the observer Sat 13 September 2008
The Celeb Diaries follows Mark Frith's near 10 years at Heat magazine. When Frith took the helm in early 2000, the magazine blossomed from being a disastrous flop to a hugely popular icon of our times. His mission was to 'debunk celebrities, make people realise they're just like you or me'. If Posh has a pimple or Gwyneth Paltrow reveals a bristly armpit, you can chortle about it in Heat
You soon get used to Frith's style of writing. Lots of 'Yeps!' and 'Bingos!' Indeed, you get so immersed in his world that when he describes a quote from Geri Halliwell as 'dynamite', you don't even question it.
The Celeb Diaries aspires, in look and subject matter, to be like Piers Morgan's The Insider (but without the Class A celebs or the self-congratulatory tone). Young Mark is a tad more downmarket, and in the end seems to feel almost as contrite about his line of business as we, the hungry readers, feel reading it.
What a job though. Imagine being able to stride into work on a Monday morning and shout, 'I want 25 pictures of celebs with cellulite on my table by lunchtime!' The 'bingo!' moments are good fun but given the somewhat exploitative nature of the beast I enjoyed the book most when things were going wrong for Frith. It's thrilling to hear how he sweated and squirmed on the phone to lawyers, or to witness his genuine dismay when Ewan McGregor describes Heat as a 'dirty piece of shit'. Go Ewan!
In a celebrity-obsessed society, this is a fascinating document. Nostalgic, too: remember when Jade was in Big Brother and everyone loved her? Rebecca Loos? What a girl! Jude and the nanny? That was a good one. It is interesting to discover just how the stories are unearthed and the scandal of the week chosen, and to marvel about how inconsequential they all were. Being the editor of such a magazine, the arbiter of what shocks and what rocks us, is no easy task. Frith - part man, part Jack Russell - had the energy and tenacity to last almost a decade. Someone should give him a bone (or a celebrity carcass) as a reward.
In the end it wasn't the pressure of the job that got to Frith but the ugly reality of celebs' lives: Britney in meltdown, images of Amy Winehouse in all her self- lacerated horror, and the reality of Mark Speight's fate. 'I was fed up of seeing pictures of tormented famous people,' he explains. We know how he feels.
The final straw, though, is pleasingly lightweight. It was John Barrowman who pushed him over the edge. The team's idea for a photo session was to make Barrowman look like Tom Cruise in Cocktail. 'John is not a poor man's Tom Cruise. He is a rich man's John Barrowman,' sniffed the agent. 'That's it. I'm resigning. This is not Madonna, this is John bloody Barrowman!' cried Frith. He had created a monster and no mistake.
Towards the end of the book the tone is surprisingly circumspect. 'The democratisation of fame has led to some of us going too far. When you see celebrities as your playthings ... how much do you play with them?' If the editor of Heat doesn't know the answer to that question, then who does?
The Celeb Diaries provoked an unexpectedly schizophrenic response in this particular reader. Although I am a celeb of sorts myself, I am mercifully of a calibre not often troubled by the attentions of Heat or any of the other, shall we say 'fame-orientated' magazines. (A photographer jumped out from behind a tree in Regent's Park the other day to pap me, but his heart wasn't in it. After three snaps he stopped and asked me if I knew where Kate Moss lived. As if.)
But even my lowly grading doesn't stop me feeling the hot glow of angry solidarity with Jude Law or Fern Britton when they have their privacy invaded, or when photos of their non-celeb relatives are published without their knowledge or consent. Yet, at the same time, I'm a punter at heart and my eye is drawn to a sordid headline or a shocking image as irresistibly as the next person's. I need my escapism too, and there is something brave and gloriously irreverent about a magazine genre that refuses to take itself or, more importantly, anyone else, too seriously.
You might describe it as camp - this obsession with all things trivial and aesthetic. Heat expresses no interest in serious news, happy or sad. Indeed, after 9/11 they worried that they might be out of business. Piers Morgan declared: 'I hear secretaries talking about anthrax and al-Qaeda, not EastEnders.' He was wrong, of course, for as Frith points out, 'They were talking about anthrax and EastEnders.' Sales went up that week by several thousand copies.
Statistics like this inevitably provoke hand-wringing, but there might be a more positive aspect to our appetites for celebrity disgrace. It does us the world of good to learn that our idols are flawed too, capable of wearing the wrong outfit, putting on weight, succumbing to temptation or just being plain unhappy like the rest of us. Most of all, Heat allows us to sympathise with the rich and famous - a whole new emotion. Sympathy is better and less painful than unrequited love or low-down envy. This may be Piers Morgan Lite, but if you've ever experienced the full-fat original, you'll know that may be no bad thing.