It’s a guy thing

Mainstream men's magazines answer a rousing call: More cleavage, please!

A MOMENT OF SILENCE, please, and then life must go on. The long-suffering magazine Details—which practically originated the 20ish male apparel-sex-gadgets-music-sports genre in the US—has passed. Reportedly it will be resurrected this fall with a renewed focus on men’s fashion.

It’s generally believed, among people who make their living analyzing these things, that what killed Details (and Bikini and Icon, two magazines with similar demographic ambitions) was excessive classiness. Witness the meteoric rise of Maxim, a cheesy British import that appeared in April 1997 and has since rocketed to a circulation of 1.6 million, making GQ look like Women’s Health and Fitness (at least to advertisers; the two magazines’ 1998 base rates—circulation numbers that determine how much they charge for ads—were 700,000 and 650,000, respectively). Maxim‘s editors suffer from a dire case of punning disorder and an obsession with barely dressed starlets. They’ve also created a publisher’s wet dream, winning the Advertising Age Magazine of the Year award after only three years. Maxim is so successful that it spawned a younger brother in February, Stuff, aimed at the collegiate set.

Details couldn’t even headhunt its way to better circulation; the magazine stole Maxim editor Mark Golin last February, mistakenly believing that some of his readers would come along. The departed Bikini, an offshoot of the wackily designed music magazine Raygun, tried to have its cheesecake and eat it, too, running consciousness-raising PSAs about gun control and rape alongside the filmy lingerie shots. Its motto, “For men who should throw better,” winked that sensitive boys will be sensitive boys.

In contrast, Maxim raises the bar on the lowest common denominator. We’re not talking potty-mouthed hilarity ࠬa South Park or Farrelly Brothers’ movies; we’re talking Korn, the deeply unfunny Man Show, and Howard Stern on a bad day. As Stephen Colvin, president of Maxim‘s parent company, Dennis Publishing, and the man who brainstormed the US edition, explained last year, “The consumer spends four seconds making a decision. And we always have a girl on the cover, ’cause guess what? Guys like women.” Apparently more men were reading Cosmo than we thought.

Colvin’s offspring make the difference between Esquire and Playboy seem like just a few strategic inches of skin. And like professional wrestling organizations, the laddish publications are multiplying at an alarming rate. There’s a shelfful of imports—FHM (For Him Magazine), Loaded, Bizarre—for yobs, which is the Brit term for “Boys who will be boys.” Page through these rags and you feel like you’ve returned to high school, when cheerleaders and football captains set the standards of humor, intelligence, and attractiveness. The latest issue of Maxim even went Tiger Beat with a slim companion volume, The Maxim Hot 100, featuring recycled publicity shots of models, actresses, and singers. It’s a bit suspicious that the juvenilization of the American male psyche is being underwritten by the UK. Is it some sort of elaborate Imperialist plot? First Benny Hill, then the Teletubbies, now these celebrations of couch-potatohood laced with beer, broads, and insane new sports (downhill unicycling, anyone?).

AMERICAN PUBLISHERS can only follow suit. In the fall, look for Total Movie, which describes itself as “aimed at men with coverage of blockbusters and action movies.” Spin founder Bob Guccione Jr. has already entered the fray with the two-year-old Gear, while the skateboard set just got its own T&A outlet, Transworld Stance. Editor Kevin Imamura noted that after seeing the May debut issue—weighted toward “products, clothes, music, and gadgets”—readers wrote in to ask for more chicks: “It seems most guys are just as curious about girls as they are about guys.” So the magazine added an advice page, “Girls, Girls, Girls!” and a regular feature called “Model Watch,” because inquiring minds want to know.

Ironically, Maxim‘s US launch was orchestrated by a female editor, Clare McHugh, who went to work toning down the original’s T&A cheekiness. Publisher Felix Dennis apparently had qualms about America’s residual Puritanism, so McHugh packaged the sexual content in a cover no more incendiary than your average Cosmo. Call it office porn. You can’t read a copy of Penthouse in the lunchroom, but tote around the latest issue of Maxim, with its pillow-talk photos of Britney Spears (cuddling a Teletubby doll!), and you’re beyond censure. You bought it for the video-game reviews, right?

Apparently, American men were hungry for this kind of information. It was enough to make venerable men’s magazines mainline editorial Viagra. GQ began advising its readers not only how to wear pink and where to vacation, but also what was on the mind of the model/actress du jour. Sixtysomething Esquire took a break from obsessing about father-son relationships in Jim Harrisonesque prose for titillating topics like “Lesbian Sex Secrets for Men.” Any opportunity to put a Woman We Love on the cover was exploited to the fullest. Still, they’re lagging behind. The audience for seminaked babes, gadget reviews, and sports trivia prefers goofy captions to attempts at substance, no matter how misguided. Imagine that.

It’s hard to picture an equivalent women’s magazine putting a Speedo-clad Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt on its cover, partly because there isn’t an equivalent women’s magazine. Even Vogue, Glamour, Jane, and the like are obsessed with the female body. For pictures of scantily clad women, Playboy‘s got nothing on the average copy of Elle. Allure recently published a “Naked Issue,” featuring actresses and musicians like Chili of TLC in their birthday suits. (Reportedly, the magazine had to contact over 500 women to get the six who accepted, odds that would put Hugh Hefner out of business.)

As successful as Maxim is, it still lags behind the venerable Playboy, and both have at least a couple of million suburban households to go before reaching the dizzyingly high circulation numbers of mom’s favorites Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. So chances are good that lots of men—and not just waiters at Hooters—are left unmoved by the latest publishing revolution. The new frontier is already in sight: This spring, Wings Media debuted a new quarterly, For the Groom. Now that guys have their own version of Bride, can Men’s Home Journal be far behind?