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Friday, August 17, 2012

Tough Assignment: Jane Raphaely book review

Book title: Jane Raphaely Unedited: True tales of a fun, fearless female
Jane Raphaely
Associated Media Publishing

  Jane has been relevant in a candy-floss world where appearance overshadows substance.

After Jane Mullins married her “Jewish prince”, whom she met as a student at the London School of Economics, she could have settled into 1960s apartheid suburbia as a privileged stay-at-home mother.
Instead, Jane accepted an offer by Nasionale Pers as launch editor of Fair Lady, one of the first English glossy magazines for women in SA.
Putting any lingering self-doubt aside, she built up a reputation as a glamorous, intuitive, no-nonsense editor in a chauvinist, Calvinistic industry – one that insisted on appointing a male editor-in-chief over her.
In 1984, after almost 20 years as editor of a magazine selling 216 000 copies a fortnight – Jane left the company’s patriarchal clutches to launch Cosmopolitan in SA.
Today, Jane Raphaely is a powerful media icon in what has grown into a saturated, recycled market. She chairs Associated Magazines, a family-run empire that publishes an array of coveted titles from a building, dominated by women, opposite Parliament.
Through the years, the unflappable “JR” has resolutely got on with the job. She survived the odd banning order from the Publications Control Board. She fobbed off critics – from feminists to chauvinists – “with a polite smile and wave”; and the odd stiletto-sharp barb.
Her career never thwarted her traditional family aspirations – she and her husband Michael have four children. This led many women, particularly from her generation, to wonder how she did it.
This partly motivated her to pen her own cover story, Jane Raphaely Unedited: True tales of a fun, fearless female.
The meticulously self-edited autobiography is a “personal odyssey”, laced with dollops of Oprahesque advice about friends, motherhood, work and her adopted country, SA.
Her early years are vividly recollected. Conceived in 1936 on a rubbish dump to a “struggling Irish welder” and a “Jewish alpha female who was a chronic optimist”, Jane grew up in the “armpit of England”. Half-Jewish, she often felt like an outsider.
Jane digs deep to unearth family secrets around her conception, her parents’ marriage and an esteem-bashing, abusive aunt.
In her 20s, Jane followed Michael to SA, where she got a job as an advertising copywriter. Married a few years and pregnant with her second child, this “media nobody” became Fair Lady editor.
Her only journalism credentials were a Cape Times shopping column and two irreverent articles on food and fashion translated into Afrikaans for Sarie Marais magazine.
Jane describes Naspers as “a conservative God-fearing apartheid engine”, the last place a “subversive, pregnant Jewish rooinek should have embedded herself”.
Jane gives readers a peak between the frothy covers of the magazines she has edited over five decades, including Fair Lady, Cosmopolitan, Femina and O, the Oprah magazine.
A control freak and perfectionist, Jane trusted only her company to publish her book. While she reveals fascinating insights about her upbringing, her later years of success are covered with broader strokes; a more airbrushed depiction, not unlike the industry over which she reigns.
Jane is tactful, discreet and a fastidious networker. She does not burn bridges. She also understands the art of masking flaws, hailing from an industry renowned for sculpting fantasy images of women.
She has dealt with stroppy celebrity publicists who demand sign-off before publication. She has negotiated exclusives with the Barbara Barnards of the world and beyond – according to similar rules of compromise.
The chapter on Charlize Theron, who guest-edited an issue of Femina and collaborated on Jane’s hard-hitting “Real men don’t rape” campaign, has a superficial, varnished feel. The reader is also left wanting in the chapter on Oprah Winfrey, whom Jane convinced to start an SA edition of O.
The dynamics of running a family business is a no-go area (her husband operates behind-the-scenes as a shareholder, their second child Vanessa is editorial director and third child Julia managing director).
But Jane is generous to readers in other areas. Revealing her own fragility, she dwells on her experience with grief – especially over the death of her father-in-law. She also reminds readers that in life, “it is what you didn’t do that will haunt you”.
She recalls her failure to expose a first-hand account of atrocities in the SADF during apartheid. She wishes she had fought earlier and harder for gender equity, if not for herself then “for the other people on my team”.
Jane has flirted with politics and used her position to make a difference. She has been relevant in a candy-floss world where appearance overshadows substance.
She speaks out on violence against women and children, venturing into territory many younger colleagues don’t care to follow.
Through the years, she has injected journalism and pithy feature writing into the grit-deficient formula dished up by the industry.
At her book launch, Mamphela Ramphele paid tribute to Jane’s feminism – her campaigning role to encourage SA women to believe in themselves. This self-belief runs through the book. Aimed to motivate and uplift, the book reflects Jane’s own polished image. It falls short of the whole truth, but we get an absorbing self-portrait of the pioneering life of JR.
Note: I spent three years as features and deputy editor at Femina a few years before it closed down. This book review first appeared in the Cape Times on July 27 2012