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2.10.13

The wrong magazine was closed

In Part 1, SUZANNE BRENNER related the background to her appointment as editor of DARLING and the uproar that ensued. Accepting the position on condition she could move the magazine to Johannesburg, it came at a price she’d not really given much thought to. For some it might have been a slight inconvenience, but for Suzanne it meant overcoming a real phobia – her fear of flying.

I had to fly first thing each Monday to Durban where I stayed until Friday. To arrange both my absence from home and my presence in Durban took some juggling, and it was to go on for much longer than I could have envisioned. Add to this equation my fear of flying at the time, and you might get the picture.

Two SAA Fly with Confidence courses failed to convert me and for Patti Garlick, editor of Femina, I was to become a flying companion she could do without. Femina was another women’s magazine in the group aimed, I like to think, at a less sassy reader. DARLING was young and progressive; Femina was older, more conventional, married and family oriented. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t healthy competition between Patti and me, but I digress.

Flying together as we did, Patti no doubt dreaded having me next to her. My ritual of immediately buckling up, feverishly reading the safety brochure, keeping my eye on the flight attendants for any give-away signs, and clinging to the arms of the seat until I could light that first cigarette in the days one could still smoke on board - and I was still a dedicated smoker - were one thing, but my running commentary was entirely another. Flying into the old airport in Durban one such flight, I announced the sea was on the wrong side of us. Patti nervously looked outside the window and concurred. It didn’t help that the stranger on the other side of Patti chose that moment to use his sick bag. “We’re circling,” I said with authority, “something’s wrong.” By now Patti was edgy. At last the pilot spoke to us over the PA. “We apologise for the delay,” he said, “but an airforce plane had a problem and the pilot had to eject.” Patti and I breathed a sigh of relief as we silently waited to land.

Illustration
I think it was the last straw for Patti and it was with immense relief ahead of our next flight that she announced she was pregnant, which precluded me from sitting next to her because I smoked (and she knew that for a dedicated smoker who feared flying, it was a non-contest).

Back in Joburg, there were flattering calls from interested parties who liked the way the magazine was changing. Alan Langbridge was one such caller. He said he’d like to come and meet me because I - and the magazine - needed him. Whether it was arrogance or bravado - he tells me now he was a bundle of nerves when I interviewed him -- I must have liked what he had to show me because it wasn’t long before he left Pace to join our ranks. Neither of us was a pushover when it came to the design of the magazine but the fact that our friendship continues today must mean mutual respect won the day.

Slowly but surely the word was spreading that DARLING had transformed into a thoroughly modern lifestyle magazine for young and trendy, single women.

Diana, Pricess of Wales
I was happy we were on track with our editorial content revitalised by the appointment of some new Johannesburg writers who brought their own flair and youthfulness to the publication. In London, my friend and colleague Rod Tyler was a dab hand at unearthing original angles about Diana, Princess of Wales, and with her on the cover magazines never failed to sell.

Without taking ourselves too seriously, we covered issues and interests affecting and inspiring young independent women in 1980s South Africa. No subject was off-limits, but good writing and good taste were paramount. Fortunately, I had Anne Quayle and Ingrid Staude assisting me with maintaining our new approach.

The next important challenge was going to entail revitalising DARLING’s fashion and beauty pages, an important component of the magazine. I no doubt imparted this commitment when I made my first public appearance as editor and host of the high-profile CINZANO/DARLING fashion awards at the Top of the Carlton. It was a glittering affair and most faces were new to me, but, dressed the part by Spanish designer (turned artist) Pascual in a beautiful, one-shouldered, multi-coloured, tiered gown, I imagine that my theatrical training provided a reservoir of confidence to get me through the evening. Despite its success, however, I was unable to dissuade Gilbey’s from withdrawing their sponsorship and it was to take a great deal of persuasion on my part to convince a new sponsor to come to the party. An effort, as it turned out, that would be nipped in the bud … but this we did not know.

With new writers and new energy in the office, it was time to climb the proverbial mountain – a task I’d been dreading. With my fashion editor still in Durban, Leon had again raised the subject of DARLING’s fashion pages with me. Looking back now, our existing fashion pages were not without merit but with Johannesburg and Cape Town as the undisputed fashion hubs, I recognised that to be a fashion leader in our market, it was key to our metamorphosis to appoint a Johannesburg Fashion Editor. Anyone who says it’s easy to replace staff is either a liar or more thick-skinned than I am. Letting people go was one of the hardest tasks of the “70% staff management” Leon mentioned at the outset, but there was no other way.

I surreptitiously sought advice from those with experience in the field and identified and eventually succeeded in enticing Sharon Levin. She and Jane Filmer proved to be a good team whose work with some of the hottest photographers and models around led the way for our vibrant market. Word on the street was that DARLING’s pages were young, contemporary and fresh and different from any others on the shelves.

In a short time, the circulation figures began to reflect DARLING’s personality change. Readership was on the increase, but I knew we couldn’t rest on our laurels.

We had long deadlines, so it took some time before any of my influence began to show.
 
The first issue in which my personal editorial appeared was on September 28, 1983 - and of course I couldn’t have imagined that the final issue would appear a year later on October 24, 1984.

There is no doubt in my mind that the demise of DARLING was a casualty of new owners and new management. I can’t recall when exactly the RP staff was informed that the Hymans had sold the company to Perskor, but when we were, I for one was extremely disappointed as the company had little experience in magazines and in the English market.

Schalk van der Merwe was Perskor’s man appointed to head the division. He was of a different publishing culture and I suspect it was a new experience for him to deal with all the strong women editors of RP’s magazines. Subtle changes came into play - and I was not alone in fearing a new style of management, where editorial independence would give way to a more autocratic style.

Extraordinarily, one of the first things Perskor did was to bring in the opposition as consultants! Leon’s easy interaction with all of the editors was replaced by a very different style of management and it wasn’t long before every editorial decision had to be justified ahead of publication.

It was the first time that my editorship had been compromised and working on DARLING became that much harder. I don’t recall when the consultants’ contract expired but there was no easing up in the uncomfortable relationship with management.

Meetings were always formal, which made one all the more appreciative of the Hyman days where it felt like the magazines were everything.

Nor do I recall when I heard that Perskor intended folding DARLING, despite the increase of 10,000+ readers in less than a year. It’s possible this task was left to Leon and wearing his company hat, he would have been the messenger without conscience.

It was a devastating blow for me and for the loyal staff who had come to think of DARLING as more than a job. There was sadness with this black cloud hanging over us and it was dispiriting knowing that in spite of our best efforts, DARLING would not survive another day, but we pooled our resources to work towards a last issue we’d all be proud of. And it was.

Our last cover featured the Princess of Wales and in bold red caps underneath our black masthead, a strap announced FINAL ISSUE. We knew there was no going back but even then with a cover-line stating: “Why Diana Misses her Single Days”, we aimed for the stars.

There were lots of goodbyes, one of which was via my editorial to our readers. In my unenviable position as the very last editor, I wrote: “… while my relationship has lasted just over a year in DARLING’s 15-year life, the magazine has become all-absorbing, requiring a totally faithful commitment. And in spite of the final outcome, the rewards have been great.” And so they were.

Ultimately, Perskor’s inexperience as magazine publishers resulted in what was to become a purge of magazines. Without recognising DARLING’s unique niche market, they simply closed the magazine with the smallest circulation.

And it wasn’t reassuring to hear years later that “even Perskor realised it closed the wrong magazine”. Nonetheless, I was philosophical that I’d had one of the best years of my life on a magazine I had loved from day one.

Luckily, I was able to heed the words of my late friend Chris Munnion – former African correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, of London - who spoke from experience when he offered me my next piece of good advice: “Don’t be too proud to consider lesser positions,” he opined.

It was a lesson well learnt.

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future – JF Kennedy.