feel great compassion for their subjects. This is not an easy job.
"It's horrible", says Ash. "This woman was a really nice lady. She's sitting there crying and I have to say things like, "Okay, so, what did it sound like when this happened?" It feels intrusive, but I feel better doing that in person than I would over the phone. She got all her pictures out and I was with her for about two or three hours. I think she enjoyed telling me – not about the horrible stuff – but just her memories of them. She texted me later to say, 'That was really nice, it felt really good to talk to someone who was removed from the situation'. And then I was thinking, 'Oh God, I hope they [the magazine] do a good job with it.'
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"I interviewed a woman whose husband had been hit by a train," says Pat. "She was pregnant, and they had a couple of little kids already. He'd gone out after work, and she woke up the next morning and there was no sign of him. She'd been shown the CCTV that showed him walking along the train line, stumbling into the tracks. She was crying a lot while I was talking to her, and the probing questions I had to ask were what were making her more and more upset.
"She had to go briefly in the middle of the interview to do something else for a minute, and I came off the phone and just started crying. I didn't feel like I could go back on the phone and talk to her. You feel like you're making someone go back through a terrible experience by the questions you're asking."
On another occasion, Ash went to interview a young woman at an army barracks. "She'd stabbed her boyfriend. It was in self-defence; he'd been beating her up, she'd stabbed him and he died. Anyway I'm interviewing her in the kitchen and she was a really nice girl. But she was next to the knife rack, and I just kept thinking, she could just kill me. It could happen again. I just couldn't concentrate. I was looking at her, and I didn't want to ask, but I was just thinking: is that the same knife block?"
While the cover lines for women's weeklies display a red-beaked appetite for sexual violence and death, both journalists are keen to point out that the truly harrowing stories are rare and that they find most of their interviews to be positive, if occasionally a little unusual.
One of Ash's most memorable interviews was with a septuagenarian transsexual: "'OAP Tranny' was the headline, I think. He picked me up from the station and we went to his house where he kept feeding me chocolate eclairs. I went to the toilet and he'd painted a mermaid with her tits out on the wall. His bedroom had all these china dolls in a cabinet, which was a bit creepy, and then I tried his shoes on because we had the same size feet. I remember going home from that one just thinking, 'Wow'."
Ultimately, says Ash, "The good outweighs the bad. People you've interviewed send you Christmas cards. There are people who really wanted to get something off their chest or raise money for their charity, or who have lost 15 stone and are really proud of themselves. It's just like any job – there are bits you don't like as much as others."
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