Vanessa Raphaely on Plus One, misogyny in the magazine industry and #MeToo

"#MeToo as a subject is dark enough, but so are betrayals, drugs, fame, rape and power abuses, which are all also covered in the book"

12 February 2019 - 11:39 By Mila de Villiers
Award-winning magazine editor and debut novelist, Vanessa Raphaely.
Award-winning magazine editor and debut novelist, Vanessa Raphaely.
Image: Catherine Mac

"The 1% of women who lie about sexual abuse makes it difficult to believe the 99% who are abused by the “many monsters out there", relays Vanessa Raphaely.

The award-winning magazine editor's debut novel, Plus One, explores the exploitative influence that men in positions of power have over female journalists, models, and interns in this cutthroat industry.

Here Raphaely discusses her necessary - and timely - debut with our editor, Mila de Villiers:

1. The abuse of women at the hands of men who possess social status is a predominant theme in Plus One, and you explicitly draw upon the #MeToo movement to illustrate the injustice hundreds of women are subjected to on a daily basis.

What motivated you to write a novel which addresses this distressing and harmful reality? 

The subject matter felt relevant and newsworthy and yet it didn’t feel cliched. I hadn’t read much fiction which dealt with the casual, careless misogyny I had experienced and yet it is everywhere.

I hoped, for a first novel, that I could both write with integrity, honesty ... and relevance to other women. The surface in the book might be glossy, but I suspected that the grim underbelly might ring true to many readers’ own life experiences. 

I also wanted to write something entertaining but with a sting in its tail and a slap-in-the-face twist. #MeToo as a subject, is dark enough, but so are betrayals, drugs, fame, rape and power abuses, which are all, also covered in the book. I like Alison Lowry, who edited Plus One’s, description of it as “dark material with a light touch.” It’s a proper page turner, and a solid holiday read more than anything else. 

2. To what extent does the magazine industry milieu in Plus One

a) coincide with and

b) differ from your years of experience in the industry?

(With special reference to misogyny, exploitation of young models and/or interns, and a desire to succeed which proves detrimental to your physical and mental health.)

My experience as a cog in a big magazine machine, a senior but relatively powerless employee and a girlfriend of two very powerful men, during my years overseas, was very different to the privilege of returning home to SA and the real freedom of being able to work my way into ownership in a family business. That’s proper privilege and luck.

The book explores the kind of “power” bestowed upon young, attractive women.

I was told, when I was young, trying to make my way in that glossy, celebby world, that I was lucky and should use my youth, intelligence and relative attractiveness (not such a rare commodity, many young women are beautiful!) to “get through the doors.” And I guess that advice worked.

But what people don’t warn you about is that the gatekeepers to those doors, to power, success, wealth, in the world I describe and in the world I inhabited, are sometimes rather awful men, often damaged and damaging. And THEY decide what happens to the young women, once the doors are closed.

This happened both professionally and socially. So a young woman’s “power” in that scenario, until and unless she is lucky enough to earn, marry or inherit financial freedom, is very precarious. That part of the book is a nasty fairy tale that I thought might be worth telling. 

We, as young women, have all been fed a diet of rom-coms and chick lit (where charming, devilish men can be tamed, and baddies are really goodies, where inscrutable icicles melt in the heroine’s arms ... all these stereotypes, just waiting for the love of a good woman) that are actually unrealistic and dangerous. Young women should be encouraged to read more political strategy, economic theory and satire, in my opinion! 

Models are often seen merely as accessories to successful men"

Models, I’m afraid, are often seen merely as accessories and status symbols, to successful men. Models are a currency. 

If you, perhaps quite ordinary person yourself, can deliver young beautiful boys and girls to powerful men, you can buy yourself access to the VIP section, to the elite first class, behind the velvet rope ... many boast-worthy invites to fancy parties, networking opportunities, great sports and music events will be yours.

It’s contractual. Beauty, perhaps with added naïveté and compliance, has a significant value, to men, in that world.

Yuck.

A model’s position could be particularly vulnerable, because they’re usually young, and can often feel faint, and not all that clear thinking because they don’t eat enough, so they’re not robust, experienced in the ways of the urban jungle, or sturdy. (A dark joke, but with a kernel of truth.) 

Interns ... depends on how ambitious they are. If you want to play in the big leagues, you’d better sharpen your claws and fangs, spend more money than is sensible on beauty and fashion, and grow a thick skin.

3. Your protagonist - promising, young journalist Lisa - initially responds to a woman's email which discloses that her daughter (Jade) was raped by an industry big shot with scepticism, yet she questions her own doubt. ("Why was I struggling to believe her?") 

Why are women still hesitant to believe each other when coming forward with accounts of their sexual abuse/assault?

The tragedy of most rape cases is that there are often no witnesses. So when you have a plausible enough alternative scenario to consider, such as the one Lisa imagines, while listening to and judging Jade’s mother, it’s hard to be certain where the truth lies.

Reporting rape usually plays out as a “he says she says” situation, and for every women who gathers her strength to accuse a man, there is someone ( sometimes even another woman,) who says “women accuse falsely too.”

The statistics don’t bear this out of course, but perhaps the truth that there really are SO many monsters out there, it's just too much for most of us to process.

Reporting rape usually plays out as a "he says she says" situation

For the record? I believe women. 99% of the time. It’s that 1% that makes the whole situation so difficult.

That’s why I used a second hand report of a rape for the book. 

Lisa had to carry the wound about her actions vis-a-vis Jade’s story. She had to carry doubt and guilt with her over ten years.

She had to have a substantial reason to reconnect with [her best friend] Claudia and [Claudia's brother/Lisa's on-again-off-again partner] Liam, or else she would just have been a moony, drippy girl, who couldn’t get over a rejection. I like to think she has more backbone and integrity than that. Lisa is a decent person. Just young and an outsider in the beginning of the book.  

I think we are still marinated in very unhealthy ideas about responsibility for these abominations. There is still blame and judgement attached to women's behaviour as a factor in rape and assault cases. Even by other women. 

And though it is palpably untrue, there is still a notion that this stuff does not happen to “good girls.” And that, if girls “watch out” it can be avoided. I think it’s believed that there is some equal responsibility ... that the victims “dressed wrong, drank too much, were where they shouldn’t be.”

And I think now, there are many people who worry that the real victims of #MeToo, will be the men, who “are now terrified to approach a woman.”  

Good grief. 

4. The lavish yacht party reads like a chapter from a 21st century Great Gatsby; the London club scene like a peek into the life of a 90s Kate Moss. Have you attended similar jols in your lifetime and, if yes, was the toxic masculinity as tangible as described in your book?

I’ve been at way too many big, flashy, shiny parties and met plenty of big bad wolves.

But I’ve also met many lovely men. Some of my best friends, etc. And I’m married to a properly decent guy. 

5. Lisa is a relatable character in that she's the perennial 'plus one' figure, comes from a middle-class South African family, and pursues relationships with the wrong men. Although little is divulged about her best friend Claudia's background (at first), she can be described as the antithesis to Lisa: the gorgeous, fun, successful British It Girl adored by all. How did you go about creating their personas? Are they based on people you know/have met?

They have fragments of people I know or knew. But they’re not fictionalised real people! They came to life as I wrote them. 

6. One can argue that the only men in Plus One with any redeeming qualities are Lisa's gay colleagues/friends and Enzo, the Australian butler she meets aboard the The Aegi. 

Her dad is an ignorant, patriarchal racist; her on-off boyfriend Liam is an aloof enigma; and the wealthy/powerful men she happens upon are repugnant, manipulative sexists. 

Did you intentionally depict men who tend to be overlooked (or even rejected) by society - based on, say, either their sexual orientation or supposedly 'menial' job descriptions - as the 'good guys' in contrast to the (vile) privileged few?

Yes. I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that niceness is not a highly prized trait amongst the most successful, wealthy, famous or powerful. Or the members of Team Lucky Sperm.

I always notice that young, beautiful and rich people have the worst manners when driving. Or standing in queues! If you want nice - older women, wearing bad clothes, and with rubbish hair styles, wearing no make up, with hectic children - are nice.

We know too much about how tough and levelling life is, to be awful! 

7. The following quote by Margaret Atwood proves prophetic in your novel: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." Can you elaborate on this statement with regards to your understanding of '#MasculinitySoFragile'?   

The stakes for real danger for women, when faced with a rogue bull, are very high. A bad man is a terrible threat. And they don’t all look like monsters. Charm, for example is a popular and effective weapon of choice of abusers, sociopaths and psychopaths. 

But then, on a happier note, a very famous writer of 80s Aga-sagas, Joanna Trollope, once wrote “Men love women, women love children and children love hamsters.” 

According to me? To dream a woman can have a good relationship with a bad man, you’ve got to believe in fairy tales. It’s smarter to choose good men, who like children and hamsters. 

The most important power a woman can have is to try to make sensible (not starstruck) choices, and forgive herself entirely for her stupid ones.

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