Tongue tied to brand

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None of this is a joke.

So Gene Simmons, the notoriously orally endowed bassist of rockers-cum-marketing-juggernaut Kiss, now has a magazine called Gene Simmons Tongue.

If the savvy 52-year-old Mr. Simmons has his way, Tongue is the key opening gambit in his ambitions to make his own name a readily identifiable lifestyle brand, roughly akin to a Martha Stewart for the mullet-cut set.

At the magazine's New York launch party June 5, the party favors were Kiss Kondoms, packages of which depict Mr. Simmons in makeup, and the disquieting legend "tongue lubricated." Burly guys, resembling 30-ish heartland-rock fans transplanted to a Manhattan nightclub-tattoos, cut-off faded T-shirts-bump up against surgically enhanced "blondes" and cadge free drinks by the half-dozen. ("I'm sorry-my whole band's over there," one explains, somewhat believably.)

Then come the midgets.

Mini-Kiss, short-statured Kiss impersonators, lip-sync Kiss hits "Detroit Rock City" and "Rock & Roll All Night," after the DJ demands "everyone in the front, please kneel." (They did.) The piece de resistance, perhaps predictably for an event starring the famously priapic Mr. Simmons, was the couple who convinced onlookers they were test-driving a party favor on a banquette near where Mr. Simmons greeted over-enthused fans.

But the real weirdness is the story behind the spectacle.

If Mr. Simmons has his way-a big if-in five or 10 years Tongue-branded restaurants and retail stores will be part of the landscape. There's already a clothing line called Dragonfly and, of course, the magazine to kick it all off.

To do this, he needs to convince consumers that Gene Simmons can be a brand sans makeup, and without his phenomenally successful band. Kiss, for those who spent the last 30 years in a cave, claim more gold records than any group besides the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and marketed themselves more extensively and avidly than anyone.

"From the beginning they were a merchandising dream-these four characters you could market on their own," said Stephen Dessau, CEO of New York-based music and event-marketer Track Entertainment. "It's one of the most classic brand development stories you could see. ... And Gene has always been the driver."

Since it formed in 1972, Kiss has licensed over 2,000 products, Mr. Simmons says. The gross from such products in a touring year, Mr. Simmons says, is in the high eight figures-a figure few industry insiders dispute. (Kiss was ranked #41 in earning on Forbes' Celebrity 100 index last year.) For a mere $4,7000, diehards can now get sent off in an autographed Kiss Kasket, which, ads helpfully point out, doubles as an excellent waterproof beer cooler.

Mr. Simmons isn't forsaking forever the band that made him famous, but he is drawing a line in the sand.

"Gene Simmons Tongue is the first sort of real attempt at hurling Gene Simmons in the marketplace as a brand," he says. "You have to pee and mark your own territory."

Remember: None of this is a joke.

Kiss kondom

Gene Simmons speaks slowly and calmly, in the manner of a man used to having people listen. He is on his cellphone in his hotel room quietly but firmly haggling over photos shot at his launch party. He winks, and then begins tossing products.

A Kiss Kondom.

His memoir, "Kiss And Make-up."

A Kiss cellphone cover. (He uses one himself.)

A copy of Gene Simmons Tongue.

It is the day after the launch party, and almost 500,000 copies of Tongue have just hit newsstands. On the cover is Hugh Hefner; the interview with him is lavishly illustrated with shots of eight Playboy models, five of whom are sticking their tongues out.

Um. What is this, exactly?

"Playboy with clothes on," Mr. Simmons says.

"It's [Mr. Simmons'] life, and what goes on in his life, and these things come up," says co-founder and Publisher Allen Tuller, referring to a meeting Mr. Simmons had with Donald Trump in which a possible article was discussed.

The notion of the magazine as an extension of his life fits in one key way. At least eight pages, and one partial, of the debut issue's 21.3 ad pages are for Kiss- or Gene Simmons-branded items (including both inside covers) or businesses the band has been associated with, like Kiss-endorsed guitar manufacturer Gibson, or band pals of Mr. Simmons, like midline `80s metalists Black `N Blue. (Schieffelin & Sommerset's Tanqueray took the back cover, with an ad featuring Mr. Hefner. A full-color page is $12,000.)

Mr. Simmons and Mr. Tuller insist that none of the ads are freebies: "I get paid," Mr. Simmons growls. That aside, the magazine left some onlookers less than impressed.

"Obviously, they're going after that type of Maxim rub-off," said Charles Valan, VP-strategic print services, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann. "But this is going after a very narrow segment. I don't see this becoming a 750,000-circulation publication." (Mr. Tuller said he "would be very happy" with 1 million in circulation.)

"I didn't get it," said Jack Kliger, president-CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines. "The tongue is a necessary part of the body, but the magazine is more like ... a foot. He's doing as good a job as a publisher as I would as a rock star."

Perhaps. But few would deny Mr. Simmons' strengths and shamelessness as a pitchman, which are roughly commensurate with the size of his ego. He doesn't mention his memoir without attaching the words "New York Times best-seller." He insists a reporter read into a tape recorder ad copy touting Kiss' status as the American band with the most gold records.

`king of the whores'

"I am king of the whores," he says, and launches into a riff equating prostitution with honesty-in a fee-for-services sense-that's virtually a word-for-word replica of a quote he disgorged in the July issue of Hearst Magazines' Esquire.

Shameless.

It's why Mr. Simmons can sketch out potential Tongue restaurants ("a place to go pick up chicks-a place for girls to go and feel comfortable"), or a Tongue TV network, and retail establishments (two Dragonfly stores, affiliated with his clothing line, are slated to open up this year in Hollywood and London.) Mr. Simmons has also been reported to want a TV show akin to MTV's smash "The Osbournes"-he claims to be in discussions with NBC: "I'm not a fan of cable," he said. "There's not enough people." (An executive close to NBC spoke of the possibility of a celebrity-based "Fear Factor;" an NBC spokeswoman denied discussions took place.)

"Will everything succeed? No." Mr. Simmons says. "Will most of them? You betcha."

Left more oblique is what, exactly, does the brand Gene Simmons signify?

"The magazine is really unapologetic about the notion you don't need to ask if it's OK to enjoy life," he said. "It's worth looking at for the girls, and you should never apologize for that."

How this notion translates to an empire has others unconvinced.

"He doesn't understand he is not his brand," said Jim Harris, CEO of Chicago-based marketing strategist ThoughtStep. "His brand is Kiss, and he's trapped. Maybe more so than Mick Jagger, and you don't have to look far to see how much more successful Stones albums are than Mick's solo projects." (Mr. Jagger's last solo album was a notorious flop.) Others in the music business point out that Mr. Simmons' ventures outside Kiss-including a string of forgotten movies and a short-lived record-label imprint with RCA-did not remotely approach the successes Kiss can claim.

Still, Track Entertainment's Mr. Dessau said "if anyone can make it work, it would be Gene." Mr. Dessau added "He's got about as high awareness and is as clearly defined a brand character as any other rock `n' roll musician out there."

His view is not widely shared. "I don't see him as being the face of a certain lifestyle," said a major-label marketing executive. "If he says to you, `I'm gonna brand myself the way Oprah has, or Martha [Stewart] has,' he's out of his mind."

As the weird world of celebrity would have it, a promotional video Mr. Simmons plays for a reporter includes a shot of Ms. Stewart alongside a fully made-up Mr. Simmons. Mr. Simmons, who lavishly praises Ms. Stewart, likes the juxtaposition.

Tongue and Martha Stewart Living are "both lifestyle magazines," he said. "Hers is the kitchen, and how to cook. But someone's got to be there to eat the food. That's what I do. I swallow."

Remember: None of this is a joke.

We think.

contributing: ira teinowitz and wayne friedman

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