As the lift doors opened it was clear I was somewhat out of my comfort zone: in one corner Barry Humphries was genuflecting to a towering Kerry Packer, proprietor of publishing company ACP and at that point the richest man in Australia.
Packer had signed an open cheque book for his new import, Juliet Ashworth, to create a magazine to go up against the likes of New Idea and Woman’s Day. The launch party alone had cost him several hundred thousand dollars, probably about the same amount some of his titles would be paying for exclusive stories and photos.
But the stakes were high. Woman’s Day and New Idea were each selling an astonishing one million copies a week and bringing in many millions more in advertising revenue. A flurry of magazines were entering the market, including Who.
There was an oyster bar with waiters freshly shucking the plumpest of Sydney Rocks, a caviar station and platters of Moet circulated the room packed with corporate bigwigs, showbiz stars and society high flyers. I had been transported to a heavenly, candle-lit bubble of luxury and decadence high above Sydney.
Speeches followed and then the first magazine cover was unveiled as a volley of fireworks burst to life outside at eye-level to audible gasps.
And who was on that first cover? Socialite Diana Bliss and her soon to be new hubby Alan Bond talking about their scandalous romance that had caused major upheaval in Australia’s society circles.
“It was an extraordinary time,” recalled Ashworth last week, nearly 30 years later. “I was in Los Angeles when a headhunter called to see if I’d come to Australia and launch a magazine. I had no clue really who Kerry Packer was. Even when I got to Sydney I would get odd looks in the office when I’d shout out ‘Hi Kerry’ in the corridor, and he’d respond with ‘Hello darling’ and kiss me on the cheek!
“I had been given an office on the executive floor, a desk, phone and a limitless budget to make it all work … the objective was to create a weekly news magazine that would be a more frequent sibling to the monthly The Australian Women’s Weekly which physically could not take any more advertising. We would soak up the excess advertising and help keep market share for the Packers.”
Packer’s star editor Nene King was not happy. Packer’s publishing boss Richard Walsh said at the time: “It was like having to announce to Nene that I was pregnant with another child.
“For a long time it was fair to say she was pleading with me to have an abortion. But she’s realising she’s going to have a little sister, whether she likes it or not. She’s going to do her darndest to ensure Woman’s Day builds its strength.”
King would later say: “At first I thought ‘why?’ The market is pretty congested. But Richard wants us to be seen as an aggressive, progressive company. He feels there’s room for another magazine … From my point of view, it makes my job a little harder. I’ve got to get up a little earlier.”
And it wasn’t long before TNW morphed into NW and became a fully-fledged gossip magazine, focussing heavily on royals, Hollywood showbiz, paparazzi photos and gossip. To say King and Ashworth had a few run-ins would be putting it mildly.
“Just as I had no idea about who Kerry Packer was, I was also blissfully unaware of Nene’s reputation, and let’s just say I soon discovered her ferocity was more than just legend,” Ashworth said, somewhat diplomatically.
What ended up becoming the last edition of NW was published in late April with little fanfare. On its cover was George and Amal Clooney supposedly expecting more twins, and a story about a Married at First Sight contestant.
It was about as far removed as you could get from Diana Bliss, Alan Bond, Kerry Packer and those heady days of 1990s magazines publishing.
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Andrew Hornery is a senior journalist and Private Sydney columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.