Q: I see Kate Moss is worth £20 million. I knew she was pretty well-off, but usually a model’s earning power seems to decline as she gets older. Kate’s 40 now. I see you’ve commented on her staying power in the Observer (above). But I wanted to ask you a different question: how do we Brits look at seriously rich celebrities?
“The big problem for me … he fell in love”
I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.
Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he? He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.
SHE WHO LAUGHS LAST LAUGHS LONGEST
Victoria Beckham could be forgiven for gloating. Reviled for years as the unsmiling one in a mediocrely talented yet universally acclaimed girl band, taunted for marrying a football player-cum-model-cum-global-icon, and ridiculed for her failure as a solo artist, reality tv star and practically every other endeavor she tried, Victoria struggled to find a purpose in life outside that of an all-purpose celebrity. So when she decided to swap wearing designer clothes for designing the clothes herself, another grandiloquent failure was confidently expected by all. Victoria, friend of Domenico Dolce, Donatella Versace, Marc Jacobs, and everybody else who’s anybody in the world of fashion, was a 24-inch waist clotheshorse with whopping shades, not the creative director of a fashion house. It was like a sci-fi film fan deciding he wanted to direct a prequel to 2001: A space odyssey. “You have no experience of directing, in fact you’ve never acted, nor stood behind a camera,” someone might issue a reminder, only to be rebuked: “So what? I have money.”
And now she has even more money. It’s recently been announced that Beckham Ventures Ltd, which handles Victoria’s fashion range, increased its turnover to £15.4m in 2012, leaving a profit of just below £1.5 million. Clothes in Victoria’s fashion line range from under £500 to more than £2,000. The clothing line is now the key element in the three companies that generate products associated with Brand Beckham. Victoria is also opening her own retail store in London. As we know, husband David recently rang down the curtain on his football playing career, presumably clearing the way for him to become a fulltime advertising image. Victoria though is building credibility after a fashion career that looked doomed from the outset. Celebrity fashion lines rarely succeed, not even when the celebrity is at the height of her powers. J-Lo, for example, got her come-uppance when she tried to launch her own Sweetface label. Undeterred, Victoria planned a prêt à porter line with aspirations to compete with the elite in New York, London and Paris. It sounded like another Victoria catastrophe in waiting. The timing of the launch wasn’t especially auspicious either. Victoria’s debut as a designer was at New York fashion week in September 2008. In the same month, the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, precipitating a global financial meltdown and the worst recession since the 1930s. But there was a surprise: reviewers were impressed by her catwalk shows, prestigious department stores competed for the right to sell her clothes and customers, in turn, paid serious money to wear Victoria Beckham frocks and, later, accessories like bags and sunglasses. Turnover grew 120 percent in each of the three years after the launch and Victoria won the Designer Brand Award at the 2012 British Fashion Awards. The barely believable success of Victoria’s label, both critical and commercial, took not just the fashion industry but everybody by surprise.
So, by September 2010, when she announced a new line called “Victoria,” the artist formerly known as Posh probably felt herself changing from a fledgling waterfowl with a broad blunt bill and a waddling gait to an elegant bird of grace with all-white plumage – though, to many, she would always be just an ugly duckling lucky enough to lay golden eggs. As Victoria told the Financial Times’ fashion editor Vanessa Friedman: “I’m a very polarizing figure: some people like me and some people really don’t” (December 9, 2011). Being loathed, detested or abhorred never damaged a celebrity’s career: as long as the figure can elicit strong emotions from a wide constituency of consumers, he or she remains in business. Indifference is the reaction every celebrity or aspiring celebrity needs to avoid. Victoria must have become aware of that during her years with the Spice Girls (1994-98 and 2007-08), a band that sold 75 million cds (and counting). She also seems to have learnt that a white lie dropped into an otherwise truthful narrative never hurts: “From the beginning I didn’t want people to confuse Victoria Beckham the brand with the surname Beckham.” As if.
With no formal design training or background in the fashion trade, did she really believe that her creations would stand any chance of success if she’d launched them incognito or in the name of, say, her sister Louise Adams? Contrary to her declaration, the whole rationale of a clothes range bearing her name was to invite a confusion of the brand with the surname. “Beckham” has been used to sell cars, cologne, razors, underwear, engine oil, felt-tipped pens, and enough commodities to keep eBay busy for years. Maybe the attempt to sell high-end habiliments was audacious, given Victoria’s track record; but anything, literally anything, bearing the imprimatur Beckham was bound to get the world’s attention. Why? Not, we might guess, because of a belief in the innate talent of Victoria or that of her husband, a prodigious athlete in his day but in the sleepy autumn of his sports career at the time of the launch. Nor because Victoria was vested with any great values or principles that would distinguish her as, to use a clichéd term, role model. She was regularly lambasted as a living advertisement for anorexia nervosa and c-section births. But finally, it seems, she has credibility: she may not be up there with Miuccia Prada or Diane von Furstenberg; but she has at least stopped others laughing — and is maybe smiling inside herself.