Media

Giving Offence

Gavin McInnes co-founded Vice magazine. As it got big, he got ousted

From the September 2011 magazine
Illustration by Dennis Chow

Imagine the older brother you never had. He does all the things big brothers do: makes you feel lame, then bequeaths you his jokes; tells you that you’ll never have sex, then teaches you how to go about it; calls your friends losers, then lets you hang out with his. For me and hundreds of thousands of others my age (I’m in my mid-twenties), this was Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice, a monthly magazine that was started in Montreal in 1994. His street fashion column, Dos and Don’ts, turned us off Birkenstocks and dreadlocks on white people; his “Guide to Anal Sex” answered questions we could ask no one else; his “Guide to All the Races” made us laugh uncomfortably.

As the editorial architect of Vice, his philosophy was “never bore,” so the magazine published articles about subjects that young people find compelling (namely, sex, drugs, and music). But the magazine’s voice—funny, blunt, and inflammatory—was more important than its content, and Vice made its name by printing the unprintable about gender, race, and sexuality. This was partly political; being polite about social problems, McInnes believes, only allows them to fester. But mostly it was in his nature: he is a contrarian in a politically correct world. Gavin McInnes, forty-one, has devoted his life to recapturing the moment when he first said “fuck” in front of an adult.

McInnes is no longer involved with Vice; he and his two partners split in 2008 over creative differences. For legal reasons, he can’t discuss the details, but he has hinted that he sold his shares for a handsome sum—and since then he has been working full time at being Gavin McInnes. And he works hard at it. My request for an interview elicited an instant response, and when we meet at his office in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood (coincidentally, on the day of the “worst hangover” of his life), he tosses me plenty of sound bites. Greeting me in Keds and a sweatshirt, he introduces his researcher, Bob (“This young lady is writing a profile about me because I’m fucking amazing. Has anyone written a profile about you, Bob? ”), and fishes me out a copy of Gavin McInnes Is a Fucking Asshole, a DVD of his comedy sketches (retail value: $10, including shipping).

At Mustang Sally’s, a bar down the street, he makes a number of penis jokes, touching on Nick Nolte’s rumoured testicular surgery (“Talk about polishing a turd”) and his own issues with circumcision (“You never get a rational argument for it. The biggest one is ‘I think he’d want his penis to look like his dad’s.’ Why? For when we go penis modelling together? ”). He also recounts pranks he’s played: after losing Gawker’s online Hipster of the Decade contest, he sent the gossip website a video of himself eating a bowl of cornflakes soaked in his own urine, apparently in protest. In fact, he had eaten the urine-soaked cornflakes months earlier.

As McInnes says several times, he is the same person he has always been. At his best, he is exhilarating, at his worst tiresome. He is often funny, but his material sometimes resembles a tumorous mass of F-bombs and AIDS jokes. His former partners, Suroosh Alvi and Shane Smith, claim to have rejected the latter part. And the company has done exceptionally well in McInnes’s absence: today it encompasses an international network of contributors (many of whom grew up on Vice); VBS, an online television network co-launched with Viacom; and Virtue, an advertising agency. While it still publishes a magazine—circulation 1.16 million worldwide—it also produces videos about Africa, the Middle East, and skateboarding. And if Levi’s comes looking for some co-branding, Vice will farm out a few of its contributors to produce videos about the American workingman and his jeans.

In April, the company was the beneficiary of a reported $50-million-plus investment from communications leviathan WPP; the Raine Group, an investment bank; and former Viacom CEO Tom Freston. It will use the money to build more and better facilities for in-house content production, and to beam it onto laptops in Brazil and mobile phones in China. “Having this group aboard is like having a rocket strapped to your skateboard,” said Smith in a press release. “When they turn on the jets, you’re in for a hell of a ride.”

This is language—the language of public relations—that McInnes probably wouldn’t approve of.

Smith and mcinnes met as kids in the suburbs of Ottawa, first as dinner guests (their fathers worked together as engineers in IT), and then in the local punk scene, where they played in bands like Leatherassbuttfuck and Anal Chinook. Both were rambunctious, and where they grew up culture was a gruel of Hinterland Who’s Who Canadiana. After earning a degree in political science at Carleton University, Smith ran off to Europe, where he claims to have made a small fortune selling currency. McInnes devoted himself to punk, as much a cult as a style, while working toward a BA in English literature at Carleton, and later at Concordia. After finishing university, he stayed in Montreal, where he published a zine called Pervert.

At the time, Alvi, a McGill philosophy grad, was recovering from heroin addiction and starting a job at a community newspaper called Voice of Montreal, funded through a welfare-to-work program. McInnes came on board through a mutual friend, and the two decided to make the paper their soapbox. Needing someone to sell ads, McInnes called Smith, who sold them by any means necessary. Even today, Smith’s ambition pulls the company along like a grappling hook. “He would get really drunk and talk into my ear like, ‘We’re gonna be huge,’ ” says McInnes. “He would do that to everyone I know, actually.”

The two were symbiotic: one applied the same energy to selling the paper as the other did to making it interesting. Meanwhile, Alvi served as a kind of fulcrum between two hyperboles. The three of them bought it from its owners in 1996, renaming it Vice and taking it national by contacting acquaintances at radio stations, record labels, and cafés across the country, with whom they bartered ads for help with distribution (Canada, while vast, is also very small). The country had never seen anything like Vice—a free, national counterculture magazine—and the founders knew it. Nor did they make any effort to hide their ambition; in languid Montreal, in pinko Canada, ambition was a rebellion unto itself. “This is the first time young people have had a revolution that involves them getting paid,” McInnes told the National Post in 1999. “Everyone else was about rebelling against the man and eating beans.”

In 1998, playing a game of “bullshit the press,” Smith told a Montreal Gazette reporter that Richard Szalwinski, of the new media company Behaviour (which had recently acquired Shift magazine), wanted to invest in Vice. Szalwinski had never even heard of Vice, but the ploy got his attention, and he eventually became a partner, buying 25 percent for a reported $750,000. Suddenly in the money, McInnes, Alvi, and Smith decamped to Manhattan, where Szalwinski put them up in a sprawling loft in Chelsea and encouraged them to spend more than they made. Smith and McInnes, who had lived together in their former offices on Montreal’s McGill Street, bought a mountain property in Costa Rica.

Soon afterward, the dot-com bubble burst, the office Internet connection went down, and Szalwinski went missing. The three founders hunted him down in Nantucket and bought back his interest in the company for less than he’d paid for it. But despite its growing clout, Vice was still broke, so Alvi and Smith threw themselves into the business of publishing while McInnes, who wanted nothing to do with it, holed up in editorial. “Those guys had a real struggle, trying to get people to buy ads and market the Vice brand,” he says. “I was still writing the Vice ‘Guide to Eating Pussy’ and having a great time.”

After long days in the office, McInnes freshened up with drugs and went out in search of content. New York had more of it than Montreal did, and better contributors, too: Tim Barber and Ryan McGinley, who established the magazine’s visual identity (nudity a staple); Lesley Arfin and Amy Kellner, who proved that feminists can be funny; comedians like David Cross and Sarah Silverman; and cult figures like gay filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, and Jim Goad, whose zine, ANSWER Me!, had been a big influence. While Alvi and Smith expanded the business internationally—courting the “weirdo dollar” in every country to avoid having to kowtow to mainstream America—McInnes became the public face of the magazine. His voice gave Alvi and Smith something to sell, but his knack for saying the worst possible thing gave them headaches.

The first sign of a serious fissure between sales and editorial came in 2003, the year the New York Times finally noticed Vice. “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be very proud of,” McInnes told the reporter. “I don’t want our culture diluted.” The newspaper used the words “white supremacist” to describe his views. Smith and Alvi were furious, and, on their behalf, McInnes wrote a public apology by way of a letter to Gawker, claiming he was just kidding.

People often wonder whether McInnes is racist or just ironically so. The short answer is that his intellect and his bluster are concentric: his politics have crept from left to right over the years, but he has always expressed them with “knee-jerk liberals” in mind. He offends instinctively, and offence ratchets up; “cunt” becomes necessary where “fuck” would once have sufficed. Two years later, McInnes’s op-eds for the far-right website VDARE—more of the same, really, but in a touchier venue—appeared with a disclaimer that threw to the New York Times piece.

By this time, the Vice brand was sufficiently entrenched to attract attention from big time investors. MTV, a division of Viacom, backed the company’s first movie, The Vice Guide to Travel, in 2006. Alvi and Smith began taking advice from the company’s executives. For his part, McInnes—who married in 2005—was producing interesting reading (the Kill Your Parents Issue righteously took down the boomers, and the Cops Issue gave credit where it was due), but his reputation presumably would not have inspired trust in potential partners.

In 2006, Vice began reorganizing its headquarters in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, creating, among other things, an executive section for the founders. That year, McInnes, whose wife had given birth to their first child, took a short leave of absence. When he returned, he found Smith and Alvi snug in their new office—with no place for him beside them. “The idea was, we want you to sit with editorial, because that’s basically what you do,” says Derrick Beckles, a former Vice jack of all trades. “Which I guess logically makes sense. But then why wasn’t Shane [Smith] with the sales guys? ”

Soon afterward, Wired magazine reported that McInnes’s role had been “greatly diminished,” and quoted Smith on his headstrong colleague’s “personal notoriety for dealing with race issues.” Smith continued, “This is not what we’re about, it’s never what we’ve been about, and it’s not the way we want to go.” There was heartache, and then there were lawyers. After a year and a half, McInnes was gone. Some former Vice contributors—many left after McInnes’s departure, out of solidarity and a lack of work for the old guard—say that the salespeople took over in the aftermath. “There’s not a lot of room for humour or creativity, if you’ve got it, when you’re selling soap,” says Beckles, who now runs a website with McInnes called Street Carnage. “They’re selling a lot of soap these days.”

Vice kind of felt like this autonomous little scene, this little engine that could,” Beckles says, recalling the Viacom deal. “Now the engine is dating this giant engine that can’t. I don’t think anybody had a sense that MTV was going to make MTV like Vice. The engine that can’t is just gonna sit on the engine that could one day without looking—oh shit, ow!” Nevertheless, Vice is as successful as its founders, McInnes included, always intended it to be.

After mcinnes left, Vice hired a communications director, Alex Detrick, who was once press secretary to future New York governor Andrew Cuomo and one of Page Six Magazine’s “power flacks.” I meet him at Vice’s corporate headquarters in Williamsburg, where he and a project manager show me several info reels before leading me upstairs to their bosses.

The company’s boardroom is Brobdingnagian, an exposed-brick hunting lodge with maroon leather furniture, two chandeliers, and a stuffed grizzly bear posed against a forest mural. Alvi and Smith enter in pea coats, scarves, and gold rings and watches, and assume matching poses on their respective couches. “The bear attacked a crew when they were shooting at the North Pole,” Smith says, raising dirty grey sneakers onto the coffee table. “So they had to shoot it.” He has served as the company’s spokesperson since McInnes’s departure, and he hosted its MTV series, The Vice Guide to Everything, last season.

He and Alvi talk about their latest successes. In 2010, Vice partnered with Intel for the Creators Project, a digital media website and arts festival, which in turn has partnered with Coachella, one of the world’s most popular music festivals. In March, they started a live music website called Noisey. Alvi and Smith—who had the foresight to expand across platforms early on—have designs on becoming the world’s largest youth media company. Apparently, MTV is just the starting point.

Vice is now more about content than voice, and the content, as always, is guided by a philosophy of “Whoa, dude!” VBS makes current affairs kid friendly: Smith plays pool in North Korea and hangs out with warlords in Liberia; Alvi tours gun markets in Pakistan. CNN was impressed; in 2009 it formed a content-sharing partnership. (“They have an unvarnished way of telling stories,” the cable network told the New York Times.) Last fall, an instalment from the Vice Guide to Travel DVD made it onto a Columbia University syllabus. (A teaching assistant told me in an email, “I got the distinct sense that the students couldn’t figure out why this film had been made, what anyone would get out of it, or why we had watched it in class.”)

“Growing up in our parallel universes, when we didn’t know each other, we were both part of the International Socialists,” says Alvi, who offers little during the interview but maintains the presence of a bald eagle when I ask about their new priorities: “We didn’t have the resources to report globally, and now we do.”

“People think that because Suroosh and I run Vice that we get the best stories or whatever,” Smith interjects, going on to explain the democratic nature of VBS’s “most popular” bar. “I don’t get a show because I’m the guy from Vice,” he continues. “They tested it. And I saw the testing. It was like, is the host too old? Does the host’s age offend you? And we tested through the fucking roof. I never set out to be this guy, and I don’t think Suroosh did either, but against all odds we became the most popular spokespeople for the brand. And it’s not because we chose the choicest plums; we don’t get the choicest plums—”

“Sorry, getting back to your question,” says Alvi, reinserting himself. “They told us that the average age of people watching news in America skewed at fifty-five or something like that, and there were all these execs going, ‘How come our kids don’t watch news? ’ That’s kind of what The Vice Guide to Travel came out of.” It’s a matter of maturity, he explains. “And we get to partner with Coachella for the Creators Project, so it’s kind of like having your cake and eating it, too.”

“When we announce—and, by the way, you should watch this stuff, because when we announce all the stuff we’re doing this year, it’s gonna be fucking ridiculous,” Smith adds. “So you can put all that shit in [your story]. We’re working with the top artists in the fucking world.”

Mcinnes can’t talk about the split in anything but general terms. “It happens with two-thirds of marriages and 98 percent of bands,” he says. “Usually, both sides feel like they got fucked over, and that’s actually a sign of a good negotiation. Which is why, by the way, I’ve always said it should be illegal to have an abortion after two months. Because it’s a bean for two months, and then it starts to get humany. But that’s how I know it’s a good solution, because the pro-choice people hate it, and the pro-life people hate it.” David Cross, an actor/comedian and a close friend, says the breakup was difficult to witness: “I think, more than anything, it was like a little kid who was betrayed. Sure, there’s a sense of anger and loss and propriety about the thing you co-created, but I think at its core it was ‘I can’t believe my friends are fucking me over for some money.’ ”

McInnes now has other things on the go: a number of TV series, for starters, although he “will never get a show on mainstream television, because my sense of humour is totally incompatible.” (As I write this, he has development deals at various stages with FX, BBC America, and Current.) He writes sketches, which are branded through Rooster, a company he owns with his manager, Sebastian Eldridge. As McInnes explains it, his job is to write jokes—“It’s the only way to do comedy these days, because networks won’t buy it”—and Eldridge’s job is to sell them. It sounds a lot like Virtue, but the crucial difference, at least when it comes to McInnes, is that at Rooster editorial always wins. He is also working on a memoir (to be published next year by Scribner), which he calls “the best thing I’ve ever done.” It is not about Vice.

Jim Goad, who visited him briefly in April, says that in Williamsburg McInnes is like Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer: a person most people know, many are fond of, but few would want as a roommate. Williamsburg is a breeding ground for the Vice subculture. People call its members “hipsters” (the word is normally intended as a slur, although those who use it often fit the description), and every hipster knows McInnes, even if he’s not a household name elsewhere. You don’t become famous in the late-night talk show sense of the word when your thing is saying whatever you want to say, and when you don’t want that to change.

Eldridge, who has joined McInnes and me at Mustang Sally’s, orders another round, along with a plate of fries, which McInnes deems “shitty.” Eldridge interjects only a little as McInnes tells stories about threesomes in Montreal peep show booths and the pleasures of traditional marriage. “I’m a shit stirrer,” McInnes says. “I think that’s a Scottish thing. We like fucking with people. It’s kind of pub culture. You’ve got a buzz, and you take the opposite position of everyone, just to get some conversation going. And some people don’t like that.”

“Because most people aren’t drunk all the time,” says Eldridge.

A month and a half later, the New York Times announces Vice’s new investors. McInnes doesn’t say much about it, except to point out that while the story mentions the three friends who started the magazine, the photograph is of Smith, Alvi, and executive creative director Eddy Moretti. I ask him how he feels. “None of my beeswax,” he says.

Subscribe to The Walrus Donate to the Walrus Foundation