Brampton, Sally Jane
- Louise Chunn
Brampton, Sally Jane (1955–2016), journalist, editor, and author, was born on 15 July 1955 in Kuala Belait, Brunei, the only daughter and second of three children of Roy Reginald Brampton (b. 1924), an accountant working for Shell, and his wife, Pamela Mary, née Ray (b. 1928). Owing to her father’s job, the family moved around the world throughout her childhood, and she went to twelve schools, including boarding at Ashford School in Kent and St Clare’s Hall in Oxford. Always interested in fashion, she chose to study it at St Martin’s College of Art. In 1978 she won Vogue’s celebrated talent competition, which resulted in a job on the magazine’s staff. After three years she left to become fashion editor of The Observer in 1981.
In 1985 Brampton was recruited as launch editor of the UK edition of French magazine Elle. It was at that time jointly published by Elle’s owner, Hachette Filipacchi, and Murdoch Magazines, owned by Rupert Murdoch. Brampton was young, cool, and full of radical ideas, and she shifted her title a long way from the more conventional French edition. British women loved the irreverence and breadth brought by its blonde-cropped, monochrome-wearing editor. She mixed up designer fashion with high street clothes, eschewed diets, included politics and culture, and was as likely to cover alternative health as the traditional advertiser-pleasing beauty products.
Elle’s look was fresh and fun, with a design that maximised the bold photography (often black and white) that Brampton loved. While definitely a ‘fashion person’, she was also adventurous in the features she ran and who wrote them. Commissioned writers included authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Rachel Cusk, renegades such as Germaine Greer, and the music journalists Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill. Brampton was notably open to other people’s ideas and a great encourager of younger talent, but she was also firm about standards and quality. Carving out a younger, fresher fashion style than other magazines at the time, she launched the career of fifteen-year-old London model Naomi Campbell by putting her on the cover, though she soon after changed the rules, insisting that Elle’s models had to be sixteen. She also led the trend for preferring more athletic-looking models to the super-skinny.
While the Brampton Elle years were party-filled, with starry friendships including with Jasper Conran, Paula Yates, and Jennifer Saunders, Brampton was ultimately frustrated by the constraints of the business of magazine publishing and resigned in 1989. She worked as a freelance for newspapers and magazines and focused on writing fiction, publishing four novels: Good Grief (1992), Lovesick (1995), Concerning Lily (1998), and Love, Always (2000).
A bisexual at various points in her life, Brampton had an early marriage on 31 January 1981 to Nigel Gordon Cole (b. 1957), a film and television director. The marriage was dissolved in 1990, and on 29 December that year she married Jonathan Leslie Powell (b. 1947), then the controller of BBC1, and the couple had a daughter, Molly (b. 1992). They lived in a large Maida Vale house that—as with everywhere she lived—she made both stylish and warmly inviting.
However, at the turn of the century a number of things combined to inflame and exacerbate the depression that Brampton had long struggled with. After a decade out of a magazine office, she had taken the role of editor at Red, an EMAP-owned magazine aimed at modern women entering middle age. But her ideas, which included interviews with Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam, clashed with the circulation-chasing targets demanded by her bosses, and within a year she was sacked. Also, her marriage to Powell came to an end. (They were divorced in 2007.)
Brampton later described the post-Red period as ‘more terrifying and more horrible than anywhere I have ever been, even in my nightmares’ (Daily Mail, 30 Jan 2008). She isolated herself from friends, tried many types of antidepressants, and made several suicide attempts. After three years of this crippling depression, she sought treatment for alcoholism and began to understand her illness as partly biological, partly genetic. Her mother and one brother had also had depression. She was eventually diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder, or rapid mood cycling, and learnt that the various antidepressants she had been prescribed previously had probably made her condition worse.
Life looked up. In 2006 she started writing a weekly agony aunt column (‘Aunt Sally’) for the Sunday Times Style section, in which she used her own experiences of life’s vicissitudes to craft well-thought-out (and, as ever, beautifully written) advice for readers. She was rightly proud of the many people she helped with her soothing words. Two years later her book Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression was published to enthusiastic reviews and strong sales. It did not flinch from telling the whole story of her history of depression and the struggle to find an answer. It ended optimistically with the news that she was marrying for a third time, to Thomas Adam Andre (Tom) Wnek (b. 1959), an advertising executive. After celebrating their wedding on 13 July 2007 in the garden of Jasper Conran’s eighteenth-century Thames-side house in Chiswick, they bought a house in Queen’s Park, in north-west London, and Brampton delighted in renovating it and designing its garden.
When that marriage failed, in 2010, Brampton decided that she and Molly needed a change of scenery. She left London and joined a number of old friends and journalism colleagues living in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. Her writing career at this point included a popular column in Psychologies magazine, a gardening column in Easy Living, both monthly and commissioned by former Elle staff, and posts on Victoria Health. But journalism was changing, and her standing was slipping in the celebrity-struck world. ‘Aunt Sally’ was cancelled in 2014, and other opportunities were drying up.
Brampton became increasingly depressed and struggled to stay well, believing that she would never get better. Contributing to the welldoing.org site, she wrote:
I have a severe depressive illness so I have stared those particular demons (too often) in the face. The form of depression I have—biological and genetic; a familial curse—is immune to work, circumstance or even summer. My illness is as indifferent to the weather as flu is to sunshine. You wake up, and there it is.
In the early morning of 10 May 2016 she walked into the sea at St Leonards. An inquest in October 2016 concluded that her death, caused by drowning and depression, was a suicide. Her funeral on 25 May 2016 was held in St Leonards-on-Sea and attended by many well-known names from the world of fashion and magazine publishing. Her daughter, Molly Powell, organized the event. There was also a memorial party on 26 September 2016 at the Groucho Club, where Brampton had been a founding member, attended by old friends and many former staff members.
Brampton was a popular, talented, stylish magazine editor who set trends while she held the tiller at Elle. She will be best remembered as someone who struggled with an acute mental illness, but she also went out of her way to help others in similar straits. Those who read Shoot the Damn Dog, which was reprinted after her death with a foreword by her daughter Molly, found great support and warmth at terrible times. As she wrote in that book, ‘We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive’ (p. 242).
- The Independent (30 Nov 1999)
- Daily Mail (30 Jan 2008)
- S. Brampton, Shoot the damn dog: a memoir of depression (2008)
- The Times (12 May 2016); (26 Oct 2016)
- The Guardian (12 May 2016); (14 May 2016)
- Daily Telegraph (13 May 2016); (27 Oct 2016)
- www.welldoing.org, accessed 15 August 2019
- WW (2016)
- personal knowledge (2020)
- private information (2020)