In 2022, I started joking to my friends that I was having a midlife crisis and it was manifesting on many fronts. The jumpsuits I love that my husband hates were getting more garish. I developed a frankly inexplicable obsession with Korean boy bands (which still rages on, but that’s a column for another day).
It was a volte-face that shocked everyone I knew and people still struggle to understand why I did it. To explain, I have to go back some years. The answer has its origins in the job I’m probably most known for – from 2000 to 2017, I was the editor of Glamour magazine, which, at its peak, was Britain’s biggest-selling women’s magazine.
Everyone loves to pretend that magazine jobs are “not all glamour, you know”; but this one, by and large, really was. It was a wonderful job filled with fashion shows, celebrity parties and all the other magazine clichés you’re imagining right now.
It was so much fun that I did it for 17 years. That’s less of a job, more an institutionalisation. My identity became so fused with the magazine’s that my name was never spoken or written anywhere without being followed up with “the editor of Glamour”.
My own daughter, born in 2005, had never known me as anything else. It got to the point where I genuinely believed that being the editor of Glamour was the only thing I was capable of. And this became a real problem.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when those around you start to smell the failure on you and edge away, in case it’s contagious. Slowly but surely, I realised I was being frozen out of important meetings and mysteriously left off the guest lists of the glamorous parties that had cluttered my diary.
People pulled me aside in corridors to whisper things like, “Make sure you get a good pay-out.” Like most print magazines, Glamour’s fortunes were struggling. Our budgets were slashed, my small team grew smaller. In short, the job that was once pure joy was killing all my confidence. It was way past time to leave, but I’d become too scared to. So it was largely a relief when the decision was made for me. In late 2017, I was made redundant.
Happily, it was only a few weeks before I was offered the role as editor of You, which I jumped at, and not just because I needed a job. I was excited to have the chance to shape a magazine with such a huge audience, and I was relieved that others did indeed see me as something besides “the editor of Glamour.”
I had a brilliant four years there, making magazines I was truly proud of with a wonderful team. But after the Glamour experience, I made a pact with myself: never let a job swallow your identity ever again. I couldn’t let fear keep me rooted to the spot for a second time. And, frankly, I was getting on a bit.
Now into my 50s, I realised the longer I left it to try something new, the harder it would be. So I bit the bullet and jumped, resigning from that great job with no real plan to speak of. I just knew I wanted to try other things. My boss at the time was shocked when I told him and didn’t really understand what I meant when I said I wanted to try a “hybrid career”. But that is now what I have.
In my limbo period I was approached by the charity Children with Cancer UK. They were looking for a new CEO. Not an obvious move for me, by any stretch. But the chairman, David Gibbs, is a damn persuasive “can-do” character. Where other people might see no relevance in my magazine experience, David saw someone whose skills and contacts could help grow the charity.
The challenge intrigued me. For 35 years, Children with Cancer UK has been one of Britain’s biggest funders of research into childhood cancers, and yet relatively few people have heard of it. I became energised by the idea of trying to use my skills for something so important.
Every day in the UK, 10 children or young people receive a cancer diagnosis. I’m proud to be leading a charity that is determined to change that. David was also receptive to my wish to keep a hand in media, so we agreed that I could take the CEO position as a three-day-a-week role.
Eyebrows were raised, it’s true. I had a Twitter troll come at me for days, saying I couldn’t possibly be dedicated enough in a three-day role if I was taking on other work. I’m going to be bluntly immodest now, because that view is a gross underestimation of what I can achieve in a working day.
The busier I am, the less time I waste. I’d go so far as to say I’m now a fully rehabilitated procrastinator, constantly surprising myself with my ability to rip through a day’s to-do list.
There’s no denying that my charity job has been the steepest learning curve I’ve set myself in decades. I’ve spent many hours bending the ears of my experienced team and other seasoned third-sector bosses. Those inspirational quotes about “getting out of your comfort zone” are all well and good, but living through the discomfort has been daunting at times.
And it’s obviously an incredibly sad cause. I was afraid that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to handle that. But, honestly? When you’ve had a five-year-old boy talk you through his chemo regimen, with Churchillian resilience, it’s damn heartbreaking, yes. But it makes me realise I’ve never had a genuinely bad day in my life. And so I get back to work.
All things considered, I’m proud of myself for taking a risk on something so different and new: it’s good to find there are new opportunities for a middle-aged woman to be able to grab.
The biggest surprise for me has probably been just how much crossover there’s been between my old life and my new. My magazine-editor days were filled with telling stories, generating creative ideas, building relationships, and then constantly begging all my work contacts for favours. Anyone who works in charity will recognise the similarities.
When I’m not working at the charity, I’m usually completing writing or consulting work. I have various presenting roles, including fashion segments for Lorraine. And what I’m finding is that keeping up with my media work opens doors for the charity. Appearing on Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail podcast led to a flurry of donations.
A chance meeting at a fashion dinner thrown by Anya Hindmarch got me talking to the wonderful Sarah Standing, who’s now a fully committed supporter and fundraising aide.
If I’m ever having a wobble of self-doubt, I remind myself that I was hired precisely because they want to try to do things differently, to be out there talking about the charity.
And finally, after some painstaking work in the backrooms, we’re at a point where I can talk about some of the projects we’ve been working on. Last month, we launched a bold new auction project, the Really Big Auction. (You will be relieved to know I did not receive any sort of cash bonus for coming up with that name.) It was a celebrity-driven auction that raised more than £250,000 in 39 hours.
This week, we’re launching a brand-new fundraising campaign that fuses my old career with my new one. Called Style Against Cancer, the premise is simple. For a four-day period, we are asking Britain’s hairdressers to donate some of the proceeds from cutting, washing, colouring and blow-drying to Children with Cancer UK.
I annoyed/politely asked some well-known names to launch us in style: Claudia Winkleman and George Northwood – hairdresser to the likes of Alicia Vikander and Meghan Markle – fronted a video explaining the whole process. The brilliant journalist – and my former beauty director at You – Edwina Ings-Chambers has opened her contacts book to recruit even more big names to the cause. The PR guru Jonathan Kirkby took on the campaign as one of the charitable initiatives through his own agency, Instinct.
I have high hopes for it raising more of the money we need to support our young patients and their families. Earlier this week, I spent time with Ellen, a 26-year-old woman who credits the charity’s research investments with saving her life. That’s serious motivation to keep doing more.
Children with Cancer UK invites hair stylists across the country to host a Style Against Cancer fundraising event to help fund research into kinder, less toxic cancer treatments. To find a participating salon or how to donate please visit Style Against Cancer.