Can the lad turn into a gent?

James Brown, the creator of `Loaded', is struggling to repeat his success at the classier `GQ' magazine, says Paul McCann

The irony of Loaded's happy 50th-issue celebrations last week was not lost in magazine circles, where rumours about the fate of the magazine's mad-genius creator, James Brown, abound.

Mr Brown is now at GQ, where he was lured with a large salary explicitly to grow the title's circulation. It is rumoured that it was not Conde Nast's managing director, Nicholas Coleridge, who was keen on Brown, but no less a figure than Si Newhouse, Conde Nast's patriarch and principal shareholder. Newhouse reportedly felt that not only had the previous editor, Angus McKinnon, failed to increase sales fast enough, but that he was not colourful enough. He felt that the magazine needed another editor like Michael VerMeulen, McKinnon's predecessor, who had died of a cocaine overdose.

However, the sales magic Mr Brown showed at Loaded is yet to materialise at GQ. Audited figures for his second six months at the helm will not be released until August, but industry rumour puts full-price news-stand sales of the magazine at just 80,000. Subscriptions, overseas sales and bulk sales to retailers or airlines may push this up to around 140,000 by August. This should be a perfectly healthy figure for a magazine that hasn't heaped itself with free books and give-aways, but unfortunately it would be less than the sales of the unfortunate Mr McKinnon - who, remember, was pushed out for poor sales growth. If the magazine does manage 140,000 sales, that would still be less than McKinnon's best figure, 148,000, and would be the first time in the UK version's history that it has registered a year-on-year drop in sales.

To make matters worse, the magazine's sales figures are due to be squeezed anyway because of a over-declaration in its final figures last time around. Monthly magazines' sales figures are totted up every six months and they must estimate the final sale of the last magazine in the period. If they estimate that it sells better than it really does, the over-estimate comes out of the next period's average. GQ is rumoured to have some sales to "pay back" from the last period. In contrast, its rival Esquire is thought to have under-estimated its final issue's sale last time, so will get to add some on to its January-to-June period this year.

Esquire is also putting pressure on GQ by picking up some fashion advertisers, such as Hermes and Cerrutti, who have been using the magazine since it launched and have never before entertained Esquire.

Esquire believes the reason they have switched is to do with the environment that Brown has created at GQ - much more sex and general laddishness, despite denials when he joined that he was planning to turn GQ into Loaded. What Esquire thinks of his editorial is irrelevant, but it is much more worrying for the curly-haired boy wonder that the prevailing rumour is that this approach has annoyed his mentor, Newhouse.

The April issue of GQ carried former Brookside actress Anna Friel on the cover alongside the cover-line: "What's a nice girl like me doing in a magazine like this?" The diminutive, 70-year-old Newhouse is rumoured to have turned a nasty shade of puce on reading these lines. To him, GQ is a global brand with heritage and class - "What is a little-known former soap actress doing on the cover of my magazine?" is much more likely to have been his response, according to informed sources.

For all this, losing Brown would be such an embarrassment to Conde Nast that it is unlikely in the near future. Sales figures can be massaged upwards with plenty of give-away offers on the front cover and other marketing techniques. Honour may yet be saved in time for the release of the circulation numbers.

Conde Nast, for its part, maintains that nothing is wrong, and James Brown is securely at the helm of GQ. "The rumours about James leaving are unfounded," says spokeswoman Nicki Eaton. "We'll release the sales figures in August, but at present some of the issues are seeing very big increases. We never said we wanted to hit a target of 250,000 or anything, we just want very steady increases."

Nevertheless, the feeling of celebration at Loaded is a contrast. Loaded is the jewel in the crown of its publisher, IPC. Instead of going downhill since Brown's departure, the magazine's sales have grown, and a whopping 5.3m copies were sold last year. IPC confidently predicts that the magazine will top half a million copies a month during the first half of 1998, and despite its slightly smaller sale to rival FHM, it is still considered the mould-breaker. It is just a pity that the man who took a sledgehammer to the mould in the first place is not there to enjoy the party.

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