It's been a hectic month for modest Irish success story Michael O'Doherty; in addition to overseeing a multi-million-euro publishing empire that includes such bestselling and much-loved magazines as VIP, TV Now and Kiss, Michael has been working around the clock on his latest venture, Stellar, a glossy monthly for women which promises to be yet another smash hit. In this exclusive interview, he takes time out from his busy schedule to talk to the Sunday Tribune Magazine about the
success of VIP, the socio-political ramifications of Ireland's diminishing global economic status and his search for true love...
Michael, we can't believe that VIP magazine is nearly 10 years old. What do you remember about the early days?
I remember that everybody said you're going to run out of celebrities. Everybody said it before the first issue, everybody said it after the first issue, and do you know what? Nearly 10 years later, people are still saying you're going to run out of celebrities. It's become a mantra. The 114th issue went to press today, and guess what? We haven't run out of celebrities!
When did you first realise that you had a smash hit on your hands?
The day after the first issue hit the shelves, literally. Our wholesalers called us and said that a garage in Naas had just phoned up – they had taken 20 copies of VIP and had sold them on the first day, and now every second person coming in to buy petrol was asking if they had any copies left! They hadn't phoned up the wholesalers in 20 years, and now they were begging them to send more copies because they were sick of people coming in and sighing and getting annoyed because they didn't have VIP magazine in stock.
How hilarious! What did you do?
We had some copies lying around the office, and we actually sent them direct to the garage in Naas, just to keep them happy. When the wholesalers told us that they had never seen demand like this, we knew we had something.
Tell us the secret of your success – how do you persuade so many top Irish celebrities to open their doors for VIP?
After a few years, we realised that word of mouth is a great thing; somebody would be featured in the magazine, be happy about it, tell their friends that we made them look great and sound great – and therefore it became easier for us to get people to do it. They trust us, and the minute that trust is broken, you become like a tabloid newspaper.
What would you say to the people who suggest that VIP is a direct copy of another popular international publication?
I would say that the Irish Times is a rip-off of the London Times. We have always told people that VIP is an Irish Hello! or an Irish OK!. I don't try to pretend that we invented this format, or that we have any shame in using it wholesale – it is a format that works throughout the world, and we do a version that is 100% our own content. And that is the thing I'm proud of.
What do you think of VIP-a-like publication RSVP? Is an imitation of an imitation the most sincerest form of flattery?
I would always have doubted that there was room for two magazines of that style in Ireland, number one in terms of the pool of people, because we're both after the same people, and also in terms of the sales – I mean, why would people buy both? Or why, to be honest, would somebody buy RSVP? I mean, seriously, why would you? I remember somebody asking me if I was worried, and I said "If I was Patrick Guilbaud, running my two-star Michelin restaurant, and a journalist called and said, 'I hear a kebab shop have opened next door, are you worried about them taking your business?', I would say, 'I'm Patrick Guilbaud, look at my menu – I've got a full Challons duck with a redcurrant infusion and a lobster ravioli on the side, and they're selling a shite in a shoe, so why should I be worried?'" That's the equivalent.
Who was the first Top Irish Celebrity you pursued?
Lorraine Keane was number one. She would have been the model of the type of person we wanted for VIP – she was like the Irish Anthea Turner, who was huge in those days.
Did it take long to woo the lovely Lorraine?
I think it took five minutes! No, I mean Lorraine is a smart lady, and she knew that this magazine was perfect for her, and she's been in it six, seven, eight times since.
And we still can't get enough of her! Are there any Top Irish Celebrities who have resisted the charms of VIP magazine?
We gave up on a few people. I mean we would have obviously wanted Gay Byrne, and we never got him. We wanted Charlie Haughey in Kinsealy and we never got him. And there were some people we were caught up on then because they were big, and experience has taught me that it's not necessarily about the richest or the most famous people – it's about the most popular people. And you'd be surprised about who is popular, as opposed to terribly well-known or massively paid. Some of the people in RTé I'd have no interest in, primarily because they're men, and men don't sell VIP. Women sell VIP. That's a given. If you've got a great woman, put her on the cover, if you've got a great man and an average woman, put the woman on the cover, and if you've got a great man and nobody else... wait until you get a better woman.
This has been a difficult time for you. Your father passed away only a month ago.
It was a bit of a shock. He was 71, he'd never been ill, and he had a heart attack in his sleep while on holiday in France. Everybody says that the death of a parent brings your family closer together, and it does; I have two brothers and a sister, and it's made us all realise that it could happen to any of us tomorrow. We were close already, but I think I'm going to be closer to them from now on than I ever was.
Michael, you're looking fantastic. What do you do in your spare time?
I do nothing. I enjoy playing golf, but I haven't held a golf club in four years. I don't know. If I'm not in the office, I go out. I don't have hobbies. People have called me a workaholic, but workaholics are like alcoholics, they can't function without work. I can function perfectly without work, I just happen to enjoy what I do.
Tell us about your latest fabulous project, Stellar, the first issue of which has just hit newsagents' stands nationwide.
Stellar is basically a Cosmo or Glamour for Ireland. We're trying to do something different. I've looked at Irish women's magazines, and they look like the catalogues that department stores produce – there's no thought, no articles, no communication between the magazine and the reader. We wanted to do a magazine that gave you a proper read; there's meat to it, there are issues, there are stories – it's not just a quick flick on the Dart on the way home. If Kiss is for 13- to 17-year olds, then Stellar takes you from 18 to 35, from college through your first serious job and long-term relationship, dealing with all the issues that young adults have to deal with along the way.
Talking about long-term relationships, you're still one of the most eligible bachelors in Ireland. Does VIP magazine publisher Michael O'Doherty understand what women want?
If I understood women, don't you think I would have been married at some point in the last 43 years? I think in the past, I've used work as a bit of an excuse – I think like a lot of guys I just have commitment issues. That doesn't mean I have a different girl on my arm every weekend, I just find it hard to focus on one person and think 'This is it, for the rest of my life.' I just think I'm more honest.