February 7, 2001: Features

Keith Blanchard '88 finds beer, babes, and juvenile jokes can make a rewarding career

by Katherine Hobson

There used to be a sign hanging in the offices of the Princeton Tiger, the campus humor magazine: "You can be outrageous and you can be offensive, but you've got to be funny and you've got to be right."

Keith Blanchard '88, once the chair of Tiger and now editor-in-chief of the men's magazine Maxim, still thinks about that sign. He thinks it's pretty wise. And it's certainly advice that he's had occasion to heed in his years at Maxim, especially in the eight months since taking the top editorial job. The magazine is a publishing sensation, zooming from zero to more than 2 million readers since its 1997 U.S. launch, and becoming Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year in 1999. Its secret: a monthly dose of sex, sports, beer, gadgets, clothes, and fitness - the subjects emblazoned across the top of every cover - in carefully calibrated proportions. It does not pretend to be like GQ, or Esquire, or any of the other men's titles. It's for regular guys. Critics call it simplistic, retrograde, and offensive, but millions of readers also find it very funny and very right.

The magazine is a publishing sensation, zooming from zero to more than 2 million readers since its 1997 U.S. launch, and becoming Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year in 1999.

On a recent afternoon, Blanchard and a handful of other Maximites, mostly men but with a couple of women, are gathered around a conference table in the magazine's 14th-floor, midtown Manhattan offices. A big sack of foam packing peanuts is overflowing in the corner, and the walls are covered with framed enlargements of past covers, featuring lissome young things in various stages of undress posed next to headlines like "Sex 911." The meeting's discussion topic: cheap motels - specifically, how to illustrate an upcoming article about road-testing national motel chains for their tolerance to the more nefarious activities young men might conduct there (a hint: the presence of a sani-strip on the toilet is unlikely to make it into the piece.)

In the spirit of the road test, someone suggests a full-color photo of a bathtub filled with blood, presumably to hint at the gory shenanigans that might ensue. "I like that," says Blanchard, laughing. After some discussion of the piece, they move on to another article that needs illustration, this one about paying less in taxes. Various unfunny ideas involving IRS agents filter out. Then there's silence. Someone snorts. Someone else cracks his neck. "How about a bathtub filled with blood?" Blanchard asks. Everyone laughs.

How did a nice Princeton grad end up talking about bloody bathtubs for a living? Blanchard grew up in Ramsey, New Jersey, and when it came time to look at schools decided easily on Princeton. He began as an engineer, but after two years thought it might not be for him. "I was getting As in English and Bs, B-minuses, and a C in engineering," he says. He switched to English, focusing on classical English literature and writing his thesis on Old English riddles. But his sensibilities weren't always in line with the department's. "The PC [politically correct] movement was just blooming," he remembers. "I took [English professor] Elaine Showalter's course and wrote a paper on horror movies - I watched a lot of them and discovered that an equal number of men and women were killed." Blanchard thought that put a fork in the conventional wisdom that slasher films feature predominantly female victims. Showalter wasn't convinced by his thesis, he recalls.

No one would ever accuse Tiger of political correctness (a recent headline reads "Study Shows Gay Jeans Day Unfairly Discriminates Against Ditzy, Superficial Sorority Girls"). Blanchard started writing for the magazine as a freshman and became editor-in-chief as a junior and chair as a senior. He's now copresident of the graduate board. "It was very low budget and very disorganized, and a lot of anarchic, chaotic humor comes out of that," he says. "People there had a lot of fun hanging out with each other." After graduation, he took the only logical step for a Tiger chairman: He started writing for teenage girl bible Young Miss, where he says he was the "token male."

A string of similar full-time and freelance gigs followed, at publications like Bride's, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan. All of that experience plumbing the depths of strapless bras and cellulite eradication was good for something: "It taught me how to write for an audience rather than writing for myself," says Blanchard. For a freelance writer or editor, that's essential. But by 1996, "I was hitting the ceiling," he says. "I was faced with the decision to choose editorial or choose writing." While being a freelance writer had its advantages - "you can work from home and never wear pants," he says - he felt he lost control of his work and often saw in the published piece a very different version of what he submitted. On the other hand, working as an editor would lock him into longish magazine hours, with little pay (at least, he notes, compared to Princeton classmates working as investment bankers and management consultants). Besides, "you'd always wonder if you could make it as a writer," he says.

Then, while he was still at Marie Claire, an editor showed Blanchard the original British Maxim, one of the many so-called lad magazines that had found wild popularity in the U.K. It was love at first sight. "It turned conventional magazine publishing on its head," he says. "It comes across as being by readers for readers, while conventional magazine wisdom is that people want to be told what to wear and what to like." Blanchard joined Maxim in 1996, and the U.S. magazine launched in April 1997. It was an immediate success. There were 175,000 debut issues distributed. Current circulation: 2.6 million and climbing (its rate base, or the number of readers guaranteed to advertisers, is 2.2 million). Along the way, other Tiger magazine alums joined the team: Charles Coxe '97 began as an editorial assistant after graduation and is now senior associate editor, while Dave Itzkoff '98 is an associate editor. Bret Watson '82 is the deputy editor of Maxim's spinoff for younger readers, Stuff, while other alums are frequent freelance contributors.

Meantime, Maxim was cycling through editors - three since the launch. When the latest, Mike Soutar, said in June he would leave to return to England, Blanchard was named editor-in-chief. "When they announced that it was Keith, everyone was absolutely elated," says Itzkoff. "It was nice to see them reward someone who'd been with the magazine from day one."

Coxe agrees. "He's such an engaging person, and has such a sense of humor that really comes out in day-to-day interactions. Everyone from the higher-ups to a freelancer who's only here for a day says how friendly he is."

Blanchard oversees the action from a cubicle splat in the middle of the editorial space in Maxim's offices, within easy reach of staffers. Sometimes too easy. Coxe recently hid 26 pieces of sushi in Blanchard's desk while he was gone, letting them slowly rot. Coxe revealed the source of the stench in a piece of editorial copy that eventually made it into Blanchard's editor's note. Irreverence rules. "Back when I was doing

Tiger I never thought I could translate that into a real job," says Coxe.

Blanchard says the magazine won't radically change on his watch, though there's room to get rid of what he saw as a hint of staleness. Covers are becoming less formulaic - i.e., the babe on the front shows up in a different spot every month, and the colors change more frequently. And editorially, he says, "We should be surprising the reader at every turn - anything could be lying in wait behind the next page." While Blanchard concedes the magazine has, in the past, relied too heavily on market testing, it's clear that the magazine's content will never be left solely to the whims of the editors. A research firm still runs every issue by a panel of first-time readers, who rate every piece on a scale of one to five. Blanchard says that testing ensures that Maxim reflects its readers' tastes and is more affirmational - Hey! You're a guy and you're okay! - than aspirational - Hey! To be a real man, you've got to buy this $2,000 leather briefcase and get rid of that gut!

That philosophy is pretty much absent in magazine land; women's magazines like Cosmopolitan and Harper's Bazaar, for example, wouldn't sell many advertisements if they told readers how gorgeous and stylish they already were. In the men's arena, GQ and Esquire also have a reputation for being more upscale and dictatorial. (Icon, a men's magazine with a more intellectual slant that was started by Dave Getson '94, ceased publication early last year.) "We are not trying to get that urban hipster mystique," says Blanchard.

Instead, they try to be a trusted friend, a place for guys to get some good laughs and good information. "One of the realities of modern life is that men are required to know a lot more," says Blanchard. "My father didn't know where the diapers were kept. My grandfather didn't have to be a good husband." The rules have changed. "Guys, who notoriously don't talk to each other, have to know all this stuff." Hence, the focus on service pieces - how to do things better, even if many of them involve beer. "Guys have a sense of relief when they get to Maxim. When there's something new and we're explaining it, we do it in a way to say, 'Hey, we'd never heard of this either,' " he says.

Now Maxim's ad rate is higher than either GQ's or Esquire's, while an independent study found Maxim's readers are older, more likely to be college-educated, and more affluent than GQ's. Blanchard sees that as a triumph of the Maxim way. "I believe very firmly that guys my age would much rather read about things that affect their daily lives - sex, sports, gadgets - than 5,000-word puff pieces on actors who think they're philosophers, or whatever," he says.

Critics see Maxim somewhat differently, as a symbol of the dumbing down of the American male. They say the magazine depressingly treats men as adolescents, with pieces like "the 25 greatest sex scenes ever filmed" and the full-color spreads of women in the almost-altogether (Maxim does not print nude photos). The humor can be juvenile; a one-page piece imagining a female presidency shows a fake headline proclaiming "28 Days Later, It's War in Chechnya Again." "These kinds of jokes have been around forever and ever," says Itzkoff. "If you've ever read any ancient Greek literature - the biggest laugh in Lysistrata comes when the Spartan soldier walks out with an eight-foot phallus."

Tucked among the articles on how to stop your girlfriend from nagging and the slobbering paeans to the newest Victoria's Secret model, there are investigative pieces, too, which Blanchard calls "islands of seriousness." A recent issue featured a multipage exclusive on the last hours of the doomed Russian submarine, the Kursk. A previous article looked at police corruption in Los Angeles.

But make no mistake; Maxim is happy with its beer-and-babes focus. "If GQ wants to cover 'The Golden Age of Design' and $1,500 ties, that's their business," says Blanchard. "We're more interested in showing you how to cheat on your taxes, be

better in bed, and build a working flame-thrower out of a cigarette lighter and a can of Binaca. If that's wrong, I don't want to be right."

Katherine Hobson '94 covers business issues for U.S News and World Report.