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Media : There is a weekly magazine in Britain that is now adored by half a million subscribers. It features only good news about the rich and famous. It is a magazine that, as one rival editor puts it, represents 'the age of visual gossip.' Welcome to the world of : Hello!

August 24, 1993|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — When the glossy magazine Hello! started up here, it wasn't given much of a chance by media mavens around town.

All the journalistic omens seemed bad: Hello! was being launched in a deep recession; it was a somewhat old-fashioned picture magazine; the subjects were often obscure continental royalty or second-tier film celebrities, and the publisher was not even English.

Recently, however, Hello! celebrated its fifth anniversary and, despite all odds, its weekly circulation has climbed to 500,000--enough that it is now being widely cited as a great contemporary publishing success.

Flushed with that success, Hello! officials say they want to break into the American market with a U.S. edition they hope will be ready by early next year. (The original Spanish-language edition sells well in some heavily Hispanic areas in the United States, like Miami.)

Each week, the magazine serves up to its readers a bland but filling diet of photographs of the rich and famous ensconced in their apartments, houses or castles in what appears the best of all possible worlds. The accompanying prose is equally sugary: No hint of discord, strife or marital unhappiness mars its pages, most of which are in color.

While some critics shudder, the fans love it. It is thought to make about $2.25 million annually.

"Everyone from shop girls to duchesses reads it," says Meredith Etherington-Smith, the European editor of Town & Country. "And you'd be surprised how many men look at it too. Hello! sits in the reception rooms of many banks in London.

"I think people were obviously ready for a magazine that didn't rely on trashing its royal and celebrity subjects," Etherington-Smith adds. "Everyone says, 'I never see it,' yet, curiously, everyone seems to know what's in it."

Hello!, the Town & Country editor says, represents the "post-print generation--you read the pictures rather than the text. It's the age of visual gossip."

And she credits its success to the remarkable Spanish clan that founded Hola, the predecessor of Hello!, in 1944.

Hola!--which means hello in Spanish--is indeed a family business: the publisher and editor is Eduardo Sanchez Junco, who inherited Hola! from his parents; his mother, Mercedes, continues to supervise the design from her apartment in suburban Madrid.

Under their careful supervision--they lay out every page on their dining room table--the magazine has not changed much in character or content over the years.

"Hola! was like a member of our family," Sanchez explained in a recent TV documentary. "It started in one small room in my parents' house."

One reason for the upbeat tone that has become the magazine's hallmark has its roots in those early days, according to knowledgeable sources. Pleasant pieces ran less risk of censorship under the authoritarian Franco regime. But the Sanchez matriarch says simply: "Eduardo has a gift. He knows what people like and what they are going to like. Like his father, he has a vision.

"Hello! and Hola! have created an interest that simply wasn't there before," she adds. "It is like a weekly soap opera: All the ins and outs of the lives of the rich and famous. People are addicted to this."

With the weekly circulation of Hola! cresting at 650,000, Sanchez decided to launch in Britain. Hello! hit the newsstands in May, 1988.

And under the local editorship of Maggie Goodman, the publication's sales curve moved upward faster than any other magazine here has ever done. Hello! is designed in London but final-edited and supervised in Madrid, printed there and then shipped back by truck. More than 99% of sales are from newsstands and supermarkets. And less than 20% of the content is advertising, allowing the magazine to weather the recession better than many others.

Recently, Goodman stepped aside to be succeeded by an energetic Londoner of Cypriot extraction, Maggie Koumi. Fluent in Spanish, Koumi had worked closely with the Sanchez family in Madrid since the magazine's inception. Interviewed in her Spartan second-floor office on the South Bank of the River Thames, the new editor says of the magazine's success: "It's not a great secret. It's just a formula that worked. Everyone used to mock us, but now they copy us.

"Our success is based on Eduardo Sanchez's philosophy: Never upset or offend anyone but simply concentrate on the froth of life."

Some media observers seek deeper reasons for the unexpected success of Hello! Writer Mary Kenney, for instance, contends that "the success of Hello! has a far deeper cultural significance than is, at first, apparent. It is not just that this is a pretty mag which is determined not to say anything unpleasant about anyone. . . . It is about the Catholic return of the visual to what has been a fundamentally Protestant, word-orientation culture."

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