IN this fickle and cutthroat world of media, few careers are secure ... well, unless you are Liz Jones, former editor of Marie Claire and current Daily Mail miserablist. Having amassed a readership of three million, the writer – who pens a weekly 'Liz Jones Moans' column – is known for getting hate mail by the bagful. Socking it to mums, celebs, bad role models and, most notably, her ex-husband (of which, more later), Liz's job seems to consist entirely of provoking ire and laying bare just a little too much information about her dysfunctional, lonely, fiscally challenged life. Even Rihanna has waded into the fray, recently calling the writer a "sad, sloppy, menopausal mess".
Initially, I'd felt daunted at the idea of interviewing Jones, who has recently released a memoir, Girl Least Likely To: 30 Years Of Fashion, Fasting and Fleet Street. While she is the queen of TMI, she has always seemed shrouded in mystery: an odd mass of contradictions. One moment, claiming penury. The next, feeding organic food to a menagerie of 113 animals on her Exmoor farm. Jones does a rather neat line in pushing this hard-to-fully-pin-down persona. We're all hooked. We all have an opinion. Job done.
Just last week, Jones called up all the friends and exes that are no longer in her life, to see just why they had rejected her, for a column.
"It was actually quite illuminating," she trills (long-standing eating disorder or otherwise, Liz certainly had her Weetabix this morning). "I wanted it to be an open and honest thing, and the paper wanted me to write a piece about it for the book, to find out why I had been dropped."
This unrelenting look at her private life and failings as a friend and partner is now her calling card.
"I was on a panel discussion with a man who writes a personal column for The Guardian, and he said that the minute something goes wrong in his life he stops writing," notes Liz. "I was like, 'but when disaster strikes, that's when it gets interesting'. It's not interesting to hear, 'Oh, I've a lovely family and lovely children', like some female columnists do."
Here's the thing: I do pretty much the same job as Jones. I've written about my personal life for years and covered some pretty close-to-the-bone territory: weight issues, depression, sex, bereavement. Unlike Liz though, I haven't burned through my personal relationships like a nuclear bomb. The sackfuls of hate mail remain at large.
She sighs heavily. "I don't know why I provoke so much ire," she whispers, genuinely dumbfounded. "The way I do it is funny. You need to do what you do with humour. My job isn't to be liked."
Certainly, some warmth and charm helps to sweeten a highly personal column. But when Liz writes about her bedridden, ninety-something mother: "The sheet is covered in teddies and clowns, and I wonder if Cath Kidston hasn't come up with a more adult one," you can see exactly where her detractors are coming from.
"I wouldn't say I don't like getting a reaction, but it's about being a writer," she states. "If it's not difficult, you're writing a press release."
Yet in a way, I can understand why Jones, as a confessional writer, always seems to take it too far. There's the siren call of a wide audience.
Part of me thinks that for Liz, there's a slight thrill in committing to print the sort of truth that normally daren't speak its name. She's the first – and, as far as I know, the last – writer to confess to secretly stealing a boyfriend's semen from a used condom. And possibly the first to refer to an ex-husband – novelist Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, 14 years her junior – as a "fat, self-obsessed bastard".
Nowadays experiential, confessional writing is very much in fashion, albeit with a worrying twist. In some instances – as in Liz's – there is personal cost. Yet paradoxically enough, she wouldn't have it any other way. "Around the time that Samantha Brick wrote a column about her looks, I wrote that it was easy to write a sensationalist piece, but you need to write something you believe in and are passionate about," she enthuses.
Jones may have the courage of her convictions, but in Fleet Street's media circles, she appears to be a figure of derision. The Times's Camilla Long denounced Girl Least Likely To ... as "sub-Roddy Doyle fnar", while Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore described her as "an operator, a manipulator, a liar". Those sort of comments from industry peers would have me taking to the fainting couch for months on end. Not so with Liz.
"I don't attack female writers," she notes. "The more of us there are, the more people will buy papers. I don't attack people personally." Presenter Claire Balding – whom Liz accused of clothes shopping at sofa superstore DFS – might say otherwise. "If you don't want to be criticised, stay at home in a jumper, then," she says with supreme conviction.
Here's the thing: I really warmed to Liz during our chat. She laughed readily and kept her cool during our probing, cross-examining interview.
For her shortcomings, you get the impression that she'd make for rather entertaining drinking company. In her book, she spitfires indiscreet gossip from her time as Marie Claire editor.
As a fashion writer, Liz is top of the pile, writing with genuine authority and a keen eye (though she has been banned from many fashion shows). Still, why not stick to that and keep your personal calamities away from the public? "There was a point a couple of months ago when I said I wanted to stop, and that I wanted to go off and be a war reporter. But if I go off and be a war reporter and cover a Somalian famine, I will put all of myself into it," she deadpans. Given that this is a woman who claims she cannot eat a whole avocado, I genuinely can't tell if she's joking or not.
I begin to realise that Liz's idea of acerbic humour may not be in line with everyone else's. "I was sitting on the plane watching Sex and the City, and this mum said, 'can you stop watching that? My child can see the screen', and I told her to plug the gap with her stomach. But I was joking."
Ah, mums ... a tribe for whom Liz seemingly reserves a special sort of disdain.
"I'm not anti-women," she counters. "I'm anti-women who run out the door at 6pm to their kids. I'm anti-women who are workshy."
But what of the infamous condom incident, which happened just as the biological clock was ticking at its loudest?
"I think I'd have been a terrible parent," she reflects. "I'm so focused and driven that I'd have had left it at a garage. I'd have given them all my complexes and food insecurities."
Then why do it then? "At the time it seemed like a good idea, then I realised very quickly that it would have been another accessory. It seemed like a fashionable thing to do."
Whatever people think of Liz's candid nature, one thing is clear. No one could hate Liz Jones as much as she hates herself. While Girl Least Likely To ... is on one hand a juicy, indiscreet poke at the fashion magazine industry, the other half of the book is a cast-iron misery memoir.
Instead of a stern matriarch or alcoholic father, the main antagonist of the tale is always herself. Born in 1958 into a loving home, Liz admits that she began to hate her looks at the age of six. She lost her virginity, finally, in her 30s.
The self-hatred rolls off the tongue at a rate of knots: "I've never had a successful relationship, I'm too shy, I never have sex, I never allow people to see me naked, I'm a quarter of a million in debt, I've no pension, no children, I'm deaf, I'm lonely, I'm not a success," she intones.
On one hand she says she's never had a successful relationship. But she's in a long-term one now, with a man known only as 'the rockstar', yet not even vast sums of money will make Liz reveal his identity.
"Yeah, but it's not based on anything real," she shrugs. "We never just go to the supermarket or talk about the central heating. It would be nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day. I might be in a relationship with a lovely man, but I'm convinced he'll cheat on me and wake up tomorrow to find me ugly and repulsive."
This is the energy upon which Liz's empire runs: "I'm just not a happy person," she declares. "I'd like to get up at least once and not have my heart pounding, or sweaty palms, or fear. I get nervous when the phone rings, as I'm convinced I'll be told I've been sacked, or my mum has died, or one of my horses has died."
If salience is the Holy Grail for any column writer, Liz Jones needn't worry about being sacked. When I mention that she would make an excellent reality show subject, she exclaims: "I'm always trying to get on TV, but they just don't want me. I think it would be hilarious."
For now though, the self-deprecation will keep on coming. "Rihanna might have called me a sloppy menopausal mess, but she forgot to mention that I also have a post-menopausal beard."
For Liz Jones, there will always be the might of the pen ... and, for that matter, the might of a woman you just can't keep down.
Girl Least Likely To: 30 Years Of Fashion, Fasting and Fleet Street is out now.