‘I founded Loaded — Nuts and Zoo were launched by cynical people attempting to slice off more market share’

Lads’ magazines from the  Noughties
Lads’ magazines from the Noughties

In 1992 my former NME boss asked me if I’d like to create my own magazine. “Yes, of course. Music, football, comedy, clubs, drinking, travel, film. Up and coming stars like Eric Cantona and Prince Naseem Hamed, comedians like Vic and Bob,  heavy drinking legends like Hurricane Higgins and Peter O’Toole. Arena edited by Hunter Thompson. I want to create ‘Generational Tension.’” I was 26 and there was no magazine that reflected my life, so I set about creating one.

The industry wisdom was that “men don’t read lifestyle magazines like women do”, but it got the green light and my boss said: “you’ve got everything men like except women”. So we ran two large photos of an unknown actress called Elizabeth Hurley in her lingerie.

Right time, right place, for us and Liz. It turned out that men did want to read magazines. Campaign wrote “I love Loaded because it reflects who I am, rather than who I’m supposed to be.”

An early issue of Loaded magazine (James Brown)
An early issue of Loaded magazine (James Brown)

It quickly became a loud, brash, colourful national phenomenon, a must-read for men of all ages, so popular it took its first pound of profit in 12 weeks against a forecast of three years. The media queued up to analyse Loaded but it was just a mag about having a good time, all the time.

Throughout my three years there, I ran 28 male covers and eight women — largely famous stars like Uma Thurman and and Kylie, who had stories to tell. Our typical cover was a comedian laughing, our tone of voice self-deprecating and irreverent. Will Carling, Suggs, The Simpsons, Frank Skinner, Shaun Ryder, Gazza were all delighted to make the cover.

Despite Loaded later being associated with Babecast babes, we featured just two Page 3 girls that we fancied on the cover, Kathy Lloyd and Jo Guest — and we photographed them in clothes and interviewed them. Kathy went onto to appear on TFI Friday and Jo appeared in Blur’s “Country House” video.

Within a year Loaded was market leader in a sector previously occupied by style orientated Arena, and American imports like Esquire. We were more “man at the bar” than their “man at his best”. They were so out of touch with club-and-football-going young men that we had a totally captive audience. The head of  Estee Lauder in Europe told me “this was the first time we got young men all in one place to advertise to.”

The idea that a men’s magazine columnist would recommend setting fire to a woman’s pubic hair was the opposite of Loaded’s celebrations of things we loved

Pretty soon copycat titles cropped up — FHM and Maxim, Ralph in Australia, Stuff in America.  These publications were desperate to catch up, so they featured women in bras and bikinis on every cover, wall to wall cleavage — Maxim with the woman from the Flake advert, FHM with The X Files’ Gillian Anderson.

We could sell a third of a million copies with Harry Hill sitting on a stuffed badger. Admittedly, our written gung-ho enthusiasm for women we fancied didn’t go down too well with feminist columnists in the Guardian, but we didn’t have articles about relationships or how to treat women.

Ten years after Loaded started, when I was off running my own publishing PLC, and being a parent for the first time, Nuts and Zoo launched. They were flimsy, weekly male titles that looked like a cross between gossip mags and old motor-mechanic topless pin-up calendars. As one mate who was 17 then told me “they were obsessed with naked women, but didn’t look like they knew any.” Like many of his generation he turned to the internet for fun.

The whole media period of the Noughties seemed to have pivoted towards being spiteful about people

The weeklies were a post peak dilution of what Maxim and FHM and Loaded (after my time) had been doing, with endless babes on the cover. More tabloidy, more disposable. They didn’t bring with them the cult heroes, the legendary male personalities who helped engine Loaded initially. My Loaded was influenced by my time in the NME, lengthy features on people we loved — Nuts and Zoo were launched by cynical people simply attempting to slice off more market share of the sector. Initially, younger audiences lapped it up, but they quickly headed for the internet and then social media.

The whole media period of the Noughties seemed to have pivoted towards being spiteful about people, the idea that a men’s magazine columnist would recommend setting fire to a woman’s pubic hair or slashing her with a blade, or publishing a list of “gays it’s ok to like” as the weeklies did, were the opposite of Loaded’s celebrations of things we loved.

When I was writing my recent memoir Animal House, I was re-reading Loaded 25 years on and, though we used the word ‘bird’ too often, largely the magazine was funny and full of self mockery. Like a cross between Withnail and The Likely Lads.

Women were familiar with this outlook. In our letters page, one asked if she could have her husband back and another asked if we could stop making it so funny, because her husband was keeping her up at night laughing. By the time I left in 1997 the independent National Readership Survey said 10% of our sales were to women, that’s over 30,000 people. The brilliant Paula Yates said: “I know exactly what you Loaded boys want. To be in bed with a beautiful woman and a big bag of crisps watching Match of The Day.” And she was right.

Animal House by Loaded creator James Brown is published by Quercus.