Editor: My past life with topless babes

The Conservatives last week blamed lads' mags for causing broken homes but Phil Hilton, the former editor of 'Nuts', claims that he is a victim too

So I'm at a party surrounded by friends and I'm nodding and smiling. I want my nodding and smiling to suggest that I'm OK and not feeling humiliated and shocked. They're looking back at me and I think they suspect that I'm feeling humiliated and shocked. I decide to give them some more nodding. Then I throw in some smiling so they know I'm really totally fine. It feels as though I'm nodding and smiling for about four years.

Moments earlier a friend has introduced me to someone. She's big in book publishing. Fantastic, I think. There are so many interesting people here and now I'm meeting another one.

"Phil this is Ms X-Something-Big-in-Books, Ms X, this is Phil Hilton, the editor of Nuts magazine." Our lives couldn't be more contrasting and yet here we are meeting like this at a lovely party, I think. I attempt some banter. I'm grinning, waiting for her to return with some of her own.

She pauses, looks at me and then says, quite loudly: "No, I'm sorry, I refuse to talk to the editor of Nuts." She turns and marches away. I'm cut dead. People are staring. I'm bantering with an empty space. My expectant grin is frozen on my face. Brilliantly, I turn it into an I-don't-care-what-she-thinks smile. Then the idea of the nodding comes to me. It's vital to be able to think on your feet on these occasions.

This was probably the most tricky and extreme of dozens of occasions when the two halves of my divided existence clashed during my time as editor of Britain's leading boob-centred weekly magazine.

Now Conservative shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove has launched the latest political attack on the chest-based publishing sector, blaming the magazines for encouraging feckless fathers and family breakdown.

I shudder at the prospect of morally-led intrusions into the freedom of the publishing industry but with some distance on the magazines I can at least understand why he's troubled.

I don't publish breasts anymore. This year I doubt I've published more than six nipples and from memory they belonged to Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and Vladimir Putin.

I am now the editorial director of men's weekly magazine Shortlist which doesn't do topless ladies. At Nuts the uncovered female torso was at the very centre of my working life. To the young men at my local Kwik Save, I had gone to job heaven.

But I was leading a double life. By night, my vinegar was balsamic, my lap remained entirely undanced and when I went for a beer with the lads some of the lads were women and the beer was a mid-priced St Emilion. I was, in short, a typical middle-aged, left-leaning liberal.

While my colleagues were running riotous club-night extravaganzas with the country's top glamour models, I was at dinner parties tearing wildly at fresh basil and trying to convince my friends that I wasn't an amoral porn baron in a Satanic pact with the people at Big Brother.

Now I'm starting to wonder. Obviously there was no Satanic pact but was there a Satanic loose arrangement? Was I lying to myself? Did I betray my liberal values and was I a Bad Person? Did I destroy British family life? I decide to ask the very people who have most reason to detest my work at Nuts.

I call Natasha Walter, the author of The New Feminism, writer, broadcaster – and coincidently married to an old friend of mine. Natasha and I have known each other for about 20 years – our careers took comically divergent paths. Obviously being British we've never had The Discussion.

She is working on a new book, Living Doll about what she sees as Britain's highly sexualised culture and so she's been researching my former magazine and the huge popularity of glamour modelling. She feels that the Nuts/Zoo world has become a suffocating orthodoxy for young women who have little choice but to conform to the lad-mag view of how to behave and look.

"A lot of young women with very limited choices are being encouraged to see their bodies as their only passport to success, encouraged to strip and conform to the look – waxed, tanned with big breasts. It's not a coincidence that this comes at a time of reduced social mobility."

It feels good to clear the air. And I'm interested in the arguments. I build to the final question and ask Natasha if she feels that I was personally in the wrong for my work at the lad mags.

"If I look at Nuts I find it hard to believe that you produced it because I find it really unattractive. It wasn't a good thing."

I ring Janice Turner, a writer and columnist who interviewed me while I was at Nuts for The Guardian magazine. She wrote: "Of all the lads' mags editors, Phil Hilton appears the least at ease with his own magazine. He squirms when I open Nuts ..."

I pour myself a stiff tea and call Janice for the first time since that interview almost three years ago. What, I ask, is wrong with the lad mags? "They convey a sense that women are available. They make it seem as though porn is coming true and that all women are gagging for it and that any minute all their clothes are going to fall off. Women are reduced to 24- hour-a-day shag bunnies. I think the way porn is creeping into the mainstream of popular culture for young men is desensitising them."

I demand to know whether I was personally in the wrong. She reminds me that she's a fellow journalist and not a priest but says that I was a less than convincing spokesman for Nuts.

"You were dissembling terribly, you were giving the line – a very well-rehearsed dinner party line. There's worse things than printing a load of tits but you didn't seem comfortable with it so what was the point? You only get one life."

I decide to stop calling intelligent, well-informed women and asking them to attack me and instead attempt to take stock. I look inside the frothing confusion of feelings and tea within me. I discover the following: I'm still really proud to have helped make such a popular magazine – if it was a bad influence on young men and women it was a well-produced bad influence.

I'm reluctant to condemn entirely something that made loads of people really happy – including some – like our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who really needed some cheering up.

On the other hand, magazines like Nuts seem very nude and slightly shocking once you're away from the process of putting it together and all the very talented and entertaining people who work on them.

I realise that I ought come down more clearly on one side or the other and that it is a huge breach of protocol not to round off with a firm position but that is where I am – the proud owner of mixed feelings. I do believe the brilliantly alliterative appeal of boobs and beer coexists with a (somewhat) more sophisticated side to the male character (boobs, beer, basil and balsamic?).

With this month's lad mag circulation figures expected to show another downturn there may be a new mood among Britain's young men. The sales drop could be attributed to the magazines having lost their novelty and the internet's obvious strength when it comes to ladies with fewer clothes but there could be something more profound going on.

The role models are less blokey with the rise of narrow-trousered and articulate types like Mark Ronson and Russell Brand. It is possible we may be about to see one of those periodic shifts in fashion and manners in which modern man no longer wants his women quite so topless. At least not until after he's prepared dinner and allowed the wine to breathe for a bit.

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