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Vanity Affair: This French Magazine Publishes Whenever It Damn Well Pleases

Egoiste, the publishing plaything of an eccentric Parisian icon, Nicole Wisniak, has come out just 17 times in 37 years. The next publication deadline is always: "When it's beautiful."

Egoiste, issue No. 17 of the "phoenix"
Egoiste, issue No. 17 of the "phoenix"
Michel Guerrin

PARIS — It’s a cold spring day, near the end of the 1980s. Nicole Wisniak directs a magazine photo shoot with British photographer Max Vadukul in front of the famous Fontaine de l’Observatoire in Paris’ Jardin du Luxembourg.

The magazine director suddenly gets the idea that the model should jump into the water. “It’s cold,” the young woman protests. "I can't." So Wisniak promptly walks into the fountain with her clothes on, and places herself under the powerful spurts of water. “Now, you can do it.” The model couldn’t refuse.

For 37 years, Nicole Wisniak has been managing, in her own way, Egoïste, a magazine that appears like a blatant anachronism in our fast-paced world. Issue No. 17 was published just a few days ago. Yes: 17 editions in 37 years. It’s rather quite astonishing.

Egoïste is a publication with a “spasmodic” schedule, says Jean-Paul Enthoven, a writer and friend of Wisniak’s. The magazine’s first edition came out in November 1977. The second the following month, the third six months later. A whole year passed before the fourth was published. After that, time kept stretching onward. This number 17 was three years and three months in the making. “We know when we start, not when we’ll be finished,” jokes photographer Paolo Roversi.

Marc Lambron, a writer, has found what may be the perfect way to describe it: “Egoïste is a phoenix that dies and is born again.”

Founder Nicole Wisniak seems more tormented than overworked. She says things like: “There’s a distance that comes with moving slowly that renders one intelligent;” or, “We don’t close the issue because it's Tuesday — we close it when it’s beautiful.”

The first edition was very thin and 3,000 of the 4,000 printed copies ended up in the cellar. The latest one boasts 256 pages in two volumes and weighs 2.3 kilograms. The 25,000 copies are expected to sell quickly, before the selling price of 35 euros increases on the Internet.

Stuck inside

Time is an elastic concept for Egoïste, but even after 37 years, little has changed about the magazine. It still has the same intrusive format, photo-friendly but not meant to sit on shelves, white matte paper, the same austere template, deep black and white contrasts, Garamond font, the dazzling printing, the pages folded but not stapled so as not to damage the photos. A classical sort of beauty emanates from its harmonious balance between elegant images and off-the-wall texts.

Wisniak, 63, commands respect, leading with her flowing waves of auburn hair and steely eyes. She works from home, in a shambles of a flat in Paris’ 6th arrondissement. There are times when she doesn’t set foot outside for three weeks.

She likes to quote Orson Welles, “I’m crazy, but not crazy enough to pretend to be free,” and claims to be “a maverick.” One of her pillows reads, in English, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”

Wisniak never worked at a newspaper or magazine before she created Egoïste. And that’s why this periodical simply doesn’t look like one. She never writes editorials. “I’m merciful towards my readers,” she says.

She prefers to quote a page from one of Kafka’s books or tell bad jokes. Two cannibals are talking; One says, “I don’t like my mother-in-law;” The other replies, “Eat your carrots at least.”

Egoïste is very much like “Nicole’s diary,” says columnist Patrick Besson. Are there any editorial meetings? “Are you kidding?” laughs Jean-Paul Enthoven. “Sure she has editorial meetings — with herself.”

She builds the publication from her daybed, a replica of Marie-Antoinette’s in the Fontainebleau castle. An insomniac, Wisniak works there, lying, because her friend, late novelist Françoise Sagan, used to tell her that “the brain is better irrigated” in that position.

One shooter at a time

She assembles the magazine with two or three close friends and her tribe of contributors. “Nicole is the sum of the people she calls in,” Enthoven says. As for photographers, after a Helmut Newton phase and a Richard Avedon one, Paolo Roversi is now her favorite, claiming no less than 92 pages in the latest edition.

“When it comes to photographers, I’m monogamous,” Nicole Wisniak confirms.

When we ask writers what pushes them to work with her, they all reply without thinking twice: the boss. “She’s marvelously eccentric, incredibly chic,” says novelist Marie Darrieussecq. “Melancholy caught up with her these last few years. She told me, about ten years ago, when she had recurring issues with money and bailiffs, ‘Honey, I tell myself that while the men who knock on my door aren’t wearing black leather trench coats, I’ll be fine."”

Adam Gopnik, the former Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, says that “Egoïste is a beautiful paradox that relies on Nicole’s ego and quirkiness.”

Nicole Wisniak doesn’t have the financial power of a publishing group behind her but she still makes a living thanks to her magazine. In 1990, she made a substantial amount of money — “I forgot how much,” she says — by selling the word Egoïste to Karl Lagerfeld, who then used it for a famous Chanel perfume.

In 37 years, she hasn’t made a single change in her folk-medicine-like business plan. She starts by selling ad pages then writes down in a notebook the money she’s given. There are 97 ad pages, divided between the beginning of the first volume and the end of the second — and we savor them with as much delight as we do editorial pages.

It’s the house specialty. Advertisers buy empty pages. Nicole fills them up with photographic stories she invents around the brands. Issue number 17 starts with an advertisement for Hermès that spans over six pages. A woman enters a cave and finds prehistoric rock paintings, among them the horse-drawn carriage that makes the brand’s logo. But the name isn't mentioned anywhere on the picture.

“Nicole Wisniak has carte blanche,” explains Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès’ artistic director. This says a lot about the faith put in her. Like the readers, advertisers see their ads for the first time when they open the magazine, not before.

Another eccentricity is the time span between the last photo shoot — a portrait of Cate Blanchett over 13 pages, including the cover — and the publishing. This time, it took eight months. Eight months during which the object was carefully polished, refined, including three weeks at the printer’s, a top class professional in Montreuil, just outside Paris.

Egoïste, issue No. 17 — Photo: bbeab via Instagram

When she met Pierre Gradenigo for the first time, Wisniak said to him, “I was told you were a good printer. Prove it.” For 20 days, she stayed next to the machines, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., to inspect every page in natural light. From a printer’s point of view, she’s a serious pain in the neck.

“Nicole wants to print in one color and one color only, black. And not in four colors, as is the norm nowadays,” Gradenigo explains. “Our machine is a Ferrari and Nicole forces us to work with a horse and buggy. She wants the whites very white, and the blacks very black. Which takes us 20 days instead of 4. Economically speaking, it’s absurd. Others might have felt the urge to strangle her. But we said yes because her demands are justified. In this adventure, we are defending the French savoir-faire.”

The news intervenes

Egoïste is often described as a timeless magazine, which is probably best when there isn’t a new edition every other week. For this issue, Enthoven published a portrait of soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which he wrote two years ago. “At the time, the man was a god. Now, he’s fragile.”

The omnipresence of photographer Paolo Roversi emphasizes the paper’s image of a literature-focused publication which floats above the passage of time. With a nod to Nietzsche, Enthoven says that the magazine is “untimely.” He also sees in it a mix of snobbery, terror and elegance. Why terror? “Because snobbery scares people and this magazine is too luxurious to be proper.”

But Roversi shifts the debate. “It’s not a timeless magazine, it’s a magazine that sits outside the norms.” Marc Lambron pushes the argument further and underlines the perspectives' singularity.

In this latest edition, eight writers tell the most memorable confession they ever heard. “I was 16 and somebody in my class committed a murder,” Lambron says. “He was a minor and was soon freed. I told the strangeness of having a lemonade and mint with a murderer.” In another section, Patrick Besson embodies great writers, Marcel Proust and Victor Hugo, and writes to movie directors to tell them the adaptation of their novels was bad.

The 19-page series that starts on the cover of the second volume is bound to set tongues wagging. It’s a portrait of Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, accompanied by a interview. A fair reward for the 31-year-old who lives in France and played remarkable roles in Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009), Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone (2012), and Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land (2013).

Paolo Roversi created a wonderful series with her images. Some naked, others where she’s wrapped in a veil. The shots were taken in June 2013, but after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, they have taken a political significance. It’s as if current events were catching up with Egoïste.

“We’re showing a great actress, we’re not doing for provocation's sake,” Roversi says. “A nude is for me the most elegant way to make a portrait, to show her "Little Prince" side, like she doesn’t know where she comes from.”

Patrick Besson says he’s astounded by the series, which depicts “an incredible transgression but also a troubling religiosity.”

True to herself, Nicole Wisniak takes two steps back. “Golshifteh lives far from her parents, her family, her landscapes. That’s plain to see, isn’t it?”

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