Maxim's 'Dennis The Menace'

Publisher Is 21st Century Version Of Hugh Hefner

Some consider Felix Dennis, the publisher of racy men's magazines like Maxim, to be the 21st Century version of Hugh Hefner.

His competitors, however, think of him simply as "Dennis the Menace." That's because his magazines are quickly turning the rarified world of publishing upside down. He's forcing his rivals — GQ, Esquire and others — to become younger, hipper and, well, sexier.

Dennis is a man of gargantuan appetites. He's completely irreverent and totally unapologetic.

Perhaps the best way to introduce you to Dennis is through the pages of Maxim, a men's lifestyle magazine whose motto is "To hell with political correctness … It's time to party!" Correspondent Bob Simon visited Dennis at his home in London last fall.
Life is one big party for Dennis, and it's not that different from the party on the pages of Maxim.

It starts with girls who have more attitude than clothing. And there's bawdy humor, with features on how to meet women at funerals and how to sneak into the Super Bowl. The stories are dreamed up by a staff mostly under the age of 35.

The unique combination of scantily clad women and frat-boy humor has made Maxim, in just six years, the best-selling men's lifestyle magazine in the world. But not everyone gets the joke. Wal-Mart, America's largest retailer, pulled the racy magazine off its shelves.

Simon went to London to meet the 56-year-old controversial publisher. The venue for their first encounter was his local pub.

"When Maxim came to America, the timing was right, and it was just like being the first beer truck in the desert. And that's what we were - the first beer truck in the desert," says Dennis. "This magazine was making fun of you, making fun of the world around you, making fun of itself, and that basically says between every line, 'It's OK to be a guy. We're all like that.'"

It's that kind of irreverence that has delighted his readers and enraged his competitors. Maxim now has almost double the ad revenue and triple the circulation of established men's magazines like Esquire and GQ. But when Maxim first appeared, the editors of those magazines accused Dennis of encouraging readers to behave like cavemen.

Was it periodical envy?

"Look, Maxim came out of nowhere," says Dennis. "It just made all of the editors of American lifestyle magazines for men look like idiots."

But they weren't stupid. GQ and Esquire still pour a lot of energy into quality articles. But nowadays, the magazines look a lot more like Maxim.
Today, Dennis is one of the 50 richest men in all of England. Not bad for a kid who grew up dirt poor in an industrial suburb of London. Simon traveled with Dennis from London to his 16th Century estate in the English countryside.

"It's just a little cottage in the middle of the country. We're peasants here," says Dennis, who owns 1,690 acres of land there, which includes a fish pond, his writer's cottage and a giant chess board.

But what he really wanted to show off was his $8 million leisure center, complete with pirates and pools. For Dennis, it offers conclusive proof that men can still be boys. And for us, it was the perfect place to talk about his treasure.

What does Dennis think he's worth?

"Couldn't be less than, say, $200 or $300 million. Couldn't be more than, say, $600 or 700 million. I don't keep my money for myself. And I don't just mean charity giving. I mean your buddies, your relatives, your friends," says Dennis. "I hose it away on a never-ending basis. And I take enormous pleasure in doing it."

The pursuit of pleasure is something he takes very seriously. He has thousands of bottles, each worth hundreds of dollars, in his wine cellar. He doesn't collect wine -- he drinks it with his friends. We asked Dennis to introduce us to some of them.

"Basically, the people sitting around the table are, all of them, at one time or another, were girlfriends of mine. And some of them still are," says Dennis. "Over here is Nadia. And next door to Nadia is Gayle. And next door to Gayle is Susan … This is my companion, Marie-France. And this is Liza. And this is Allison. And this is Sharon. What we've basically got is the United Nations."

Dennis, who has never married and has no children, is a modern-day Hugh Hefner living the Maxim dream.

"Do you know how much fun it is to have five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 12, beautiful, young ladies around your house for the entire weekend, who are in the mood to party," says Dennis.
When it comes to taste, Dennis has only one rule - the bigger the better. On his estate, he likes to commission giant bronze statues of his personal heroes, including underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, Mohammad Ali, Geronimo, Stephen Hawking and Chuck Berry.

He adds six to 10 sculptures a year to his garden at a cost of $100,000 each. But the one that catches the eye was the one of himself. He's depicted carrying an issue of OZ magazine, the first magazine he ever worked for. Oz was an underground counterculture rag in the '60s and '70s that routinely provoked the British government.

In 1971, Dennis and his two co-editors were put on trial for publishing obscene cartoons. They used the case to tweak the establishment, appearing in court each day in outrageous outfits. Outside the courtroom, their readers, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, took to the streets. But Dennis and his two co-editors were found guilty of distributing obscene articles and sent to jail. Dennis got a lighter sentence than the other two because the judge thought he wasn't very smart.

"His feeling was that, 'You are obviously the least intelligent of the three. And have been led astray by these other two highly educated men and I'm giving you a lighter sentence,'" recalls Dennis. "Those were his words in court."

Even though the sentence was later overturned, the insult haunted Dennis. But it didn't stop him. He decided to start another magazine. He called it Kung Fu Monthly. It was his first commercial success. Over the years, he went on to publish 40 other magazines. Today, 25 million people read a Dennis Publishing magazine each month.
His larger-than-life persona fueled his success, but it almost destroyed him. Beyond the excessive spending, women and wine, he became a drug addict, spending more than $2,000 a day on crack cocaine. It's the only part of his life he regrets.

"It kills you, it absolutely kills you. You feel your health just deteriorate. It leads to paranoid fantasies. So, you find yourself wandering around your own house, you know, with a hammer saying, 'When the CIA comes in that window, I'm really gonna give 'em one,'" says Dennis.

"You know, and then, you're looking-- you're looking and you're thinking, 'Hammers? CIA? Windows? You know, something is wrong here, buddy, you know?' And you're in trouble."

When he quit cold turkey five years ago, he almost died. It was then when he picked up what he calls his new addiction, writing poetry.

William Shakespeare, beware. Dennis the Menace is trying to bring poetry back to the masses. He was invited to read some of his poems in the bard's hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon. To encourage the masses to come, he's offering them free wine - very expensive free wine. It's all part of what he calls the "Did I mention the free-wine tour?"

"I am a poet, Bob. I'm a damn good poet," says Dennis. "I may be one of the best poets of the first quarter of the 21st Century."

Dennis' first volume of poetry, "A Glass Half Full," makes its debut in the United States this fall.

For Dennis, modesty is overrated, especially when it comes to some of his more serious poems. Simon read one stanza from Dennis' poem, "Never Go Back."

"'Never go back, never go back. never surrender the future you've earned. Keep to the track, to the beaten track...'"

"'Never return to the bridges you burned,'" adds Dennis. "No, I don't ever return to the bridges I burned. Don't spend a lot of time looking back myself."
In fact, Dennis looks the other way - forward. And today, he's looking forward to the most grandiose project of his life. He has already planted tens of thousands of saplings in fields across the English countryside. They will grow into what he is calling "The Forest of Dennis."

"In my mind, I don't think I'll manage to get more than 20,000 acres done. But in my mind, I'd like to do 50," says Dennis. "It's the biggest forest in England."

And how will he pay for it? Dennis revealed he plans to sell Dennis Publishing, the publishing empire he spent a lifetime building.

Is this a way of giving back some of the riches that he's acquired? Or is this a massive ego trip?

"Let's say it's a little of both," says Dennis.
  • Rebecca Leung

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