by Mark Simpson
This month the metrosexual is fifteen.
Back in November 1994 I wrote a piece for The Independent called ‘Here come the mirror men’ prompted by a visit to an exhibition in London organised by men’s glossy GQ. In it I claimed to have seen the future of masculinity and that it was moisturised (according to several dictionaries this article was the first sighting of the word ‘metrosexual’ in print). I also explained the key role that glossy men’s magazines had in spreading metrosexuality:
The promotion of metrosexuality was left to the men’s style press, magazines such as The Face, GQ, Esquire, Arena and FHM, the new media which took off in the Eighties and is still growing (GQ gains 10,000 new readers every month). They filled their magazines with images of narcissistic young men sporting fashionable clothes and accessories. And they persuaded other young men to study them with a mixture of envy and desire.
Some people said unkind things. American GQ, for example, was popularly dubbed ‘Gay Quarterly’. Little wonder that all these magazines – with the possible exception of The Face – address their readership as if none of them was homosexual or even bisexual.
The magazine Loaded had been launched earlier that year and its hysterical heterosexuality was to provide a template for persuading unprecedented numbers of men to buy a men’s glossy that wasn’t Penthouse, without being thought a ‘poof’.
The New Lad bible Loaded, for all its features on sport, babes and sport, is (closeted) metrosexual. Just as its anti-style is a style (last month it carried a supplement for ‘no nonsense’ clothes, such as jeans and boots), it’s heterosexuality is so self-conscious, so studied, that it’s actually rather camp. New Lads, for all their burping blokeishness, are just as much in love with their own image as any metrosexual, they just haven’t come to terms yet.
Nobody likes a smart-ass, let alone a Cassandra, so I was largely ignored. Men’s magazines and men’s vanity products did become a boom business of course but the media in the 90s remained resolutely entranced by the oxymoronic mirage of ‘New Lad’, determinedly refusing to notice that all this ‘blokeishness’, particularly in the form of the most successful exponent of it — FHM — was narcissistic and homoerotic: the real money shot was the scads of ads for clobber and vanity products featuring expensively attractive male models.
It wasn’t until I returned to the subject in 2002 for the then popular American online magazine Salon.com (‘Meet the metrosexual’), this time naming names — e.g. that David Beckham guy — that the world finally noticed what I was going on about.
Fifteen years on from the metrosexual’s birth, the men’s magazine market has clearly peaked. A number of them have closed this year, including Arena (The Face was axed years ago), while Maxim has gone online-only. How the mighty have fallen. Partly this is because in an online, iPhone world magazines and the printed word in general have peaked and the recession has brought this into sharper — and, for those of us who work in the media, painful — focus.
But perhaps the main reason is because men’s magazines, having done what they were invented to do – metrosexualize a generation of men on the sly – aren’t needed any more. If men have space in their hectic consumer lifestyles for a magazine at all it has to be one that doesn’t beat around the bush, or the breasts, and instead addresses their narcissism directly: hence tits-out-for-the-lads Men’s Health magazine recently became the best-selling men’s magazine in the UK. Straight men are now their own High Street Honeys.
So, having achieved what they set out to do and made bitches of us all, have the men’s glossies that remain loosened up? Now that metrosexuality has been embraced by the mainstream and become essentially ‘normal’, have men’s mags finally dropped the straight-acting act and finally come out to themselves? Do they now dare to acknowledge that some of their readers might be gay or bisexual? Do magazines full of images of male desirability and products promoted to make the male reader more desirable, themselves now accept men’s interest in male beauty and male sensuality and – shock! horror! – even bi-curiousness?
Earlier this year (before the news emerged about sales of Men’s Health overtaking FHM) I went down to my local newsagents, cruised the men’s mags on the racks and brought a bunch of them back to mine for coffee….
Coverline: ‘How many balloons does it take to float a dwarf’?
Covergirl: Gemma Merna
Concept: Imagine a magazine edited by Guy Ritchie, but without his taste in men or 80s American female pop singers. And even more irritating.
Metrosexual Money Shot: Not a lot. But there is a back page ad featuring three famous sportsmen advertising Gillette’s battery-powered male vibrator. The concept for which seems to be based on the appeal to straight men of stroking a buzzing Federer, Henry and Woods across your face every morning.
Buy-Curiousness: Still hysterically closeted – but if you look very closely you’ll find a gay dating ad at the back.
How to bed Mr Loaded: Tell him you shagged Liam Gallagher’s Nan.
Verdict: A parody of a parody. But somehow still not gay enough. And its breath smells — of death.
‘Britain’s BIGGEST selling men’s weekly!’
Covergirl: Lucy Pinder
Coverline: ‘100 SEXIEST FOOTBALLER’S WIVES 2009’
Concept: Like Zoo, Nuts isn’t really a men’s style mag, more a male version of Heat magazine – with celebrity tits instead of celebrity pricks. Snickersome fare and office-friendly limp porn for those who can’t get online to download mandingo gang-bang flicks because they’re at work/too stupid/mum won’t let them.
Metrosexual Money Shot: As a sign of the times, even Nuts has a fashion and grooming double page spread – apparently because their readers insisted on it.
Buy-Curiousness: ‘Man-Love Corner’ featuring suggestive photos of footballers seemingly bumming or groping one another with captions like, ‘Feeling the pinch!’. In Nuts, anything to do with ‘man-love’ is sniggersome or terrifying. Which is fair enough. But Nuts isn’t exactly heterosexual either: its idea of red-blooded lurving is TV-TS looking women pouting their bee-stung lips while reaching for each other’s silicone.
How to bed Mr Nuts: Wax off all your pubes, hang some water balloons around your neck and say you love pussy. Alternatively, buy him twelve pints.
Verdict: The letter accompanying a snap supplied by a reader of a road sign saying ‘Semenville’ sums up the slightly confused mentality of Nuts: “This has got to be the worst-named place in the entire world. I definitely wouldn’t want to live there!’ I think Adam, Plymouth, doth protest too much. I mean, if you don’t like semen, why buy a wank mag called ‘Nuts’?
‘Britain’s Best-Selling Quality Men’s Magazine’
Circulation: 130,000 a month
Covergirl: Clive Owen (am I the only person that finds his face eminently slappable?)
Concept: Fashion supplement of The Spectator magazine.
Metrosexual Money shot: Ralph Lauren Polo fold-out four page ad, inside cover.
Buy-Curiousness: Although American GQ used to be known as ‘Gay Quarterly’ the UK edition of GQ is so glacially pretentious it’s often difficult to believe it’s actually alive, let alone has a sexuality.
Nonetheless, in this month’s issue lady sex columnist Rebecca Newman bravely introduces GQ readers to their prostate gland and anal beads:
‘…as you become aroused you’ll find that, rather than resisting, your backside becomes hungry and takes the first bead…. It may feel peculiar to begin with; the sensation will improve as you become accustomed to it.’
That’s what I usually tell them too! Perhaps that’s why Rebecca is very careful to state repeatedly that it’s ‘your girlfriend’ feeding your arse.
Incredibly important and well-connected GQ editor Dylan Jones meanwhile, sounds here as if he could do with some anal beads in another orifice:
‘…as I was standing in the bar at Brown’s Hotel with Piers Morgan, having just had a gossip with David Cameron, he witters breathlessly, ‘I turned to Piers and said, “You know what? I don’t buy all this stuff about Gordon being bisexual.” We chatted away for a while, both of us recounting the old stories we’d heard, and then after about five minutes, Piers turned to me, gave me a quizzical look and said, “We’re not talking about the same Gordon are we?”
How to bed Mr GQ: Do you really want to?
Verdict: GQ probably thinks itself the most ‘grown-up’ of the men’s mags, and to be fair, it has occasionally covered gay issues (without sniggering), but since it’s generally so dull, who cares?
‘THE MAGAZINE FOR MEN WHO MEAN BUSINESS’
Circulation: A not very businesslike 60,000
Covergirl: Clint Eastwood
Concept: Snobbery. Here’s editor Jeremy Langmead sniffing about how Britain’s footballers
‘…dress appallingly: they pile on the designer labels with gay abandon (Ronaldo), accessorise with far too many sparkly things (Ronaldo) and haven’t yet discovered that logos a go-go have gone out of fashion (Ronaldo).’
I rather like Ronaldo – particularly the way that his looks, talent and ability to wear whatever he wants provokes both The Sun and Esquire to call him a poof. Not bad going. (As an indication of where they’re coming from, in the same issue, Esquire’s Best Dressed Man in the World is… ‘HRH Prince of Wales’.)
Metrosexual money shot: Diesel double page spread featuring a hustler-like male model in shorts sitting in a chair with a shirtless, fat, bald, middle-aged male punter at his feet, sweating face pressed against his Diesel baseball shoes. (However much the lad was paid by Diesel, Esquire was paid much more to grovel at their feet.)
Buy-curiousness: I wasn’t looking.
How to bed Mr Esquire: Tell him you write for GQ
Verdict: Ronaldo every time.
‘WORLD’S BEST-SELLING MEN’S LIFESTYLE MAGAZINE’
Covergirl: Another personal fitness trainer with either great genes or really good ‘vitamins’.
Coverline: LOSE YOUR GUT! ‘The 60 Minute 6-Pack Plan’ BIGGER ARMS!! (The same ones every month)
Concept: For the man who wants to be a covergirl.
Metrosexual money shot: Too many to mention.
Buy-curiousness: Off the scale. This month’s nipple Count: Male = 73 (two on the cover). Female = 4 (mysteriously covered in ‘superfoods’ berries and honey in this issue). One article is called: ‘How to hide your computer porn files from your girlfriend’ – yes, but what about your copy of Men’s Health?
How to bed Mr Men’s Health: You probably already have.
Verdict: The most flagrantly, fragrantly metro of the metromags but American-owned Men’s Health is still in major pissy-prissy denial about this insisting that all its pec-worshipping, calorie-counting male readers are straight, married with kids and not in the least bit vain. Which is, frankly, really gay.
‘VOTED BEST MAGAZINE IN THE WORLD’
(Until recently, biggest selling most successful UK men’s monthly )
Coverline: ‘”Lesbian Vampire Killers”: The undead have never been hotter.’
Covergirl: Mischa Barton
Concept: Male vanity made easy – and normal.
Metrosexual money-shot: Fashion and grooming and bodybuilding supplements ads featuring impossibly pretty young men in various stages of undress throughout, but most noticeably the inside cover ad for United Colors of Benetton starring a blue eyed lad way prettier than Mischa.
Buy-curiousness: Wads of it. For all its ‘High Street Honeys’, FHM seems the least uptight of the mens mags when it comes to enjoying/exploiting male beauty and acknowledging it, albeit with a giggle. One photo spread (‘Train like a soldier – FHM hits the gym with real life US marine turned Generation Kill actor Rudy Reyes…’) shows an impossibly buff, shirtless chap in tight pants. ‘Alone at sea, Ellen MacArthur removed her top’, reads one of the captions (FHM’s jokiness, unlike most men’s magazines, can actually be quite funny).
Beneath some pics of him with his bubble butt in the air the copy explains that he’s performing ‘Hindu Push-Ups… or what some people sardonically call “the prison push up” on account of where your bottom goes…. It’s also a big favourite down at the gym with the US Marines.’
How to bed Mr FHM: Dress well, work out, moisturise, have a sense of humour. And do the prison push-up.
Verdict: Although FHM like most if not all the men’s mags reviewed here, still officially assumes its readers are all straight, its highly buy-curious pumped-up metro content, along with its cheeky, flirty sense of humour suggests that it’s anything but narrow.
(Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to men’s bi-annual fashion mag Arena Hommes Plus — I don’t review it here, partly because of my self-interest, and partly because it’s a men’s fashion magazine rather than a men’s general circulation magazine. But generally speaking, as the fact that I write for it might suggest, it has no problem about ramming homosexuality down its readers’ throats.)