Felix Dennis: Regrets? He's had a few...
You don't amass £715m without taking a few risks. Ian Burrell meets the evil genius of UK media
Monday 02 October 2006
The Independent? Hypocritical bastards, holier-than-thou bastards ... you know ... yeah?"
It is not the most auspicious start to an interview as publisher Felix Dennis stomps around his sumptuous Soho pied-à-terre.
A pop of a cork is not enough to interrupt the diatribe as Dennis emerges on to his roof terrace carrying a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé and two large glasses. Critiquing The Independent's recent (Red) issue, designed by Giorgio Armani, he says: "Stop sending them the bloody money. Then you would probably do something for Africa. Because the Africans would soon take care of their own despots, they're not children. But no, we keep on pumping the money in, so the tyrants and despots can still pay the salaries of the goons in police uniforms and army uniforms, yeah?"
Then, as soon as the first drops of wine splash into the glass, Dennis's tone brightens. He loves The Independent really. "If I was up against Rupert Murdoch I'd be doing the same thing. It's hard. There's only really three quality newspapers left in Britain because I don't count The Times any more."
He digresses, addressing the matter of the wine, which has a slight pink hue. "It's not a rosé, by the way. He takes the red grapes from his neighbour - I know him - and he puts them in these big fishing nets, he dips 'em in his vat overnight, then he gets up in the morning and chucks it away, and it gives it a little blush." Then he's off again: No, I love The Independent, power to their bloody elbow. At least they're bloody trying."
And so what threatened to be a curt exchange develops into an expansive exploration of the future of media, of how Dennis blew his chance to become a national newspaper owner, of how he deeply regrets his failure to go into women's magazines, of his plans to invest massively in The Week, of the holy mess that is the UK edition of Maxim, and how that global title has done most to amass his £715m fortune, including an estate in Warwickshire and a villa in Mustique.
Considering his vast wealth and the fact that this notorious hedonist is Britain's most colourful media mogul, Dennis is relatively little known by the public. That could soon change, as he seems keen to join other millionaire businessmen who transformed themselves into TV stars.
Dennis says he was offered the starring role in the BBC's The Apprentice ahead of Alan Sugar, but turned it down. "Because I'd been shown Donald Trump, shouting and screaming in America, I very correctly said to them, 'Thank you very much for such a kind offer, but I don't think this is for me.' Because believe me, I love talent, the money that talent makes me and the reflected glory of the talent that works for me. I couldn't stand standing in front of the talent saying, 'You're fired, you bastard.' It wouldn't be my style."
Now, a "bunch of boys from ITV" want to make a programme based on Dennis's book, How to Get Rich, possibly the first guide to good business practice by a former crack cocaine junkie. "The idea is to do something that's less confrontational and humiliating - and perhaps less entertaining - but a helluva lot more useful to people."
Dennis acknowledges that his success has come in spite of many mistakes. "I will get the futons brought up - it's going to take a couple of days to work through them," he says. "I never branched out enough into other areas of media. I could have gone into local newspapers 20 years ago and I should have done; I could have gone into national newspapers. I never did. I should have gone into the women's part of the magazine industry, which is by far the most vibrant part and always has been. I've made all my money by scrabbling around in the leftovers. Just like Mr Coleman and his mustard. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha," he explodes, with a demonic exhalation of disturbing sound and power.
"I only went public once and made hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. I hated it so much that I never went public again. Big error! Ha-ha-ha-ha," and again his laughter is dredged up from such subterranean depths that it might attract palaeontological interest.
"The errors are just endless. Not closing magazines that were failing. There was a magazine we launched once called Soft - it was nothing to do with pornography, it was about software. I can't remember how long we went on with Soft. Ha-ha-ha. Until we nearly died! Ha-ha-ha-ha." More Mephistophelian mirth.
Dennis's magnanimity is based on the knowledge that he learned from his experiences and has built up a publishing business so robust that it has been able to accommodate the most outrageous personal excesses, which nonetheless cost him an interest in the national press. "That was when my chauffeur of that time used to be bringing up the crack cocaine in buckets - ha-ha-ha-ha. There would be 13 or 14 girls in the house, for three days at a time, and none of them ever put their clothes on. I would think nothing of pissing away £100,000 in a day, nothing," he recalls. "I'm not sure that I'm released from the non-disclosure agreement I signed, but let me put it this way. If I'd gone through with it and handed over my £8m I would certainly be the part-owner of one of Britain's largest national newspapers. I decided I didn't want to be in the newspaper business, which was a very stupid and foolish thing. Probably I made that decision during my lost years, the eight or nine lost years. Ha-ha-ha."
The photographer arrives, prompting Dennis to shout out, "Make-up!", and ruffle his hair theatrically. With his grey beard and tortoiseshell bifocals, he might not look like an important figure for what Tony Blair refers to as "the Google Generation". Big error, as the publisher himself might say. Many are those who have underestimated Felix Dennis and lived to regret it.
"Maxim is a magazine for men who not only move their lips when they read, they drool when they read," American GQ editor Art Cooper snootily opined after Dennis took his magazine Stateside in 1997. By 2001 it was outselling GQ by almost three to one and was the top-selling magazine at many US news-stands.
"Is Felix Dennis mad?" asked The Wall Street Journal five years ago when the British publisher launched the British phenomenon that is The Week in a market where titles such as Time and Newsweek were struggling to maintain profits. The Week, a digest of newspaper and magazine articles from around the world, is now selling 430,000 in the US. In the spring Dennis will give the title a major lift with the launch of a website, provisionally named The Week on the Web.
"This is going to be a huge thing for us, the most money we've ever spent on a website," he says. "You just can't take The Week as it is and put it on the web. I am looking to create an environment that the people who love The Week will go to at least two or three times a week. If Dennis Publishing fails at this then we are all going to have to go and shoot ourselves, because these are our best boys and girls working on the best product and this should be a knockout."
Dennis, a science obsessive, runs his Fitzrovia headquarters like a publishing laboratory and his "talent" have hit upon a new idea. "Do you know the fastest-growing segment of The Week's readership? Children in private schools. You've got the sensible teachers who see in The Week an opportunity for people with the focus and concentration of - ha-ha-ha - a dog. Young boys, let's face it: how long can they concentrate for? The Week presents the world to them in chunks they can get a grip on."
Dennis, who donated £1m to New Labour but has fallen out of love with the Blair regime, would love to expand the project to state schools. "We discount for educational purposes, but we know that many of these people will grow up becoming readers of The Week."
Another famous title in Dennis's portfolio is Viz, which has him baffled because it speaks a language he understands. "I think it's hilarious but I shouldn't be able to understand three-quarters of it - I'm 59 years old, right? I wish it would reconnect with the first decade of the 21st century, but it still makes a lot of money and has a lot of fans and I'm very proud to publish it."
Dennis has also moved into gambling magazines, such as Poker Player and Inside Edge, the latter having been edited until recently by former Mirror City Slicker James Hipwell, until recently residing at Her Majesty's Pleasure - just as Felix himself did for a fortnight in 1971 after the landmark obscenity trial over the satirical title Oz. "He'll be back, don't you worry. We're perfectly prepared to employ recidivists at Dennis Publishing. Ha-ha-ha. It's a home from home."
It is Maxim that has made Dennis his money. When in March 1997 he was forced to concede that Emap's FHM had snuck up on the outside of his magazine like "an Ethiopian sprinter who we didn't see", Dennis defiantly pledged: "We will go after them and we will beat them." When asked how, he replied: "I'd be a nutter if I told you that."
Nine years later, Maxim sells just 146,043, compared to FHM's 420,688. "Struggling, struggling," says Dennis of its performance. "They brought in Darth Vader [recently departed editor Greg Gutfeld] and I told 'em not to. I love Darth Vader and I'm hoping the company is going to offer him a new job soon that you'll think yes, that is more up his street. First of all, I think you are crazy to bring an American to edit a British magazine, quite frankly. Secondly Darth, Greg... has a skewed vision of the world and although I think he's hugely talented this was not really a vision that we wished to put forward to our readers and advertisers. Although I have to say that I nearly fell off my chair when I read his feature on the Ikea sex party - this is how to have sex when you are putting Ikea furniture together."
He is confident that its new editor, Derek Harbinson, can turn the ship around. "Maxim is in a very difficult position, but it has got some talent in it and they will dig themselves out of the doo-doo."
More pertinent is that Dennis did have that plan and it worked. He took Maxim to the US, where the first branded bar Maxim Lounge is about to open in Miami, followed by a 2,300-bed resort in Las Vegas and a steakhouse chain, Maxim Prime. "The Maxim furniture line in America, produced by Z-Line furniture and sold in Macy's department store, makes more money than Maxim UK," says Dennis, almost breathless with laughter.
He has cut a deal with Vodafone that allows readers of Maxim titles across Europe to download jokes and pictures of girls. Every one of his websites, he says, makes a profit. "These are wonderful times for media," he says, a picture of contentedness.
Then, suddenly, he's off again. This time it's a favourite bête noire, political correctness. Why, he wants to know, are white women having water bottles confiscated at airports?
"Muslim fascists are trying to kill you," he says, adopting the "Exterminate" accent of a Dalek. "Why not search all the Muslim fascists? Because" - now in a despairing voice - "it's not politically correct to do so. It's killing you right now. You are a bunch of liberal wimps and you'll die... you'll all die."
The ITV team arrives to discuss the new show and it's time to take leave of this money-making maverick, passing his library, accepting a CD of Mustique Blues Festival 2005 (featuring at track 8 "Wang Dang Doodle" by Felix Dennis), descending the stairs past the framed cartoons of Felix the Cat, (the source of the publisher's schoolboy nickname - "Pussy") over the marble doorstep embossed with the letter D, and out of the world of the Wizard of Oz.
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