Bright Young Thing, Plum Sykes, Abandons Vogue , Sort Of

Once gossiped about as an Anna apparent, socialite Plum Sykes is taking her Manolos and strutting out of Vogue . Yes, it’s true that Ms. Sykes–a fashion features writer and relentless gal about town–won’t be leaving Ms. Wintour’s fashion flock entirely. But in becoming a contributing writer, the Bright Young Twin will vacate her office in 4 Times Square, eschew those hot kippers in the Condé Nast cafeteria and focus on those proverbial “outside projects.”

Ms. Sykes, who intends to work on a screenplay (but of course!), will be missed at Vogue , even as colleagues admit that her bodily departure does free up valuable cubic feet in the Condé hive. “She’s giving up an office that we desperately need,” confessed the magazine’s managing editor, Laurie Jones.

What’s more, the departure of Ms. Sykes should put to rest any lingering speculation that the tall, pink-cheeked Brit–a frequent boldface name in the gossip columns and the current girlfriend of the oft-shirtless artist Damian Loeb–is Ms. Wintour’s next-in-line. “It’s sooo not true,” sniffed one magazine source.

But, in fairness, that’s what Ms. Sykes also said when the question was put to her. “I’ve never, ever wanted to be an editor,” she declared. “I’m not a corporate person; I’m not interested in power. I just want to be a writer.”

“To be honest,” Ms. Sykes continued, “I really wanted to make the switch because I wanted to work from home. I just wanted to write more articles for Vogue –and one of the ways to do that is to spend less time in meetings.”

Ms. Sykes, who has a twin sister named Lucy, was firm about not revealing any details about her screenplay-in-progress. But switching to the home office will also help her avoid the drudgeries of magazine life. “I don’t want to write picture captions all day,” she said.

So, if Ms. Sykes is not being groomed to enter the inner circle at Vogue , just who is? Over the last year, Ms. Wintour has seen a gaggle of her prized lieutenants exeunt. Former fashion news director Kate Betts, of course, very loudly took the helm at Harper’s Bazaar; former features editor Richard David Story now edits American Express’ travel magazine Departures ; former associate editor Charles Gandee jumped to Talk as a features editor; and arts editor Michael Boodro left to edit Garden Design.

Worse, some of the efforts to replace the departed editors have been perplexingly short-lived. Eric Banks, editor of Artforum, was brought in as arts editor, but went back to Artforum just a month later. Fashion writer Robin Givhan was recruited away from The Washington Post as an associate editor, and then also promptly went back to her old job. And Michael Solomon, who was editing features on a freelance basis this year, bailed on Nov. 29 to take the editor in chief position at Premiere .

Unable to keep its top talent and hard-pressed to hire loyal newbies, then, it looked like Vogue was going through some dark days. What’s more, with Teen Vogue and the Internet hub up and running and the demands of producing many “outserts” (the thin, advertiser-driven magazines poly-bagged with Vogue ), editors and writers found themselves working longer and harder than the normal 9-to-5 pace.

At the same time, Ms. Wintour–who is reportedly still happily involved with businessman Shelby Bryan–was jet-setting to strange and exotic lands.

“She went to Tennessee to watch Al Gore not win,” scoffed a source close to the magazine. “The next day she was in the office saying she didn’t get any sleep. She’s busy doing a lot of things she didn’t used to do in addition to running this empire.”

Ms. Jones, the managing editor, insisted that Vogue remains “a well-oiled editorial machine,” and said the dark days were never that dark. Still, she admitted: “If anything, it might be fatigue.”

Of the exodus of senior features editors, Ms. Jones said, “I was sorry to see Richard Story and the others leave, but they all went on to take good jobs for more money.”

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that Anna reads every word that goes in the magazine,” said one magazine source. “Anna has a really strong literary taste, and what’s important to her is to hire somebody with her vision.”

And lately, there have been signs of a new, emerging inner circle at Vogue . Sally Singer, the magazine’s new fashion news and features director, is said to be very influential at the magazine. An unlikely fashion editor–Ms. Singer, who came from New York magazine, is said to not exactly have a lot of haute couture in her wardrobe–she is considered to have some fashion street smarts. Also on the rise is arts editor Jay Fielden, a former New Yorker associate editor who apparently has Ms. Wintour’s ear on issues of culture and politics. “He’s kind of a dashing Southern guy,” a Vogue observer said. “People suspect that he reminds her of the boyfriend. He’s very pleasant.”

Ms. Jones told Off the Record that a former Architectural Digest senior editor, Marina Isola, started on Dec. 4 as senior editor. Finally, Eve MacSweeney, a refugee from Harper’s Bazaar, will start her job a week before Christmas as an associate editor.

And as this new crew coalesces, Ms. Wintour’s reputation as an “ice queen” may be thawing.

“Even when she’s in a bad mood, she has a different posture,” a Wintour watcher said. “The consensus is that she’s so much more mellow and easier to work for because she’s probably getting laid.”

When the New York Film Critics Circle sits its collective popcorn-enhanced tushie down at Sardi’s on Dec. 13 to select its 2000 movie awards, the New York Post’ s co-head film critic, Lou Lumenick, will not be in attendance. That’s because Mr. Lumenick’s application to the Circle was rejected, panned by his peers like John Travolta’s performance in Battlefield Earth.

The thumbs-down on Mr. Lumenick represents a notable break with Circle tradition, since the top critic at each of New York’s dailies is routinely admitted to the group. But Mr. Lumenick’s application for membership was pooh-poohed at the Circle’s fall meeting in October–without discussion, sources said, and by a large majority.

Some Circle members said the rejection of Mr. Lumenick reflected a grudging bias against the conservative and tabloid sensibilities of the Post . Though Mr. Lumenick’s colleagues Jonathan Foreman and Thelma Adams, formerly of the Post and now at Us Weekly, are members of the Circle, they were initially rejected, too. “I suppose there is a tremendous animosity for that paper for its right-wing politics,” said one Circle member.

Others said as well that Mr. Lumenick’s rejection was specific to the writer himself. Pauline Kael, Mr. Lumenick is not, they said. “Theoretically, you are voting on the venue and the person,” said one Circle critic who voted against Mr. Lumenick. “This was a judgment; I personally think he is bad.” The critic added, “I think there are people over at Murdoch’s who are sort of dumbing down criticism. He has all these new 21st-century agendas [like] whether a film is family-friendly.”

Not everyone agreed with that assessment. Mr. Lumenick had his supporters, like Jack Mathews of the Daily News, who didn’t attend the October meeting but said he voted for his competitor by proxy anyway.

“If you have a job reviewing movies full-time for a major outlet, then you should be in,” Mr. Mathews said. “When the group begins to assess the quality of film critics, that’s a sort of slippery slope.”

Mr. Lumenick did not return calls.

This year’s Circle chair, David Sterritt of The Christian Science Monitor, declined to comment on the rejection of Mr. Lumenick’s membership. But he did allow that, yes, the tradition of the Circle has been for all lead newspaper movie reviewers to be represented. “There have been times when the critic for the Times, News or Post have not been a member,” he said. “Of course, as a general practice, the regular critics of the major dailies have been included.”

Who knows whether Us Weekly editor Terry McDonell would have begged his executive editor Megan Liberman to stay and not accept a new job at The New York Times Magazine ? He barely got the chance. Ms. Liberman left for vacation (some at Us Weekly thought she was headed for Brazil) on Dec. 1, one day after she gave notice.

“She fled,” Mr. McDonell said.

At the Times Magazine, Ms. Liberman will take the post of arts editor, with a pop- culture focus. (What did you think she was going to edit? “On Language”?) She replaces Diane Cardwell, who moved over to the Metro section to be a reporter.

Mr. McDonell said there are no hurt feelings. “We hate to lose her, but it’s the kind of job that will allow her to fill out her talents,” he said.

Ms. Liberman was a veteran of Us from its good old days as a monthly. Before joining up with the Wenner title, she had spent time with the doomed David Lauren mag, Swing .

Ms. Liberman’s new boss, Times Magazine editor Adam Moss, said: “We looked at many candidates who knew their stuff about entertainment and culture, and we tried to find someone with the knowledge, the good story sense and the energy to bring really compelling stories into the magazine.” He did not say whether or not he was also looking for Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ wedding photos, too.

We do not know what will be in the February issue of Esquire , but one story you won’t be reading is Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon’s insider account of the 2000 Presidential campaign.

Somehow, the energetic Mr. McKinnon had penned a full-length feature for Esquire during the endless post-election mess. Word is that Mr. McKinnon’s piece is pretty good; apparently, it’s a personalized, War Room -style look at the Texas governor’s White House bid.

But something strange happened on the way to the newsstand. After it was scheduled for the February issue, Mr. McKinnon’s piece was mysteriously scratched from the table of contents at the last minute.

Esquire editor David Granger, who said he is still trying to get the piece into his magazine, didn’t want to talk about Mr. McKinnon’s piece and why it got bumped.

A left-wing media conspiracy? Perhaps, perhaps not. But there are plenty of good reasons why neither Mr. McKinnon nor Mr. Granger would want the piece to show up in late January.

The first reason is obvious. When Esquire was closing its February issue–right around the time David Boies and Theodore Olson were squaring off in front of the U.S. Supreme Court–it wasn’t absolutely certain that George W. Bush would be the next President. And, boy, would it be embarrassing to have a cover line like “How Bush Won the Presidency” hit newsstands right around the time Al Gore was being sworn in.

And then–and more curiously–there is the little matter of a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into how a videotape of Mr. Bush doing debate prep traveled from Mr. McKinnon’s office in Texas to Mr. Gore’s debate coach. Mr. McKinnon isn’t under investigation in that case, but a woman in his Maverick Media consulting firm is, and we could imagine his lawyers wouldn’t be too happy about him writing up the ordeal with a grand jury empaneled. But Mr. McKinnon’s lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.

Finally, there is Esquire’s “Dubious Achievements” special, which is currently on newsstands. In a classy feature speculating on who President Bush would most likely have “sexual relations” with, the magazine concluded that Mr. Mc-Kinnon is 47 percent more likely to sleep with Dubya than Laura Bush is. Of Mr. McKinnon, in fact, Esquire wrote, “Probably good for a blow job.” Nothing like rolling out the welcome wagon for prospective writers. Bright Young Thing, Plum Sykes, Abandons Vogue , Sort Of