I just came across this interview with Michael O Doherty, from 2002, which deserves to be here, because it is very funny. Michael won the three top prizes at our last Speaking Supper (google Speaking Suppers if you dont know what I am talking about)
I am not sure if he still has the Ferrari, I think it is now an orange Lambo
copyright Victoria Mary Clarke, 2002
Michael O’Doherty doesn’t know who he would kiss, given the choice of absolutely anybody in the world. Elle Mac Pherson, Helena Christiansen, Kate Moss, I offer him. “Nahh. Cigarette-breath,” he says. He really can’t think of anybody. But then, he says, this is an entirely hypothetical question and he doesn’t do abstract or hypothetical. He’s a practical man and he doesn’t involve himself with anything that is beyond his control. Michael O’ Doherty is a media magnate who lives in a Ringsend river-view apartment, with a CD player that comes on when you wave at it. He wears Armani suits, because “they’re the best you can get” and he drives a red Ferrari. He publishes “VIP” magazine, and ‘TV NOW!” and he’s just launched ‘KISS’, Ireland’s first teen mag for girls.
Everyone else involved in creating ‘KISS’ was able to list the people they would most like to kiss, but not Michael. He wouldn’t enjoy the kiss, he says, because it would be transient and there would be no future in it. He doesn’t bungee jump, because he doesn’t need to know what it’s like and kissing one supermodel would be the same as kissing the next supermodel, he doesn’t need to know what that’s like either.
Being the publisher of celebrity-related publications, Michael should, I have decided, be a deeply shallow individual with a penchant for supermodels. And an obsession with glitz, glamour and all things superficial. No, he says, because he is most definitely not a celebrity. Definitely, categorically, absolutely not a celebrity. Nor does he ever have any desire to be one. The minute you think you are part of their world you are finished, he says. Because then you start to enjoy the life and you can’t function as someone who’s documenting it. And once you become part of it, you can’t put in the hours and do the work properly.
Can’t put in the hours? I interrupt, incensed. But surely celebrities work all the hours God sends them?
‘What do celebrities do before midday? Quite seriously?”
They have things done to them, I remind him. They have massages and they do yoga and meditate.
“Okay,” he concedes. ‘Maybe they work long hours. But a celebrity is only expected to perform for a few hours a day. The job that I’m talking about, which is publishing, is a regular job. The only difference between the job that I do and the jobs that other people do in things like banks is that I don’t work nine to five I work nine to nine. And I work at weekends.”
I can attest to this, because I live next door to his office and the lights in there are always on. His car, a red Ferrari can be seen parked outside at 3am, even at weekends. Despite this dedication to duty, in the greater scheme of things, neither he nor anybody who works for him remotely believes that what they do is important or life-changing.
“But having said that, we do provide a valuable service. We make people happy.’
We argue heatedly about the merits of making people happy by feeding them a diet of glamour-obsessed trivia. And agree to differ. “KISS”, he points out, will have four different problem pages, which will tackle all kinds of things that teenage girls worry about. Things like what to do if you vomit in his mouth or swallow your own snot. Maybe he’s right, maybe he is providing a service. But what is interesting about Michael is that whether or not he believes that he is serving the best interests of his readers, this isn’t what counts.
“All I care about is numbers. What I enjoy is the idea of the public going out and buying the magazines, that, to me, is the success. Because if somebody is willing to hand over money for it, it’s got to be good, as far as I’m concerned.”
By that definition of what’s good, I say, it doesn’t matter if something’s trashy, as long as it sells.
“Well, yes. If VIP were a newspaper, at the very best it would be a mid-market tabloid. It is by no means the broadsheet of Irish magazines.”
Publishing magazines has been his passion, ever since he was eighteen and he wrote his first ever article, for Trinity College’s “Piranha” magazine. He was too shy to submit the article in person, so he slipped it under the door, one day.
“ And the next time the magazine came out, I saw my name in it. I had bought the magazine and I had hidden in a corner because I didn’t want anyone to see me looking for my own name. And I remember to this day the buzz that I got from seeing my own article with my own name on it. I do remember, also that they had cut and pasted it so that the second last paragraph and the last paragraph were in the wrong order! The article ended on a pun, which was a brilliant ending and then suddenly there was another paragraph. The guy’s name was Tim Horan, the guy who had stuck those two paragraphs in the wrong order and he will never be forgiven!”
Is this a metaphor for his life now?
“Absolutely not. But I was aware that if I had put it together myself, it would have been right and that’s where the control thing clicked in.”
Is he a control freak?
‘Oh God, yeah. Come on! Of course I’m a control freak.”
Encouraged by his success, he wrote a second article and again stuck it under the door. But as he was doing it, the door opened and a man invited him in.
“ It was like a scene from a movie. A door opens and this blinding light comes out and you walk into the space-ship. There were type-writers and rulers and Pritt-stick and stuff, and I spent the whole weekend in there, helping out. And I came away transfixed, and that was it.”
He left College in 1986 and freelanced for the Irish Press and the Sunday Tribune. And set up a graphic design company. Then he launched a nationwide student magazine called ‘Level Three”, which lasted 18 months. And he lost money on every issue.
‘In the commercial world , you’ve got to make it pay. And after that folded, I decided that the next thing I did would have to make money. And that’s not an easy thing to do.”
In 1997, he and John Ryan re-launched Magill with Vincent Browne. The early issues sold over 40,000 copies and broke some serious stories. But after seven months Michael and John left the magazine. Michael sold his shares to Browne, purchasing the Ferrari with the proceeds. A gesture which, we can only imagine, must have cheered Browne’s famous social conscience.
And then, in June 1999,‘VIP” was born. But that was John’s idea.
‘I can’t think of an original idea that I’ve had,” he says, and it’s difficult to tell of he’s joking. ‘Stuff doesn’t come instinctively to me. I can give the impression that it does, and that’ll do for most people. But there’s nothing in life that you can’t learn.”
VIP remains the biggest selling monthly magazine in the country. A year later the pair launched TV Now! – another idea from John – which ambitiously took on the RTE Guide. After a difficult birth it has since become Ireland’s third highest selling magazine, shifting 35,000 copies a week .He and John worked together for three years and had a tempestuous relationship. One that should have worked, because John was the ideas man and Michael looked after the nuts and bolts. But it didn’t work and John sold up last year and moved on to more unusual ventures. They remain friends, he says, and if he won the lottery, he would seriously consider another joint venture. With the lottery win, he could afford to do something that was risky and might not work. He doesn’t like to take risks, especially if he can’t calculate the results.
‘I am not a creator in the way that John is, but I would remember everything that John said and I would be able to copy it. You know paint-by-numbers? The magazines are like paint-by-numbers and I’m brilliant at that.”
This, too, is difficult to believe. After all this is the man who put Gerry Adams on the cover of VIP. Which was, he admits, an inspired move for both parties. The magazines, under his control are making money. He’s careful with the money, though. He doesn’t spend it, if he can avoid doing so. And he doesn’t really have a life, outside of the magazine.
“Can we talk about my hobbies? I recently agreed to be a judge for the Rose of Tralee, -which we sponsor-and I had to write a little biog, listing my hobbies and interests. I put cars, golf and skiing. And when I read it I thought God, I sound like a wanker. But you know what? I realised that I haven’t been on a golf course in two years, and I haven’t been on a ski slope in four years. And they are genuinely the things that I love to do in my free time.”
If he does spend money and appear to be flash, there’s always a practical side. The Ferrari, for instance, is 18 years old.
“And if I sell it, I will get back the money that I paid for it, so it makes economic sense. My stereo is expensive, but I won’t buy another one for ten years. I have a few very good clothes. They are expensive, but they last.”
Women must throw themselves at him, though?
“No, absolutely not.”
John Ryan was always the one that women were interested in, and Michael accepted that. John, he says, has a presence that he simply doesn’t have. Whereas John is six foot four, strawberry-blonde and well-built, Michael is Chaplinesque: slight, dapper and self-contained. And he wouldn’t be interested in any woman who was attracted to him because of his magazines and his car. Even Penelope Cruz, if he met her in Reynards, wouldn’t tempt him, if she wasn’t interested in him as a person. Besides, he doesn’t have time for a serious commitment, like marriage, because he works all the time. What would happen if he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and only had six months to live?
“I would stop work immediately. I do want to die having enjoyed something other than work. But I wouldn’t enjoy myself because I can’t enjoy something if it has no future.”
And supposing I was a genie and could grant him any wish that he wanted? He can’t think of one. Not even World Peace?
‘It’s way too abstract. I genuinely don’t know. But I’ll tell you what I dream about. All I ever dream about is the stuff I’ve messed up. I have this recurring dream about a Leaving Cert History exam that I failed. I have a mortal fear of not getting 100% Of getting an F in publishing.”
Somehow, it doesn’t look like that’s about to happen.