1. Archive

"Talk' debut a vanity fair for New Yorkers

Sponsors called it a magazine launch, but in many ways the debut of Talk magazine was more like an elaborate striptease. Fueled by a scoop on the first lady's view of infidelity, a star-studded and controversial party and the polarizing celebrity of its creator, the new magazine became a national media sensation _ days before anyone had a chance to read it.

"I've never seen so much advance attention paid to a publication," said New York publicist Lynn Goldberg, referring to the waves of news generated by editor Tina Brown and her latest magazine. "This woman is the queen of spin."

She also throws one helluva party. The mood was upbeat at Monday's sumptuous reception for "Talk" _ held at the foot of the Statue of Liberty _ and who could blame the corporate backers, Disney's Miramax division and the Hearst Corp., for feeling cocky? Once again, Brown is the talk of the town, much as she was at Vanity Fair in the 1980s and then the New Yorker.

This time, however, she's inventing a product from whole cloth, hoping to create a mass circulation, general interest monthly blending pop gossip and literary culture. Looking a bit frazzled in her 56th-story offices, Brown said in an interview Wednesday that her magazine is as much a cultural cause as a shrewdly designed business venture.

"There is a sense now that the people who watch Regis and Kathie Lee aren't interested in books, but there's no reason why those two worlds can't be brought together," she said. "And that's what we aim to do with Talk _ to admit that we all like to picnic, that we can take the time to read a serious article on one page, then turn the page and escape with a photo essay about a movie star. We want to convey this high-low culture."

Ultimately, said Brown, it's a game of seduction: "There are so many ways to get into someone's head now, with TV, radio, the Internet and e-mail, you've really got to create magazines that cater to all of this distracted attention span and competition."

In an age of ever-increasing niche marketing, this is a daunting mission, and experts say Brown will need more than buzz to conquer the already glutted magazine market. So far, professional reactions to Talk, which finally materialized Tuesday in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, are mixed: Some praised its edgy gumbo of celebrity news, splashy graphics and thoughtful writing, while others panned it as a confused jumble that is not likely to connect with readers, no matter how much it is promoted.

Indeed, the knives are out for the British trendsetter who has played a pivotal role in the enshrinement of American celebrity culture. Ever since Brown announced last summer that she was leaving the hallowed New Yorker, critics scoffed at the idea that she could join forces with Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein and create "synergy" between magazine journalism and a movie studio.

There seemed to be no end to gossip about Brown: Some said she was having a difficult time finding quality writers on the somewhat austere budget that Miramax had given her. Others predicted her editorial freedom would be curtailed when Hearst Magazines became a co-partner earlier this year.

But one obstacle quickly became one of Brown's biggest PR coups, when New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani scotched Talk's plans to hold its launch party at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyards, which Miramax wants to rebuild as a movie studio. Although the mayor said he killed the plan on grounds of public safety and expense, the New York media concluded that Giuliani was mainly irked by stories that Hillary Clinton _ his likely opponent in next year's Senate race _ would be on Talk's maiden cover. Overnight, the party became front-page news.

This week, as celebrities and star-gazers munched shrimp and pate on Liberty Island, Brown had the last laugh. While neither Giuliani nor Mrs. Clinton attended, paparazzi and cultural critics alike were fascinated by the presence of more than 1,200 VIPs _ including Jerry Seinfeld, Demi Moore, Madonna, Liam Neeson, Sarah Jessica Parker and others. Meanwhile, the fallout from Mrs. Clinton's discussion of her husband's infidelities continued, filling news pages, dominating talk radio and providing fodder for late-night TV shows.

"It's all been terrific," Brown said with a wry smile. "And it shows that some celebrities are unifying characters, at least in the way we pay attention to them. I didn't know, for example, if Mrs. Clinton would be as big a story now as she was last year, but obviously she is."

The magazine's main goal, as stated in its five-year plan, is to reach a base of 500,000 readers, of whom 300,000 or more would pay $2.95 for it at newsstands. The first issue may be newsworthy, said the rival magazine editor, "but can she keep doing this month after month? It's very, very hard to start a new general interest magazine today. Especially if you're going up against solid publications like Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair and People at the supermarket checkout counters and newsstands."