Entertainment

Roger Daltrey, Jessica Simpson & a taser to the nuts: The wild history of OK! magazine

With the US edition of OK! set to cease publication after 17 years, take a look back at the wild, catastrophic times of the celebrity weekly magazine.

Celebrity Weekly OK! is set to stop publishing after a 17-year misadventure, making it perhaps the most expensive catastrophe in magazine history. So let’s see where it all began.

Brash British publisher Richard Desmond’s inauspicious foray into America began when he agreed to advertise phone-sex lines owned by New Yorker Richard Martino in the mainstream publications of his stable of UK porn magazines, which included such esteemed titles as Barely Legal and Readers Wives.

Regrettably, Martino turned out to be a high-ranking member of the Gambino crime family, Page Six reports. And when the deal went sour, he allegedly had two men carjack one of Desmond’s executives on a New York business trip in 1992.

They jumped into the executive’s limo and “pistol-whipped him, slashed his face with a knife and applied a Taser-style stun gun to his testicles,” The Guardian reported, quoting short documents.

“If your boss sets foot here, he’s a dead man,” one of the goons reportedly said, as the shaken exec tearfully later recalled.

For his part, Desmond dismissed the whole episode, as described by the FBI, as “fantasy”. Testicular torture or not, the porn-rich publisher was intent on going legit and making it in the US.

“Dirty Des”, as the British press called him, sold his racy rags and stunned Britain by snapping up two of its oldest newspapers, the Daily Express and Sunday Express. He contributed generously to charities and became friends with celebrities, particularly David and Victoria Beckham and Roger Daltrey of The Who.

A representative for Desmond did not respond to a request for comment on the specifics of his ownership of OK!.

The original edition of OK! launched in the UK in 1997, copying the successful society-and-royalty magazine Hello! down to its almost-identical logo, but taking a more populist bent. Desmond courted Britain’s large corps of cheap and accessible household-name soap actors and reality TV stars, buying exclusive rights to cover their weddings, births and a Hallmark store’s worth of other occasions.

All that money also gained him entry into the celebs’ cocktail parties and country estates.

But then Dirty Des set his sights on a bigger fish: America.

He started OK! in 2005 at the apex of the Golden Age of Celebrity Weeklies. Brangelina was ascendant. Jennifer Aniston was on the rebound. Paris and Lindsay were at large. It would be another year until most Americans would hear about Facebook for the first time.

Weeklies were the only magazines where single-copy sales at newsstands and grocery stores, not subscriptions, are what really count. The editor, using the cover as bait, has to seduce the reader anew every week. There are few masters of it.

Desmond had a perfect pick. Nicola McCarthy had worked at the UK edition of OK! but left to become the executive editor of Us Weekly.

He lured her away – and landed in court before they even began the first issue, when Us sued over McCarthy’s contract. A judge in 2005 forced OK! to pay his rival’s hefty legal fees and banned Desmond from using McCarthy until his contract ran out, months after OK!‘s planned launch.

She was replaced by another UK transplant, 29-year-old Sarah Ivens. Desmond and Ivens stood on that bold new horizon with a combined zero-year experience in the American market.

Still, they pulled off a coup: signing up Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey for an unheard-of $1 million multi-cover deal.

But then publishing execs printed the first issue on the almost-newspaper-size paper that the UK version used — unaware, apparently, that US retailers display magazines in pockets several inches smaller than OK!‘s pages. So the million-dollar cover was either folded in two and shoved in the pockets, or not displayed at all.

They forged ahead, hosting a bedazzled LA launch party attended by Simpson and Lachey with Sean Combs as the DJ. To the surprise of the staff, the next issue’s party pages were jammed with pictures of Desmond and pals, including Daltrey. To the new US editors, it seemed “crass”.

The young staff – including this author, who worked there for over two years – embraced the party lifestyle, too, and could reliably be found getting bottle service with the cast of Surroundingspartying at the same clubs as Leonardo DiCaprio and Paris Hilton or palling around with an almost-famous Kim Kardashian (then a “beauty editor-at-large” for the magazine).

Perhaps because it existed in a cocoon of Desmond’s bank account, there was a woozy sense of unreality around the Midtown offices.

The true passion of a HR exec was a side gig as an author of erotica, writing under the pen name Mystique Allure. Desmond, quite illegally, smoked up a cloud of cigar smoke in the office.

His henchmen, schooled in Fleet Street newsrooms, screamed and swore at employees.

A female executive referred to herself and Desmond in the third person as “Goldie and the Panther”. One staffer who relied on the job for a visa was capriciously fired, gave up his apartment, sold his furniture and bought a ticket home – only to be rehired. As he frantically scrambled to get his furniture back, he was refired weeks later.

Meanwhile, Britney Spears’ birthday cake sat in the snack room freezer for years, like a celebrity-weekly version of a picture of Dorian Gray for the Botox Age.

Desmond had failed to spot a crucial difference between the UK and US markets. The former relies on the principle that if any given person is put in front of a camera for long enough, they will eventually become famous.

With this Dunkirk-spirit approach to celebrity, Britain has turned all manner of hairdressers and disgraced politicians into bona fide bigshots. (Helpfully, the British also think soap stars are actually stars.)

The US, however, had a pantheon of untouchable Hollywood A-listers – and a smattering of TV actors and one-time Top 40 singers living in the sweet spot: accessible enough to buy up, famous enough to shift copies.

Magazines like In Touch, Star and Life & Style solved this problem with a guerrilla approach. Instead of paying for expensive exclusives, they got their cover fodder from paparazzi shots and intel from a network of deeply connected Hollywood sources.

Aim People and Us Weekly were a little more nervous. Until then, stars often gave exclusives to People for free because it got the most eyes on it. Us was used to write relatively small checks.

Us complained when People kicked off the big-money bidding wars by paying $75,000 for a set of paparazzi shots of Jennifer Lopez. But suddenly it was People that found itself paying above the odds.

“Last year, we lost a couple of weddings because OK! magazine was willing to spend more money than we thought made sense,” said People‘s then-editor Larry Hackett in The New York Timesadding that, if it continued, “they’re going to get traction, and I don’t want any competitor to get traction where I can stop it.”

Two years in, The Times of London wrote that, “After a troubled start, [OK! is] flying high.” The magazine was hitting 850,000 weekly sales. With People around 3.5 million, Us at 2 million, Star about 1.5 million, In Touch around 1 million and Life & Style at 600,000, that sounds impressive. The problem was that OK!‘s cash fire hose was only good enough to keep up with the competition – not to sink it.

In fact, the only real winners in the weekly war were the celebrities.

The watershed $1 million that OK! paid Jessica Simpson was soon dwarfed by the amount People reportedly paid – over $2 million – to Jennifer Lopez for baby pictures in 2008. “We loved it,” said a celebrity publicist.

But Desmond had lost patience with losing a half-million dollars a week. The pressure on Ivens to deliver big sales without spending big bucks grew, and the sound of screaming British voices became a more familiar sound around the offices.

Multiple editors told the New York Post they had trouble sleeping the night before the biweekly sales figures were published, fearful of what horrors a bad sale would bring down on their day.

Finally, Ivens had had enough. She quit in the autumn of 2008 with no job to go to and moved to Kentucky. She was “34 and unhappy, anxious, living on my nerves,” she later wrote, claiming that she turned down $1 million from Desmond to stick around.

Ivens declined to comment for this story.

One morning in 2009, with sales nosediving, staff arrived to find the office plastered with dozens of sheets of paper, each with a large red “500” printed on it. The idea, it seems, was to will the staff into making a magazine that would sell 500,000 copies a week. This The Secret-like manifesting did not work.

There followed a period of editorial identity crisis, with Desmond frantically cycling through editors, obviously casting about for someone who knew how to stem the bleeding.

The plans swung wildly between upscale and down-market. Often, they attempted to do both at the same time.

At one point, the exhausted staff out on the editorial room floor had booked a cover shoot with contestants from The Biggest Loser.

Meanwhile, behind office doors, consultants were plotting to make OK!, as one of them quasily put it, “the frothy cappuccino at the end of a meal.” The two sides were so hopelessly disconnected that the next cover ended up featuring stars of the weight-loss game show wearing, for no obvious reason, ball gowns.

Meanwhile, Desmond’s interest seemed to drift. One staffer remembers a time when an editor-in-chief was left in a panic when Dirty Des couldn’t be located on his yacht to sign off on a cover.

“I think Roger Daltery approved the 478th ‘Jennifer Aniston’s Baby Joy!’ cover,” joked one former staffer. “That poor woman. Her uterus should have had its own agent.”

Indeed, a virtually foolproof way of selling copies was to soothe whatever ulcerous wound in the American psyche is caused by the Friends actress’ lack of a child. By the end of the Desmond era, the magazine had bestowed a biblical 19 children on her. (She has no children.)

After the magazine lost a reported $US25 million ($A35 million) in 2010, Desmond put it on the market, courting then-People publisher Time Inc. as a buyer. When that deal went nowhere, he sold it to AMI (home of Star and the National Enquirer), which slashed costs, pooled resources with its other titles and scrapped exclusives.

In 2021, AMI sold out OK!‘s website to digital start-up Empire Media and says it will continue to publish occasional special issues under the OK! mark.

Desmond stunned the UK once again in 2010 by buying money-losing British TV network Channel Five. He sold it four years later for a profit of around a half-billion British pounds. In 2020 he was reportedly worth around $2.5 billion – about a billion more than when he launched OK! in the US. He’s still friends with Roger Daltrey.

Where things landed was sidelining exclusives in favor of, apparently, trying to divine what readers would like to see on the cover and then reverse-engineering a story to match.

The cover stories began to read like fevered fan fiction. “Bestfriends!” raved one cover, showing a picture of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s daughter photoshopped next to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ kid.

“Shiloh and Suri’s Play Date: The Little Girls Have an Afternoon Tea Party With Cupcakes, Giggles and Dresses Picked Out By Suri.” To the best knowledge of a number of then-editors, no such tea party took place.

Dirty Des declined to be interviewed, but a rep said: “He thoroughly enjoyed launching OK! in America and working with the great team that was there to help build it to the 7th largest newsstand magazine in America.

“Mr Desmond was very proud of the exclusives that came to OK! because of its high reputation in the US and world market.”

Sarah Ivens, meanwhile, now has a PhD and is the best-selling author of 11 books including Get Real: Embrace Your Strengths, Accept Your Limits, and Create an Authentically Happier, Healthier You.

This article originally appeared in Page Six and was reproduced with permission

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