Two years ago FHM's circulation was limping around 60,000, losing out to the New Lad's bible, Loaded. Now, 500,000 readers buy FHM every month - around 100,000 more than its rival. In 1996, it increased its readership by 217 per cent. Figures like this put most women's titles in the shade, but there's a strange anomaly at work: while sales of men's magazines are rocketing, the visibility of the product seems to be declining.
Think about it. You see legions of women reading their Cosmo or Take A Break on the bus, but the sight of a man poring over FHM or Maxim on public transport is considerably more rare. When FHM relaunched itself in 1994, it kept asking its focus groups two questions - could you read this on the train, and could you read this in front of your girlfriend? With their recent upping of the smut content, the answer to these questions seems to be a nervous no.
These new men's magazines are succumbing to what's known in the trade as "The Hello! Phenomenon", where readers are too ashamed to get their purchase out in public. Titles such as Loaded, FHM, Maxim and GQ only seem to be visible at the point of sale - gangs of boys standing in John Menzies and WH Smiths,
flicking through middle-shelf magazines as furtively as if they came from higher up. So, where do men read their magazines? Who are these 500,000 invisible readers? "They're professionals," says Manchester bank worker Pete, 23, single and regular purchaser of FHM and GQ. "You've got to be earning to be able to afford the clothes and the things that they write about." Pete keeps his copies of FHM and GQ "under the co ffee table". Not on it? "No, under it." He's been reading both titles for about a year, but is he ashamed of being one of the FHM 500,000? "No. But a bit of discretion doesn't do any harm if you're entertaining." Pete sees the rise of these mags in their historical context. "It's a bit like the angle of Playboy in the Sixties," he says. "The well-turned-out gentleman with his whisky and his birds, driving around Chelsea. Like The Avengers - that sort of aesthetic is back." The reader that the men's magazine constructs is a puzzling hybrid. He's a lager-swilling lecher able to navigate a dense network of cultural reference, encompassing Tripitaka, Bungle, George, Zippy and Matthew Le Tissier. He's a cocktail of Martin Clune s, Sid James and Statto off Fantasy Football. But he's also able to participate in more traditional sorts of sophistication: this month's Maxim has a joke about Emily Dickinson in a piece on Heavy Metal; Esquire boasts a free Norman Mailer book and Nigel Slater helping men conquer their fear of cod-searing. Next month's Arena will give away copies of the script of David Cronenberg's Crash. You'd never find that stuck to the front of Shaven Ravers. Although they are all attempting to emulate the Loaded babes 'n' booze ethos, each title has a subtly different demography of readership. Loaded has the youngest market and, along with FHM, the most geographically broad. "FHM sells just as well in the re motest provinces as in London," says Needham. A random selection of newsagents up and down the country revealed that Loaded and FHM are the top reading of platinum rogues in Glasgow and Hull; Arena and Esquire are affirmed as the toast of Brighton, and Maxim is the preferred journal of Colchester man. Definition by age is more easy. FHM and Maxim aim at readers in their late twenties, while Esquire, Arena and GQ reach beyond that to a slightly less bosom-fixated constituency. Sarah Ewing, editor of The Magazine Business, argues that FHM's success lies in its wide appeal, from 15-year-old schoolboys to 50-year-old men. "FHM is more across-the-board, it has no particular lifestyle to champion. Their readers are people who can buy it if they are too embarrassed to reach for something on the top shelf." Despite the gigantic circulation figures, most of the punters we spoke to were slightly cagey about their reading habits. "My girlfriend knows I read Loaded, and it doesn't exactly fill her with joy," says Andy, 25, a Guardian-reading musician. "ButI'd much rather see an attractive model clutching her cleavage than some bloke in a Richard Madeley suit flicking through his Filofax. I wouldn't actually hide the things, but I wouldn't put them on the mantelpiece, either." Robert, 26, works for an estate agent in Fulham. "FHM is getting almost pornographic, but I look at an awful lot of flats, and I see it resting on a lot of coffee tables," he says. For Robert, the appeal of the magazine is obvious: "It's the same asgoin g out with a bunch of mates: there are jokes, dirty stories, clean stories, sport and lots and lots about women." Mark and Andrew are two Oxford-based thirtysomething males who sank three pints each before going to see Beavis And Butthead Do America. "I wouldn't read Loaded on the bus - it would be the same as being seen with a copy of Men Only," argues Mark. "The l ine between porn and magazines like Loaded has blurred: I remember when they used to put Vic Reeves on the cover. But the irony is wearing thin, and it's turning into that old joke about Playboy - 'I only read it for the political articles.'" For Andrew, the pleasures of men's magazines lie in "succumbing to your unenlightened half. You can judge by the letters pages. The people who write in don't seem to have 'got it'. And they've dumbed down recently. You see a lot more of those 'take shit- loads of drugs and go white water rafting' articles." And where does he read his? "Well, it's the best magazine for keeping by the toilet." Yet Andrew wouldn't equate them with mucky books proper. Carl Snitcher, managing director of Paul Raymond Publications, publishers of Penthouse and Men Only, has noted the trend with interest. "Like us, they know that sex sells," he says. "But inside they are very different. I think we're honest - we say what' s on the cover is inside, but their covers offer a come-on that's not really substantiated." It's a charge that is vigorously denied by FHM's Needham. "People know that we're not offering nipples or beaver. What we offer is the cover person in an accessible and fun kind of way. We're never nasty to anyone." For Needham, the secret of success is inclusivity, a matter of being unpretentious. "It's not a metropolitan thing, it's not just a London-based thing. You don't need qualifications to read FHM. You don't need to be part of a clique. It's just men being honest about themselves, saying 'We ar e a bit crap, but, hey! - who cares?'" At the moment, increasing the skin acreage is sending circulation figures through the roof. But already the readers are becoming more furtive. Not as furtive as if they were subscribing to Razzle or Guns Weekly, perhaps. But enough for them to ask for it in a discreet, brown, paper bag.