She’s been fired, divorced and reviled for her forthright and outlandish views which she charts in her weekly columns for the Daily Mail, but she never stays down for long. Stylist’s Alix Walker meets the UK’s most controversial writer
I’m going to keep this brief because you probably already know everything there is to know about Liz Jones. She’s made a career out of it. You know that she’s the woman who reaches three million people as the Daily Mail’s fashion editor and through her columns in the paper’s Femail section and the Mail On Sunday’s YOU supplement.
You’ll have heard that she tried to artificially impregnate herself with a used condom filled with her ex boyfriend’s sperm; that she has some rather shocking opinions about Rihanna (“the sort of fashion sense on stage that surely invites rape at worst, disrespect at least”) and older mums (“they want to use a baby as a pawn: to keep a man, to prevent themselves from being sacked, and to give them something to talk about”). You can’t have missed the shots of her facelift, hand lift and tattoo (she previously said tattoos were “just for sluts”), all of which she had so she could write about the experience for the Daily Mail.
Oh, and that along with feeding her 17 cats Marks & Spencer’s smoked salmon for dinner, she has documented every single detail of her eating disorder, marriage breakdown and bankruptcy for her loyal readers. And thanks to this intimate knowledge of the 54-year-old journalist from Essex, you’ll no doubt already have a pretty strong opinion about her.
You may well find her aforementioned views on women and celebrity abhorrent or you’ll possibly find her forthright opinions and outspokenness addictive and strangely refreshing. Regardless of whether you err more towards Satan than saint, Liz Jones is undoubtedly our country’s most (in)famous columnist. She’s also the author of five incredibly successful books (her latest one is out 4 July), was editor of British Marie Claire for three years, gets more reader comments on the Daily Mail website than anyone, or anything, else and makes a six-figure sum from her writing.
She is, I think, a very good writer – her new book made me laugh out loud and well up when she talked touchingly about her mum. She does what she’s paid handsomely to do – shock, drive traffic, say the unsayable – incredibly well. I’m not here to change your opinion of her. I will say that I enjoyed her company over the three and a half hours we spent having dinner (a vegetarian mezze with two glasses of Cava); that she was a thoroughly amenable subject on our shoot (despite 12 cats crawling over her for six hours) and that I left feeling she’s someone who’s genuinely unhappy and has been since birth. Here’s a very small excerpt from our chat, I wish I had the space to print it all.
Do the Daily Mail tell you what topics to cover or do they leave you to your own devices?
Pretty much. I think my columns are best when I’m left alone and I just write about what I really believe in. The paper want me to be the person who says the uncomfortable thing, rather than just saying “isn’t child murder terrible”. But it does make you quite hated. I’ve had really serious death threats, people have shot at my house, and I’ve had eggs thrown at my car…
Do you respond to reader comments about your columns?
Well I’m not allowed to do Twitter because [the Daily Mail] are worried about the level of abuse I’d get. I only looked at the comments once, when I wrote a piece about Holly Willoughby not wearing make-up [Liz wrote that it was a “betrayal to women”]. I actually wrote in the piece that she’s a goddess but that maybe she makes women who don’t look like that without make-up feel a bit bad about themselves, so I wasn’t really nasty about her. Phillip Schofield had such a go at me. He was properly aggressively angry. I think the misconception about me is that people imagine I’m nastier than I actually am. Because I’m not actually Jan Moir, I’m not nasty about individuals. A lot of people automatically criticise the writers from the Daily Mail; they tar you with the same brush.
Your writing massively divides opinion with many women believing that you target our flaws.
But I don’t though.
OK, well if that’s the case, your intention does get lost.
Well I don’t know how it gets lost because I write about Madonna’s facelift, I don’t attack Madonna. I wonder what makes her do that so I write about what made me have a facelift as a potential suggestion of what might have made her do it. I can only write what I believe in, so I write that I’ve been brainwashed and that I’ve ended up with no friends, no husband, no children, no money so don’t do it to yourself. So if people don’t understand my message it’s because they’re too stupid, let’s face it.
Why do you feel the need to say things that make you unpopular?
My job is to inform my readers. What I’m trying to tell readers is that [fashion] brainwashes you. These people are so good at what they do; you will end up buying things. Unless I’ve been part of that world I can’t tell them how clever they are, about the airbrushing, about the way they treat the models, about what the designers lives are like, about the freebies. I got in so much trouble when I published a list of all the freebies I got as a magazine editor. But people should know that we don’t actually buy that stuff, but it makes you unpopular.
Is informing your readers at any cost really worth jeopardising your friendships and relationship?
It doesn’t happen overnight, it sort of happens gradually. It wasn’t my plan [to be a confessional journalist] but the journalist in me said that if I was given 22 designer bags I’m going to tell my readers. Magazines ruined my life. I bought Vogue in 1975, and did and believed everything it said. I seriously think all magazines should have warnings.
When you edited Marie Claire from 1998 to 2001 you tried to implement changes banning magazines and advertisers using underweight models.
There were so many more things I wanted to do. I wanted a health warning on adverts, banning airbrushing, banning anti-ageing products, putting a pipe mark on the cover saying this hasn’t been manipulated. I still don’t think I’ve done enough. I think it’s got worse; these tricks have got more sophisticated. Women have got thread veins, spots, a boyfriend that beats them – girls have got to know that. [Magazines are] not real life.
But there’s a huge contradiction here because you also talk about women’s bodies negatively.
Do I? Give me an example.
In your book, when talking about your friends, you differentiated them by body parts – ‘the tall skinny one, the dumpy one’. You have a pro-women streak but then pick other women’s bodies apart.
I suppose there are two things going on there. I wrote a piece about anorexia in The Daily Mail and I said at the end that I’d rather be thin than happy so there is still that part of me, and it’s been proven, that anorexia is the hardest thing to recover from, it’s a different part of your brain which just doesn’t work. I still would rather be thin than happy so I think it’s too late for me; what I want to tell women is that it’s not too late for you. I’m my own harshest critic.
That’s obvious from your writing.
It’s not a great way to live but I never attack ordinary women. I would only attack someone like Kate Winslet who gives the idea that she looks the way she looks with no work. I will write that Kate Moss has got a long body and short legs and cellulite but that’s what I like about her. What I don’t like is the cover of last month’s Vogue where she looked like another human being. So I do like women’s flaws…
But they’re also the first thing you see in women?
Yeah. But we live in a world where the way people look is important, whether that’s Kate Middleton, Helen Mirren or Theresa May.
Is it really important if Theresa May looks good?
I think I wrote about [the then culture secretary] Andy Burnham’s wife looking like an Eastern European refugee. I do think women have a responsibility to look groomed, same as President Obama would never come out wearing a tracksuit, he always looks immaculate. Theresa May shouldn’t have worn those leopard print shoes.
Because she was drawing attention to herself, it’s diluting what she has to say. I’ve been very critical of Cherie Blair, saying she dresses like a double glazing saleswoman, because she’s distracting from Tony Blair’s message.
Cherie Blair doesn’t work in fashion so why should she be expected to dress in a certain way?
It’s not that hard to dress well these days. If more women dressed anonymously you’re more likely to listen to what they have to say.
What else do you think women do to hold themselves back?
They’re always stressed, tired, too much talking, too much gossiping, too much personal life brought into the office. Men don’t do that. It should be about leaving yourself at the front door and being professional.
Do you think you’re professional?
You have to be, I think. But – and there’s a big but to that – I’ve found that believing I didn’t want to be like my mum, that I didn’t want to be a housewife, that I didn’t ever want to rely on a man; I think all of these things make you very lonely, I have no friends at all.
How does it make you feel to say I have no friends?
It’s quite gutting really because I always try to nurture women, I invest in them. I sort of see myself as a safe place for women, as a voice for them. But I’ve always found you invest in a woman and then it all comes to nothing. I feel let down by them. You invest in a writer and then they just want to go off and have a life and a family and I think that’s why companies don’t invest in women, because if you invest in a man then he’ll carry on whereas if you invest in a woman then she’ll probably give up.
Are you resigned to what your life has become now or do you think you can change direction and live a happier life?
I think I’m incapable of being happy, I really do. I think it’s a disease or a mental disorder, I never put myself first. Like I will write a piece of copy and I know it’s going to get me in so much trouble but I still press send.
Because if you press send and it was too easy then you’re not doing your job. It’s always got to have a cost – you’re going to get an angry phone call from a PR, or husband, or friend.
Is it worth ruining your life for?
Well, I suppose I don’t actually have a life.
Is there no way that you can have the two?
I don’t think there’s a way to have a column and give your opinion and for people to like you, to not upset the people around you.
If you hadn’t written about your ex-husband do you think you’d still be together?
I definitely do. Men are very competitive; he didn’t like me being more successful than him, that was the main thing, and in my current relationship [Liz has been dating her “Rock Star” boyfriend since 2010] he doesn’t like me being more famous and successful than him. They like it on their own terms.
Did you love your ex-husband?
I loved him like a pet and I would do anything for my pets. But I didn’t realise that when you marry someone they will be competitive with you and jealous of your success. I thought if I was generous to my husband he would love me and he just thought I was an idiot. I always thought you could buy people, the more you gave them the more they liked you, but it turns out the more they want.
Do you think your current relationship is a healthy one?
No. I’ve never had a healthy relationship, but I think the common denominator is me. You can’t see me naked, I don’t like people touching me, I never eat, I’m always working.
Have you ever enjoyed a sexual relationship with a man?
No, I’ve got too many hang ups. I don’t like my body. It’s always in my head, which is quite difficult for men to deal with. I never look in the mirror.
Do you regret either your facelift or your hand lift?
God yeah! All of it. It doesn’t make you happier, but it was useful for the feature I was writing.
So you’d do anything for a feature? If the Daily Mail asked you to go to a lapdancing club, for example, and give someone a dance, would you?
Yes, definitely, but only if I felt it had a purpose. I’m sort of like a mad experiment.
Which columnists do you admire?
I admire Julie Burchill.
Really? She’s also a very confessional columnist – do you ever feel threatened?
I suppose. I am competitive. But it has to be genuine; it has to be real. Like Samantha Brick writing about thinking she was really beautiful, I didn’t really believe that. You’ve got to be genuine.
Who else do you admire?
Helen Fielding. I think she’s absolutely brilliant. Some of Caitlin Moran’s stuff makes me laugh. She’s the opposite of me because she’s very, very confident. I will always say I don’t know, or I made a mistake, or I’ve changed my mind but she’s very confident in what she thinks.
Do you believe you’re a feminist?
Oh yeah. Because I’ve never relied on a man; having a man in my life is not the be all and end all.
But you’ve allowed yourself to be treated terribly by men?
I wonder why I’ve been treated badly by men? I can be a quite difficult person to be with...
In what way?
I’m very anally tidy and clean, men can’t stand that. I have high expectations, high morals and I like the people I’m with to be wellinformed and morally upstanding.
What do you look down on in a person?
Laziness. I can’t stand lazy people, people who complain all the time. I like people who work hard.
Do you ever feel sorry for yourself?
All the time. My motto is “poor me”. I do feel sorry for myself because I’ve always worked hard, I’ve always done my best and I’ve always helped people so I can lapse into self-pity.
Will you ever live with a man again?
God no. They’re awful. My whole experience is that you can trust very few people.
But can they trust you?
Yeah, absolutely. If someone says, “don’t write that” then I don’t. But with my husband I felt I was paying for everything, I was supporting him and I had every right to write about him. That’s why I don’t have any friends, I think, because they don’t trust me not to write about them. And they imagine that I’ve written things about them which I’ve never written.
Did you read the whole feud with India Knight?
I’ve never written about her.
So where did the feud come from?
Jealousy. She reacted to a column I wrote about very privileged women who went to Cambridge, live in multi million pound houses and don’t have sex with their husbands. But I haven’t thought about her for 10 years.
Do you have any regrets about what you’ve written about?
There’s absolutely nothing I’d take back. I always think that actions are worse that writing about it. Do I regret writing about my husband? He should regret cheating on me. The writer isn’t the villain; we’re just reporters of what goes on.
Do you feel like your life is a warning to other women?
Yeah, absolutely. Talking to you is like talking to a therapist.
Have you had therapy?
I’ve never bothered for myself. For a feature I’ve had hypnotherapy, neuro feedback and psychotherapy. The most successful was hypnotherapy.
What did you learn?
I had a mum who was very scared for me, didn’t want me to do anything and always thought I was going to get run over. It didn’t have an effect on the other children but on a child with very low self esteem it makes you think danger is around every corner.
Why wouldn’t you consider therapy as part of your personal life?
Because I don’t care how I feel. My default setting is sheer panic. I’m always fearful.
Do you think without an eating disorder and a propensity for panic attacks you would struggle for writing material?
Yes. If I was happy I wouldn’t try as hard, I’d just bash it off. Most of the people who write to me genuinely want me to be happy; the readers do genuinely care about me.
What makes you laugh?
Fawlty Towers, Bridesmaids, Helen Fielding, Woody Allen, Cary Grant movies, Marx brother’s movies. I’m a complete movie freak, always have been. I love Sex And The City. I’m a total Carrie, literally everything is the same. She’s never the one that men fancy; they want a Charlotte or Samantha. She’s too complicated.
Men like the uncomplicated girl?
99.9% of men don’t like to be challenged.
What’s your attitude to food today?
It’s exactly what it was when I was 11. You never get over an eating disorder. I could tell you what I ate yesterday, what I ate today and what I’m going to eat tomorrow. I don’t even see it as an illness, that’s who I am. Although I’m pro women not dieting I still look down on people who eat too much. I just think it’s dirty and lazy. Thank god I’ve never had a child because look what you do if you have a child; you pass it on.
Do you wish you’d had children?
Yeah I do. I go to the Dolce & Gabbana show and all the women are on their phones speaking to their nannies but I’ve got no-one to call.
Would having a child have helped?
No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want a daughter to have the life I’ve had, I’m too in love with the image of perfection. I don’t weigh myself any more but I’m very fussy about what I eat. In a typical day I would eat muesli and nothing for dinner. I see not eating as a sign of superiority over other people.
If you’re with someone and they eat a lot do you feel superior to them?
Yeah. My husband ate a lot and was fat and I did feel like a higher being. On other women I can see that being too thin is not attractive; I can see that Karlie Kloss is too thin.
Do you look down on curvy women?
No I don’t. I admire women who are bigger because I know I couldn’t do that because I’m so brainwashed and all I want is women to stop thinking that how they look is the most important thing.
How important is money to you as a signifier of success?
I think it is important for women to realise what they’re worth.
Are you good at asking for pay rises?
Yeah. Women aren’t paid as much as men and I don’t think demanding what you’re worth is anything to be ashamed of. I sell the paper. It’s simple, really.
Would you leave the Daily Mail for the right money?
I was offered £700,000 a year to join The Express but I didn’t go. I’m quite loyal and women love the Daily Mail, they really do.
Have you got any ambitions outside of journalism?
My passion is animals. If there’s one thing I could do with my life I would change the legal status of animals.
Do you hide behind animals?
Ever since I was a child I’ve had a special relationship with animals. Animal rights people are portrayed as nutcases but we’re not. The argument has gone beyond men vs women; this is the next great challenge facing the planet. If someone from 400 years in the future saw what we did to animals they’d be aghast.
What do you think about people who don’t like animals?
They’re potential child molesters and murderers.
Do you value your animals’ life more than your own?
Yes, because they are absolutely innocent.
Do you worry about your health?
I literally have the constitution of an ox, I’m never ill. I work all night, I do 85 hours’ work a week.
You’re a complete work addict?
A complete workaholic. I feel anxious if I haven’t got anything to do. Last Christmas I got in such a rage because the Daily Mail wouldn’t let me do I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here or Celebrity Big Brother and I’d signed the contract for both. They said I’d have sex on television, but that’s not likely is it?! I enjoy nothing more than sitting at my laptop and crafting a story, I’m confident and brave in front of my computer.
Are you proud of your work?
No, because I don’t think the fashion industry’s changed and that’s my goal. If I haven’t improved the self-esteem of women then I haven’t had a successful career.
Would you rather be you than anyone else?
No. I’d rather be Keira Knightley. I love her. She’s so beautiful.
What’s your most treasured possession?
My animals, all 113 of them. Squeaky [her old cat] was quite a favourite but she died. I texted my husband to tell him about Squeaky and he didn’t reply. I find that disrespectful to Squeaky.
What would you like your life to look like in 10 years’ time?
I’d like to be dead. It’s too exhausting being me.
Three weeks after our interview, I’m not sure I’m any closer to knowing who Liz Jones is, despite knowing everything there is to know about her. I’m still debating with my colleagues as I write. I think she’s created a persona for herself and is trapped by it, forcing her to reach for more shocking headlines with every strike of the keyboard. But she’s also such a flurry of contradictions, one minute seemingly championing women, the next battering them down. I guess I think it’s OK if you love her and hate her – and just like her – you can change your mind on any given day.
Girl Least Likely To: 30 Years of Fashion, Fasting And Fleet Street, Simon & Schuster, £14.99, is out now