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The Sultan of Schwing

With his magazine Maxim -- and now Stuff -- Felix Dennis aims to put man in touch with his inner frat boy. Nobody needs a lesson in how to fold a pocket square anymore: This is the new high-five journalism, and beer and (semi-clothed) babes have never looked so good.

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It's nearly 8 p.m. at Tammany Hall, a new midtown bar that is uncrowded except for ten young traders and investment bankers who have slipped into their casual-Friday outfits a few days early. Old friends from the Street, they've decided to get together for a little informal beer bash and talk golf, Hamptons shares, and Internet start-ups.

Suddenly, the party is interrupted mid-Heineken by a couple of amiable men in Italian suits with a stack of magazines, an open-bar tab, and a barrage of questions: "Have you read Maxim? Do your buddies on the Street read Maxim? Are these the longest legs you've ever seen on a woman?" Copies of the latest issue, with TV's Michelle Williams cooing on the cover, are passed around.

But these guys don't need to be told about Maxim -- the read Wall Streeters admit they're rolling up inside their Journals. "It's Playboy for normal people," offers a tall investment banker, 32, who's been hooked since he stole an early issue out of the backseat of a car-service Lincoln.

Who knew that men needed a magazine to answer those burning questions that tend to come up between the seventh and eighth holes: Can you really get a Ferrari for a hundred bucks at a police auction? What are the odds that the 19-year-old nymphet in your chat room is really a hairy, 47-year-old ex-con named Otis? Is the buzz you get sipping absinthe really so Peter Max that it's worth the brain damage?

The suits hovering around the bar tonight are Lance Ford, Maxim's publisher, and a few buddies in search of some real live Maxim readers to see how they've taken to the magazine's "beer and babes" formula. The traders aren't complaining. After all, Maxim's picking up the check.

Ford knows what the industry is saying: The soft-porn-pinup covers, gross-out photos, and down-and-dirty articles on bedding argumentative women are written for "men who not only move their lips but drool when they read" (as rival editor Art Cooper of GQ put it delicately).

But Maxim is already delivering 950,000 readers every issue to advertisers, outdistancing mighty GQ and venerable Esquire (which each promise 650,000) and Details (which guarantees 475,000). Bolstered by these glad tidings, its execs now find themselves on a mission to prove that Maxim's average reader does not, in fact, command the deep fryer at Burger King. According to an independent MRI study conducted this spring, Maxim's median reader is 30 years old and earns $62,000 a year.

"Sixty-two thousand? That sounds low. At least for the guys I know who get it," says a 27-year-old equities trader at a prestige investment bank, effectively making Team Maxim's evening. "Five years out of school, the average is more like $125,000 to $225,000."

Trader No. 2, an Ivy League graduate, tries to express the magazine's appeal in terms everyone gathered around the bar can understand. "You know how in college there's always a sorority that has this certain attitude like they're untouchable, they have this image they have to exude? And then there's this other one -- they're just as cute, but you can always jump their bones if you want to? Well, Maxim is the other sorority. They think like you think -- they just want to party."

Against all odds, Maxim has already proved itself a success. But somehow, it's not quite enough. Stone Cold Steve Austin is "a success." Internet porn is "a success." What Maxim wants now is far more of a long shot -- it wants to be a cultural force, a Ms. for red-blooded testosterone-sozzled males. In other words, Maxim wants America to respect it in the morning.

Maxim founder Felix Dennis, British press tycoon and professional bad boy, insists he has come to America -- more precisely to East 49th Street, where he spends a good part of the year in a two-bedroom near the United Nations decorated with erotic Oriental art -- to remind us of the openness and passion that once made this country great. He wants to be our spiritual guide through this neurotic age of sexual wimpiness and aids fear. The Iron John drumbeat-in-the-forest thing didn't work, and Dennis thinks he can help man find himself at his most elemental. Not surprisingly, New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd has already weighed in on the Maxim phenomenon. "Let's not talk about Bill Clinton. He is so over," she recently declared. "Let's talk about dirty magazines."

"It becomes difficult after a while to keep on saying that Maxim is produced by morons for morons," Dennis is saying.

It's a rain-dusted afternoon at the Old Manor, Dennis's 1,000-acre South Warwickshire estate, a 90-minute drive from London in his cobalt-blue stretch Rolls. The house is only a few miles away from Stratford-on-Avon, which somehow seems appropriate: Felix Dennis is a character better suited to the pages of Shakespeare than to those of Forbes. Like the Bard's great comic rogue Falstaff, Dennis is a robust creature of appetites whose foghorn personality could shake plaster from the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal. He's got the moist, saddish hazel eyes and the fleshy, bearded jowls of a loyal and friendly basset hound, but in person he can be as unpredictably volatile as a Rottweiler that hasn't had its breakfast.

Maxim is the 800-pound three-toed sloth hanging from the ceiling of the Four Seasons. "I have struck a chord beyond my wildest dreams," says Dennis.

Dennis is circling his office, a glassed-in second-story offshoot of his tastefully appointed fifteenth-century farmhouse. As always, he's clutching a Silk Cut cigarette in his fist and a cordless phone in the other, managing the impossible -- to look like a sultan dressed in a gray-fleece sweat suit. His publicist in New York, Drew Kerr, has called him with the equivalent of a transatlantic high-five: The second-anniversary issue of Maxim, wrapped in a mylar bag and containing an NC-17-worthy "50 Sexiest Women in the World" bonus booklet, is selling out so quickly that it's already available on eBay for $10.

Dennis can't wait to trumpet the news in a press release. But first, he wants a quote from Wal-Mart or some other big American retailer illustrating how the sales of this issue stack up historically. He finally finds one executive at a large American chain who says it's flying off the stands like no magazine he's seen since Penthouse dropped Vanessa Williams's infamous lesbian-themed photos on Reagan country in 1984.

That will not do.

"We don't use the P words around Dennis Publishing," Dennis says ominously, referring to Playboy and Penthouse. Dawson's Creek bonbon Michelle Williams may have complained that she "felt like a piece of meat" during the photo shoot for the blistering, come-hither cover of Maxim's July-August issue (right before Mike Soutar, an amiable, 32-year-old Scotsman, took the helm). But Dennis is careful to point out that Maxim shows bare nipples only in its Italian and Greek editions.

It was the British "lad mags" of the nineties -- Loaded, FHM (For Him Magazine), and Maxim -- that kicked a Doc Martens heel into the gut of the traditional men's titles. Gone were the Côte d'Azur fashion spreads, the how-to-fold-a-pocket-hankie pieces, and the quasi-literary hagiographies of buffalo-necked footballers. In went the pints of Fullers, the affordable gadgetry, the D-cup soft porn delivered as steadily as the London Sun tabloid's daily "Page Three" girls.


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