Although a photograph of a half-naked Kate Moss adorns the front cover of its September issue, Esquire’s editor insists his magazine should not be drawn into the current sexism debate around lads’ magazines.
Alex Bilmes says his magazine is a “million miles away” from the likes of Nuts and Zoo. And while he worries for the future of the lads’ mag, the editor is confident Esquire can remain largely immune from the plight of its “downmarket” counterparts.
He tells Press Gazette: “I’ve worked in upmarket men’s magazines for most of my career and I think that while once, in the 90s, a long time ago really… it may have been harder to differentiate GQ, Esquire and Arena from FHM, I don’t think it’s hard now.”
Bilmes is keen to emphasise the difference. While he is hopeful that Esquire, with a circulation of around 50,000, can survive, he believes lads’ mags are in “deep trouble”.
“I think they are in a difficult position. Because if you want to look at pictures of scantily-clad women, you do not need to pay to do that – they are readily available,” he says.
“And the truth is, it’s becoming less and less respectable – and this is probably a good thing – for men to be seen carrying around those kind of images. It’s certainly not a cool thing to do…
“Does that mean men aren’t looking at those images? No, of course not, because that’s what the internet allows you to do.
“So why would you buy Nuts and Zoo?”
Bilmes doesn’t hide his disappointment at being asked about the anti-lads’ mags movement, suggesting he is not best placed to answer questions about it.
“What do I make of the campaigns against those magazines? I’ve got a three-year-old daughter, nearly four, and I agree with them. It’s kind of unpleasant, when they’re at that height in the newsagent, to have those images displayed. I’m not a huge fan of it myself…
But he insists: “I’m not hitching my wagon to that campaign – there are more important things in the world. [But] I kind of get it. Levels of what’s acceptable are changing.”
Despite his reluctance to be involved in debates surrounding lads’ titles and what might or might not be acceptable, Bilmes plunged himself into controversy earlier this year when he admitted, on a feminist panel, that women who appear in his magazine are seen as “ornamental”.
For a day, he was the centre of a “scary” media storm. But he does stand by what he said.
“I think that possibly I could have chosen my moment better,” he admits. “Next time I decide to make bullish statements about the ornamentalism or otherwise of women I will do it not at a feminist forum.”
He adds: “There are a lot of strong feminine voices in the media at the moment commenting on the media itself. And I don’t disagree with an enormous amount of what those women are saying. I kind of support almost everything they’re saying.
“We do present pictures of women. Everyone does. I’m not ashamed of them. And I don’t think they are anti-feminist, although I accept that some women absolutely do think they are anti-feminist.”
Looking to the future, Esquire has this week launched a weekly iPad edition as it looks to offset the falling sales of its monthly print title. In the spring, Bilmes also oversaw the revamp of Esquire’s website and the launch of a bi-annual fashion title, the Big Black Book.
Although the editor concedes that the new digital product – which came out for the first time last week – is an “experiment”, the fact that Hearst took on three new full-time staff members to work on it shows how seriously it is being taken.
It is available solely on the iPad for 99p an issue and will feature seven to ten original stories – not from the magazine or website – in each edition.
As well as being a success in its own right, Bilmes admits that one of his hopes for the new product is that it will help promote Esquire’s still-primary product, the monthly print edition.
“Quite some years ago men’s magazines were hugely popular. The market has shrunk. That is a fact,” he says.
“Of the upmarket men’s magazines there are two that have survived – GQ and Esquire. Between us, we reach a tiny proportion of the men we ought to reach.”
He adds: “This is an attempt – and I think a really compelling and well thought out and attractive proposition to men – to say, look, this magazine’s still really, really good. You would enjoy this magazine if only you would investigate it.”