Obituary: Sally Brampton
Editor of 'British Elle' and successful agony aunt who wrote candidly of her struggle with severe depression
Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30
Sally Brampton, who died on Tuesday aged 60 after apparently walking into the sea, was the founding editor of British Elle, who turned the magazine into a publishing phenomenon; later, as a successful freelance writer and agony aunt, her candid account of living with severe depression became a bestseller.
At a time when most glossy magazines tended to concern themselves with women's emotions and relationships, Elle helped to shift the emphasis onto articles about fashion and shopping, geared towards style-conscious career women. Originally published in France, where it had gained an 800,000-strong following under the slogan "si elle lit, elle lit Elle" (if she reads, she reads Elle), it was one of several imports to hit the British market in the 1980s, and the only one that really challenged Vogue for supremacy.
While Vogue favoured older women with a taste for high fashion, Elle's readers tended to be younger and more prepared to take risks with their choice of outfit. They also, and perhaps more importantly, had plenty of disposable income. The debut British edition, published in November 1985, featured 21-year-old Yasmin Le Bon - strong-browed, dark-haired and clad in crushed green velvet - on its cover. "There was a whole new generation [of women] fumbling its way towards tomorrow," Brampton recalled. "Elle was the first mainstream magazine to act as a voice for that generation."
Over the next four years, she presided over contributions by writers such as Jeanette Winterson, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. Her close friends included the designer Jasper Conran and fashion's enfant terrible John Galliano.
In an industry that was often exploitative of women and young girls, she also helped to champion a more progressive style of fashion journalism. Articles about national and world politics featured alongside more traditional, image-conscious fare. She vetoed the word "diet", instead running features on "healthy eating plans" that promised better overall fitness. All the models who featured in Elle had to be at least 16. Among the youngest to make the cut was a teenage Naomi Campbell, who graced the cover of the April 1986 edition and so launched her career in Britain.
Sally Brampton's departure from Elle in 1989 was met with cries of disbelief throughout the industry. Behind the scenes, however, she had been unhappy with the frequent changes in management and the punishingly early mornings that the job required. She went on to write four novels, all well-received, and worked on television documentaries before taking the helm at Red, a glossy monthly publication.
In early 2000, several personal difficulties came to a head. Her second marriage ended and she began to feel disillusioned with the "vacuous" fashion industry, with its relentless focus on profit and celebrity. A further blow came in October of that year, when she was sacked from Red following a decline in sales. By now cripplingly depressed, she was hospitalised for a fortnight and treated with antidepressant medication.
The pills had little effect, however, and she remained unwell for another three years. Having rejected psychotherapy as tediously self-involved, she began to rely heavily on sedatives and alcohol. There were two suicide attempts and several further stays in hospital. "In my world, there is no colour," she later wrote about this period. "Instead, everything is in shades of grey, a flat dull monotone. I exist in a parallel universe. In despair, I turn away, draw the curtains, climb back into my crumpled bed and cry."
The despair only began to lift after three years, when she sought treatment for alcoholism and began to understand her illness as part of a genetic legacy; both her brother and her mother had experienced severe depressive episodes.
Having renounced alcohol and taken up meditation, she made a return to writing, which she referred to as "my therapy and my cure". Her 2008 memoir, Shoot The Damn Dog - a reference to fellow depressive Winston Churchill's description of his own "black dog" days - sold thousands of copies, and her experience imbued her columns as an agony aunt for the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times with a sympathetic yet unsentimental clarity.
She was also prepared to take on criticism from those who believed that the roots of mental illness lay in self-absorption or a lack of moral fibre - in part because she had once believed such things herself. "You should be ashamed of yourself," ran one online comment below an article she had written: "My Nan worked in a biscuit factory for 30 years, raised three kids single-handedly and never had a day's depression in her life." Brampton's response was typical of the gallows humour that sustained her through her first major breakdown: "Well all I can say is, lucky old Nan."
The second of three children, she was born in Brunei on July 15, 1955, the only daughter of Roy and Pamela Brampton. Her father, originally from London, had a job with Shell that took the family to numerous countries, and Sally was sent to boarding school in England aged 11. "It was not home", she recalled. "Home was in whatever country my parents were living at the time." After turning 18 she settled in Britain for good.
An interest in clothes was inspired by her maternal grandmother, a former dancer and model who made all her own clothes and taught her grand-daughter how to sew. After studying fashion at Central St Martin's, in 1978 Sally Brampton won a Vogue talent contest for fashion journalism and spent three years on the magazine's writing staff. She left to edit The Observer's fashion pages from 1981-5, and was soon leading the peripatetic lifestyle that came with endless catwalk reviews in London, Paris and Milan.
Though it was work that she loved and excelled at, she struggled while making these trips. The memory of flying back to her "cold, dark and unlovely" boarding school haunted her well into adulthood, though she refused to let it get the better of her career. "When I am not depressed," she said, "I love life and enjoy extraordinary happiness. I am really quite a cheerful soul and a shameless optimist."
In later life Brampton moved from London to St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex, where she had bought a Georgian house with a direct view over the ocean. It was here that she died.
Her first marriage, to Nigel Cole, ended in divorce. In 1990 she married Jonathan Powell, then Controller of BBC1; they had a daughter. That marriage, too, was dissolved. Her third husband, Tom Wnek, and her daughter survive her.