Squeezed into her economy-class seat, waiting for the flight to Cape Town to take off, Harriet Beam, fashion editor of Sunshine Fashion & Style magazine, is feeling more than a little nervous. The reason: photographer Larry Wylde, having flirted his way to an upgrade at check-in, is sitting at the front of the plane drinking Jack Daniel’s and reading Jeffrey Archer.
Just about every magazine in London has blacklisted Wylde, thanks to his unpredictable ways, inability to stick to a brief and ego the size of Kilimanjaro. But Harriet’s editor, Sharonne, has been enjoying an on-off dalliance with him and felt that he would be the perfect choice for July’s fairy-inspired, Flights of Fancy fashion story.
Harriet and her assistant, Céline, console themselves that Wylde can’t be worse than the unhinged photographer who, with the light fading fast and several cover shots still to go before the flight home from Miami, disappeared to buy organic muffins. Or the creepy snapper who hired his new girlfriend to model clothes for a yoga-wear spread, persuading her – via rather explicit directions – to contort her body into some very unusual positions, while Harriet and Céline struggled to keep straight faces.
Ever the optimists, they tell themselves that the African trip ought to be a success. After all, they’ve assembled a fabulous collection of designer chiffon dresses and booked a first-class model.
On arrival in South Africa, Larry emerges from the plane bleary-eyed and makes himself scarce just as the six heavy suitcases need to be heaved off the luggage carousel. After a two-hour drive, they arrive at the coastal resort, where the make-up artist and model – who have flown in from New York – are already installed in the best rooms and complaining about the lack of a phone signal. Harriet looks at the perfect sweep of yellow sand and blue-green ocean and breathes a sigh of relief. The stunning location has more than made up for the arduous journey.
Convening an hour before dawn the following day, Harriet briefs Zelda, the rather supercilious make-up artist (booked by Larry), to create “soft, shimmery make-up and a healthy glow”. Harriet then goes off to organise the clothes and on her return is horrified to find that Larry is up and drinking Berocca, while rebriefing Zelda to “add a bit of an edge”.
The result is a black-eyed, mohican-haired vision of rehab-chic. But when Harriet suggests that they “soften” the look, Larry’s response is less than diplomatic. To her further dismay, he ignores the beach – bathed in the wonderful pink-gold light of early morning – and instead heads to the dimly lit spa, where he photographs the model crouching in a corner, looking feral.
They have flown halfway round the world to shoot in a darkened room, and the photos are so “off message” as to stand zero chance of getting into the magazine. But Harriet and Céline soldier valiantly on, eventually coaxing Larry – or The Beast, as they’ve taken to privately calling him – into daylight, suggesting that he shoot the clothes from clever angles to disguise the hideous hair and make-up.
On day four, he refuses to shoot the photographs for the Tan-tastic fake-tan feature. By day five, Harriet, whom he refers to as “the posh totty”, would dearly love to wrap his tripod around his neck. On day six – after an all-night bender – he claims to have “eaten something dodgy” and doesn’t show up. Zelda, with whom he appears to be enjoying more than a professional relationship, claims to have been similarly afflicted. On the flight home, Harriet reflects that the only thing worse would have been a week stuck in a lift or any confined space with Larry.
Back in the office, she lets slip that Larry was “distracted” by the make-up artist and lacked focus. Sharonne, whose relationship with Wylde is in an “off” phase, agrees the photos are unusable.
Harriet is therefore aghast when, a few months later, Sharonne says she wants to give Wylde a second chance. “We’ve just been offered a yacht in Turkey for a week to shoot the New Modesty story,” she says. “I thought he’d be perfect.”