Media Headliner: Johnson drags The Lady out of the Victorian era

The title, which underwent a televised revamp, is moving beyond etiquette and ads for butlers, its editor tells Anne Cassidy.

The Lady magazine has had more media attention in the past six months than in its entire 125-year existence. And it's all down to Rachel Johnson.

Before her arrival as editor, the TV exposure open to the self- styled "gentlewoman's journal" might have been limited to a slot as one of the arcane publications lampooned on Have I Got News For You, like Parking News or Australian Goat World.

Last week, the women's weekly title got to star in its very own documentary, The Lady And The Revamp, on Channel 4. The cameras followed Johnson, the sister of Boris, as she dragged the anachronistic title into the 21st century.

Johnson cut a ruthless but charming figure as she contended with the comically eccentric characters holed up for decades at The Lady's Covent Garden offices, which she describes in the show as resembling "a care home".

What makes the documentary so entertaining is that Johnson does not hold back. She's like a cross between Anna Wintour and Jennifer Saunders, telling her well-meaning but diffident publisher, Ben Budworth, to "grow some balls" and likening a post-airbrush shot of cover girl Julie Andrews to an "open casket".

Johnson says she found the documentary a tad too revealing at times. "I'm not quite as alpha as I appear on screen," she says. "I'm a pussycat and very downtrodden at home by my children and husband, who treat me like a slave."

Her recent tour of TV studio sofas and her myriad interviews with national newspapers promoting The Lady's revamp means she's comfortable in the public gaze, which is just as well. The magazine's owners, the Budworth family, are relying on her high profile to lift the title's sagging circulation. "I am the marketing strategy," she explains.

Johnson, a writer for The Sunday Times and the London Evening Standard and the author of satirical novels Notting Hell and Shire Hell and The Mummy Diaries (based on her newspaper columns), had never edited a title before taking on The Lady. Nonetheless, she is very well-connected with an enviable contacts book. More importantly, as Budworth says, "she has balls". So much so, that Budworth, a helicopter pilot brought in last year to save his family's business, refers to her as his "attack dog".

The Lady has been in the Budworth family since it was founded in 1885 by Thomas Gibson Bowles, who also launched the British Vanity Fair and was a grandfather of the Mitford sisters. It is renowned for its classified ads seeking domestic staff and its articles on etiquette. The front covers, before Johnson's arrival, ranged from cats in soft focus to funereal bouquets of flowers. Its readers reportedly have an average age of 70. But Johnson believes that might be an underestimation: "I thought the average age was 100. I feel 125 after being here for just six months."

The circulation, which has plummeted over the past few decades, is 30,487. In order to save it from extinction, the Budworths (understood to be in the bidding for Reader's Digest since it went into administration) hope to take sales to 40,000 by the end of this year.

Johnson is reluctant to comment on the target circulation, saying: "I'm not going to issue a suicide note by putting a number out there and failing to reach it." She is, however, encouraged by early signs that the revamp is attracting new readers, noting the title's circulation was up 11 per cent year on year between January and March.

When Johnson joined The Lady in July last year, her friends and family reacted with "hysteria", she reveals. "They didn't get it," she says. "They associate it with nanny ads and couldn't see why I wanted to do it. But I saw the potential."

Johnson has pulled in big-name contributors including Lady Antonia Fraser, Roger Lewis and Hugo Vickers. Cover girls have included Sharon Osbourne and Kate Middleton (controversially sporting hunting gear and a shotgun). Johnson says she is shaping it to resemble a cross between The Spectator (formerly edited by her brother) and Waitrose Food Illustrated.

Many racier additions, such as an article by Charles Glass on the dos and don'ts of bedding the nanny, have, unsurprisingly, not gone down at all well with the title's old guard. The hate mail floods in, but Johnson has developed a thick skin. "I understand their upset, but we didn't have any choice.

We had to do something radical to get new readers rather than let the old ones dissipate through natural attrition," she says.

The title, reportedly a long- standing favourite with the Queen, is still welcome in the royal household, however. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, contributed a letter saying how much she liked the revamp.

Moving the advertising away from prune juice and stairlifts isn't easy, Johnson admits. But since the revamp, a few higher-end brands have trickled in, including Aga, Mercedes and Range Rover. She is trying to get the title back to its literary roots (Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm while working there in the 30s) and cites the magazine's "glistening editorial" and wide-ranging content from food to health and beauty as reason for brands to invest.

Tough as the new editor appears, the pressures on her to ensure The Lady's fortunes are for turning are taking their toll. Johnson points out that at the start of the documentary she looked healthy but by the end she looks "absolutely shattered". But she has no regrets: "God, I've had a blast. But I need sleep."

Age: 44
Lives: Notting Hill
Family: Three children
Most treasured possession: My children
Best thing about your job: The readers
Favourite gadget: Phone
Motto: Though I say so myself ...