Books

07.22.13

Feminist Flagellant: Liz Jones’s Surprising Brand of Tell-All

She’s widely mocked and reviled in the British press, but columnist and magazine editor Liz Jones is unstoppable, funny, and surprisingly poignant in her new memoir, Girl Least Likely To. Emma Garman on the perils of perfectionism.

British journalist Liz Jones has an unqualified knack for raising media hackles on both sides of the Atlantic. To Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, Jones—longtime Daily Mail columnist, former editor in chief of Marie Claire, and, as of last month, sworn foe of Rihanna—is “a walking collection of pure, bona fide nonsense.” Jezebel, which for a while ran a regular feature entitled “Keeping Up With the Jones,” has variously labeled the 54-year-old writer “biggest crazypants in world,” “professional crank” and, simply, “noted troll.” And to many, Jones will forever be Jizz Loans, the nickname coined in November 2011 after she wrote about stealing a boyfriend’s sperm (from a used condom and to no avail, in case you were wondering). Even venerable interviewer Lynn Barber, who profiled Jones for the UK Sunday Times, gave a physical description unrestrained in its casual disdain: “She has long dyed witchy hair, thick black painted eyebrows, and an alarming chipmunk smile when she bares her dazzling veneers. Her face is round and looks too big for her stick-like body … She just looks very odd.”

No writer, and definitely no man, attracts hyperbolic censure as reliably. (When she declared that Stephen Fry’s suicide attempt “took real guts,” one journalist tweeted that it was “the most dangerous irresponsible thing in any paper this year.”) But Jones, like most outrage-provoking commentators, starkly divides opinion. Representative of the pro-Jones stance is UK Observer columnist Barbara Ellen’s description of her as “a witty, frank, pomposity-free communicator,” whose “honesty, humour and self-deprecating defiance are criminally underestimated.” And, proclaims the jacket copy on Jones’s new memoir, Girl Least Likely To: 30 Years of Fashion, Fasting and Fleet Street, she was named 2012 Columnist of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors—beating How to Be a Woman author Caitlin Moran, who is adored as universally as Jones is derided.

Inarguable is Jones’s popularity with the public: her millions of readers make her one of the most bankable columnists in Britain. But among those consumers of Jones’s Mail on Sunday op-ed, “Liz Jones’ Diary” in the magazine supplement, and her regular fashion reports (“Does Pippa Dress In the Dark?” “Save Us From the Jeans That Make Even Sienna Miller Look Chunky!”), how many openly admire her writing, are edified by her opinions, and find her sartorial advice useful? In other words—and this is the question that surely exercised her publishers as they calculated the sum to bid for Girl Least Likely To—what proportion of her incontrovertibly rapt audience are potential hardback book buyers rather than mere hate-readers?

Terence Black, who recently wrote an Independent article with a comically concerned trolling headline, “For her own good, we should stop reading Liz Jones,” would deem it a thin slice. In his analysis, the relentless misery Jones performs is her only lure, since she “is not a particularly good or interesting writer, and seems to be pretty much devoid of humor.” Certainly, over the years Jones has written continually and unabashedly of her bitter loneliness, her romantic disasters, her addiction to eye-wateringly expensive designer clothes, her agonized attempts to groom away or surgically correct her physical flaws, and her perpetual near-bankruptcy because of the above. The confessionalism has scaled such heights—or plumbed such depths—that, according to her fellow Mail on Sunday contributor Rachel Johnson (Boris’s sister), Jones has “single-handedly killed off the ordinary female columnist.”

Yet however you feel about Jones’s stock-in-trade of oversharing self-obsession, to dismiss her as not a good writer, or an interesting one, or an occasionally very funny one, is to reveal yourself as either blinded by dislike or a poor arbiter of writerly merit. Jones’s prose, at its best, is effortlessly readable, with a deceptively artless simplicity and a self-abnegating-bordering-on-masochistic candor that mesmerizes. These gifts are fully on display in Girl Least Likely To, an autobiography of sorts that traces the rueful course of the author’s self-loathing, from her deprived Essex beginnings as the youngest of seven siblings, to her teenage descent into the iron grip of anorexia, to her determined yet constantly precarious progress as a journalist. “I wish I could rub out my life,” she laments in the opening chapter, “twiddling knobs as on an Etch A Sketch, and start again.”

Jones has “single-handedly killed off the ordinary female columnist.”

Pitched as “how not to be a woman”—an acknowledgment that Jones was inspired by the runaway success of Caitlin Moran’s memoir-meets-manifesto, and a genuine message of regret over a life ruined by crippling insecurity—many of the book’s disclosures will come as no surprise to Jones aficionados. We already know, for instance, that she had a drastic and scarring breast reduction at age 29, was a virgin until she was 32, was briefly married in her early 40s to a younger, unfaithful man, and enjoys vastly better relationships with animals than with people. Still, Jones writes movingly on many less raked-over aspects of her life, including her unhappy childhood (as the front-cover photo of a knotted-browed little girl suggests, she was born anxious), her beloved and now ailing mother, the sexual assault she suffered at 7, and the severe eating disorder for which, in her early 20s, she spent six months in a psychiatric ward. There, she recalls, “I felt safe … I had a view of the square outside, could hear the men in the meat market nearby calling and shouting early each day. I could smell the blood on their white coats. They were like giant, slow-moving sanitary pads.”

By then fixated on fashion magazines, her fondest ambition to work at Vogue, Jones stops short of unequivocally blaming the spectacle of skinny models for the disease that began when she was 11. She would pore over her older sister’s teen magazines, but was also obsessed with Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut: “She was my ideal … pigtails, a crumpled face, that bony sternum, that perfect S-bend her childlike body made as she hovered and teetered on the bar.” Then when a Vogue smuggled into hospital recommends an 800-calorie-a-day diet, this justified her continued starvation. “I am right because Vogue says it is right.” A not-dissimilar point is made by former anorexic Hadley Freeman, The Guardian columnist whose book, Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies, is another to follow in Moran’s footsteps: “These images of ‘super-slim celebs’ had been irrelevant to me when I became ill,” she writes, “but, now that I was trying to recover, they fed into all my thoughts.” Freeman, of course, despises Jones, calling her “an anorexic minstrel, enacting the most inane and self-demeaning clichés about the illness.”

It’s a statement that hints at why Jones is simultaneously so popular and so reviled: she “enacts,” with startling guilelessness, the culture’s most stereotypical, and some would say demeaning, manifestations of femininity. Calorie counting, beauty treatments, obsessing over elusive men, getting into debt to pay for Christian Louboutins, and even turning into the ultimate eccentric cat lady (she has 17 cats, as well as five dogs and three horses): Jones is a never ending chick lit novel writ large.

The impetus for her lifetime of feminine self-flagellation, she reiterates throughout the book, was her conviction that she was profoundly unattractive. “I wish someone had told me, not that I was beautiful because I know I’m not, but that I was normal and acceptable. Then, perhaps, I wouldn’t have spent my life trying quite so hard to be better than I am.” No wonder she was drawn like a proverbial moth to a career in women’s media—although the way she tells it, it’s not so much that fashion magazines aim to stoke women’s inadequacies, it’s that the corrupt symbiosis of advertisers and editors renders irrelevant the interests or wishes of readers. “Ever wondered,” asks Jones, “why all the glossy editors applauded when animal rights protestors were dragged by their hair from the Burberry catwalk by bouncers? They each had shiny Burberry totes at their toes, delivered that morning.”

Jones is at her most entertaining when she’s in fashion-world whistleblower mode. Way past caring about biting that hand that feeds her, she gossips tartly about the inhabitants of “a Diptyque-scented bubble where anyone who is not exactly like them is regarded with scorn, as a joke,” such as John Galliano, who once sent her “hippo-sized” roses with inside-out petals that “seemed strangely cruel and unnatural, as did he,” and the late Isabella Blow, who thought it would be funny to surreptitiously use a swastika brooch in a cover shoot. Recalling frightful meetings with the French owners of Marie Claire, Jones confesses “I have just typed ‘Evelyne Prouvost dead’ into Google, in a vain hope. I’ll try again tomorrow.”

Other amusing and name-dropping anecdotes abound: Jay McInerney will apparently throw quite the tantrum if a subeditor dares to put asterisks in his curse words, while Zoë Heller is “terribly nice”—but Jones doesn’t solve the mystery that preoccupies readers of her “diary” column: who is the “rock star” she’s dating? (Equally divided consensus says: a figment of her imagination, or Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr.) Conspicuous, though not surprising given her habit of alienating people by writing about them, is that despite Jones’s decades of working with well-known journalists, authors, and celebrities, Girl Least Likely To bears just a single advance blurb, from artist Tracey Emin: “For someone so utterly damaged, Liz Jones knows how to survive. Every girl should read this book!” Looking to Liz Jones for survival tips wouldn’t be my advice. But for a poignant and very enjoyable commentary on the grim perils of Vogue-inspired perfectionism, you could do no better.