It was the giant heading on this column last week that led me to today’s missive. The heading in question read: ‘In which I finally get the chop.’ Yikes!
I am sent a proof of my column every week. This is the moment I can back out of having written about bad sex, an extreme bikini wax, my Captain Haddock beard, going bust, fighting with my family or being ghosted by former friends. I never do chicken out, though. The reason? That’s where the heading on last Sunday’s column (which was, thankfully, referring to my new haircut) comes in: I am always terrified of being fired. So I go for it. I spare no one, least of all myself.
I always read the proof with a thumb covering my byline photo, as I can’t stand to look at myself. Chronic insecurity can make you more driven than anyone else, which means I’m always aghast at colleagues who tell me they’re off to Bath to spend a day at the rooftop spa, or that they dashed off a column while drunk. Not long ago, I happened to be sitting next to a well-known columnist at an important event. She smiled a welcome; this, despite the fact she gave my last book, a memoir, mainly about failure, a stinker. But whereas I made notes and turned up my hearing aids, she left halfway through. Oh, I remember thinking, I wish I had the confidence to bunk off! To believe life was more important than work! She swanned off to a dinner, presumably, while I sat on the floor in a corridor, frantically typing. Terrified that what I filed would be rejected. Too scared to get in my car and drive home in case I had to do it all again.
I’ve been reading with sadness and nostalgia about the demise of Marie Claire magazine: the November issue is to be the last in print. My editorship has been mentioned in the obituaries. One of them applauded the fact that I refused to use skinny models – for which I was sacked – and campaigned for older women to be more visible. Another noted I was the first glossy editor to lift the lid on all the freebies. The day after I was sacked, I wrote about having been gifted 22 handbags – and, from Gucci, a wicker lilo by Tom Ford – during my first Christmas as editor, exposing the duplicitous pact between the magazine and luxury brands that buy advertising space.
But I still feel like an imposter. It wasn’t bravery that made me campaign against skinny young models, though I had been shocked, shooting a cover with Ricky Martin and Brazilian bombshell Fernanda Tavares, whom I’d shoehorned into plunging Versace and encouraged to drape herself around the pop star, to find her cross-legged on the floor during a break reading cartoons: she was barely out of adolescence. Shocked, too, in Los Angeles interviewing Renée Zellweger, who had just played Bridget Jones for the first time, to find someone not curvy but cadaverous, with thinning hair from having to lose the weight she’d piled on for the film. And when I overheard a famous Italian designer telling supermodel Angela Lindvall her hips were too wide for his catwalk, I backed away in horror.
Aghast, dismayed, ashamed to be party to any of it, but I was never brave. I exposed the problems in the industry because I desperately wanted to sell copies. Similarly, after I was (ironically) sacked by a magazine with a brand I thought was based around empowerment, I exposed the dark side of the industry because I wanted to be hired as a commentator. I might have been woke, but I was broke. I can’t tread water because, if I do, I’ll drown, as surely as if I set sail on that Gucci lilo.
When you’re comfortable and have a safety net or the bubble that is a loving family, you don’t try, because why would you? You sit, smiling, in the front row, unmoved by all the fur and the exotic skin and the exposed teenage nipples. You can have the summer off. You can turn off your phone, too. You can sneak out early. It must be wonderful to be confident. To believe you are good enough. How restful life must be. Being chronically shy and plagued with self-doubt is awful. Debilitating. Exhausting. But I’m buoyed by the words of Emily Dickinson, the shyest and greatest writer who ever lived: