IT is difficult to know what to ask Liz Jones in an interview since everything she has ever done, thought or imagined has already been laid bare in grisly detail in one of her Mail on Sunday columns.
The anorexia that has dominated her life since age 11, her recent facelift and the fact she hates herself so much she can’t bear to look in a mirror or have sex with her top off have all been discussed, dissected and analysed.
Even her excruciatingly painful divorce from an adulterous husband — whom she now refers to as The Big Lump — was picked over and displayed for the world to see in her column inches. This grande dame of confessional writing can surely have no secrets.
There is one question that keeps swimming to the front of my mind, though, which is: “Are you mad?” Not mad in the sense of a bit wacky, but actually mad in the sense of not being sane. But somehow such a question would seem too confrontational, and just too plain rude to ask.
As it happens, there’s no need, as she volunteers the information quite readily herself.
“You don’t choose to be this way,” she says. “Anorexia is a mental illness, the same as depression is a mental illness. Part of your brain is affected chemically and genetically. I have three sisters, and all three sisters have had periods in their life where they have been extreme dieters. That’s four out of four girls in our family.”
So there you have it. Liz Jones is, by her own admission, part of a dynasty of mad women.
It’s not unusual for the world to point and gawp at mad women. Sigmund Freud made his fame and fortune out of it. The difference in the case of Liz Jones is that rather than shying away from the shame and embarrassment she plunges herself head-first into the public arena, wearing her insanity on her sleeve for all to see. Many (mainly women) find her funny, many find her sad. But whatever your view, there’s no doubt that she is to newspapers what Jade Goody was to TV reality shows.
Does it not upset her when she reads stories by other journalists — such as the recent slating by Suzanne Moore — which criticise and mock her for bearing her soul so readily?
“I don’t have time to read them,” she says. “And to be honest, I’m not that interested.”
However, she adds: “As for Suzanne Moore, you have to bear in mind that she was a colleague of mine at the Mail on Sunday and they got rid of her. She left soon after the new editor came.
“Suzanne Moore gets lots of hate mail. It’s not that unusual — if you are female and opinionated other people aren’t going to like it.”
Liz Jones has now written an autobiography, Girl Least Likely To, which explores her childhood and career to date, offering her fans an even greater insight into the confused labyrinth of her mind, just in case there’s something they didn’t already know.
Jones first decided to become a writer when she glimpsed the cover of Vogue magazine as a young teenager growing up near Chelmsford in Essex, and fell instantly in love with the glamorous, glossy lifestyle it promised.
“The whole of my life has been this quest to be part of that world,” she says. “We didn’t have much. I hated the way I looked. I didn’t have many clothes.”
She worked at the Sunday Times for 11 years, where among other successes she launched Style magazine, and then in 1999 she was appointed editor of Marie Claire. It was during this period that she made her mark on the world.
She made it her mission not to use super-skinny models, and tried to convince other glossy magazine editors to do the same. She also wrote about all the freebies she received, to point out to readers that they were being duped into buying things they didn’t need by compromised journalists.
She says: “I tried to have women over 40 on the cover, women of different ethinic origins, different shapes, and with grey hair.”
But despite her good intentions in 2001, as circulation of the magazine fell, she was sacked. It seems to have been a defining moment of her life as, despite the fact that 12 years have since elapsed, she keeps coming back to it in conversation. Since then, she has built on her reputation by writing about herself and in particular her self-loathing.
“Lots of women don’t like stuff about themselves,” she says. “Helen Fielding in Bridget Jones’s Diary wrote about skin brushing, exfoliating, big knickers and keeping her stomach in. It’s a fact of life that not everyone is happy with who they are, and I have explored that.
“Some women have this protective bubble around them which might be a loving family or confidence. If you don’t have that confidence bubble you are more likely to be affected.
“I think a lot of my self-hatred stems from my adoration of fashion magazines. But if every woman was full of self-esteem they wouldn’t buy anything.”
The simple solution to this quandary surely, is not to look at the magazines? But like an alcoholic reaching for the bottle, Jones admits that she is incapable of turning away from the world of magazines and fashion.
She says: “It’s the same as a reformed heroin addict. Unless you know how fantastic it is you don’t know how seductive it is and how it can affect your life. I wouldn’t comment about heroin because I don’t know anything about it. This has affected my life and I wanted to stop it.”
After a spell of living in Somerset — where she said the women gossiped about her behind her back, making her paranoid about going to the village stores — she is back in London, but she also keeps a country home where an assistant looks after her brood of 113 animals.
As well as touring the country warning young girls not to look at magazines and become as obsessed as she is, she also campaigns on behalf of animals. She is a strict vegan and has spoken out about the fur trade and live animal exports.
She admits that her recently acquired tattoo — a four-inch rearing stallion on her left arm — and facelift were conducted partly as an experiment, so she could explain to other women all about them through her column. Yet although she loves both her new face and the public adulation from her female fans, she says her career has not really made her happy.
“My career is not about making myself happy,” she says. “It’s about alerting young women to the pitfalls and the incredible sophistry that’s going to ensnare them in eating disorders. Anorexia doesn’t respond to talking therapies, it’s much more within, in the absolute reptilian cortex of your brain. These young girls are spending all their money on stuff like hyper-grooming and going into Top Shop three times a day. We have to get young women before that trigger goes off in their heads.”
As well as the gratification she seems to get from working very hard, she also says she receives “thousands” of letters every week from women fans who say she makes them laugh.
Yet we come back all the time to the same question. She has recently written about those two most testing of phenomena for women of a certain age — the menopause and growing a moustache. Surely, at the age of 54, it’s time to hang up your pen, relax and little, enjoy life?
“I’m still very peculiar about food,” she says. “Today I wore a pair of Helmut Lang trousers I bought in 1996 and they were quite baggy. They are baggier now than they were in 1996. That’s an achievement. My trousers are looser on me.”
Finally, after half an hour of exasperated exchanges (I don’t think Liz and I would ever see eye to eye on certain subjects) we get to the core of what makes her tick.
“Writing has changed,” she says. “In the Sixties they had Katharine Whitehorn. Her columns would not be published now because they wouldn’t be interesting enough. Even ZoŽ Heller didn’t reveal enough, didn’t give enough of her soul.
“If you are going to do one of these columns you have to give all your soul, all your insides.”
In other words, she is motivated by money doled out by fatcat (male) editors who manipulate her into ditching all her dignity so that we can gawp at her.
The overriding feeling one has after speaking to Liz Jones for half an hour is not humour but exhaustion, partly because she’s intelligent and quick-witted, partly because it’s exasperating trying to untangle the mass of contradictions that make her up.
Liz Jones is not really mad. She’s just vulnerable and a victim. She’s the type of woman who’s still 15 at the age of 54. She’s the type of woman you want to rescue. But of course, the only person who can do that is herself, and with the salary she’s on, that’s unlikely ever to happen.
lLiz Jones is at the Kenton Theatre on October 3 as part of the Henley Literary Festival. Visit www.henleyliterary festival.co.uk
Doyenne of confessional journalism Liz Jones returns to the Henley Literary Festival in October. She spoke to LESLEY POTTER about her writing, her fasting and her self-loathing