Are Gays Helping Make Your Brand Hot (or Not)?

And What's the Deal With Lady Gaga Anyway? Q&A With Out's Aaron Hicklin

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What's that, you say? Vanity Fair isn't quite gay enough for you? That despite the magazine's well-tuned sense of glamour and camp, despite Graydon Carter himself (that hair! his precious restaurants!), VF is still somehow too ... straight? Well, then there's Aaron Hicklin's Out.

Aaron Hicklin
Aaron Hicklin Credit: Lisa Carpenter
A lot of gay media has always either been too dull (any number of earnest local gay newspapers in cities across the country) or too trashy (i.e., nightlife-obsessed). But Out, founded in 1992, broke protocol by bringing Condé Nast-worthy magazine journalism and production values to the gay print market. It ended up being a watershed, with major marketers that previously avoided gay media adding Out to their national media plans. In 2006, Aaron Hicklin, formerly editor of New York art-and-fashion glossy BlackBook, took the helm of the magazine. In 2008, Out and its sister magazine The Advocate were acquired by Regent, which also owns Here!, the premium gay cable network.

For this latest installment of Dumenco's Media People -- a continuing series of conversations with media grandees -- I interviewed Hicklin as he was working on the annual Out 100 (a very Vanity Fair-style photographic portfolio of "men and women who made 2009 a year to remember") and getting ready to host a party tonight in New York City to fete Out's September cover girl, pop provocateur Lady Gaga. The party also celebrates a major redesign (executed in-house by Out art director Nick Vogelson) that kicked off with the issue.

It's worth noting that Hicklin is something of a post-gay editor. His sensibility is inclusive -- his recent Out 100 issues have included gay-friendly straights such as Jennifer Hudson and Mary-Louise Parker (as well as more expected honorees such as "Milk" director Gus Van Sant and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow). And his own connection to gay media, before Out, was so tenuous that famous gay Andrew Sullivan (now of, but then of, erroneously blogged, "Seriously, I think it's great that a straight guy is now heading up a gay magazine." (He later corrected himself.)

Hicklin, a native of Edinburgh, began his career at the national broadsheet Scotland on Sunday, covered the war in Bosnia and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for The Scotsman, and was among the team of journalists to win the Scottish Press Award for their coverage of 9/11. He moved to New York in 1998 to work on the launch of Bob Guccione Jr.'s (now-defunct) Gear magazine, where he served as executive editor. He's also a former columnist for Britain's Sunday Herald.

Simon Dumenco: Before we talk about your magazine, first tell me about your September cover girl, Lady Gaga. Give me a quick take on why she matters to the culture at large right now, and why she blew up so big so quickly. [Her debut CD has sold more than 3 million copies, and she won Best New Artist at Sunday's MTV's Video Music Awards, which included her headline-making performance-arty rendition of her hit "Paparazzi."] I mean, I get her appeal to gays -- she seems up on her queer-pop studies, from Freddie Mercury [her stage name is inspired, in fact, by Queen's "Radio Ga Ga"] to glam-rock-era Bowie -- but why is she connecting so powerfully as a mainstream phenomenon?

Aaron Hicklin: One of the things that's really interested me since I came to Out is to document that space where mainstream and gay sensibilities converge, and Lady Gaga really seems to have worked it out -- and not just in Europe where, for example, the Scissor Sisters achieved much the same thing, but in the U.S., where it's traditionally a much harder feat to pull off. Plus she's worked out that there's no such thing as overexposure. That's why the Madonna comparison seems so apt. What they both share is huge ambition, a ridiculous work ethic and talent. Pop was feeling tedious and predictable, and in the course of the summer Gaga made it glamorous and kinky. Who doesn't want that?

Dumenco: I don't know, maybe the people who voted for Kris Allen instead of Adam Lambert on "American Idol"?

Hicklin: Talking of which, I heard that it's all very egalitarian at Adam Lambert concerts: The girls throw their underwear at him, the gay boys throw their Calvins. If that's not a reflection of a major cultural shift, I don't know what is.

Dumenco: [laughter] I see your point. Anyway, do you happen to remember who was on the very first Out cover?

Hicklin: It was actually a close-up of a man and a woman, models presumably, air-kissing beneath the words "Out is in." The second issue featured a moody-looking Rupert Everett, which speaks volumes about how little progress has been made in changing the culture in Hollywood, in that if you want to put an out gay actor on your cover your choice is still paltry. Earlier this year Everett actually told the New York Times that coming out had destroyed his chances of playing a leading man, which is just hugely depressing. Only Neil Patrick Harris, who is primarily a TV actor, has successfully challenged the industry consensus that an out gay man can't play straight convincingly. It's a pretty sad state of affairs when you think about it, which is why I so loved "Bruno," contrary to many of our readers and GLAAD [the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation], because I saw it as a brilliant satire on the way in which closeted actors play at being straight. The whole line about Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey having heterosexuality in common was staggeringly subversive.

All that said, I don't think it's our mission to put only gay people on the cover, although we often get criticism when we don't. I can understand that point of view, but the fact is that we don't have a bottomless pool of A-list gay talent to put on the cover, and even if we did I'm not interested in a world solely determined by other gay people. We live in the wider world, after all, and what's more interesting to me is having a gay perspective on that world. Of course we feature gay people on our cover -- and both Beth Ditto and the Pet Shop Boys have been covers stars in recent months -- but treating our world as self-contained and ghettoized seems awfully self-defeating to me.

Dumenco: Talk to me for a bit about the seeming crisis in gay media -- the fact that various gay-focused publications [including national monthly Genre and the New York Blade, a newspaper] have folded recently. That's sort of good for you, I suppose, because your competition is thinning -- but what do you say to people who might suggest that we're in a post-gay world, with plenty of mainstream publications having gay-ish sensibilities, and male and female fans of Adam Lambert both throwing their underwear at him, as you pointed out? Actually, wait, before you answer that, back up for a second. Gay guys are still wearing Calvins? They haven't moved on?

Hicklin: Well, in gay vernacular, Calvins is the Scotch Tape of underwear. But, seriously, gay men are remarkably loyal to brands that sought them out early and remained constant. As for the crisis in gay media, we're certainly not immune to the problems facing print media in general, and the profound shift in the way people consume media, but I wouldn't categorize it as a post-gay problem. As long as there are gay teens unable to come out to their parents, talk of a post-gay world is a little spurious. That said, there's increasing overlap between gay and straight culture that I find compelling and overdue, and it's important that Out be a part of it. And while mainstream media is doing a better job at covering stories of gay interest than it has in the past, I don't think they begin to compensate for the articulate gay point of view that Out can bring to the task. I'm not sure a mainstream publication would have written about Lady Gaga through the particular prism that we did, or about the culture of Manhunt, the online gay dating site. For a gay audience that gives us a decided advantage.

Dumenco: To dwell further on you and your Calvins, it's funny, but when you think of products and brands that gays helped establish, everybody automatically thinks of Calvin Klein underwear, but I'm drawing a blank on what other products gays helped break. What are gays loving right now -- specific brands -- and why?

Out Magazine
Out Magazine
Hicklin: There's some truth to the cliché that we're early adopters. To quote my senior editor, Jason Lamphier, "gays started the bottled water trend in the '70s" -- and he says he read that in Ad Age when he was at college, so it must be true. I would say Diesel owes a lot of its early success to gay men, as does Prada Sport. Also American Apparel T-shirts, Volkswagen, and the entire Bravo network. And, at the risk of making us sound utterly status-obsessed, you can add just about any premium vodka brand. Then there's the odd case of Dolce & Gabbana, a brand that has a big gay fan base but no longer reciprocates by advertising in gay media. I don't know if it's because they take the gay market for granted, but given the homoerotic imagery of their campaigns, and often positive gay messaging, it seems like a big missed opportunity.

Dumenco: You know, I met Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana in Milan a few years back. I interviewed them at Villa Volpe, their 19th-century palazzo in Milan -- it wasn't long after they'd announced their split as a couple, although of course they still remain business and creative partners, and they still own property together. Really nice guys, surprisingly low-key as fashion icons go, but one strange thing I learned about them before meeting them is that they only officially came out as a couple in 2000, after they'd been together 15 years. The only thing I could think is that maybe there's something, some mindset, in macho Italian culture that made them reluctant to discuss their sexuality all those years, even though it was obviously the most blatant possible subtext in their work and in their marketing all along.

Hicklin: You may be right. Italians do seem to have a deeply conflicted relationship to homosexuality that goes back to classical Rome. We actually sent a writer, Michael Joseph Gross, to Italy some years back to write that very piece. But, still, Domenico and Stefano used to advertise in Out, and even appeared on the cover some years ago, so their retreat from gay media is disappointing.

Dumenco: Is there a meaningful history of backlash in the gay community -- of gay consumers turning on brands that don't support them?

Hicklin: At one time or another Coors, Exxon-Mobil and Cracker Barrel have been subject to gay boycotts with varying degrees of success. Ultimately, we're more effective when we rally around companies that resist pressure from so-called family values organizations to curtail same-sex benefits or spike gay-targeted advertising. Subaru and Ford both faced, and stood up to, anti-gay boycotts from the wretched American Family Association, which also attacked Procter & Gamble last year for allowing a gay kiss on "As The World Turns," a daytime soap that P&G produces. P&G's response amounted to a politely worded "Get lost." However frustrated we are with the pace of change, it's hard not to conclude that organizations like AFA are increasingly out-of-touch with mainstream opinion.

Dumenco: Speaking of major marketers, I'm curious about the divide, among your sponsors, between Out and its sister publication, The Advocate. You've been editor of Out since 2006, but as of last year, you're also the editorial director of The Advocate, right?

Hicklin: Well, on a day-to-day basis my primary responsibility is Out, but I also oversee the editorial direction of Here Media, which includes The Advocate and various online sites. We took the decision last year to relaunch The Advocate as a monthly, under the helm of a new editor in chief, Jon Barrett, who has simultaneously revamped the website, where the focus has been on creating a vibrant, content-heavy, video-rich space for gay news, opinion and feature content.

Dumenco: Let's dwell on the print side for a moment longer. Since Out and The Advocate are both monthlies, how do you keep them from competing with each other from a marketer's perspective? I mean, I understand that Out is more lifestyle- and fashion-focused, whereas The Advocate is more of a news magazine, so I get the broad editorial distinction, but why would or should, say, a car company or a premium spirits brand advertise in one instead of the other?

Hicklin: You could, of course, ask that question of Condé Nast stablemates such as Details and GQ or Vanity Fair, but with Out and The Advocate, believe it or not, the overlap between readers is less than 30%. That's because both titles have a very different mission, plus The Advocate has a bigger percentage, relatively, of lesbian readers. Broadly speaking the reader experience with Out should almost be fetishistic. It's designed to look beautiful and luxurious, with an emphasis on design and photography. That's not to say it's not also thoughtful and smart -- it is, but a big part of what we deal with is aspiration and imagination. The value of The Advocate, on the other hand, rests on information, analysis and opinion -- talking about the world as we live it -- and, as we all know, the online space is critical if you want to stay current, as The Advocate must. We've spent a lot of time and energy in building a digital platform that has resulted in a four-fold increase in traffic, and at least that in online revenue in the space of a year.

Dumenco: Wait, you've quadrupled online traffic and revenue in the past year?

Hicklin: Yes, for The Advocate, and we have a more ambitious agenda for 2010. It's almost scary just thinking how much we've had to learn in the last few years, but scarier to realize how much further we still have to go. I really wonder how this conversation will read a few years from now.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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