Kate Lanphear had been editor-in-chief of Maxim magazine for only a few weeks in the waning months of 2014, when the discussion finally, and inevitably, turned to sex. There had already been a long string of meetings addressing features, fashion, humor, grooming, celebrities, food, and anything else you might expect to see in a glossy magazine.
(I began as a full-time freelancer a few months before Lanphear, and stayed at Maxim until December, shortly before joining the New Republic.)
Lanphear had continued the meetings, and though her first official issue wouldn’t reach newsstands until March, and we were still finishing the December/January double, she gathered the staff in the conference room, a narcoleptically lit windowless box that she had transformed into a vision of Maxim’s future. The walls had been papered over with a sprawling scrapbook of images clipped from obscure, article-free fashion magazines: sleek men and emaciated women posed at posh angles, leather biker jackets, streamlined suits and bare chests, bare asses, piercings, G-strings, artful nipples. This was no Dadaist art project. The walls signified the tone and texture of the Maxim Lanphear intended to create: glamorous, daring, cosmopolitan, and transgressive—Catholic schoolgirl trying to piss off conservative dad.
Maxim needed a change. Everyone knew that. Not just with sex but everything. But what did change entail? Many things, but chief among them, it seemed to me, was to acknowledge the end of the cultural moment that had produced Maxim. The days in which the teeming masses of hairy-knuckled, hairy-backed, red-blooded, rosy-palmed, consciously and subconsciously misogynist American men—a goodly portion of them in college fraternities, or the patrons of Miami nightclubs, or U.S. military men serving in dangerous and often religiously conservative places around the globe—who had for years turned to the magazine for validation, for distraction, for an off-color laugh, and perhaps even a bit of masturbation, was over. Maxim was old and unloved and in need of reconsideration. This task would fall to Lanphear.
The former style director of T and Elle, Lanphear was an archetype of “street style” fashion, a glossy-mag aspirant in a Mötley Crüe-meets-Anna Wintour mode. She’d been chosen by Maxim’s new ownership—a corporation run by Sardar Biglari, a young Iranian-American businessman best known for his ownership of the Steak ’n Shake and Western Sizzlin’ food chains—to update the magazine for a modern age. How would that go? It would, Lanphear assured us in the conference room, go hotly. But different from the old days, too, in ways that she couldn’t quite articulate. Her knowledge of the fashion world was undeniable, and her visual sensibility had been pasted to the walls—but her approach to how stories might be executed as an editor was as yet unformed. “Kate was never shy of the fact that this was her first time doing this,” one former staffer told me. “She was trying to learn as she went and always admitted it.” (After repeated requests, Lanphear declined to speak with me for this story.)
Yet from those juxtaposed images a sensibility could be discerned, and potentially translated to the magazine page: chaotic, associative, slightly dated (the biker jackets felt a tad ’80s to me), wildly aloof and elitist, but consistent, organized around a genuine editorial aesthetic. Nothing particularly original, admittedly. You might find variations of her concepts in Details (pre-mortem) and even GQ, but there was something to Lanphear’s taste that was wilder somehow in its genesis and inchoate gesturing. A narrative emerged from the clippings, one that diverges from the triumphal feminist success tale that it was so frequently made out to be.
Maxim named Lanphear editor-in-chief on the last day of Fashion Week in 2014: an odd choice for a magazine that had been more noted for the lack of clothing in its pages than the opposite. But there was a logic to the decision.
“We are seeing style and fashion introduced in almost every magazine with a mass audience,” said Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, and a long-time industry veteran known as “Mr. Magazine.” The reasons for this are mostly financial. “The fashion brands like print advertising as opposed to digital,” added the editor of a men’s style section at a major national publication. “They think it makes their stuff look better. Also, they are conservative.” Lanphear, went the reasoning, would create an attractive and comforting editorial environment for companies who still wasted money on print magazines, even as they, and we, and me, continued the long march unto death.
It also might have made little sense in a different era to place in charge of a mass publication someone who had no experience as an editor of magazine stories. But not every editor starts out in the word-business nor need she remain there. Anna Wintour has never been ink-stained or wretched, and seems not to have suffered for the lack. Graydon Carter began as an editor and writer, but I suspect the last time he wielded a red pencil dates to whenever editors still used red pencils rather than track changes (or Google Docs, for crying out loud).
More important, Maxim desperately needed someone in charge. The company had been in flux for nearly a year, since Biglari Holdings Inc. bought it in February 2014. The incumbent editor, Dan Bova, who’d been with Maxim since 2011, quickly quit. It took Sardar Biglari—the company’s founder, CEO, and chairman of the board—some time to replace him. The creative director, Paul Martinez, who I had worked with at Men’s Journal, pitched in to operate it, along with David Swanson, the deputy editor. James Kaminsky, who had twice edited the magazine during its peak days, came in on contract to help.
I met with Martinez before Lanphear was hired to discuss my working there. (Martinez also declined to comment for this article, citing a nondisclosure agreement he signed when he left the magazine in October 2015.) I was freelance writing and in need of a steady paycheck, and participating in a moment of reinvention seemed fun. Maxim, Martinez told me, would be repositioned with a 1960s-era Esquire or GQ sensibility in mind, forging a link to the glory days of men’s glossies. It would be clean and understated, its imagery and tenor restrained, particularly in regard to women. It would feature fantastic writing, dapper style, and a healthy dose of James Bond. (The Bond thing, he said, was because Biglari liked James Bond and, really, anything spy-related.)
You have to appreciate the irony of this. At its peak, men’s magazine editors and writers abhorred Maxim. Consider this 1999 list of GQ editor Art Cooper’s sentiments, of which I’ll include two, the first being the best known—“Maxim is a magazine for men who not only move their lips but drool when they read,” and the second for how off-color it seems in a contemporary context: “Laddy boy magazines are for really interesting losers. Articles say ‘all right, so you’re not going to sleep with Cindy Crawford, here’s how to enjoy fat women.’”
For someone like me, who has worked in publishing only during print’s precipitous decline, Maxim’s apogee seems impossible, mythological, a long-lost epoch when editors strode the earth with giant flaming expense accounts. The magazine was founded in 1995, in England, by Felix Dennis, the colorful publishing magnate who died in 2014. (Example: James Kaminsky told me that Dennis had an all-leather office in London—leather floor, ceiling, and walls.) His website still exists, noting that Maxim “began on the back of a beer mat and became the world’s biggest selling men’s lifestyle magazine and global brand.” This is hyperbolic, but not by much: Dennis brought Maxim, and its laddie sensibility, to the United States in 1997, and Art Cooper’s judgments notwithstanding, it held an immediate and unambiguous appeal for American readers.
Its growth was astounding. During its first years, there were months when the magazine sold 50,000 more copies on the newsstand than the month before. “We were growing so fast that we had to split the print run between three different printing houses, “ said Kaminsky, who started at Maxim in 1999. “It was almost too fast for us to deal with. I remember the issue that we hit a million on the newsstand. Keep in mind, GQ, total circulation: 700,000 or so. On the newsstand, it was probably selling 200,000. And we were selling a million. We didn’t have enough circulation people. They hired five in a week.”
Maxim eventually reached a circulation of 2.5 million, and GQ and its peers had to eat their unkind words, copying its sensibility and hiring away members of its staff. In 1999, a year in which Maxim increased its rate base (the guaranteed average circulation level magazines use to set advertising fees) by over 111 percent in one six-month period, Details poached Mark Golin, the magazine’s editor. The New York Times called this “a move that acknowledges the mighty selling power of bosoms and beer,” and added that recent covers of Details, GQ, and Esquire had all mimicked Maxim’s “sex over substance” aesthetic, in particular Esquire’s “The Triumph of Cleavage Culture” issue of February 1999. It’s not fair to say that these publications became Maxim, but they did evolve in a direction that someone like Art Cooper would not have liked. (He died in 2003.)
Maxim was unable to maintain its dominance. Many factors led to its eventual decline: the internet, changes in taste and what’s considered appropriate for publications. But whatever caused it, the fall has been as spectacular as the rise. In 2007, Dennis sold Maxim to a private equity firm for a reported $250 million. Less than a decade later, Biglari Holdings is believed to have paid only $12 million.
Maxim’s collapse coincided with the general failure of print media and could be read as a symbol or byproduct of that phenomenon. But the presumption that magazines are breathing their last isn’t entirely an accurate one. The long-term indications are grim, admittedly, but the large media companies that own mainstream print publications, like Conde Nast and Hearst, remain profitable. So long as that is the case, their premium titles will continue to be produced, on paper, and mailed to the homes of the increasingly anarchistic people who don’t fear the U.S. Postal Service. As for digital, while the skies do seem brightest online—Conde Nast’s digital revenue has increased 70 percent since 2012—it remains a comparatively minor monetary source. For many big companies, for now at least, print still matters.
And so, too, does Maxim, if only because of its size. It was, until the middle of last year, the largest circulation men’s magazine in the country, with just over 2 million paid and verified circulation, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Men’s Health overtook Maxim in December of that year, 1.8 million to 1.6 million, but the magazine remains a fair size larger than GQ’s 964,000 and Esquire’s 736,000. Even now, years past its cultural and financial peak, Maxim still captures a wide swath of the American male mainstream. What does or does not appeal to its readers can be taken as a proxy for the preferences of this country’s greater ur-dude. And Lanphear’s Maxim would render him, as do so many things in today’s world, slightly beside the point.
The most important thing Kate Lanphear brought to Maxim was Kate Lanphear. “If you asked me who my style icons were,” she wrote in “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” a 2009 Elle article:
I’d say I began with old-school heavy metal. I love the androgyny and the glam. In high school I covered my bedroom walls with Axl Rose posters. Appetite for Destruction was out, and I trailed Guns N’ Roses’ tour bus in my Honda Civic (its plates read AXL LVR). I had these amazing, skinny, tight-enough-to-cut-off-your-circulation acid-wash jeans with an inky blue plastic zipper that ran up the seam, purchased at Spencer’s Gifts at the mall. I had begged my mom for them. They were part of a look: slouchy suede boots, oversize suede jacket, outrageous jeans.
That’s a far sight cooler than any of the nerds who’ve topped the mastheads at publications where I’ve worked. As one breathless article noted, Lanphear inspired “the kind of rabid online following typically reserved for Hollywood starlets.” Her influence stemmed from the photos that street style photographers like Tommy Ton took of her. “Cult following” and “icon” and “muse” are stupid things for people who care about words to say or write, particularly about an editor, but then again, very few websites have devoted themselves to Jim Nelson’s (GQ) or Mark Healy’s (Men’s Journal) look. Check out Fuck Yeah Kate Lanphear and Fear Lanphear; a Google image search for her name scrolls downward seemingly forever.
“Kate was a respected and smart and creative editor,” said Robin Givhan, the fashion critic for the Washington Post. “But what pushed her beyond the world of fashion and out into the broader popular culture was her sense of personal style. She caught the eye of social media. She existed in two realms—the professional and the public—and balanced it in a lovely way.”
That, finally, was the strategic rationale for hiring Kate Lanphear. The credibility of her persona could be transferred to the magazine, which had a poor reputation. She would signal to readers and ad buyers that Maxim had changed. There would be no more juvenile humor, everyman pandering, NFL cheerleaders on trampolines. (“Like chocolate and peanut butter, NFL cheerleaders and bouncy surfaces are a combination made in Heaven.”) She would symbolize the “brand” in ways that no cover celebrity and certainly no article ever could. She would be the new Maxim. And that Maxim would in certain quarters be understood as a feminist project.
A narrative around this subject began forming as soon as she was hired. Lanphear seemed to change the way women were represented in the magazine to include their interests, too, not just those of men. Erika Stalder, a writer for the website Pstol, wrote that Lanphear had brought Maxim out of its “archaic just-give-me-a-hot-mute-girl-in-a-tight-sweater mentality and into 2015, *our era* in which women and men work together as equals.” Slate praised Maxim’s “feminist makeover” and the creation of the new “Maxim man.” xoJane applauded Maxim for “embracing feminism,” and suggested that an interview with Taylor Swift, who was featured on the June 2015 cover and given the top spot on Maxim’s “Hot 100,” could just “have likely come from the pages of Marie Claire.” The Daily Beast declared Maxim “your new feminist bible.”
The problem with this narrative is that it was so short-lived. Kate Lanphear’s tenure at Maxim lasted little more than a year and produced only eight original issues. “Working at Maxim has truly been a rewarding experience,” went her bot-like statement of November 13, 2015. “I’m proud of everything all of us at Maxim have accomplished and how far the magazine has come.” After her departure, Kate Dries at Jezebel pronounced the death of Maxim’s “brief, noble experiment of a progressive men’s magazine.”
There was a disconnect between the reception of Lanphear’s work and her intentions. In our editorial meetings, we did talk about changing the “Maxim man” and what that would mean. We thought about finding more contemporary ways of putting together content for men. We understood that the humor and imagery of the original publication were out of step with today’s readers. But no one talked about feminism, certainly not by that name, at least within my hearing. And for the feminist-minded, some aspects of the job could be unpleasant: the weekly meeting Lanphear led to discuss the women the magazine would photograph was, quite literally, a debate over the looks and body parts of young, super-skinny women.
And if Lanphear didn’t always know what she was looking for in a story—one former staffer recalled “insane pitch meetings” and “crazy idea memos that drove everyone up the wall”; another mentioned “stacks and stacks of proofs for one article about watches,” and “hundreds of iterations of a page”—she knew models. She referred to them as “talent” or “girls,” never women: a legacy, I suppose, of her background in fashion magazines, a part of our industry that traffics in female imagery that stops well short of progressive.
Still, it is within the context of feminism that Lanphear’s eight issues have been judged. Likely this has as much to do with her gender as with the product she put out. Placing a woman in charge of Maxim with a mandate to make change is arguably in itself a feminist act. (Remember, which you probably do not: The first editor of Maxim in the United States was a woman, Clare McHugh, who, in a 1997 interview said, “In my mind, I think that if women are not upset [by the magazine], I’m doing something wrong.”) And during my time at Maxim, most of the editors other than Lanphear were men, many of them older. They tended to focus on her lack of experience, which could be read as a substitute for saying that a woman shouldn’t be in charge. A state of denial persisted, one in which Lanphear was a figurehead, a presence to sell to advertisers, but not one to actually edit the magazine. Those responsibilities had to fall to, well, a guy, which is how Aaron Gell’s hiring as executive editor in December 2014 was understood. (He’s since left Maxim, and most recently edited a New York “pop-up” men’s site called Beta Male.) He would do the actual labor; she would face the public.
That internal narrative, too, was unfounded. Lanphear’s role did require her to schmooze potential advertisers, like any EIC. But she was an editor in both form and function. The Maxim staff members I spoke with described Lanphear as very much in charge, an editor who had, as one staffer put it, “a total vision.” Another said, “I joined Maxim because of Kate. A lot of people who would feel embarrassed to say they were working at Maxim did so because of her.” They also appreciated her editorial direction. “She wanted to make this really interesting magazine full of stuff you don’t normally see anywhere else,” said one staffer. “And I think that everyone kind of came to appreciate the ambition of it.”
If not as feminist exemplar, how then should Lanphear and her time at Maxim be understood?
The market delivered its own verdict in that regard. Newsstand sales declined 40 percent in the first half of 2015, and the magazine lowered its rate base from two million to 900,000—although it’s unfair to blame Lanphear too harshly for these numbers, as newsstand sales for print publications have suffered in recent years, Maxim’s more so than many. She could have put together the world’s most perfect magazine and it might still have failed, both because of ups and downs within the industry, and because America may not be ready for a new Maxim, whatever form it took.
And Lanphear’s Maxim was a new Maxim indeed. She was hired to direct the magazine toward upscale fashion and luxury, which by definition made it less mainstream; experienced publishing people like Kevin Martinez would had to have anticipated a reduction in circulation. What’s more, the strategy of leveraging Lanphear’s credibility with advertisers worked: The September issue, with Idris Elba on the cover (Maxim’s first-ever male solo cover model), contained 36 percent more advertisers than the previous year, with a 143 percent increase in fashion ads, Forbes reported.
But subscribers and readers were less impressed. And the reasons for that can—at least in part—be linked to creative decisions Lanphear made. Commercial magazines follow a set formula. Short articles in the front of “the book,” or the beginning of the magazine, cover core topics: at men’s magazines this usually means travel, sports, food, clothing, booze, technology, and good-looking women. The feature “well” occupies the middle of the magazine and is usually populated by three to five: A profile, usually of a celebrity with a movie/album/TV show to promote; a “package,” like Ten Super Cheap Winter Getaways or Fifteen Things A Guy Should do Before Committing Seppuku; and then a couple of “reads,” longer, narrative stories that quell the angst-filled hearts of the angry English majors. Back-of-book contains the fashion spreads, health, and fitness, and some quasi-witty final page.
Lanphear’s Maxim mostly rejected these conventions. Her issues were loose and uneven, almost free-form, more akin to an art magazine sold from the back row of a newsstand than a mass-market publication. It lacked strong divisions between sections, didn’t rely on feature packages to fill the well, and the front of the book made few concessions to established formats: no columns, very little traditional service journalism (“Here’s what to do if you’re stuck at Miami airport”), and only one recurring feature, a drink page devoted not to alcohol trends but to foggy memories from the famous: Anthony Bourdain on Negronis, Rick Bragg on rum in Port-au-Prince, David Beckham on scotch.
More important, Lanphear constituted Maxim each month around a single word: “raw” for the March issue, “hustle” for April, Noise, Hot, Gone, Legit, Muscle, and Velocity. The words, cheesy as they were, served as an organizing principle, a way to string together seemingly disconnected stories. But it only worked if you were paying attention, something most magazines know not to rely on the contemporary reader to do. Consider March: a photo essay of gritty Russian professional boxers, a page on really big chainsaws, an article opposing wearable tech, a profile of the band Fat White Family, a literary essay on “raw” by Andre Dubus III—these hang together, but only if you read Lanphear’s editor’s letter, and even then, it would seem pretty pretentious.
But she was trying something. Taken in isolation, a lot of what Lanphear created was excellent, and wisely relied on writers who had first become popular online. April came with a short essay by the novelist Phillip Meyer; Swift’s Hot 100 issue included one by Roxane Gay. Gabriella Paiella’s piece on “lumbersexuals” cracked me up, and Maureen O’Connor on the zeitgeist of the ass was good, too. There was a timely interview with the founder of Slack by Jeff Bercovici, and Nina Burleigh’s investigation of a Utah-based group of fathers fighting sex traffickers was a welcome surprise. The May article on Bombino, the Tuareg musician, probably should have been in Roads & Kingdoms and not Maxim, but that’s half the fun of it. And a (relatively, by the standard of men’s magazines) decent number of women—Edith Zimmerman, Sarah Horne Grose, Paiella—wrote model profiles, yielding stories that departed from standard male-gaze tropes. Not always, though. From Aaron Gell, on the actress Alicia Vikander, in the Hustle issue: “Those laying eyes on Alicia Vikander for the very first time are advised to savor the moment. Drink it in.” But you could criticize every men’s magazine for this—silencing of women comes with the subscription.
Not everything Lanphear did worked, in particular the fashion, of which there was lots and lots and lots, often in the feature well. “Half the magazine was male models in insanely expensive fashion outfits, hollowed-cheeked men in trench coats,” said one former staffer. To my untrained eye, the style coverage looked like repurposed 1980s Obsession cologne ads: vaguely German, stridently non-linear, self-seriously black and white. Blue Steel on steroids. What were those guys doing posing in front of an Eastern European Brutalist apartment complex in the March issue? And that dude in September, the one wearing a camel hair overcoat, standing in an abandoned adobe house, and staring down at his hands—why so sad?
Those theme words, by the way, may seem like a minor wrinkle, but they’re not: The fluidity between issues was the most unconventional of Lanphear’s choices. Magazines are branded objects. With all brands, whether the latest technological advance or a tub of cream cheese, continued success requires consistency. Consumers and advertisers are easily spooked: They want to know what they’re buying. Magazine readers demand regularity, particularly in the front and backs of the book. Limiting as that might be for editors and writers, familiarity across issues is essential. Men’s Health always reads like Men’s Health and never like Vice.
This does not mean that magazines follow their own rules or slavishly heed the judgments of their readers. They evolve, experiment, run the numbers, take risks, cower and cater, play a wildcard, drum up new ideas, and fail more often than they succeed. Practically every issue of a glossy contains violations of its brand, both welcome and otherwise. (Or it should.) But over time, reversion to the mean is the norm, and not just for individual magazines but for categories. As James Kaminsky put it, “You could argue with some validity that each of the major men’s magazines—GQ, Esquire, Details, Maxim—has a consistent and unique voice, one that is different from all the rest. You could also argue with equal validity that they don’t and that they’re all the same.”
Ultimately, Lanphear broke the Maxim brand in two significant ways: First, she steered the content and editorial strategy in a direction that seem almost deliberately calibrated to alienate the existing readership (which may not be a bad thing); and second, she failed to produce the consistency that any reader, old or no, enlightened or troglodytic, craves. An experienced editor might have opted to do only one or the other, to create the new Maxim man but put together polished, comforting issues. During the peak, men’s magazines mimicked Maxim, but only to a point. They knew how far they could and could not gamble with the relationship with the people who kept them in business.
What’s more, Lanphear didn’t just spurn the old Maxim editorially. She rejected it conceptually. Maxim’s early success stemmed from its ability to communicate directly with its readers. It turned away from what is, and remains, the industry standard for men’s magazines: Aspiration. Men’s magazines have always wanted to stay ahead of their readers: Here are clothes you’d buy if you could afford them, booze you’d drink if you hadn’t lost your job, places you’d visit if your passport hadn’t expired. (Playboy, a magazine that has emphasized luxury and more sophisticated photography in the past few years for the same reasons Maxim shifted its branding, epitomizes this.) Everything is pitched toward a better man than I, or you, or really anyone other than the fantastical unattainable perfect male with insane abs who exists only on the cologned pages of a glossy.
But Felix Dennis would have none of this. Maxim wasn’t written or edited for other editors or advertisers. It was for the readers, the ur-dude. “Felix Dennis was British. He came from a society without much class mobility. His magazine was for people who just figured, ‘What the fuck, I’m not going anywhere, let’s just act like idiots and have a good time,’” said Will Dana, former managing editor at Rolling Stone, and as editorial director of Men’s Journal, my former boss. The interesting thing about Maxim, Dana added, was that its success in the United States came during a period when class mobility had begun to wane. “Maxim said, forget about aspiration or luxury. Go after the guy who isn’t moving anywhere.”
And that Maxim reader, invested in stasis, did not like Lanphear’s Maxim. On Reddit, one commenter described Lanphear as a “feminist lesbian,” and wondered “what in the world she [was] doing editing a men’s magazine.” Another Redditor, who said he used to read Maxim as a teen and that it had “some good articles once you finished ogling the girls,” lopped Lanphear’s Maxim into a larger feminist project “to get these younger guys and sissify them ASAP.” Yet another compared the magazine to a “domineering wife who only lets her husband go to the pub with his mates if she comes along to monitor and control what’s talked about.”
“There was no social ammunition in Maxim’s pages: It was social fatalism,” Dana said. What Lanphear offered was neither of the two: It would have required her to engage with the readership more than she was ever willing to. One of my former colleagues felt more strongly, saying Lanphear had “contempt for the brand she purportedly headed up, the readers and—I’d go far as to say—men’s magazines as a category.” This staffer described Lanphear’s Maxim as “an airline magazine without the plane. It was terrible and generic.” I don’t agree; to me, Lanphear’s Maxim felt modern, fresh, and occasionally inventive. But it was not nearly broad enough, not branded enough, to send out into the mainstream and expect large numbers of Maxim’s readers to connect with it. Lanphear held true to her “vision.” She took those conference room walls and conjured them into magazines. Whether that’s a workable business model is something different.
“Lanphear did a marvelous job with the magazine,” said Samir Husni. “The only negative was that it wasn’t for the Maxim audience. As a 62-year-old, I enjoyed what she did and was wowed by the content and the change. But the 20-year-old Maxim was invented for was never going to like it. That’s a weakness as an editor.”
A new Maxim that had any hope for reinvention would never have thrown the old version away entirely. It would have updated and improved it. GQ and the other men’s magazines mimicked Maxim at its peak, and they survived. Playboy no longer features full nudity in its pages. Why couldn’t Maxim also adapt to save itself? Maxim never explained why Lanphear was removed, but you don’t need to search hard for a reason. She never attempted to update the populist foundation on which the magazine was built. Instead, she smashed it apart and started anew, without considering the wishes or tolerance for change of her readers.
But the Maxim that followed makes no effort in that direction either. If anything, it seems a more personal and inward-facing publication now than under Lanphear.
Before Lanphear started, in that same conference room, Sardar Biglari held a staff meeting in New York, where he fielded questions from the editors. This was before my time at Maxim, but according to staffers who attended the meeting, someone asked about his strategy for reinvigorating the magazine. Biglari responded with a story about a signature Steak ’n Shake offering, which he said he had created: the Wisconsin Buttery Steakburger, which comes with two patties, cheddar cheese, grilled onions, and butter melted over the top ($4.79). “He realized that people like butter so he started having his restaurants soak the hamburgers in butter,” recalled one former staffer. “It was flying off the shelves. Everyone loved it. People liked butter and so he gave them a lot of butter. That was his analogy of what we were going to do. A buttery bread cheeseburger—that was the magazine.”
Keep that in mind as we review the first Maxim after Lanphear’s departure, the December/January 2016 double issue. It opens on a full white page containing only a quote from Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” It concludes with one from Leonard Da Vinci: “It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.” (Yes, this is as preposterous as it sounds.)
The cover shows the model Alessandra Ambrosio, nude but for a thick rope necklace and a pair of sunglasses, prone in a beach chair, staring icily forward, her breasts covered by a newspaper. Ambrosio wears clothes inside the magazine, but not a lot of them and not in every shot. One photo captures her swimming face down in open water, her body mostly submerged, except for her naked bottom, which is carefully framed by a white plume of spray. The short article that accompanies the photos lacks a byline, but several former staffers told me Biglari himself took a heavy hand in its writing and editing, as he did for much of this issue. (After sending multiple requests for comment to Maxim by phone and email over the course of several days, Jezebel received an email from a marketing director at the magazine stating that there were “multiple fallacies” in this account of Biglari’s Maxim. She added that the team was in Paris for Men’s Fashion Week, and asked that we keep in mind the “priority of the trip.” We followed up twice by email, but she declined to comment further by the time of publication. We’ll update if we hear from Maxim.)
The article is, to be very kind, dreadful. “Alessandra’s sex appeal is universal yet refined”; “Alessandra is an international brand, a fashion icon, one of the highest paid models of all time, a sexy and powerful woman”; “growing up, she loved going to the beach and surfing—and developed a taste for pierogi, the gluten-packed Polish dumplings that her grandmother used to give her.”
A separate article could be written on the surreal, 28-page package on Monte Carlo, which included a two-pager on Roger Moore, something on a cigar shop, and such items as this explainer on the city-state:
Where is Monaco located?
Monaco is located in Western Europe along the Mediterranean coast of France…
Why should one establish a business in Monaco?
Monaco is a secure place for employees…has a moderate tax system, which means no income tax…
Who is in charge of Monaco?
Monaco is a constitutional monarchy. His Highness Prince Albert II has executive power.
Biglari makes an appearance in this issue, posed with Ambrosio on a balcony at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. Ambrosio is perched on the railing, in a black Versace dress that displayed her long legs. Two bottles of champagne rest in a bucket of ice on a white-clothed table, next to a baffling array of raw vegetables. Biglari sits to Ambrosio’s left, dressed in white, hair slicked back, eyes hidden by shades, mouth obscured by the smoke from a cigar in his right hand. He appears confident, calm, unrepentant, and disdainful, the distillation of men’s magazine aspiration gone awry.
The Monte Carlo shoot remains a point of contentious debate for Maxim, which, as of this writing, has resulted in lawsuits against two of its former employees, in two different circumstances. The first suit arose from a December 2015 article in the New York Post that alleged that Ambrosio objected to Biglari’s presence at the shoot. “At one point, insiders said, the Victoria’s Secret stunner reluctantly agreed to pose in a photo with Biglari on a balcony of the Hotel de Paris—with the express understanding it was not for publication,” the article stated. It also said that Biglari had insisted that the magazine publish the shot of the two of them together, as well as several other photos.
Maxim brought suit against former fashion director Wayne Gross, who was at the shoot and had subsequently been fired, saying he was, “upon information and belief, the ‘insider’ described in the Post Article,” a violation of the non-disclosure agreement he’d signed when he left the magazine. Furthermore, Ambrosio denied being disturbed by Biglari, as did the photographer Gilles Bensimon, and even Wayne Gross, who later offered an affidavit to that effect, calling Biglari’s behavior “professional.” Statements from Gross and Bensimon later showed that Biglari had not insisted on the shots being used. Rather, Bensimon had. An original version of the Post article had to be revised to reflect some of these facts, including the removal of a description of Biglari’s behavior as “creepy.”
Gross proved not to be the Post source, as Biglari would soon learn, when former deputy editor Jason Feifer, “a terminated and disgruntled former Maxim employee,” according to Maxim’s attorneys, came forward and identified himself. But then Maxim, rather than dropping the suit against Gross, amended its complaint to include both him and Feifer. Gross, according to the suit, was the only Maxim employee present at the Monte Carlo shoot. Therefore, he had to be the source of the information that Feifer supplied to the Post. Maxim, meanwhile, has another case against Feifer in a separate action. The judge in that one implemented a temporary restraining order, which prevents Feifer or his attorney from saying more about the lawsuits.
The December/January issue, it should be noted, was well received by Maxim’s readers, despite its many oddities. Newsstand sales for the issue hit 100,000, a larger figure than any other men’s magazine reached last year. (GQ’s came in second with 95,000.) Naked women on a magazine cover still sells, apparently. But that does not mean it was an improvement over Lanphear’s efforts, or that Maxim now has finally found a way forward. It takes its cues not from GQ and the other men’s magazines with which it competes, but from publications even more obscure than the ones that inspired Lanphear, like The Rake and Man of the World, both of which do in fact exist.
It’s possible to imagine a new Maxim that could be created from the old, one that remained funny, sexy, sly, irreverent, allergic to authority, and not invested in the tired magical thinking of aspiration; a Maxim that riles and rallies its old readers without offending the sensibilities of its new ones. It could do more with digital (my understanding is that Aaron Gell, who was running the website, did well in that regard) and less with political incorrectness, without divorcing itself from the legacy of the most successful men’s magazine in recent history. And this isn’t something Maxim could do—this is what must be done to ensure any chance of long-term relevance. There’s little chance that a men’s magazine of Maxim’s scale could ever be created again. We are, for better and worse, stuck with the ones we have. Which means that for those who value this kind of storytelling, this means of communication, this method for sharing ideas and emotion, saving Maxim in some form is essential.
Especially because, on the business side, the 2015 annual report from Biglari Holdings show that Maxim lost money before the purchase, has continued to lose money under the corporation’s control, and will, in all likelihood keep losing for the foreseeable future. The “success” of December/January comes during a period in which Maxim lost $18,105,000 (pre-income-tax) in 2015. No other business held by Biglari Holdings loses money. Only Maxim.
That last fact tells us what we truly need to know. The new new Maxim is a magazine for an audience of one: Sardar Biglari. He even put his signature on the cover, in a flowing script just under the first “m” in Maxim. Lanphear, who failed to please her actual readership, was gone. On January 8, 2016, Sardar Biglari officially named himself Maxim’s editor-in-chief.
Theodore Ross (@theodoreross) is a features director at the New Republic. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Businessweek, Harper’s, and many other publications.
Post has been updated to note that Dan Bova left the magazine; he was not removed by Biglari.
Top photo via Getty