Audrey Slaughter, who has died aged 91, started work as a shorthand typist and went on to create three of the most successful titles – Honey, Petticoat and Over 21 – of the new age of magazines in the 1960s and 70s, establishing a close relationship with readers from previously ignored markets while enticing advertisers with buzz.
Petticoat was for teens, Honey for young women in their 20s; Over 21 included over 31s too. All three came out of Slaughter’s recognition of how much her own tough life at those ages might have been changed by the information and transformation such a magazine could offer – how it could be a portal out of isolation. She was a working-class girl who hated her auburn hair and thin body but had no advice on how to style them, and at 19 she had married a man 15 years her senior to get out of an overcrowded home. Her greatest escape, though, was a job typing answers to readers’ letters at Woman’s Own.
Woman’s Own and other weeklies, which had huge circulations in the 50s, were based on young marriages, domesticity and a life much the same at 23 as at 55. Slaughter soon had two children, but unusual ambition, and rose through magazine jobs to become fashion editor for Fleetway Publications’ Woman’s Weekly – chief task writing captions for paper patterns.
Outside the weeklies’ cosiness she saw a new generation who, as she had done, started work at 16 but had more disposable income and a big part in an evolving pop culture of music and fashion.
While working at Woman’s Weekly in 1959, she submitted a dummy aimed at this readership to Fleetway management, which launched her idea as Honey in April 1960, under an editor who, it turned out, could not deliver the concept. Slaughter was recalled from covering the Paris collections with a company telegram: “COME BACK IMMEDIATELY YOU ARE EDITOR OF HONEY”.
At 31, she was a very young female boss in a traditional, male-managed world (when she put the Beatles on Honey’s cover her managing director called them “some yobbos”), especially after Fleetway became part of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC) in 1963.
By then, Honey was selling a quarter of a million monthly copies, and IPC gave Slaughter the freedom to innovate – with fashion awards, tours of the north of England with a van-full of clothes, a boutique concession in Selfridge’s – and allowed her to appoint her own staff, many not originally from journalism.
In 1966, Slaughter extended her Honey formula to mid-teens, until then regarded as readers of juvenile mags, by launching Petticoat.
Her unit had an independent office at the Carnaby Street end of Soho, where the staff were their own best copy, partying and dressing outrageously. Slaughter was a tough boss and gave no second chances – deliver or go – and was just as bold with her IPC overlords, often turning meetings into confrontations. In 1968 she challenged the IPC board over restrictions on her editorial control, lost, and resigned.
National Magazines made her editor of the failing UK Vanity Fair in 1970 but she could not revive it; so National launched a British edition of the US magazine Cosmopolitan and closed Vanity Fair in 1972. Slaughter was furious about its female readers being sold to advertisers at male command – “Why should readers go where two company directors decide to put them?” – and left, taking staff with her to an old factory in Charterhouse Square, off Smithfield market, to set up a new magazine.
There she and her team invested their redundancy pay-offs to publish a first edition of Over 21 in just three weeks, with “Produced by the former staff of Vanity Fair” on its cover. It was more adult than her youth mags, not so sexually obsessed as Cosmopolitan, and less wild than Nova, and such a success that Morgan Grampian bought it out within 18 months, with an eight-fold return on investments.
Slaughter lost much of her profits on the stock market. She could be profligate; her Aston Martin DB 2/4, almost the colour of her hair, cost as much in upkeep as purchase, though paid off in projecting a high profile.
She edited Over 21 until 1979, then tried non-magazine journalism when the Sunday Times offered her the Look section, aka the women’s pages. Her move was perhaps influenced by her marriage that year to Charles Wintour, the respected editor of the Evening Standard, but Slaughter’s superior froth did not work in monochrome newsprint on tight deadlines and the gig was soon over. With Wintour, she launched the Sunday Express Magazine in 1981.
Wintour provided financial backing for Slaughter’s last magazine, Working Woman, first published in 1984 and meant for executive-level careerists, though there were hardly enough of them then, even aspirant ones, to make it viable. The businessman Peter Cadbury bought it, planned to turn it popular, and Slaughter departed. Through the worst of this, she had undergone treatment for ovarian cancer.
In retirement in Wiltshire, Slaughter wrote four romantic novels, their ugly duckling heroines revisiting her origins. She was the fifth of six children of Frederick Smith, a warehouseman in Sidcup, Kent, and Nellie (nee Hatt). As a wartime evacuee she attended Manchester grammar school, teaching herself shorthand after leaving. Giving in to her mother’s wishes, she married Wally Slaughter, an investment manager, though, she later said, she did not like him much, let alone love him, and she left him during the Honey years, taking her children, Michael and Sally; they divorced in the late 60s.
The match with Wintour made her stepmother to Wintour’s children by his previous marriage, including Anna, later editor-in-chief of US Vogue. Wintour died in 1999.
In 2002 Slaughter married Denis Lanigan, an advertising executive; he died in 2009. She is survived by Michael and Sally.
• Audrey Slaughter, journalist and editor, born 17 January 1929; died 18 December 2020