There were many and varied pleasures to be derived from watching Paper Giants, the ABC’s dramatisation of the birth of saucy women’s magazine Cleo, from the program’s first moments, of watching a battleaxe stride purposefully up the corridors of Australian Consolidated Press and, shortly afterwards, a young woman confessing at a job interview that her previous boss had sexually harassed her by insisting she meet him at ‘the Jungle Bar at the Menzies’. And, I confess, I felt nostalgic by the end of the miniseries, and this was not merely because of all the authentic nineteen-seventies Sydney buses that were crowbarred into the action, or the sight of Matt Day, in a moustache, about to tuck into an enormous prawn cocktail.
Going back to the pleasures, Asher Keddie made an admirable fist of playing Ita Buttrose, especially of imitating her voice without sounding like she was in a comedy sketch, and I was gratified that the woman herself seemed as imperious as I would have supposed. And then there was all the fun of watching Sir Frank Packer (Tony Barry) chuck a mental at the sight of an ‘It’s Time’ advertisement showing its face on Channel Nine, not to mention his ceaselessly barking at Kerry Packer (Rob Carlton) ‘What would you know!’ and ‘Bugger off!’, and, furthermore, endlessly issuing threats of pulling the plug on the mad innovation that was then being called Cleopatra. And then there was Kerry’s angry refusal of friands in favour of finger buns, as well as the first-rate collection of art glass he had in his office. And I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the crazy times when Jack Thompson lived and loved as part of a ménage a trois and attended ‘freak-outs’ at the Yellow House.
Speaking of salad days, back when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I bought Cleo and its mother publication, Cosmopolitan, every month. My attachment to these magazines started in art classes when I was in my first year of high school. Strangely enough, even though I went to a girls school at which we never got to see any males at all – there were no men on the staff and we used to have to do all-girl productions of, for example, The Boy Friend – the powers that be were seemingly happy to have these violently hetero mags lying around, apparently for use in ‘collages’. Against the steel-plated misery of compulsory education, with its unwanted information about chemical equations and sedimentary rock, being able to leaf through these glossy pages was like getting a foot up on the first branch of the Faraway Tree.
And, at the risk of sounding like the oldest and most bag-like of old bags, I have to say that in my time of reading Cleo, yes, there was a whole heap of thinly disguised advertorial for beauty products and clothes, but there were also a lot of what are known as words on the page. Aside from the many useful sex tips that I proudly employ to this day in order to keep men enslaved, there would be solid features on, for example, early nineties hottie feminist Naomi Wolf. And Cleo’s celebrity profiles were always rich in detail, and, on occasion, damning, as with Antonella Gambotto’s memorable feature on Libbi Gorr in which she lengthily sketched the artist as ‘a spoilt princess’ and really offered the reader something to chew on.
I stopped buying Cleo, and Cosmopolitan, about a decade ago, almost entirely because I used to find myself incapable of throwing any of my copies of them out, and I was getting to the stage that I was shortly going to be walled up behind magazines that dated from when Shakespears Sister were first making their under-punctuated way in the world. However, I have noticed in recent years when leafing through Cleo and Cosmopolitan that my old favourites seemed to have a lot less heft than they used to. I remember the days when you’d see, for example, sophisticate Sister Vivienne Jeffries of The Young Doctors leafing through one of these mags when, in a turning of the tables, she herself was confined to bed in the Albert Memorial Hospital. However, I cannot believe that in their current incarnation, either of these titles would offer nearly enough to keep a woman of the world such as Sister Jeffries entertained for longer than about fifteen minutes.
For the purposes of research, I went to the trouble of buying and reading the most recent issue of Cleo. The first two newsagents I went to did not have any copies of the magazine at all, which indicates, I conjecture, either wild enthusiasm for or frighteningly diminished interest in it. (Incidentally, during my Cleo-buying spree, two young boys stopped me, claiming they were selling Easter eggs to make money for medical research but I am convinced that they were entrepreneurs in the making and merely pocketed the change I gave them.) When I finally managed to buy and read Cleo, I was horrified to find my prejudices confirmed (something that I usually enjoy no end), as I took in the tiny number of lines on the page, standing in sharp contrast to the enormousness of the space between the lines.
An article entitled ‘Why are we so fascinated by fat?’, for example, is under five hundred words, and photographs, and a pull-out box entitled ‘Bored much?’, about things to do at the weekend, take up at least half of the page. The cover story is, what would generously be called, a profile of Katy Perry. While it does, at least, contain several more words than does the advertisement on the page before it in which Perry is spruiking a line of skin care products, I cannot help but feel it was compiled entirely from secondary sources. After reading this profile, I somehow knew less about Katy Perry than I did before. Only two thirds of a page is devoted to another, potentially very interesting, feature called ‘The Day My Fiance Told Me He Was Gay’. Just as I was starting really to get into such revelations as that the gay fiancé in question was ‘a deep-voiced, masculine guy who has a beard and plays guitar in a band’, I found I’d already galloped to the finish line, and a pull-out box containing some analysis by a man described as an ‘openly gay principal psychologist at the Centre for Human Potential’ did not make up for the story’s premature end. Aside from all the acknowledged advertorial in Cleo, with which I have no issue, really, as magazines must make their money somehow, there are eight pages, presented as a fashion feature, not as advertorial, of Ruby Rose, whose fame, it seems to me, rests entirely on the unstable ground that she is a comely lesbian, modelling items from her own clothing line.
While watching Paper Giants, it gave me a start to see a Cleo editorial meeting at which excitement was expressed at the possibility of profiling Caroline Jones, and there was even discussion of, if not excitement at, the prospect of an article about Malcolm Fraser. Still, it’s not that I really have any beef with the topics that this newest edition of Cleo is addressing. Many of them are little different from what one might have read about in the old days: for example, one story that provides six (but why six, and not five or ten?) steps to relationship bliss; and one that, ironically, broaches the question ‘Are you dumbing yourself down?’. Furthermore, there are pieces on grimmer topics, such as organ donation, should one wish to read them. However, there is simply no weight at all to these articles; a copy of Cleo from 1989 is like The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by comparison.
I find it impossible to believe that young women today can be any stupider than I was, so when, and why exactly, did Cleo become totally submental? Surely all the be-headscarfed females that Giants depicts as looking wistfully self-congratulatory to the accompaniment of, natch, the Masters Apprentices’ ‘Because I Love You’ would now be sunk in depression at what has become of their creation. I would like very much to see a miniseries about that swing into production nice and soon.