It was going to end sooner or later. Young guys are super tech savvy, and digitally aware, so a print magazine for guys was always going to be a victim of digital media migration.
But it was great while it lasted! The title launched by founding publishers Louis Eksteen and Kim Browne in September 1999, came to stride the SA magazine landscape like a collosus.
There was a time when FHM magazine was invincible. The content was risque and politically incorrect. But if you do things well, and you’re funny, and you market it well, AND you make people money, you’re allowed to get away with just about anything.
Things peaked in July 2005, with an FHM 100 Sexiest issue featuring Britney Spears on the cover which sold 160 000. That was one of many spectacular brand extensions that emerged from the FHM stable. There was also FHM Calendar, FHM Lingerie, FHM Speed, FHM Collections, FHM ModelBook, Homegrown Honeys, some M-Net TV specials, a compilation music album, a DVD, a pop song, awesome events, thousands of beautiful women in bikinis and one much-loved brand.
The brand, and its well-known – if recently changed – pay-off line “It’s a guy thing” had recognition and resonance right across South Africa. For several years, the title managed to tap into the fun-loving, hot-blooded joy of being a man.
I worked at FHM from 2002 until 2012, and served as editor from 2006 until my departure. So I was privileged to experience the creation of so much fun, super-sexy content from behind the scenes.
I witnessed careers being built on several years of incredibly sexy glamour productions. Celebrities beat a path to our door. We could get just about any interview we wanted. Our events would be mobbed by a dozen TV crews. We went on shoots in Argentina, Switzerland, the Caribbean, Maldives… We had ludicrous “team-building” weekends in game reserves where everyone ended up in the Jacuzzi sucking each other’s toes. Good times, good times.
FHM was the locally syndicated version of the British mag. That title was a beast. At some point in the Nineties, they produced a magazine that sold a million copies. So there was an international network of likeminded young men producing content that was available to all of us. “The sun never sets on the FHM Empire” was one un-PC slogan the international desk used. There were about 30 FHMs across the world at one stage – UK, USA, France, Germany, Australia, Singapore, Russia, Indonesia, India, China, Phillippines… You name it. And the SA one was one of the best.
We were blessed with some incredible magazine talent. Kim Browne and Louis Eksteen were visionary publishers, passionate about the brand, demanding… They set high standards for themselves and everyone on the team. But they could let their hair down with the best of them.
FHM teams managed to straddle that vertiginous chasm between professional excellence and utter reprobatism. There were geniuses and idiots working at FHM, and they were the exact same people.
The founding editor was Neil Bierbaum, who with his irrepressible deputy Melinda Shaw helped establish the standards and systems used at the mag to this day. They set the mag on a steady growth path from launch circulation of around 40 000. That trajectory would continue for the next several years. At launch, FHM was locked in a high-stakes race against Maxim to be first to market. In the end, FHM came out first, and Maxim faded after six or seven issues. (It was revived recently).
Neil was followed in 2002 by Brendan Cooper, who saw FHM through the magazine’s glory years. Brendan is a dynamic, inspiring guy and also a kind of genius. He assembled a killer team of party animals with skills and never looked back.
With FHM, a good way to mark the years, is according to who won 100 Sexiest that year. Brendan’s were the years of Kerry McGregor, Megan McKenzie, Minki van der Westhuizen and the remarkable Lee-Ann Liebenberg.
The shoots were high-class, high-gloss and sexy. There was a reciprocal benefit between the magazine and the models. We sold mags, they got famous. Many models parlayed some FHM exposure into great careers. I like to think FHM was also instrumental in the success of women like Bonang Matheba, Sashi Naidoo, Joelle Kayembe, the late Reeva Steenkamp and others.
Glamour productions were produced by the FHM Art Directors with teams of talented freelancers. Hair and make-up artists, stylists, photographers and models were all independent operators who contributed to FHM’s easily recognisable “visual language”.
But there was more to FHM than beautiful women. What allowed us to get away with such apparently naked sexism was having a sense of humour and a fundamental respect for the women we worked with as fellow professionals. “Don’t pomp the models” was the mantra we would keep repeating on our week-long Indian-Ocean Calendar shoots with just us and 13 supermodels.
The brand pillars were “sexy, funny, useful”, and it was actually the funny that was thing. Boy did we have fun. There were picture captions that even now come back to me through the years. A pic of a man squirting milk through his eyeballs, with the caption, “Giving up wanking for Lent proved challenging”. A magnified shot of a fly was captioned “Puberty ended Hucknall’s popularity” Every image had to have a caption, and it couldn’t be about what the pic was really of. We would have captions meetings, where this throwaway ridiculousness was crafted to perfection.
The office vibe was similarly hilarious. It felt like we were getting paid to talk kak, and put it in a magazine, and 100 000 people would buy it. Despite the edgy content, advertisers clamoured to buy space. The December 2006 issue had 226 pages – about a hundred of them ads! We sold million-rand sponsorships, we hosted stages at Oppikoppi. Just about every brand was keen to party with us. Free booze would just get delivered to the office.
But mainly the mag was fun to read, and edgy with it. That was entertainment! One of my first assignments was to spend an afternoon in my underpants lighting my farts to test cigarette lighters. We streaked around Randburg, jumped out of aeroplanes, crashed cars, got arrested, sustained injuries and drank enough alcohol to fuel the Russian navy.
The whole time we were pushing 1am deadline nights, busting budgets and sustaining a steady line of lunatic banter that was the real attraction of working at FHM. There were some classics who worked that patch, hey. Alyn Adams, Dylan Seegers, Brendan Cooper, Gord Laws, Peter Piegl, Brigitte Botha, Jason Palmer, Tank Langa, Ibz Moolla, Ant Lord, Dom Wolf, Josie, Brendah, Kantha, Nico Nel and current editor Louis Raubenheimer. Dozens of others! Margot, Stacey, Alex Parker, Jeremy Lawrence, Steve Slotow, Charles Cilliers, Ricky Hunt, Lucinda Human, Donna, Monty, Alan, Darryl. Sav, Julia, Erin, Jian, Isey, Sam, Steve Blues. Chris Viljoen. Chantelle. Kirsty. Natasha. Passionate players on Team FHM.
A super-talented fashion team put out sophisticated, world-class style content while us editorial guys did our best to sabotage it with stories titled Death By Wanking.
The ad team calmly went around agencies explaining how placing their client’s FPFC opposite a pic of a tramp flossing his teeth was a great idea.
The real key to the mag’s success was capturing the imagination of the readers. At one stage we were running four pages of reader contributions, with the FHM Massive sending in pics of gross injuries, bungee jumping, hotties snogging, kak tattoos and always, people on top of Kilimanjaro. There was a pic of an oke smoking a cigarette with his arse, someone who chainsawed half his foot off, pics from a person’s sex change operation… Not all of it was publishable, but these were passionate, engaged readers. Readers like Jacques and Khulani would come round the office sometimes and give us the benefit of their engaged opinions. (“How long do you think my tongue is?”)
And then, seven years into it, there was a mag that sold less than the one before it. This heralded the beginning of a gradual, but inexorable decline. We can speculate forever why that was, but some reasons would be the same media migration that affects all contemporary print titles. Magazines and newspapers that are not losing readers to the internet are rare. To expect hip, tech-savvy dudes who like pics of beautiful ladies to remain loyal to paper is unreasonable. Also, okes grew up – the readers and the writers. There was a financial crisis. South African demographics changed. The zeitgeist changed. Men changed. Society changed. The team changed. We repositioned, relaunched and redesigned again and again and again. We did supplements, cover mounts, we went upscale, downscale, topless covers, demure covers, swearwords, no swearwords, black girls, no black girls. Owners Media24 restructured divisions, rationalised, retrenched and moved the mag to Cape Town from Joburg in 2012.
When you lose confidence in your brand intrinsics and start tinkering with the formula, it’s hard to get the genie back in the bottle. We still had individual mags that sold a lot, but the trend was clear.
And when the brand isn’t being marketed as aggressively and doesn’t have the cultural resonance it used to have, people don’t forgive you your transgressions either.
For some reason, FHM never sold as much, as consistently as it did when we were all doing what we bloody well liked and putting stuff in because we thought it was awesome, photographing models because we thought they were hot and partying non-stop the whole time.
Like it or not, the brand was a product of the UK’s mid-Nineties lad culture, when seeing a photo shoot of J.Lo in a bikini was something rare – and something you could only see in FHM.
Men are different now. They seem to take themselves a bit more seriously, they’re a bit better dressed, a bit more more stylish. They have greater feminist sensibilities.
You just can’t imagine a bearded hipster in a coffee shop paging through an FHM.
Actually, what do I know. Maybe FHM is so unhip it’s flipped around to ironical cool and hipsters wear them on their heads while riding their fixies down Long Street naked.
Too late though, because FHM’s last issue should hit the streets next week some time. I heard yesterday that Media24 are pulling the plug on FHM after 15 years.
I wasn’t surprised – that decision had probably been in the post for a while. But I was a little sad, because it was like the end of youth. The end of a time of hedonistic joy when anything was possible and screw the consequences.
I think we’ve all grown up now. Even the 20-year-olds.
But there was a spell there where everybody was having the time of their lives. With FHM.