- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Toby Young had long dreamed of life amid the exciting world of New York publishing and Hollywood celebrities. When the British journalist received an offer to move to New York City and write for Vanity Fair, one of the glossiest of glossy magazines, it seemed perfect. Mr. Young imagined himself becoming buddies with Vanity Fair's legendary editor, Graydon Carter, hanging around movie stars and dating glamorous women.

So it was that Mr. Young arrived in Manhattan in 1995 at age 32, thinking he was certain to succeed.

He failed. Spectacularly so.

By the time he returned to London less than four years later, he had been fired from his Vanity Fair job, sunken into an alcoholic daze and somehow managed to offend nearly everybody he met. But he has turned his New York saga into a book, "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People," now a best seller in England.

Hollywood film producers the same high-powered big shots who wouldn't give him the time of day five years ago are bidding to turn his story into a movie. Not bad for a chap who describes himself as "a balding British hack."

"All my close friends accuse me of false modesty," Mr. Young says in a telephone interview. "But I realized a long time ago that if you put yourself down a lot, people are more likely to accept it when you criticize others."

His roller-coaster ride through the celebrity culture of New York and Hollywood began with a quarrel with Julie Burchill, his co-editor at the Modern Review.

"I called it low culture for highbrows," Mr. Young said of the journal he co-founded in 1991. Modern Review "used to publish long, scholarly articles by journalists and academics on subjects like the obsession with teeth in the novels of Martin Amis and the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger."

The journal found a niche among the London elite, and when Mr. Young decided in 1995 to shut down Modern Review without first informing Miss Burchill the result was a media furor.

Accusations and counter-accusations flew. Miss Burchill's lesbian girlfriend at one point compared Mr. Young to Adolf Hitler in the pages of London's Independent. The rival Evening Standard calculated that "the Burchill/Young coverage" in the British press in one week amounted to "1,705 [column] inches, or 48 yards," second only to coverage of the war in Bosnia.

The buzz apparently reached across the Atlantic to the offices of Vanity Fair whose previous editor, British-born Tina Brown, had made "buzz" the magazine's raison d'etre. Just as the Modern Review brouhaha was fading from tabloid headlines, Mr. Young's phone rang with an offer to join Vanity Fair at a salary of $10,000 a month.

It was like a dream come true for Mr. Young, who was fascinated with celebrities Vanity Fair's stock in trade.

"In the early '90s, in the U.K., American celebrities and American popcorn movies were considered quite cool. It was a kind of counterculture backlash moment," he explains. "In that context, coming to New York to work for Vanity Fair seemed like an incredibly hip thing to do."

He also was eager to work for Mr. Carter, who had become famous in the late 1980s as editor of the satire magazine Spy. "I was expecting Vanity Fair to be a little bit more irreverent and iconoclastic than it turned out to be," Mr. Young says.

The world of New York journalism also had a romantic attraction for the young Brit. "I'm a big fan of black and white screwball comedies set in the New York journalism world, like 'His Girl Friday' and 'Philadelphia Story,'" he says. "I had a rather romantic notion of what working in the New York media would be like. I was expecting to discover the modern equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table."

What he found was a high-pressure, status-obsessed world where image was everything and political correctness frowned on the kinds of antics that were commonplace among the hard-drinking Brit journalists of Fleet Street.

"Within about a fortnight [in New York], I was branded a chronic alcoholic with an inappropriate attitude towards the opposite sex," Mr. Young says.

Among his most infamous blunders:

•Hiring a "stripper-gram" to deliver a birthday greeting at the Vanity Fair office to a co-worker on what turned out to be Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

•An interview in which his first two questions to actor Nathan Lane were: "Am I right in thinking you're Jewish?" and "Are you gay?" End of interview.

•"Bothering the celebrities" in Mr. Carter's words at the 1996 Vanity Fair Oscars party, where he chatted with Jim Carrey and Mel Gibson.

His dreams of romance with the stunning models featured in Vanity Fair's fashion spreads came to naught.

"I realized as far as the gorgeous models milling around in the building were concerned, I was just the help," Mr. Young says. "They crave attention from Richard Gere look-alikes pulling down a million bucks a year on Wall Street. They didn't crave attention from the likes of me."

Likewise, his notions of camaraderie with the literary luminaries of New York proved illusory.

"The thing which really astonished me about New York, after having bought into the myth of New York as the great melting pot, was how class-bound it is," Mr. Young says. "Everyone I encountered was obsessed with status. … There was a very rigid food chain. And even though I was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, I was still a minnow."

How did it all go so wrong?

Mr. Young "has this sort of English self-deprecating shtick that most Americans, certainly in that environment, wouldn't go near," suggests his former Vanity Fair co-worker Chris Lawrence, who was the recipient of the stripper-gram.

"I just think he's irreverent," says Mr. Lawrence, now working in public relations in the Hamptons. "It's this weird combination of being super-impressed with the celebrity culture and the glossy magazine culture, and yet, maybe as an outgrowth of that, constantly poking fun at it in a way that wasn't acceptable."

Mr. Young's irreverence toward the celebrity culture has only increased since he left New York.

"My impression was, rather than being great personalities in their own right, the vast majority of celebrities are just the pet monkeys of the moguls who run the entertainment industry," he says.

Yet he doubts that Americans even after the sobering events of September 11 will end their fascination with TV and movie stars. "I think the cult of celebrity is just an inevitable byproduct of living in a democratic society in the age of mass media," he says.

Former Vanity Fair colleagues are not amused.

"We've been looking through our files, and we can't seem to find any record of a Toby Young ever having worked here," said public relations director Beth Kseniak.

"There's a sort of mild consternation about it, and sort of an inevitability that Toby would go off and write about it," Mr. Lawrence says.

After returning to London, Mr. Young wooed and wed a woman who apparently was planning to keep him safely at home in Britain.

"I went to L.A. on my honeymoon last July," Mr. Young says. "I was hoping my wife would like L.A. so much we could both go and live there, and I could write a sequel about crashing and burning in Hollywood, but unfortunately, she didn't much like it."


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