I came of age in a little backwater in the post-apartheid kumbaya rainbow nation. Corporal punishment had been abolished and I didn’t even have to worry about compulsory SADF basics training anymore. Not that I thought much about this sort of thing, I was quite happy in my bubble, from which I’d peek out from every now and again. Even though my childhood home had a dial-up modem and a Pentium computer with Incata ’97 and Leisure Suit Larry, this was all done via magazines.
Specifically, the black and white copies of Mad Magazine, the ZigZag’s pages that would inevitably end up Presticked to my bedroom wall and, most pivotal, the streetwise voice that was SL. I was granted access to another world via that Darryl Bristow-Bovey column illustrated by Nikhil Singh, Miles Keylock’s music reviews, Stacy Hardy and Lauren Beukes’ features, even the office boy, Andy Davis, who would go on to become editor, would write about exotic places like Rocky Street and then go full gonzo in a leopard print speedo at the Mr. Clifton competition. Editors Brendan Cooper and Kate Wilson, who may as well have been living on another planet they seemed so cool and worldly and removed from my little hamlet, together with Rob Cilliers’ visual language, pushed a proudly South African product that didn’t need to look over the seas for cool. I wanted in.
They say that you should never meet your heroes, I disagree, as it was surreal working with some of the people who inspired me to pursue a dream of working in magazines. I’ll be forever grateful to Mr. Adam Cooke for offering me my internship at GQ, a glossy that would become my home for eight years, and where I climbed the ranks from fashion assistant to features writer to executive editor and then helped implement the brand’s first website.
That magazine helped me with my confidence by forcing me to interview the beautiful women featured in its pages, gave me a taste of the world sending me on press-junkets overseas, first-class all the way, introduced me to celebrities and gavaged me on premium booze.
This was a tumultuous time for a twenty something: being tasked to offer opinions on a world that should’ve been closed to me, and offered a front row seat to the type of experiences that only a one percenter could ever hope to understand. There were speedboats and sea-planes and a villa on Lake Como, a day with Irina Shayk where her outfit ranged from lingerie to a necklace, backstage with Metallica, hot laps around the Nurburgring and drinking a R300 000 rand bottle of whisky. There was also that night in the Abu Dhabi jail, which I’d prefer to forget. Too much, too soon, and it ruined my relationship with the mother of my child, ended friendships and made me turn my back on the things that were most important to me. Still, it was worth it.
Then I left. Eight years of living the high life had taken their toll. People gasped, told me that I was crazy, that I should’ve stuck around and waited for the big chair… But the world was changing, online was no longer just a nice to have, and I needed to grow up, to eschew free lunches in order to learn more about the future of publishing.
It was strange moving on up into the big leagues. My entire life I’ve been happiest playing underdog, and now I was working at the biggest men’s magazine in the world. Even more humbling was how this massive corporate beast owned everything – DSTV, MTN, a bit of Facebook, some social media in China, newspapers in Brazil and the majority of magazines and newspapers in South Africa – it all brought me back down to earth very quickly.
But because the company was so big and powerful a lot of the communication felt distant. My goal was to make things a bit more relaxed, more conversational, a bunch of guys speaking to other guys. Unlike the magazine, which is a one-way conversation, the digital stuff I’d been tasked with allowed conversations to take place. Readers had the ability to speak back, to probe deeper, to demand more, and it was up to me to satisfy this.
The result was that our Facebook followers shot up from 16k to 410 000, website traffic showed even bigger growth and started making money, there were “twars” on Twitter, dick-swinging amongst the other Media24 titles and we positioned ourselves as the brand with one of the biggest digital audiences in the country. We did a lot, myself and the various interns and work experience guys that focused on the bits not atoms side of the business, and it was fun and exciting, but now, after three years, I’m spent.
For too long now I’ve been sitting far too comfortably in this comfortable ergonomic office chair in my comfortable corner office, high up in a glass tower that dominates the cityscape. I need to get back onto the ground. Play the underdog. Get my hands dirty. The alternative was to grow even more comfortable, which is to say, uninspired, bored and content to tread the quagmire of mediocrity while collecting paycheques and counting down the years until my fat corporate retirement fund.
So I quit. It’s time for new challenges, new mistakes, new battles and new victories. And it’s scary. Change is frightening. Especially since it’s not just Men’s Health that I say goodbye to. After more than a decade in publishing I am now off to do something that for the first time since hanging up my red lifeguard shorts isn’t about publishing, pushing and punting a glossy men’s lifestyle magazine every month.
And so it’s time to say goodbye to the magazine that taught me how to really live. That life wasn’t necessarily about drinking rare single-malts and schmoozing with models on yachts, but drinking 8 glasses of water a day, making time to exercise regularly and trying to be a better husband and dad. Wealth is nothing without health and it was this job that proved to me just how important finding that balance is.
But it wasn’t all banana smoothies and whipping my colleagues with towels after our lunchtime gym sessions. It was thanks to my time here that I learned that every man has a plan until he gets punched in the face, after my editor convinced me to commit to a boxing match, train for it and then step into the ring so that I would realize just how unfit I was.
The other thing JB taught me was service. That writing pretty sentences means naught unless it benefits the reader in some way. What’s the point? He’d say. Which is something I now try and apply to all aspects of my life. Because why do something just for the sake of it? Style without substance is like a monkey in silk – still just a monkey. Everything that we do should be results driven. Purple prose produces mauve mush and it’s black and white that’s actually read.
Which brings us to meat. All the meat. That first Pig-Off where we bought an entire beast and ate the thing from nose to tail. The Steakhouse Championships where I travelled the country with Pete Goffe-Wood and JP Rousseau, tasting the finest steaks in the land and suffering meat-sweats so severe that I almost wrote off our rental car while in Durban. There was that time on Kallie Louw’s farm there by the Swartland where we did things like crack whips and shoot shotguns and drink beer from a keg while smoking a menagerie of meat.
Of course there was a lot of bullshit, too. That said, nostalgia is the Photoshop of the mind, and has a way of only saving the highlight reel, scenes that are then replayed with a filter that makes them even shinier. Which is the best way to remember something. And how I’d like to remember this place when I leave it.
Yes, I am leaving now, closing a chapter on an amazing magazine, a brilliant team – some who bailed before me and a few who are like the furniture here – and, not forgetting, you, the dude reading this, a guy who just by making MH his mag of choice has the opportunity to learn as much as I did in three years of working here.
These are tough times for publishing, for South Africa and probably for you, too. So drink your water, eat real meat and get up off your ass and do some exercise every now and again, champ. Because tough times are like exercise, you may not like it while you are doing it, but tomorrow you’ll be stronger because of it.