JAMES BROWN, THE LATEST EDITION
The bad-boy creator of 'Loaded' has quit to edit upmarket 'GQ'. Not everyone was sad to see him go. Tim Hulse talked to the rising star and some who feared the fierceness of its heat
Sunday 05 October 1997
In fact Newhouse had written to Brown suggesting lunch. As chairman of Conde Nast International, he's responsible for all operations outside the US. In his letter he'd mentioned an "international project", which led Brown to assume he was planning to launch a men's magazine abroad. Actually, this was a ruse cooked up by Newhouse and Conde Nast MD Nicholas Cole-ridge to throw Brown off the scent of the meeting's real purpose, which was to sound him out as the potential new editor of GQ, Britain's leading upmarket men's magazine.
The pair had had their eyes on Brown for some time. They'd noted Loaded's spectacular rise in circulation and Brown's name was a regular feature in the file at Vogue House reserved for press clippings about "interesting" figures on the publishing scene, testament to his high-profile status in the magazine world. GQ's then editor, Angus MacKinnon, on the other hand, was a somewhat donnish character who, in the summer of 1995, had been promoted from deputy editor, following the death from heart failure of the hard-drinking, cocaine-snorting American Michael VerMeulen. MacKinnon's profile was considerably lower than Brown's, and although GQ's circulation had risen under his editorship, alarming blips were now being seen in the figures. Newhouse and Coleridge felt the magazine lacked the spark it had had under VerMeulen. "Dull" is how Coleridge described it. He wanted more "fun". It was time to act.
Newhouse and Brown spent their lunch talking about magazines. New-house told him all about Conde Nast, and Brown expressed his admira- tion for Vanity Fair. Newhouse came away impressed. "A British version of Michael VerMeulen" is how he describes him. Another meeting was quickly set up, this time with Cole-ridge present. Coleridge was also impressed. "He's smart and clever and has a fatal charm," he says. Brown went away on a trip to the Brazilian Grand Prix and when he returned there was a third meeting, this time at Newhouse's home. It was then, for the first time, that the editorship of GQ was offered to him. "My jaw hit the table," says Brown.
MacKinnon was promptly sacked and the news of Brown's appointment was met with considerable surprise in the media. "It is as if the editor of the Daily Sport had been made editor of the Economist," said the Times. In response to the predictable speculation, Conde Nast was quick to stress that Brown would "emphatically not" be taking GQ downmarket.
Brown took an extended holiday, but now he's firmly ensconced in his new office, a picture of his beloved Leeds United on the wall behind his desk. The current issue of GQ was wrongly described in some quarters as his first. In fact, he was responsible only for the cover, featuring the comic Paul White-house, and the picture captions inside. The first issue to bear his stamp throughout will appear later this month.
Brown likens himself to a footballer being transferred from a First Division club to the Premiership, and New-house and Coleridge both speak of him with the kind of purring hyperbole a manager might reserve for his new star striker. It's certainly a bold signing and at the moment everyone is smiling. But one wonders how long the smiles will last. Can the beast really be tamed? "He's slightly wild, but he's not as wild as he would like people to think," says Coleridge.
Oh really? Perhaps Coleridge should speak to Brown's former colleagues at Loaded. One of them told me he thinks Brown is certifiable. None of them was sorry to see him go.
"WHICH James did you meet?" a member of the Loaded team asked me when I said I'd interviewed Brown. "Was it the charming one or the tyrannical one?" I have to admit it was the charming one that I met. I liked Brown. He has a kind of childlike enthusiasm and energy that I found very winning. It was only when I began talking to his former colleagues that a picture of the other James Brown began to emerge.
I spoke to a lot of people who worked with Brown at Loaded. Some were happy to speak on the record, but others preferred to speak anonymously - they may depend on him for work again one day. Despite what they told me, most of them still have a certain loyalty to their former editor. One photographer told me that if he hears people he doesn't know criticising Brown, he'll stand up for him. When he's with his friends, however, it's a different matter. A writer who had suffered a lot in Brown's regime, but still remained loyal, compared his experience to that of a battered wife who keeps returning to her husband. Psychologists call this phenomenon "hostile dependency".
Loaded was launched in May, 1994. For Brown, whose only previous staff job had been at NME, where he had reached the rank of features editor, it was his first taste of real power. As Loaded's circulation soared and the awards began rolling in, it wasn't long before the power appeared to go to his head. "He's treated us all fairly appallingly at times," a Loaded writer told me. "James's whole style of man- management is all about fear, just making everyone feel that they're totally and utterly dispensable. If he's in the mood to have a go at you in front of everybody, he will. He could pick on anybody. The mood changes were frighteningly sudden."
"On the one hand he could be really good at getting people excited about things and galvanising people's belief in themselves, but on the other I think he could knock you down in such a way as to make you think, 'Well, I don't want to work here,'" says Tim Southwell, who was Brown's number two at Loaded before leaving to work on a new project. "I saw it happen to a lot of people. Because he was in charge, I think he felt he wasn't accountable for his actions."
There are countless stories of Brown's bullying and I rang him to put the allegations to him. There was a long silence and then he said, "If that's their opinion, they must be right. My managerial influences are people like Brian Clough and I suppose Brian used to pick on people as well. If that's the way I came across then so be it." In his view, it was the only way to get the job done.
It's generally agreed that if you stood up to Brown, he'd back down. One person who famously stood up to him was the photographer Chris Floyd during a Loaded canoeing trip along the river Wye. Brown, the worse for either drink or magic mushrooms depending on who you talk to, embarked on a lengthy and crazed rant which included the idea of founding a new religion based around himself. When Floyd took a picture of him, Brown hit him across the back of the legs with a large stick. Floyd punched him and the two began grappling on the floor. After they'd been pulled apart, a tearful Brown apologised.
The news that Brown would be going on a trip was often greeted with sinking spirits by other members of the party. It wasn't just that his predilection for picking on people was likely to turn the trip into a "Lord of the Flies situation", as one writer put it. He also had a capacity for causing trouble and a tendency to drag everyone else into it. Chris Floyd recalls flying with Brown to New York. Brown got drunk on the plane (he gets drunk very easily) and when they got to their hotel he decided to take a shower in all his clothes. Floyd went for a shower himself, and when he emerged, he found Brown standing on the window ledge holding the room's television set and trying to yank it free from the wall. "I said to him, 'Why do you do this?'" says Floyd. "And he just said, 'I'm fascinated by chaos. Order frightens me.'" (Floyd has a theory that, in a perverse kind of way, Brown's capacity to cause chaos can often bring the best out in others.)
By the time the magazine had reached the 200,000 circulation mark, there was a feeling in the office that it was very much running itself and that Brown wasn't needed any more. He was known behind his back as "The Oaf" and the situation had reached a point where people would try to avoid coming into contact with him. "People didn't want to be in the office," one writer tells me. "They didn't want to be in the same room as him. So it ended up with everyone thinking, 'I'm going in, I'll do what I have to do, I'll write my 1,000 words and then I'm going to piss off again.'"
"You could walk into the office at Loaded and you could tell if James was there or not," says the photographer Derek Ridgers. "If people were smiling, you knew he was out. And if they all looked a bit miserable, you knew he was in."
In fact during his final year at Loaded, Brown was seen less and less. It was generally felt that he'd realised it was time to move on. There was a slightly bizarre rumour (which some swear is true) that he applied to be editor of You magazine, the Mail on Sunday's supplement for women readers. Then there was an attempt to get a chat show off the ground. The idea collapsed after a few weeks. Brown says he felt frustrated with the management at IPC and believed that he wasn't being sufficiently rewarded, bearing in mind Loaded's runaway success. He was depressed and over-indulging in alcohol and drugs. "I could see that if I didn't move on, there was a danger of me becoming a drug addict and an alcoholic," he says. "And I have more to offer than a comprehensive list of drug dealers and off- licences."
If Brown was shocked by the offer of the GQ job, it's fair to say the Loaded staff were too. "I think the GQ thing came as an enormous shock to us, that somebody had actually thought, 'This bloke really knows what's what'", said one staffer. Brown told me that the day he drove to Loaded to tell his colleagues he was leaving, he was crying his eyes out "because I was going to tell the people I loved working with that I wasn't going to be there any more." However, most of the people I spoke to from Loaded talked of a sense of relief that he was finally going. One mentioned a few fists in the air, "that just-won-the-FA-Cup type of feeling".
BROWN showed me the cover of the next issue of GQ. It features a photograph of Paul Weller, whom Brown interviewed himself. Other pieces in the magazine include an interview with Manchester United footballer Roy Keane, the comedian Lee Hurst interviewing Arthur Scargill, and photographs of "chicks in pants". He talked about mixing the humour of Loaded with the "editorial delights" of Vanity Fair. "It's going to be exactly what Loaded was to me when I started there," he says. "It's going to be a magazine for me and my friends." And as Brown now makes a point of saying, his life has changed. He's just bought a house (said to be worth pounds 340,000) and last month he got married. The implication is that he's got new responsibilities, he's grown up.
"It's complete twaddle," said a Loaded source. "James is the same hooligan he always was." This view appeared to gain some credence when it was reported in the Daily Express that Brown had returned to Vogue House one lunchtime the worse for drink and hurled a wine bottle at a window in his office. The window shattered and the bottle landed on a parked car below. Brown admits the report was entirely accurate and seems quite shamefaced about it. "There's a lot of glass in that office," was all he would say.
Brown clearly sees a future for himself at Conde Nast, and one that will take him far beyond the mere editorship of GQ. "I'm the new Tina Brown, me," he's been heard to say. Next stop Vanity Fair? First he has to prove himself at GQ and the task that lies before him is not inconsiderable. The latest official circulation figures show that in the first six months of this year, sales were down by an average of 12,000 copies a month. Sales of the other two upmarket men's titles, Esquire and Arena, also fell during the same period, while more downmarket titles such as FHM, Loaded and Maxim all put on sales in significant numbers. Brown hasn't been given a circulation target to meet, but at the very least he'll need to halt the decline. As Jonathan Newhouse put it to me, "We don't accept that it is time for GQ to stop growing."
Opinions among his former colleagues are mixed on the subject of whether Brown can pull it off. "GQ needs a massive kick up the arse and I'm sure he'll provide it," says the Loaded writer Mick Bunnage. How-ever, perhaps significantly, Bunnage, after initially agreeing to follow Brown to GQ, subsequently changed his mind. Loaded's star interviewer, Jon Wilde, also turned down the opportunity, as, it's said, did others. Only the writer Martin Deeson went with him.
"I think he's in a blind panic about what he's going to do with GQ," says a Loaded writer who's spoken to Brown on the subject. "I don't think he's really got much of a clue at all. I think he just expects things to fall together, as Loaded fell together. Obviously GQ are thinking, 'This guy's got the magic touch.' But was Loaded just a glorious fluke? He's had his hit single, but that's really all he's had and there are a lot of one-hit wonders out there."
"The facts are there," says Brown. "I started the most influential magazine in Britain in the last 10 years and made my last company millions and millions and millions of pounds after an outlay of virtually nothing, and I've got something like six or seven major publishing awards."
I asked him if he thought it might all end in tears. "It might. I do think about things like that," he said, becoming pensive for a moment. "But if you never had any tears in your life, it wouldn't be worth living, would it?"
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