Parliament Street’s Patrick Sullivan and Sofia Geraghty sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Dylan Jones, editor-in-chief of GQ Style, British GQ and GQ.co.uk. You can listen to the full interview using the player above.
The full transcript of the Dylan Jones interview
Patrick: Firstly, thank you so much for doing this. I am really excited to interview you – we have been interested for quite a long time in how culture and politics mix and I’m a regular reader of GQ, so it’s a real honour to meet you.
Dylan: You are very kind.
Patrick: We will start by asking you some questions about culture and politics, and see how they mix. I’ll start with a few questions about the magazine industry. You have been Editor of GQ since 1999, in that time the magazine has evolved and adapted with social trends. Arguably whilst the ethos remains the same, it is a different magazine than when you started. Where do you see the magazine in 15 years?
Dylan: I think the magazine is probably very close to the magazine that we were publishing 15 years ago, the only difference is that it has a slightly different libido. We lived in a far more rivalled culture in the 90s and it was a far more aggressive environment in the news trade. I think that the sexuality of the magazine, the libido of the magazine is very different, but you can say the same about lots of things in this area. But I think the principles of great writing, investigative reporting, lovely photographs of people wearing lovely clothes doing insanely glamorous things.
Patrick: Going on from sexualisation, at one points lad’s mags such as FHM and Loaded were all the rage selling millions, then they disappeared and collapsed. What do you think caused that collapse and was it inevitable?
Dylan: It was inevitable, all them magazines are gone – Arena, FHM, Maxim, Loaded, Nuts, Zoo, Later, I mean there were dozens of the damn things. There was a huge rise in men’s magazine publishing in the 90s and a lot of those magazines were driven by sexuality, and that became their DNA, but of course if you have terrific sales drives and you are successful, inevitably you will begin to dip – you can’t keep on growing forever. The only button they had to press was sex, if you keep pressing that button you eventually turn into pornography, so not only did those magazines become slightly unpleasant, but it coincided with huge digital migration towards a world where so much of what we previously paid for is free. Pornography was certainly one of those things. The reasons for those magazines existing evaporated, I mean Loaded was originally very funny and very clever and for about 18 months it really served a zeitgeist, I think it created a zeitgeist for a while, but jokes like that tend to wear quite thin. If you look at the one satirical magazine that has continued to grow, a magazine like Private Eye, it has been incredibly successful but then it is a current affairs magazine above everything else. It has humour in it but it is a news magazine. I think that is why those magazine collapsed, the sector collapsed, when those jokes weren’t funny anymore.
Sofia: So you are saying that if you have sex as a USP then that will only go so far, whilst if it is the writers that make the magazine, that is what you need for a magazine to have a long life?
Dylan: It is one particular aspect of it, if you rely on the fluctuating libido of your demographic then you will suffer the consequences.
Sofia: I saw an article you wrote about David Bowie, and you said how as society we don’t have these gender norms anymore, which is certainly true. I noticed, however, that if I look at a rack of magazines, my eyes are drawn to pink. I also noticed that your colours for GQ tend to stick very much to blue and grey on a lot of your covers, whilst Glamour tends to stick to white and pink. Do you think in the future we will have gender neutral magazines? Or are we still quite influenced by our subconscious?
Dylan: I think if you look at the magazines that were preeminent in the 80s, magazines like Blitz and Face and ID, they were style magazines and they were gender neutral. Even though GQ is a men’s magazine, and its advertising is predominantly from the male luxury goods sector, I think it is probably less aggressively male than magazines have perhaps been in the past. That’s an interesting point you raise about colour though…
Sofia: I don’t know what it is, I only noticed it when I walked into a shop recently and I automatically made my way to the pink isle.
Dylan: We use a lot of orange, a lot of coral, but pink is a very emotive. It is a very feminine colour. You’re right, we don’t use a lot of pink, busted! (laughs). But weirdly if you go back 40 years and look at the iconography thrown up by punk, a lot of it is pink. That pink and harsh black and white, that’s not remotely feminine, it is actually quite aggressive. I think it depends how you use is basically.
Patrick: I will go to culture and politics now. So when Joe Biden endorsed same sex marriage on Meet the Press in 2012, he said that when things really began to change was when the social culture changed, I think Will and Grace probably did more to educate the American public than anything else that anyone has done so far. People fear what is different, now they are beginning to understand. So in that spirit, is the musical Hamilton the real opposition to the alt-right?
Dylan: I’m not sure about that. It’s a fantastic theatrical production, although I’m slightly sceptical about its ability to be successful in the UK. I’ve seen it, and it is incredibly convoluted and does require a certain level of knowledge on behalf of the spectator. It is very colourful, it is funny, it has great songs. It’s not an easy ride but I suppose it is easy to take it at face value. It is not stridently political actually, it has political themes running throughout it, but it is not strident in that way. If you were talking about the alt-right in a Venn-diagram, I’m not sure that Hamilton would be in the sweet spot on the other side of the fence.
Patrick: More the immigrant story, multi-racial. The fact that it is what people see in the culture that influences their social political views, so where as seeing Will and Grace on television made people realise that gay people are just the same of them.
Dylan: In relation to Hamilton you might be right, I think it is a slightly more sophisticated offer. It is also a theatrical production so it doesn’t have the same scale as a television programme. In terms of race and immigration you are far more likely to be influenced by cinema, or music, or television.
Patrick: Do you think that the Brexit vote in the UK, Trump vote in the US, does that represent a backlash against any social trends?
Dylan: Of course it does, huge. I think it is going to get worse, I think it is going to become even more strident, and even more binary. I was watching the Oscars last night, and Jimmy Kimmel talked about people talking to each other, he was talking about liberals and republicans discussing things, coming and talking together, you thought he was going to make a gag and actually he didn’t. That idea of discussion, and trying to have cohesion through conversation is incredibly important because we live in a binary age and that is driven by social media. If you look at social media, particularly things like Twitter and Instagram, there is no room for nuance. You’re either black or white, you’re left or right, you’re up or down.
Sofia: Yes, you look at the reaction to the Trump ban and it is just “Muslim-ban” and anti-Trump, or you are very pro-Trump.
Dylan: Everything is a headline in the Twittersphere. Instagram is full of very powerful imagery, but a lot of it is quite reductive and binary because it has to make an impact immediately.
Sofia: I agree with that completely, and I like that GQ is committed to long-form journalism, but do you ever worry about the future of that? These days you get into a mind-set where you see a headline and your interest is about 10 seconds, a lot of places are trying to tap into this impulse, but are we all just going to get butterfly brains?
Dylan: I worry about it a lot, because the way that people consume information and entertainment these days is very different to how they consumed it 10 years ago. There is an expectation, an assumption, that things are free, that entertainment and news is free. There seems to be a pattern of behaviour that I would rather read that something that is shorter, less in-depth, perhaps less knowledgeable, perhaps less deep, less researched and less well written because it is free. That is true, you look at the way people consume these days, both in terms of hardware and software and content and you are right, people are driven by headlines. They see a headline and they are conditioned to consuming things in small bites, and that is their takeaway, so they can take away fake news very easily.
Patrick: I heard you mentioned in another interview, the importance of magazines being tactile. Do you think there is always room for a tactile magazine?
Dylan: I like to think there is always room for that in the future, I don’t think it is necessary. I think that if you look at the huge success that the New Yorker has had, for instance, with its app – people used to say that the New Yorker was anathema to the mobile telephone culture, but it is actually perfect for consuming on a phone because you basically have a headline, a by-line, photograph, stand first then 7-25000 word article you can just scroll and scroll and scroll and read and read. Some of the more extravagantly produced magazine are slightly hamstrung by being consumed on a telephone, you do have to be slightly less ambitious in the way you design things on a phone.
Sofia: It is interesting in regards to that reader experience, I know Glamour just made their magazine bigger and their justification was that reading a magazine is now a luxury experience because we are always on our phones. when you go away it is and read a more magazine it is more of a unique experience. Do you see magazine-reading becoming a more luxury experience?
Dylan: I think they can be, I think that they are a luxury experience and that is why it is fundamentally important to make it a proper transaction. As soon as you start giving it away for free it disvalues it in people’s eyes. If you give magazines and newspapers away for free, people will consume and throw it away. That doesn’t add a lot of value to your product, it certainly doesn’t add a value to the advertisement (if you have paid to have an advertisement in that product). I think that in this very flat world we live in now, of media, that quality is the most important ingredient. As soon as your quality starts to dip you are literally like everyone else, everybody has got an opinion, everybody has got the ability to be media. Everybody is media, we are all in media, everyone who has a telephone has the ability to post on Twitter or Pinterest have a website or a blog. There are some people who use the punk analogy, where they say the great thing about punk is all you need to do is learn a few chords and everyone can be successful. It is actually not true, there was a fantastic ground swell of creativity during punk, but there was also a lot of rubbish too. The great thing about newspapers and magazines is that someone has taken the time to research something, to write something properly, to have it edited, to have that feedback -that relationship between editor, writer, researcher, fact-checker, designer. You end up with something that is actually really well considered by a bunch of people who have taken an awful lot of time, who are probably experts in their field, who have made it their life’s work to actually create content that is worth consuming. That it isn’t just the headline that you consume then throw away. Not that there is anything that is wrong with that but that is what everybody does, and if everybody does that then surely that is incumbent on us to do what we do to a much higher level. Than people who aren’t paid to do that.
Sofia: Yes, you are never going to have a Tweet on the wall, like a magazine cover (refers to the GQ Prince Harry poster)
Dylan: You do, but then it becomes an epigram. You look at the amount of art now that is a catch phrase written in neon or it is a Barbara Kruger-type slogan or a phrase. Instagram is full of little boxes with funny cute things in them, it doesn’t actually make it art. It that itis important, I’m going to sound awfully pious (laughs), but to take care with what you do.
Patrick: You mentioned the New Yorker and consuming that, I consume the New Yorker audio on my audible device. Have you ever thought about doing the same with GQ.
Dylan: We do podcasts, we do films, we do lots of things. The relationship that people have with our website and what we put on our website is very different from the magazine, obviously that experience needs to be funded, it needs to be paid for. I still think people still want the halo product. It’s really interesting if you speak to a Hollywood publicist or agent – I was talking to one a couple of weeks agoand we were being offered someone for the cover of the magazine and I said “ I would love to help because that person is perfect for us, however I can’t give you that cover because it is promised for someone else” I said “however, why don’t we do a takeover of our website for a week, we reach 12 million people, we can do an interview, we can do a video, we can have a trailer for the film that they’re in, we can do an EPK, we can have trailers for past films, we can do dozens of different things”. There’s a massive sucking of teeth and actually “we don’t really actually want that, we want the cover of the magazine”. Actually you see that with luxury goods advertisers too, where they want a particular thing in the magazine and we say “we would love to do that but print is finite, however we can do something on the website that involves video, we can do a fashion shoot”. Some people get it, there are some very forward-thinking fashion companies that completely get stuff like that, you like with Xenia, or Tom Ford, Burberry or Gucci. Other people just suck their teeth and say we don’t really want that because they think that digital is too egalitarian, it’s too democratic, they are trying to put a velvet rope around the industry.
Patrick: With the website, how important do you think the internet in creating an ongoing relationship with the customer/reader?
Dylan: You use everything at your disposal these days, whether it is a website, whether it is a Twitter account, an Instagram account, Pinterest. In the same way that previously you would use forms of advertising, maybe a billboard, radio, TV. You use every platform and you try to engage in as many different ways as possible.
Patrick: You mentioned about punk being egalitarian and things like that, punk was during a very tough time economically, we have just come through a big economic down turn. Obviously we have the Brexit and Trump thing. I saw an interview that you said hard times have produced some of the greatest creativity, what would you say has really captured the cultural zeitgeist of late?
Dylan: I think it manifests itself in many different ways, one thing that you are not seeing, which is a huge disappointment but I think it is significant in the way it is indicative of what’s happened to music. There are no real protest songs anymore, using music as a way to express anger or dissatisfaction seems to have evaporated.
Sofia: Do you think that’s because it is hard for people from lower classes to get into the arts these days? To produce good music, you have to get to the stage where you can play an instrument, or write a song well, do you think people are being shut off from the arts because it is hard to get into?
Dylan: I think it is as easy to wack up a film up on YouTube than it was to get an independent record deal 40 years ago. I think it is different culture, the expectations are different. It’s wrong of me to expect that, it is happening in other ways I suppose.
Sofia: You get YouTubers these days. Who are sort of celebrities in their own rights.
Dylan: Yes that creates its own culture of celebrity, some of which is good, some of which is appalling.
Sofia: I guess on the point of celebrities; we were talking about the populist movement and how there has been a backlash against the celebrity culture. As a magazine where you do have celebrities on the front, do you ever feel the need to move away from that and have an ordinary person on the front?
Dylan: An ordinary person, A muggle! (laughs). We have muggles on the cover of the magazine on occasion, I mean good looking Muggles (laughs). It’s a shop window, I think the interesting thing is that covers are probably less important than before because there are so many ways to amplify your brand whether it is video or social.
Interestingly the UK is still a very hard, tough news stand culture, whilst in the US most magazines are sold by subscription. The news stand culture in the UK is tough. It is aggressive. Still I would say it is less important than it used to be.
Patrick: Talking about covers, I listened to an interview with you recently where you said you saw more covers of GQ with Boris Johnson on the cover that Johnny Depp. Why do you think that was and is there another politician you would put on the cover?
Dylan: We were having a conversation the other day about how long it will take Donald Trump to become normalised. I think Sadiq Khan was one of our men of the year last year and he is someone who could easily grace our cover, probably a rather more difficult play internationally, but domestically I think he would be a brilliant cover star. I think Boris’s time as a magazine cover star is probably gone, at least at the moment. Obama was a gift for obvious reasons.
Sofia: The Canadian prime minster wouldn’t be too bad either.
Dylan: I think politics has become incredibly interesting, more interesting in the last 18 months than it has in a while. I mean people are engaged. I keep saying to people stop whining about this extraordinary and dreadful position we are in, because may you live in interesting times. Look who the president of the United States is, you’re a journalist make it work.
Sofia: I’ve heard Trump being elected has been a renaissance for quality journalism.
Dylan: as it should be.
Patrick: The US version of GQ has Keith Olbermann doing his anti-Trump video casts. They really put themselves in a political place, I can’t really place it politically. Do you place it politically anywhere?
Dylan: GQ? I like that Keith does, I mean it is obviously strident and done for a reason. Well we have quite a lot of politically content, Michael Wolff writes regularly, Alistair Campbell writes regularly, Matthew D’ancona writes regularly, they are all at the top of the game. We have lots of people that write for us, I think there was probably a period about a decade ago where we were probably more right of centre than we are the moment. We live in a very confused and scary world right now, I think it is our duty as people who are involved in journalism to be as erudite and as passionate when we ought to be passionate, and as dispassionate when we ought to be dispassionate. I think you can look at a magazine like the New Yorker and think it far more strident and aggressive, but then Michael wolff is very good at this, describing the Trump phenomenon, this is something that has to be understood. It is sort of like having a mad uncle in a way. Waking up, checking the Ipad at 6am and seeing what he has done today. It is quite exciting; we have quite a large amount of politics in the magazine. In the past we have had criticism for having too much politics in the magazine. I think people want politics at the moment, they want opinion. In fact, post-Brexit one of the reasons that we invested a huge amount of money in comment after Brexit is because people wanted comment, they wanted news, they wanted opinion and discussion and to read what other people were saying. You have had 2 seismic things that have happened in the UK and America the last 9 months. It has confused a lot of people, it has frightened a lot of people, it has got a lot of people engaged. Particularly a lot of younger people, I think getting people engaged is incredibly important.
Patrick: I read that Michael Wolff piece in the current issue and he is right on the money in terms of liberals being arrogant, believing that cultural trends were on their side so they didn’t have to do anything.
Dylan: It is true, you have to engage. At the Hay Festival last year there were quite a few discussions about Brexit. I went to a dinner one night, full of a lot people who had been discussing the pros and cons of Brexit that afternoon, and I overheard two people say exactly the same thing – “the problem with these French Brexiteers is they are just not educated”. I mean that’s the French revolution, that’s Marie Antoinette! I’m not saying that the decision was right, but you can see how we arrived at that the decisions.
Sofia: I was going to ask a broader discussion about art. In the last copy I read Ed Sheeran said that he looks at his sales figures and that influences the art he produces. Seen as you have a background in art, and almost describes the magazine-making process as art, do you think of your audience when you are creating, or do you ever have a vision of what you want?
Dylan: I think it would be very conceited and pompous to call a magazine a work of art. It is a combination; you are producing something to sell for a particular person. We have constant conversations about whether something is right, whether someone’s popularity is going in the right direction, whether they are right for the magazine, whether they are hot or cold, up or down – all of those things. You do edit with your gut, because if you don’t you may as well just be in programmatic advertising, which a lot of people are doing these days, especially with content and especially online. In fact, all the conversations that are being had about the proximity of advertising to toxic editorial and vice versa are incredibly important, because if everything is done by programmatic advertising then there is no editing and no limits – it’s a wilderness. That is not good, one of the most important things about newspaper and magazine journalism is the word ‘editing’, you are editing and you are editing for a reason. You are editing for purpose, for tone, for content, for political views, for taste, morals. All of these things come into play, and if you don’t have any of those barriers, if you don’t apply any of those editing skills, it is just a mish-mash of stuff. Some of which will be banal, some of which will be offensive, some of which will be incendiary. So you have to have control and you have to edit.
Patrick: Talking about editing, with Parliament Street, one of the things I have noticed is that it has sort of developed a personality in itself separate from any individual. If you were going to describe GQ’s personality what would it be?
Dylan: I think it’s a very confident magazine, hopefully its sparky, bright, educated, annoying – you want to be relevant. I would love everyone to get up in the morning and think “what I have to do today is buy a copy of GQ magazine” but that just doesn’t happen. You have to fight to be relevant, which is good, otherwise you are just a taking a picture, posting it and saying “that is me done”. The amount of effort involved in taking a photo and posting it is the amount of effort I’m taking into my communication with the world.
Sofia: So you are always looking for something new?
Dylan: You are looking for relevance, how to interpret things that might not be particularly new. Just because something is new doesn’t make it interesting, in the world we live in at the moment, often the fact that something is new is a barrier to purchase. There is a lot of rubbish out there.
Patrick: I will quickly move to David Cameron, due to Cameron on Cameron. You spent a year interviewing David Cameron for that book, did you ever get the impression that he would turn out to be such a gambler?
Dylan: I enjoyed all the time I spent with David Cameron, I found it fascinating both on a professional and personal level. I think it was completely unnecessary for him to promise the referendum and it was ultimately his undoing. I think we all know that. It was unnecessary and it brought an unnecessary full stop to his career.
Patrick: Were you disappointed in Cameron in the end?
Dylan: Don’t all political careers end in failure?
Sofia: Failure or death
Dylan: He was someone who at the time I was convinced was going to be prime minister and as we are heading towards a Gordon Brown government, I thought he would be a better prime minister than Gordon Brown. I think that he didn’t fulfil his potential
Patrick: You said the reaction of you coming out as Conservative, in that Cameron era was pretty negative..
Dylan: It was pretty negative! It was like admitting you had an attic full of child pornography. I found it fascinating because that was during a period, after Blair’s decision to invade Iraq, that I became very circumspect about the motivations of the Labour party – as I think lots of people did. I think in terms of debate it was right to engage the right again, I was pushing against my entire office, all my friends, and all the people in the media, which I found extraordinary but I don’t have any regrets about that at all.
Patrick: Are you still Conservative, what about Theresa May?
Dylan: Yes, but with a much smaller ‘C’ (laughs)
Patrick: I also read in that book you had lunch with Peter Mandelson, you said “thank God you’re not a celebrity” and he said “I am a celebrity”. In recent years how much has the lines between celebrity and politics converged?
Dylan: I think one of the interesting things about the current government, or at least one of the encouraging things about Theresa May, is that here is someone who isn’t desperate to be on breakfast television, isn’t desperate to be in our magazine. She seems to be quietly beavering away in a corner – possibly getting all her sums wrong about Brexit. It is very astute for her to engage with American Vogue, because that is something Donald Trump will instantly get. For the last 20 years we have had political leaders who have been very keen to get involved in media, particularly lifestyle, and it’s good we are getting through that stage.
Patrick: To finish, can you tell us what your next project is?
Dylan: My next project is a huge book I’ve just finished writing on David Bowie which is coming out in September. I spent the last year interviewing 180 people for an inaugural biography of David Bowie. So that’s what I’ve just done for Random House. It is called David Bowie a life. It will be available in September, it will make the perfect Christmas present (laughs)
Patrick: that seems like a good place to finish, thank you very much.
Dylan: Thank you very much.