independent

Monday 21 April 2014

How Liz Jones became public enemy

Liz Jones gets hate mail by the sackful for her unhinged brand of journalism, but Stephen Milton finds her devastatingly honest, polite – and really rather nice

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 29:  (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED)  Liz Jones attends the English National Ballet Summer Party held at The Orangery at Kensington Palace on June 29, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
Liz Jones: Three million readers of her columns can't all be wrong

I like Liz Jones and always have. So there, I admit it. Now as a wordsmith with, hopefully, some discerning intelligence, I'm supposed to revile the 'Daily Mail' columnist, fashion editor and all she stands for. Shredding her weekly diatribe, primarily an overshare of her personal affairs – and the most read commentary online – is a favoured blood sport for my trade.

This is the woman who, after all, went into great detail about her deranged efforts to have a baby with her former husband. By stealing the contents of a used condom.

"I didn't think it was a huge thing," she pleads, with what has to be an amusing, faux naivety. "I thought everyone did it. Now, I'm not condoning this behaviour, but young men should be aware that women are manipulative and duplicitous and do anything to get their own way."

Barmy and unhinged, with an outlandish outlook and zero filter, if she isn't attracting the ire of some pocket of society each week, then Jones hasn't done her job right.

From the "toothless" country folk who reside in the surrounds of her former Somerset home in Exmoor; to Britain's homeless, "a collection of drug addicts, drunks and prostitutes, who like doing what they do and don't want my help", she once claimed.

It's largely women, however, and more specifically, mums, who seem to get it in the neck.

"The mummy mafia are so smug. They all tweet each other and everything is so perfect.

"But I write, 'I bet you're not having sex! I bet your husband's gay and I bet your children swear at you and upset you all the time'," chuckles Liz. "And then people don't get the joke. When I'm writing about mums, I'm joking because life is funny. That's the only way I get through."

Either certifiably bonkers or refreshingly forthright – or both – Jones is never anything less than compelling and entertaining.

Three million readers of her columns can't all be wrong.

Sadly, the problem for Liz Jones is that Liz Jones doesn't seem to like Liz Jones. Or is this simply all part of a self-destructive, ultimately lucrative, ruse?

Throughout our 40-minute conversation, the former editor of British 'Marie Claire' pointedly peppers the chat with self-flagellating soundbites – "I'm just tired of myself", or "I have no friends". My personal favourite has to be, "No one wants to be me".

I ask her to explain this damning statement. "I've never done anything right in life," she reaffirms, script-like. "No one wants to be old, alone, friendless, ridiculed, criticised. Who wants to be that?"

So no one would want a hugely successful writing career, five best-sellers under the belt, a six-figure salary and what sounds like an incredibly beautiful, riverside home, which acts as a sanctuary to 113 dogs, cats, horses, chickens and other four-legged fauna. Sure, no one would want that.

"I've never met one person [who wants to be me]. I even get letters from people saying they'd never want to do what I do. No one would."

Despite the collapse of her marriage in 2007 to media exec Nirpal Dhaliwal – the four tumultuous years together she regularly eviscerated in her column – Jones has somehow managed to cultivate a new relationship to the elusive 'Rock Star'.

Naturally featured in her work, he was once thought to be Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr. Denying the assumption, she's refused to divulge his true identity.

"I've been offered lots of money to do that, but men hate you writing about them and they hate you writing about yourself. I've yet to meet one who thinks otherwise."

The 54-year-old has had a difficult existence. A lifelong struggle with anorexia, chronic OCD and repressed sexuality, she examines all and more in her latest tome, 'Girl Least Likely To: 30 Years of Fashion, Fasting and Fleet Street'.

Her eating disorder features heaviest throughout, a subject the author's always been doubly vocal on. "My attitude to food is exactly the same as when I was 11, but I've changed in some ways.

"I never weigh myself, because I'll be all pleased and smug when I lose it. And if I put on weight, I won't eat for a week.

"I also don't look in mirrors any more. You can tell when your clothes are loose and hanging and that's all I need to make me feel pure and clean, unlike those who overeat.

She's quick to add: "I'd rather be thin than happy. But I know what this has cost me to be like this."

A sometimes unsettling read, there are funny, laugh-out-loud moments in the book, particularly from her celebrity encounters during her days at 'Marie Claire'.

Geri Halliwell's absurd rider list and P Diddy's request for a mirror, so he could examine his biceps and poses, are standouts.

Liz also speaks touchingly about her ageing mother, wasting away in a nursing home, offering a raw reality that lies ahead for some of us in God's waiting room.

The critics, and her immediate family, have been less than kind with this exposition of her private life.

"My family say, 'Why did you write you can't take care of mum? Everyone will hate you'.

"But my job isn't to be liked. It's about telling the truth, about having a parent, who's 93 with dementia, and the guilt that a lot of us are faced with because we can't look after them."

There are always public spats. Perhaps she thrives off them, though she argues to the contrary.

Recently Jones branded Rihanna a bad role model, a poisonous pop princess and sensationally, the way she dressed was, "an invitation to rape". The singer retorted, branding the writer a "sad, sloppy, menopausal mess".

"I said she had the voice of an angel and a beautiful, powerful body. I just attacked her choices as a role model for very young women. But she attacked me personally," Liz defends.

"I've never taken drugs. I've never dressed like a prostitute. And what women don't understand is Rihanna may behave in that way, but she has someone who's going to make sure she's safe.

"These days, there's this whole school of thought, with the SlutWalk protests, that women can do whatever they like, wear whatever they like and can always say 'no' at the last minute. That isn't living in the real world."

The letters and emails flood in each week, thousands per month. Each one receives a response. "If they made the effort to praise, or more often, vilify my words, I'll make the effort back.

"And the angry ones, I still reply to them. And more often than not, they'll come back saying, 'I'm so sorry, I was really furious that day. I don't know what came over me'."

A large response arrives from our side of the pond and Jones denotes a vast difference in tone. "It's overwhelmingly positive and I've always wondered why. I think Irish women don't seem to be in awe of men the same way as London women. They seem to be good friends to each other. They're not as bitchy."

Maybe she's a victim of geography and would find more personal solace on our soils? "It's a beautiful country. And you love horses over there, so who knows... maybe?"

Before all you anti-Jones pitchfork wielders vent your anger towards my direction for planting that seed, a typical Liz-ism immediately follows.

"... but I'll be in the grave before that happens."

On the off-chance that her death wish doesn't come true, the author has a few more goals to achieve. "Sticking up for animals is my priority. I'd write about them every week if the 'Mail' would allow. And telling women to have more confidence and not work so hard. And laugh as much as I can."

Perhaps I failed to push her buttons and provoke the beast within during our incident-free chat, but I found Liz Jones nothing if polite, amusing and courteous. So why exactly is she so outwardly despised?

"My business is to raise issues so people can talk about stuff. It's not a beginning or an end. I'm merely opening up a debate."

Now what's so wrong with that ... ?

'Girl Least Likely To: 30 Years of Fashion, Fasting and Fleet Street' is out now

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