I’ve been smoking since I was 13 and it’s been one of the greatest guilty pleasures of my life: A rare admission these days. But, after a breast cancer diagnosis, the former Vogue editor is trying to give it up — and hating every minute
- Alexandra Shulman is receiving treatment to prevent the recurrence of cancer
- Former Vogue editor, 64, who grew up in London, has been smoking since age 13
- Admitted to her partner David, she isn’t sure if she can stick to not smoking
There’s a photograph of my mother, propped on a bookcase in the flat where my siblings and I grew up — and where she still lives — using the tip of a cigarette to set her ration book alight.
Taken on the last day of rationing in 1954 for the newspaper where she worked, it’s an unabashed celebration of freedom. And it has about it the air of careless bravado that attracts so many young people to smoking — a habit that can haunt them for years.
I’d like to be able to point to that picture and say it was that allure which kicked off my own 50 years of smoking, but it wasn’t. To be honest, I don’t remember why I started. Do most people?
What I do know is that smoking has been one of the greatest, guiltiest pleasures in my life ever since I took it up around the age of 13.
Alexandra Shulman, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, has revealed she’s attempting to quit smoking. Pictured: Alexandra Shulman, cigarette in hand, at a fundraiser at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1984
It’s only now, aged 64 and after confronting a recent breast cancer diagnosis, that I am attempting, for the first time, to call it quits. Until now, I have taken a kind of cost-per-wear attitude to the risks attached, vaguely calculating that if I became ill, well, I would have to factor in the many years of pleasurable smoking I had experienced. But when you suddenly realise it’s now payback time, that bargain doesn’t look quite so attractive.
I smoked what I hope will be my last cigarette the evening I learned about which cancer treatment I would be having. I was very fortunate that my particular cancer was of a type that would react well to hormone therapy, and there would be no need for me to endure the many months of chemotherapy that are often involved in breast cancer treatment.
That was four weeks ago.
During the nearly two months between diagnosis and that moment, I was in no condition to stop smoking. Cigarettes were my crutch more than ever.
I was obviously aware that the correct thing to do would have been to stop immediately, but I was just trying to put one step ahead of another mentally and stop myself going into a spiral of anxiety about what might be.
Stopping smoking would have to wait. It wasn’t as if I had been ordered to stop by my medical team. They were not prescriptive in telling me what to do. They concentrated on telling me what they were planning to do.
When I began smoking as a teenager, the activity was viewed through quite a different filter. Back in the late 1960s, most of the adults I came across smoked. Not our father — he abhorred everything about it. But our mother had exchanged occasional cigarettes for a 40-a-day habit for a few years.
Alexandra said her mother had exchanged occasional cigarettes for a 40-a-day habit for a few years. Pictured: Her mother Drusilla Beyfus sets her ration book alight with a cigarette
She gave up in her late 30s —after puffing the entire way on a Pan Am flight from Los Angeles to London, stubbing out her fags in the small seat-side ashtray — because our father told her she smelled like a tannery. Brutal but effective, I suppose.
Even then, there was an awareness that smoking was not a healthy activity.
Friends’ parents would chatter about how, really, they should give up, flicking their elegant Dunhill lighters into action and tapping their ash into decorative ashtrays. The smell of smoke was always veiled by a spritz of Joy or Fracas, or a splash of Bay Rum aftershave. But there were always chic cigarette boxes on coffee tables for visitors, their contents as much a part of the cocktail hour ritual as the ice bucket and bottles of Gordon’s Gin and Martini.
Cigarettes were the canapés of the day. They were an intrinsic part of adult social life and so perhaps it was not surprising that most of my generation wanted a part of it, as soon as we could.
My first cigarettes were a dark green box of St Moritz with their gold ‘By appointment to His Royal Highness The Prince of the Netherlands’ insignia.
I probably thought that the menthol would disguise the smell.
Early on I smoked a whole packet in my bedroom in the company of my friend, Sarah, who did the same with a packet of Dunhill. We were both violently sick. That may have discouraged me from smoking so many all at once, but it did nothing to put me off smoking per se.
Alexandra (pictured) said although her mother was relatively chilled about her smoking, her father was known to reiterate what a filthy habit smoking was
We all smoked, much of the time. We smoked in the lunch hours at my West London girls’ school where we could easily escape and hang out in the local side streets.
We smoked on the top deck of the bus home. We smoked in the local hamburger restaurant; in the Rainbow Room of the Biba department store; on park benches, at open-air concerts, in boyfriends’ cars and, if we thought we could get away with it, in our homes.
There were safe houses where some parents didn’t mind us smoking, but mine was not one. Although our mother was relatively chilled about it, our father was known to steam into the bedroom as I puffed out of the window and noisily reiterate what a filthy habit smoking was. All the same, there was never a time when I didn’t enjoy smoking. No period when I had to force myself to inhale. Or when I felt it necessary to smoke in order to be cool.
Cigarettes and I were a match from the get-go and I loved the whole experience. I was an unfaithful smoker, moving from brand to brand — driven more by association than by specific taste: the soft pack of Gauloises Disque Bleu which our Swiss au pair, Terry, smoked; the supposed French cool of Gitanes with its beautiful cobalt packaging; the gold Benson & Hedges that fitted into the heightened glam rock of the 1970s.
Cigarettes were as much an element of style as a pair of Fiorucci velvet jeans.
I became a Marlboro Light girl in the 1990s, and more recently began to smoke roll-ups because I thought they were a slightly healthier option and I rather enjoyed rolling them, too.
A few summers ago, I fell for a Greek brand which a friend was smoking on holiday, and I realised again how lovely it was to lift one, ready made and perfect, from the neat row in the box. Sitting in a drawer opposite me as I type is my last packet, from a trip to Greece this year.
By the time I entered the workplace, in the early 1980s, everyone was increasingly aware of the health hazards attached to smoking. Still, I considered cigarettes a pretty low bar compared with the alcohol intake of many of my contemporaries.
When I worked on Tatler during that period, most people smoked at work.
Alexandra said everyone was smoking when she became editor of Vogue at the start of the Nineties, therefore there was no drama about smoking at the desk
The office of the chairman of publisher Conde Nast at the time — a debonair Frenchman called Daniel Salem — was always filled with a lingering haze of smoke — sometimes enhanced with the thick, sweet aura of a cigar.
When I became editor of the company’s magazine GQ and then of Vogue at the start of the Nineties, we were all still smoking, a filled ashtray as much a part of the office scene as our Atex computers and the fax machine.
I remember a time on Vogue when the big drama was not about someone smoking at the next desk, but a spat over the smell of the scented candle that a miserable, non-smoking colleague had lit to combat the tobacco fug.
When I was pregnant with my son, Sam, in 1994, however, I immediately gave up smoking with no difficulty. I may have struck a deal with my own body over the risk involved, but even I was not prepared to inflict the same on him in my womb, which I wanted to be a safe and healthy home.
But I’m afraid that within months of him being born, once I had stopped breastfeeding, I started smoking again.
Many contemporaries stopped in their 30s or 40s when they had children, but not me.
This is probably because of the pattern of my smoking. I smoked only in the evening (when my small child was in bed), and usually only four or five cigarettes a day.
When I raised concerns about my smoking at my annual company medical check, the doctors invariably said that smoking so few was not really a problem. I was happy to believe them.
Everyone always said how lucky I was that I could still smoke, because, unlike them, I had it under control.
But the truth is that my behaviour had nothing to do with self-control. I just didn’t want a cigarette during the day.
Despite giving up smoking while pregnant in 1994, Alexandra said she began again after she had stopped breastfeeding. Pictured: Alexandra, with son Sam
I didn’t smoke at work — not because I felt it was inappropriate, but simply because I never felt the desire.
Smoking for me was about time out. It was the signifier of relaxation and pleasure — a sign-off from responsibility. It was that feeling I was addicted to, not really the tobacco or nicotine.
For me, smoking was never a stress-relieving mechanism.
I got pleasure from the feeling of the object between my fingers. The very first cigarette was something I looked forward to from early evening.
That dizzy buzz of the first drag was never something I particularly enjoyed, but now I miss that hit. A lot.
As smoking became increasingly outlawed and unpopular, there were many nights when I wouldn’t have a single cigarette until I returned home and could light up.
Not for me the huddle in the cold outside a restaurant for a fag; nor, when I was at Vogue, was I part of the mass exodus from any fashion dinner after the first course, for a cigarette.
It would be true to say that for many of my years there, the majority of guests cared more about when they could smoke than they did about the food. But for me, that last one or two before bed — they were non-negotiable. My home has always been a smoking house. Everyone is welcome to smoke and as my son grew up, not only my friends but his would indulge.
In recent years when people came to dinner and I lit up, I noticed that at least half the party would cadge one or two cigarettes off me, saying how much they missed them, taking deep drags with dramatic pleasure — rather as though it was some exotic substance they were inhaling instead of a Marlboro Light.
The other half would behave as all reformed evangelists do and chastise me with a patronising ‘I can’t believe you’re still smoking’ line that made me want to blow my smoke straight into their face. It was, after all, my house. I was free to do as I wished.
Alexandra said months of Covid-19 have been bad for her smoking, as she increased her intake while binge-watching television. Pictured: Alexandra with Anna Wintour
However, despite such cavalier behaviour, my nagging fear was always that I might contract lung cancer, not breast. And that if I did, it would be no one’s fault but my own.
When I awoke, in the dark hour that is 3am, that thought would usually be the spear-carrier for a following platoon of anxieties.
Then, lying in bed, I would promise myself that I’d think about giving up (note: ‘think’) in the morning. Maybe I should book a lung scan.
But inevitably by the evening, once supper had finished, there I was again, lighting my first one of the day. It didn’t seem at that point, away from insomniac night anxiety, so very terrible to have a few cigarettes along with the wine that is also my great evening pleasure. Or even without the wine.
I should add that these months of Covid-19 have been bad for my smoking. Before the pandemic, we would so often spend evenings out where you couldn’t smoke, so there were weeks when I smoked very little. But night after night at home chatting round the table and watching endless television while being able to smoke as much as I wanted, certainly increased my intake.
My four or five was creeping up to seven or eight, depending on how many episodes I was binge-watching.
So now having recently had a lumpectomy and receiving treatment to prevent recurrence of the cancer, I’ve realised something has to change and I am making my first real attempt to quit. Or at least move to Plan B — the exchange of cigarettes for vapes.
Alexandra (pictured) admits that she doesn’t feel as though she has reached the rock bottom that is sometimes needed to quit any addiction
When I told a smoking lifer of my decision to try vaping the other day, she replied scornfully: ‘Aren’t smoking and vaping completely different things? I vape and then nip out for a cigarette afterwards. You don’t swap one for the other.’ And she’s right. Vaping has none of the appeal of smoking other than satisfying an oral fixation — similar, I suppose, to a baby and its dummy.
Vapes look hideous, the smoke gives you no hit, they have a slightly nasty, metallic quality and most of all they are not the cigarettes that have been part of me for so long.
But I can’t contemplate the idea of there being nothing that signifies that end-of-day, sign-off pleasure that, for some reason I can’t for the life of me understand, is conjured up by blowing smoke out of my mouth.
I can’t pretend I feel hugely optimistic about my ability to abandon cigarettes for good, but I am really trying.
Deep down I don’t feel as though I have reached the rock bottom that is sometimes needed to quit any addiction. But if a cancer diagnosis isn’t enough, what would be?
I have been relatively fortunate in my experience of breast cancer in avoiding the gruelling chemotherapy or a mastectomy, but the fact is I did get breast cancer and smoking is a known trigger.
This morning, I mentioned to my partner, David, who gave up smoking 25 years ago, that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able stick to it.
‘Don’t laugh in the face of the gods, who’ve been nice to you,’ was his stern and rather compelling reply.
I’d very much like to keep those gods on my side.
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