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Vanity Fair’s, David Friend, On His Latest Book “The Naughty Nineties”: I Was Making A Transition That Mirrored, In Terms Of The Magazine World, What The Culture Was Doing In Miniature – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With David Friend, Editor Of Creative Development, Vanity Fair…

November 13, 2017

“I would maybe say “Disruptive Millennials.” We’re looking at our navel; everything is a selfie. And instead, we need to really look at the globe and globalization; at the environment; and we need to reconnect to the human soul; to humanism. And I think we’re getting too far away from what we are at our core and what really matters in life, which is connecting to one another and communicating honestly with one another. And being fulfilled as human beings, family members, friends and colleagues. What I think is happening is that we’re looking at our screens and our navels.” David Friend (on what word or phrase he would designate the “teen” years of this 21st century)…

The culture wars of the 1990s and the red-faced years of the Clinton administration are something that David Friend thoroughly researched and then penned a book about, designating its title as “The Naughty Nineties,” and showcasing his idea that those less than wholesome years set the course for many of the issues we face today. Along with being a prolific author, David also joined the staff at Vanity Fair in 1998 as editor of creative development, after serving as Life magazine’s director of photography.

I spoke with David recently and we talked about his latest book and how the culture changes of the 1990s also impacted magazines and magazine media, with the onset of the Internet and the many disruptions that cable and satellite television presented. It was a fascinating and intriguing conversation that opened up many possibilities for answers to some questions that are being asked today.

So, without further ado, I hope that you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with David Friend, author and editor of creative development, Vanity Fair.

But first the sound-bites:

On the tipping point that made him decide to write a book about “The Naughty Nineties,” and what role the magazine industry played during that decade in the book: My last book was on the 9/11 tragedy in 2006, and that book was so depressing and so much to confront emotionally as a writer and reporter, deeply reporting people’s stories. So, I felt that in my next book I needed something that would be a lot more fun for me, and I looked back on the nineties as being sort of this overlay of sexuality in our lives. And when you talk about magazines, I looked at myself and my transition from a magazine editor; in April 1998, I made the move from Life magazine, which was middle of the road, middle-American, centrist and wholesome, to Vanity Fair magazine. And that was sophisticated, chic, smart, leaning-left; and it’s really the change that the culture was making, I think; the Boomers had grown up and the counterculture had become the culture.

On whether he believes there will be another revival of the “Gay Twenties” in magazines, where they return to that legendary sophistication: You and I are both glass-half-full people; we look at the world in rose-colored glasses, so I would love to think that you’re right. I love the ‘20s and ‘30s in magazines; I love the between-the-wars Vanity Fair. I love the early New Yorker, and I love when Time magazine and Esquire began. But the jury is out about what’s going to happen with print magazines now. We have real questions with big media companies and the value placed on them. We have big questions about young people who are spending so much time on digital devices. But I’m Pollyannaish and hopeful. I hope we are not at the end of the lifespan of magazines. I hope that there is still kick in the old girl.

On whether he was surprised to find out, after doing research for his book, that it appeared the men’s sophisticate magazine was a dying breed: No, I went into the book understanding that it was as dead as a doornail. What surprised was when I interviewed this very smart guy named Professor Samir Husni and he said to me, and I quote, and I am going to read from the book: “From the late ‘80s and until 1997, there were more new sex magazines published than any other genre. One year in the ‘90s, I still remember the number vividly, one-seventh of all new publications were sex magazines, often devoted to special interests. You could dissect the human body, name any part, and you’ll have five magazines for it.” So, there was this boom, and yet, as I point out in the book, you had three or four other things that were going on at the same time.

On whether by the time he finished the book he felt like judge and jury, defense attorney or prosecutor of the nineties: I think I’m more of a prosecutor, because what I find out at the end is we have Donald Trump and so much of what happened in the ‘90s; the coarseness; the rise of reality TV; the rise of lying as a public default among our leaders, our athletes and our stars; the cheapening of culture to the point of there almost isn’t a business in high culture anymore.

On if he was writing a new book about this teen decade of the 21st century, instead of the “Naughty Nineties,” what would he call 2013-2017: I’m not doing that, but were I to do it, I would maybe say the “Disruptive Millennials.” We’re looking at our navel; everything is a selfie. And instead, we need to really look at the globe and globalization; at the environment; and we need to reconnect to the human soul. To humanism and I think we’re getting too far away from what we are at our core and what really matters in life, which is connecting to one another and communicating honestly with one another. And being fulfilled as human beings, family members, friends and colleagues. What I think is happening is that we’re looking at our screens and our navels.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: He was like his name, a good friend.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: I’m rushing to drink very good wine with my wife or my buddies or an exciting group of people. And then for a late nightcap, it’s Soho House.

On what keeps him up at night: The meaning of existence. Why are we here; what is our purpose? How am I spending and how have I spent my life?

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with David Friend, author and editor of creative development, Vanity Fair.

Samir Husni: You’ve written a book called “The Naughty Nineties.” And of course my area of particular interest is the magazine coverage in the book and the entire magazine industry in that sector; what we used to call “The Men’s Sophisticate.” Tell me a little about your interest in this subject matter. What was that tipping point that made you decide to write a book on this subject?

David Friend: Thank you; I’m glad you think we’re innovative. My last book was on the 9/11 tragedy in 2006, and that book was so depressing and so much to confront emotionally as a writer and reporter, deeply reporting people’s stories. So, I felt that in my next book I needed something that would be a lot more fun for me, and I looked back on the nineties as being sort of this overlay of sexuality in our lives. I was raising two kids; my daughter was continually doing sit-ups to have a washboard ab stomach, because she wanted to get a belly-ring like Britney Spears, who she and her girlfriends looked up to.

And there were these sexual cues in MTV and society. And then my son, who was her twin brother, was playing a lot of these online, massive, multiplayer games, as they call them, with older people at night and that was nerve-racking to me and my wife. But I saw this sort of coarsening of the culture in the ‘90s, and the president was talking about his relationships with Gennifer Flowers and what happened with Paula Jones, then his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and this was a sort of drumbeat throughout the ‘90s.

So, I looked back on the ‘90s and I thought, if the Boomers are the ones that screwed this all up, maybe there’s a book in this. And when you talk about magazines, I looked at myself and my transition from a magazine editor; in April 1998, I made the move from Life magazine, which was middle of the road, middle-American, centrist and wholesome, to Vanity Fair magazine. And that was sophisticated, chic, smart, leaning-left; and it’s really the change that the culture was making, I think; the Boomers had grown up and the counterculture had become the culture.

And even though now we’re still fighting some of the same culture wars that we were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that transition, that pivot that I made in 1998 was partially reflecting this migration in the culture toward a more open sensibility, both socially and culturally; culturally at least. Maybe not socially, but culturally there was that shift.

My first day on the job, which was April Fool’s Day 1998, Graydon Carter was the editor of Vanity Fair, and he called me in to talk about getting exclusives. And one of the reasons that he hired me was he knew my reputation at Life because we worked together there in the ‘80s. He asked me to see if I could line up Monica Lewinsky, and this was at the height of the scandal with Clinton.

And sure enough, within 22 days I had landed a photo shoot with Herb Ritts and text by Christopher Hitchens. Then I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. (Laughs) It wasn’t Life magazine; this was a new sense of general interest magazine. This bubbling, exciting Vanity Fair. At the same time, the gentrification of the culture and the sophistication of the culture, and the sophistication of magazines, really, was becoming the norm. Graphic design was important; storytelling was important; print was significant, and print still seemed to be, in many ways, driving the conversation. When journalists woke up in the morning, blogging was a new thing in 1998, they still looked to their morning newspapers to get their leads. That’s not true anymore.

So, I think I was making a transition that mirrored, in terms of the magazine world, what the culture was doing in miniature.

Samir Husni: As we move forward, and as I look at and study the magazines of the last century, the 1920s and 1930s, including Vanity Fair; is this the centennial return of that sophistication that you talk about in magazines, and are we going to see another Gay Twenties in 2020 and beyond?

David Friend: You and I are both glass-half-full people; we look at the world in rose-colored glasses, so I would love to think that you’re right. I love the ‘20s and ‘30s in magazines; I love the between-the-wars Vanity Fair. I love the early New Yorker, and I love when Time magazine and Esquire began. But the jury is out about what’s going to happen with print magazines now. We have real questions with big media companies and the value placed on them. We have big questions about young people who are spending so much time on digital devices.

So, what a magazine is today is hard to say. I think it was Kurt Andersen in The New York Times, quite recently, who had a quote: “The 1920s to the 2020s was kind of the century of the magazine,” he said, noting that The New Yorker and Time were founded in the decade before the Great Depression. Today, he added, the industry was in “more of a dusk, a slow dusk, and we’re closer to sunset.” But I’m Pollyannaish and hopeful. I hope we are not at the end of the lifespan of magazines. I hope that there is still kick in the old girl.

Samir Husni: Of course, my position is that as long as we have human beings, we’re going to have magazines. And from your research, technically you had enough evidence to show that there is a life cycle even for categories within magazines. And what you’ve done with the men’s sophisticate magazines in your book, with the research, and the interviews done with Diane Hanson; were you surprised by the conclusions that this is a dying category within the magazine business?

David Friend: No, I went into the book understanding that it was as dead as a doornail. What surprised was when I interviewed this very smart guy named Professor Samir Husni…

Samir Husni: (Laughs).

David Friend: …and he said to me, and I quote, and I am going to read from the book: “From the late ‘80s and until 1997, there were more new sex magazines published than any other genre. One year in the ‘90s, I still remember the number vividly, one-seventh of all new publications were sex magazines, often devoted to special interests. You could dissect the human body, name any part, and you’ll have five magazines for it.” So, there was this boom, and yet, as I point out in the book, you had three or four other things that were going on at the same time.

Why was there a rise in so many different magazines? One, I would say that the cost of entry was declining; it was much easier to produce magazines. It was a print boom. Secondly, there were lax pornography laws. With Janet Reno as the Attorney General under Clinton, people were not being litigated against for porn. So, there was just more of a freedom to generate magazines.

Then there were more lax values; the people who had grown up in the sixties, a generation had passed, and by the nineties, their values became what was driving commerce. So, I think that it was easier to print some of these things with the lax attitudes.

Plus there was AIDS in the eighties. And people were looking for avenues for safer sex, and there’s nothing safer than a magazine. This was a period where strip clubs were on the rise; you didn’t take your clothes off. You went to these places and you had people who were taking their clothes off next to you, but you were “safe.” But for all of those reasons, you had this boom in magazines. There was also a liberation among people who were modeling, men and women, for these magazines.

What else did you have? You had two other big things then that spelled doom for the “men’s sophisticate” magazines, one was the VHS video boom. You had cable TV, satellite TV and VHS tapes. And CD-ROMs. People were seeing sex that didn’t even have to have plots anymore, it was just sex tapes everywhere. And the photos in a magazine didn’t hold a candle to moving pictures. You say something very funny in my book where I quote you as saying: “When pornography became disseminated on cable and on your laptops; you can’t compete in print. No matter how much you shake the magazine, it’ll never move the same way.” (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

David Friend: But you also had this new thing called the Internet. The Internet had been around for a while, but the Worldwide Web really began in ’92 and ’93. And by the end of the decade, people were getting pornography online. People were having sex chat on AOL People were connecting online and were then able to meet up offline. People were seeing almost the entire smorgasbord of sexuality, every single fetish or desire could be met or found in a community somewhere online. This also spelled doom for the publications, because you had this new medium.

Magazines tried to keep up; you’d have fun sex ads in the magazines and you’d have DVDs and CD-ROMs poly-bagged with these magazines, but it was too late. It was just not to be. There is a fellow who is a historian named Robert Rosen, who did a very good book called, oddly-titled “Beaver Street” about this same period. And he talks about this same thing; the collapse of the companies that were able to sustain these magazines for 15-25 years. They just couldn’t sustain them anymore, because the market fell out.

Samir Husni: Yes, you can’t compete with free. It’s as simple as that.

David Friend: You’re absolutely right; you cannot compete with free.

Samir Husni: As you finished the book; did you feel that you were the judge and jury; the defense attorney and the prosecutor of the ‘90s?

David Friend: I think I’m more of a prosecutor, because what I find out at the end is we have Donald Trump and so much of what happened in the ‘90s; the coarseness; the rise of reality TV; the rise of lying as a public default among our leaders, our athletes and our stars; the cheapening of culture to the point of there almost isn’t a business in high culture anymore.

The 24/7 scandal that arose when you had CNN competing suddenly with a new channel called Fox News, starting in 1996, and the Census spectacle. All of this led to an environment in which voters would be comfortable voting for Donald Trump. And that’s the afterword of the book, really how the nineties laid the groundwork for the sorry state we’re in now.

Samir Husni: If you were working on a new book about the “teens” decade of the 21st century, what’s the word that comes to mind? You named the nineties the “naughty” nineties; what would you call 2013-2017 of this century?

David Friend: I’m not doing that, but were I to do it, I would maybe say “Disruptive Millennials.” We’re looking at our navel; everything is a selfie. And instead, we need to really look at the globe and globalization; at the environment; and we need to reconnect to the human soul; to humanism. And I think we’re getting too far away from what we are at our core and what really matters in life, which is connecting to one another and communicating honestly with one another. And being fulfilled as human beings, family members, friends and colleagues. What I think is happening is that we’re looking at our screens and our navels.

Samir Husni: One phrase I coined and that I use in my teaching is that we live in an age of isolated connectivity.

David Friend: Yes, it’s almost like psychologists talking about parallel play, where children are engaging themselves in the same room with others, but each is doing their own thing next to each other, as opposed to engaging with one another.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

David Friend: He was like his name, a good friend.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

David Friend: I’m rushing to drink very good wine with my wife or my buddies or an exciting group of people. And then for a late nightcap, it’s Soho House.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

David Friend: The meaning of existence. Why are we here; what is our purpose? How am I spending and how have I spent my life?

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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