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Misbehaving works for him

Times Staff Writer

WHEN life handed British journalist Toby Young lemons, as the cliche goes, he made lemonade. Not just any lemonade. After getting fired from his dream job as a writer for Vanity Fair magazine -- for repeatedly embarrassing editor Graydon Carter with stunts such as sending a strippergram to a colleague on Take Our Daughters to Work Day and snorting cocaine with bad-boy artist Damien Hirst during a photo shoot -- Young published a memoir in 2001 about his self-abuse and social stupidity titled “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.”

But it didn’t end there. Young continued to take his limited experiences and juice them beyond any reasonable expectation. He created an extensive body of work based around a handful of personal misfortunes and embarrassing social interactions, backdropped by Manhattan’s gimlet swirl and peopled by vapid fashionistas, snobs and boldfaced names.

Those incidents have graced the page (in book form and dozens of newspaper and magazine articles), the stage and now the screen. All the more surprising for a guy who seems to invariably provoke strong reactions in those he meets, who’s variously been described in the British press as “a bold satirist” and a “skinny-chested opportunist with the looks of a punctured beachball, the charisma of a glovepuppet and an ego the size of a Hercules supply plane.”

Via e-mail, Vanity Fair’s editor explained his surprise at Young’s ability to parlay an undistinguished six-month stint at the magazine into an oeuvre. “I can only compare it with a brief one-night stand that results in octuplets,” Carter said.

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Initially rejected by 22 publishers, “How to Lose Friends” became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and went on to be translated into 12 languages including Bulgarian, Mandarin and Croatian. It was adapted into a one-man show; first in London’s Soho with Jack Davenport (Norrington in the blockbuster “Pirates of the Carribean” movie franchise) as its star and then later on the city’s theater-rich West End with Young handling acting duties himself.

On Friday, a fictionalized version of Young’s tale of self-immolation will reach its widest audience yet with the release of “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” the movie -- an R-rated romantic comedy starring “Shaun of the Dead” star Simon Pegg, Jeff Bridges and Kirsten Dunst. The film’s U.K. publicity touts it as “a true story based on a real idiot.” (In what is certainly not a vote of confidence for the film, its director Robert Weide declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Perhaps the most extreme example of “failing upward” to hit popular culture in recent memory -- “American Idol” reject William Hung runs a close second -- Young frames discussion of his career trajectory around terms other than lemons and lemonade. “I’ve managed to fashion gold out of base metal,” he said on a chaise lounge by the pool of a Beverly Hills hotel. “I’ve somehow taken a string of really humiliating failures and turned them to my own advantage through some peculiar sleight of hand.”

In the film, Sidney Young (Pegg) is the editor of a smart-alecky, celeb-bashing magazine that makes sport of mocking media bigwigs like Clayton Harding (a flop-haired Bridges), editor in chief of the glossy Sharps magazine. Everything changes when Young gets hired by Harding to write the kind of fawning puff pieces about celebrities that he despises.

Undeterred, Young sets out to take Manhattan’s media world by storm but winds up a casualty of his own drunk and disorderly impulses; mayhem involving a transvestite stripper, the accidental death of an ingenue’s teacup chihuahua and a spectacular disruption of the Oscars ensues. Pegg’s character agrees to collude with the celebrity industrial complex in exchange for a passport to the A-list’s inner sanctum. But then the romantic interest of a good-hearted woman with a poet’s soul (Dunst) snaps him back to reality -- just as his house of cards comes tumbling down.

Which, of course, is the Hollywood version of how things played out.

What really happened

Toby YOUNG was put on contract as a contributing editor by Carter in 1995 after he lampooned the lionized editor in his real-life literary magazine, the Modern Review. The Oxford-educated son of an English baron, Young arrived in New York with the somewhat paradoxical intention of shaking up its media culture (mainly by needling Carter about how edgy he used to be as editor of the snark bible, Spy magazine) and infiltrating celebritydom. But the writer’s various failures -- his beef with literary “it” couple Harry Evans and Tina Brown, bull-in-a-china-shop culture clash with the Vanity Fair staff, even hitting rock bottom with booze -- was hardly a spectacular flame-out. He was never even outrightly fired; Young’s contract with the mag simply expired.

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Nonetheless, he managed to create a bonfire of well-stoked Manhattan vanities -- supermodels, art stars, society girls and magazine publishers among them -- and has continued to bring his story to life on ever more high-profile platforms ever since.

Asked why he had so persistently crusaded to tell his Capote-esque tale of woe to the widest possible audience, however, Young demurred.

“It wasn’t out of any conviction that I had a story worth telling,” he said. “I thought I was on this upward career trajectory. And then it all went completely pear-shaped. I really did nothing for five years. Vanity Fair was like a career cul-de-sac. At the end of it, I thought, ‘I have to have something to show for those years.’ I was determined to extract something from nothing.”

Novelist Bruno Maddox, a longtime friend, points out that Young turns almost everything that happens to him into fodder. But in contrast to the prevailing confessional culture in America of bruised inner children and “poor me,” Young presents himself as the Dickensian hero of his own life in a way that’s “uncontrived and un-self-absorbed,” according to Maddox.

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“I think he was smart enough to realize he had a story to tell,” he said. “As for the light he presents himself in, that’s very much his personality. If you can charm people by being naturally obnoxious, why go to the bother of learning how to be actually charming? Tobes is a guy who knows exactly who he is, almost to the point of detachment.”

A point apparently not lost on Young himself.

“My ex-roommate from New York used to make this complaint: that he used to have to live through these drunken episodes of mine, then he’d have to hear them turned into anecdotes with me regaling our friends,” said Young. “Then he’d have to read about them in newspapers, then in my book. Now he’s got to see the . . . film! Frankly, he didn’t think the story was that great when it was actually happening.”

In the final analysis, aggravating Carter may be Young’s greatest achievement, and trafficking that story is certainly the wellspring of his success. The Vanity Fair editor, meanwhile, chooses to view Young’s unique brand of self-deprecating self-aggrandizement with a certain amount of philosophical resign.

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“Those who can’t teach, write,” Carter said. “Those who can’t write, write about themselves -- in Toby’s case, endlessly.”

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chris.lee@latimes.com


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