How Maxim Shamelessly Turned the Publishing Industry on Its Head

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How Maxim Shamelessly Turned the Publishing Industry on Its Head

The thing about Maxim is that it used to be great. Well, maybe “great” isn’t the perfect word, but it did fundamentally restructure the media world. For decades, publishers assumed they couldn’t sell magazines to men, and instead reamed off countless gendered serials like Cosmopolitan and Glamour to stock on drugstore check-outs. The few that did market towards males were clinical, legacy brands—GQ, Esquire, a pre-crisis Playboy. All wonderful, all full of great writing, but all straying far from the fratty, id-fueled drunkenness of the lowest common denominator. Maybe they were too proud, but when Maxim arrived on U.S shores in 1997, it immediately subverted any platform ideas of taste, class, and self-reflexive masculinity. It’s almost disappointing how well it worked.

“New York media hated Maxim. They hated Maxim’s success, they hated that Maxim forced them to change their covers, and forced them to create brighter, more colorful layouts in their upfront section,” says John DeVoe, who was an editor of Maxim in the mid-2000s. “There’s a part of me that will always love that. I enjoy that kind of pranksterism, I think it’s very prescient right now in our culture.”

Down with the distant, ambiguous grace of the prestige books for horny gentlemen! Maxim was smart enough to diagnose that smarmy artifice as an alienating factor. They traded in the fiction, the class, and the elusive, incisive interviews for a deluge of bubblegum misogyny that was dicey then and downright career-ending now. At its peak, Maxim circulated 2.5 million magazines (one interviewee said the number was as high as four million). Stack that up against GQ’s comparably paltry 950,000, and you’ll see exactly how far a little shamelessness can take you.

“It was printing money, I remember being in high school or middle school and just laughing my ass off at my copy of Maxim,” says Seth Porges, who served as senior editor at Maxim between 2011 and 2012. “I didn’t read magazines, but it felt like it spoke directly to my 15-year old self. It was accessible, it was well-written, it was funny, and it changed magazine publishing almost overnight.”

You probably know the rest of the story. Maxim’s success inspires a long lineage of knockoffs like Blender, FHM, and Stuff—all adopting the same kegstand chic to their respective audiences. By the mid-2000s, as subscriptions started to stall, top brass aimed for a lofty, misguided licensing empire—slapping the Maxim brand on a radio show, a Las Vegas casino that was never built, and a UFC partnership that can only be described as “American Idol for Octagon girls.” By 2010 the magazine shifted to a 10-issue-a-year schedule, and in 2014—after being purchased by Steak ‘n Shake mogul Sardar Biglari—former Elle fashion director Kate Lanphear was brought in for $700,000 a year to class up the joint. The idea was to turn Maxim into a luxury institution—a blend of Nylon and GQ—essentially morphing the magazine into the very thing it railed against. Rebranding is tricky business, especially when you’re dealing with a company that’s had its mind in the gutter for 20 years. It failed, and Lanphear famously left the publication 14 months after arrival.

Maxim still exists, but like the rest of the surviving lad mags of its era, they feel like ghost ships drifting aimlessly in a long forgotten sea of media. Blender’s been dead since 2009, FHM boarded up their print division in 2015, but still posts general news-blog babble to an audience of basically no one. Stuff’s American outlet was shuttered, but the U.K. edition still publishes without the lingerie-clad models that used to pair the consumer tech on their covers. And yeah, Maxim still puts out a book—and still writes about hot college girls with no pivot in sight. For better or worse, they’ve stuck to their guns.

There’s a world out there where Maxim remained relevant as it aged out of its rowdy teen years, but every conversation you have with a former staff member is littered with off-the-record tails of bedlam and mismanagement. Proges tells me that the staff itself was talented and engaged while he was working at the magazine, but the corporate oligarchs above him often bungled the process.

Constant hierarchical shakeup is par for the course as far as print media goes. It feels like Spin is owned by someone new every other week. Chalking up the decline of Maxim to a broader cultural shift might be a little too easy, but at the same time, it’s hard to shake the feeling that masculinity is a whole lot different in 2017 than it was in 1997, or even 2007. I don’t know if men are any less drunk and stupid, but somewhere along the way, purchasing a glossy periodical with a smoldering Megan Fox on the cover got a lot less cool.

“Gender and gender roles have become a more fluid conversation,” says DeVoe. “Maxim was very generational. It was very Gen-X in the way that Howard Stern was Gen-X. When I look back at some of the things I did at Maxim I’m like ‘aw fuck, some of this stuff is just adolescent.’”

The beauty of Maxim was its ability to be profane and subversive at the same time. DeVoe says he used to enjoy taking the piss out of the frat boys he grew up with, essentially using his column space to slyly parody the overarching brand. As things started to slow down, and new owners started showing up, he believes some of that volatile magic was lost.

“They had some owners that were like guys who are out drinking and decide to open their own bar at one in the morning. ‘We love to drink! We should start a bar!” he says. “Those owners were like ‘I know how this works, I read the magazine,’ and that’s just not true. Maxim was a lot of things, but it was also a lot of creative, nerdy guys who were making fun of the readers. It didn’t allow them to evolve the culture. Cosmo has been around for decades by constantly asking ‘what is a 25 year old thinking right now?’ Maxim stopped asking that question.”

The spirit of Maxim still exists. A ton of money-making uber-masculine web destinations like TheChive, BarstoolSports, and CollegeHumor aped the magazine’s formula with far less overhead. The ugly, far-right churlishness of Martin Shkreli and professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos redirected Maxim’s rascally provocation away from apolitical white-guy thrills, and towards casual, hedonistic fascism. And yeah, when you put the history in that context, maybe the further we get away from that era the better.

But at the same time, it’s a shame how few publications are eager to blaze their own trail in 2017. Every new venture produces the same content, from the same perspectives, from the same cadre of Brooklyn quasi-reporters. There are so few unpredictable ideas in the media, and while Maxim’s neanderthal privilege may not have aged well, the idea of some new blood showing up to put us all on notice sounds deeply, deeply refreshing. At the very least, it would give us something to beat.

“I think there’s a void for the type of content. Maxim always had a place for the offbeat, or the weird, or the fun, or the funny, in a way that so few other mass-market magazines did,” says Porges. “When that goes away, I think something’s lost.”

NOTE: A previous version of this story contained an off the record quote.

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