Sex, drink, football: the legacy of lads’ mags – by the women who (mostly) loved working for them

<span>Loaded and other publications of its ilk were part of a 1990s lads’ mag boom, but by the 2010s many were no longer in print. </span><span>Composite: Alamy, PA</span>
Loaded and other publications of its ilk were part of a 1990s lads’ mag boom, but by the 2010s many were no longer in print. Composite: Alamy, PA

In May 1994, Loaded ­magazine published its first edition, with the tagline: “For men that should know better”. Actor Gary Oldman was the cover star and the headline read: “Super lads”. With its heady mix of gonzo journalism, pub humour and knockabout swagger, the magazine was a hit.

In the first issue of Loaded, editor James Brown set out his vision: “Loaded is a new magazine dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters.”

Indeed, it celebrated silliness – the cover lines from a 1996 issue featuring glamour model Joanne Guest capture it perfectly. “Oasis, John Barry, Kevin Keegan, Steptoe & Son, Soup, Nurses, Jesus, Bras.”

Within a few years, it was selling half a million copies a month. But its launch marked the start of the lads’ mags boom. Loaded and the copycat magazines it spawned – FHM, Maxim and later Nuts and Zoo – would become synonymous with the pornification of mainstream culture and casual misogyny.

When the majority of these publications closed in the 2010s (Maxim’s UK print run ended in 2009), few mourned them. Thirty years on from the launch of the raucous, gamechanging publication that was Loaded – and with a possible relaunch announced – what is its legacy, especially for women?

In the early days, the magazine had many female readers and contributors. One of them was Sarah Morgan, who started reading Loaded in 1996, when she was 16. “I just thought it was the funniest thing,” she says. “They had The Simpsons and Kathy Burke on the cover. I was a full-on fan girl.”

Sex was always part of the mix, but it was usually lighthearted: “I can’t get too upset about features like “Arses: an appreciation” because the tone was like a schoolboy pulling your pigtails.”

Morgan did work experience at Loaded in 1999 and ended up working there for several years: “The whole experience was just mind-blowingly fun,” she says.

Brown commissioned young freelancers from fanzines and the music press; writers who got drunk with celebrities and wrote about their ridiculous escapades. “You could go and do a job, and if it went wrong, it didn’t matter – you just followed where the story went,” says Observer TV critic Barbara Ellen, who was a regular contributor in the 1990s.

“In some ways, the more frustrating or stupid or anarchic things got, the better it was for your story. It was very liberating and very unconventional.”

Related: FHM and Zoo closures mark end of lads’ mag era

The Loaded philosophy was reflective of the office culture. “It was absolute chaos,” says beauty journalist and author Sali Hughes, who started in the magazine’s fashion department in 1997. She applied for work experience, but when she turned up, the office was empty because everyone had been at an award ceremony the night before.

While she waited, she reorganised the fashion cupboard, and work experience turned into a paid job; she eventually became section editor. “Whenever I tell people I worked at Loaded, they ask: ‘Were you constantly having your arse pinched or were people trying to get off with you?’ But it just wasn’t like that. It was a brilliantly supportive environment. I wouldn’t have progressed at such pace in a women’s magazine, because on those titles people are generally more together.”

Loaded always featured glamour models but as competitors launched, they accelerated the trend for sexualised content. The strategy at FHM in the late 1990s was to focus on “tits and lists”.

Established magazines such as GQ also radically changed their content to ride the lads’ mag wave. In the mid-1990s, Kate Spicer was hired as the magazine’s sex columnist. Her first column was headlined: “Me and my pussy.” She was in her early 20s and starting out as a freelancer.

“It was hard – I wasn’t a particularly sexual person,” she says. “But it was a way to write freely and with a note of rebellion.” For the most part, she enjoyed writing her column. “It was fun – the content wasn’t overtly erotic or sexual. That early men’s magazine culture was about men – and some women – behaving badly and having attitude.”

Loaded started copying its own copycats and it went into this vicious cycle

Barbara Ellen, journalist

For her third column, Spicer went to a spanking party. The editors pressured her to be photographed in a pair of knickers, on her hands and knees, being spanked. Spicer did the photoshoot and then felt so uncomfortable about it that she asked then editor-in-chief Michael VerMeulen not to print it. “They tried to force me, but in the end, they did the right thing and reshot it,” she says. “It wasn’t nice, but they also did demeaning, stupid stuff with men – I had a boyfriend who had to go out dressed in a gimp suit all day.”

Loaded’s more explicit competitors began to overtake its sales; by 2000, FHM was selling more than 750,000 copies an issue. Hughes recalls: “Other magazines were doing really well because it was tits and arse all the time. There were blazing rows between editorial and commercial, because the publishers wanted sexy girls with no clothes on, like FHM, and the editorial team wanted people who were funny. That was the beginning of the end.” She left soon afterwards.

Loaded started copying its own copycats and it went into this vicious cycle,” says Ellen. Spicer stopped writing her GQ sex column in 1999, but continued to freelance for FHM, Maxim and Loaded. She noticed a change in the content they wanted. “It was stuff like: ‘How to give a good handjob’ – functional sexual content rather than clever writing, and I never wanted to do that. On occasions, it felt to me like a really mild form of prostitution.”

The commercial imperative was clear. Peter Howarth, editor of Esquire magazine from 1996 to 2002, said in 2001 that he would no longer put semi-nude women on the cover as “Hollywood agents loathed and detested men’s magazines and would not put forward their stars for covers.” Sales fell 40%.

The popularity of lads’ mags created a new expectation for female celebrities. Many have spoken out since about their experiences. Presenters such as Fearne Cotton and Gail Porter have said they felt exploited. Cover-girl favourite Melinda Messenger reports being sexually harassed during shoots.

Actors such as Suranne Jones have said they felt they had to do these shoots at the start of their careers. In 2000, Kylie Minogue complained that GQ airbrushed out her underwear from her tennis dress cover shoot.

“It became normal for young TV stars or singers to have to take their clothes off,” says Ellen. “I thought that was horrible. That never used to happen.” In her recent memoir Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success, Miki Berenyi, the singer from indie band Lush, writes about being offered the chance to appear in Loaded to promote her album, but only if she and bandmate Emma Anderson “strip down to bikinis”. She notes: “Plenty of others have no issue with baring the flesh, so why shouldn’t [they] assume that I’m up for it, too?”

In 2002, FHM launched a hugely popular competition called “High street honeys” in which readers could send in titillating photographs of their girlfriends. Nuts magazine launched an online feature called “Assess my breasts”, where women could upload topless photos – with their head cropped out – which readers could vote on.

“It wasn’t just the images, but grotesque ideas and language too,” says Ellen. “Loaded had started as an innovator, a place for humour and liveliness, but it became part of the lads’ mags swamp.”

Natasha Walter, a feminist writer and author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, says: “Before, porn was on the top shelf. These magazines normalised a certain kind of sexism, above all by making it acceptable, with less shame attached.

“This mainstreaming meant it was harder to dissent from. It was very claustrophobic for young women growing up in that culture.”

In 2010, in his agony uncle column in Zoo, the actor Danny Dyer’s advice to a heartbroken reader to get over a breakup was to “cut your ex’s face, and then no one will want her”.

In 2011, a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that people were not able to reliably distinguish between quotes from lads’ mags and statements by convicted rapists. The magazine quotes were taken from articles in Loaded, FHM, Nuts and Zoo and included advice to target “vulnerable women” for “sexual conquest”.

Loaded, FHM and Zoo all closed in 2015. Maxim’s UK edition and Nuts had already ceased printing. Sales had dropped, and the rise of internet porn made the topless photoshoots less of a sell. The lads’ mag era was over.

“It was a 20-year evolution. By the time Nuts and Zoo appeared, it had nothing in common with what early Loaded was like,” says Spicer.

There are signs of a reawakening, a nostalgia, for this culture. This spring, Loaded relaunches as a digital title, with the updated tagline: “For men who know better.”

In January, former Loaded editor Brown said on Instagram that he was in discussions with production companies looking to make a documentary about the print magazine.

But are there any redeeming memories from the lads’ mags era?

“We couldn’t see what was coming over the horizon, with the hypersexualisation and hyperpornification of society,” says Walter.

“But at least with men’s magazines, it was easier to see what they were, who was making it, profiting from it, reading it.”