Back then it was ‘different’, right? How many of us were part of it?

image shows FHM covers from the 90s era

Georgia Lewis scrutinises her own time at FHM in the wake of the Brand debacle

“Back then it was different,” say those who are nostalgic for the days of racist sitcoms, Mr Humphries being free-passing for LGBT representation, and women’s arses being fair game for pinching at work.

In that context, “back then” ended sometime around 1985 with the last episode of Are You Being Served? But now, as Russell Brand claims everything was consensual during his days of promiscuity, “back then” has fast-forwarded to the noughties.

This was the era of lads’ mags and ladettes. When the glorification of shagging and boozing and not caring about your cocaine’s supply chain provided the sordid soil in which Brand’s career grew.

This was the era of lads’ mags and ladettes… the glorification of shagging and boozing and not caring about your cocaine’s supply chain

At the time, I was in my ludicrously misspent twenties, ending that debauched decade by working on the Australian edition of FHM and writing a weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald, before moving to Dubai. Apart from not seeing a flake of coke anywhere, Dubai was not quite the men-and-merlot detox people who had never set foot in the Middle East said it would be.

Photo: Eva Rinaldi

Marina Hyde recently reflected in The Guardian about how she could have done better “back then.” Particularly regarding comments she made about Georgina Baillie, the granddaughter of Andrew Sachs. Baillie’s name has been forgotten by many, but she was at the centre of the 2008 Sachsgate scandal.

Hyde looked back on what she wrote at that time with mortification and regret. She described Brand and Jonathan Ross as scumbags for calling Sachs, just so Brand could boast about having sex with Baillie, egged on by Ross. But she also mocked those who complained to Ofcom, and wrote that Baillie should stop banging on about it.  And – and this bit was conspicuous by its absence from the mea culpa – sneeringly criticised a piece Baillie wrote for The Sun, and used ‘Satanic Slut’ (a reference to Baillie’s Voluptua the Satanic Slut burlesque character) as a demeaning insult.

I was completely unaware that the prank caused Baillie to spiral into addiction

Living in Dubai at the time, Sachsgate didn’t get saturation coverage on the heavily censored local media. But we didn’t exist in a total bubble. I had a laugh about it with my flatmate at the time. I was completely unaware that the prank caused Baillie to spiral into addiction. She didn’t speak to her grandfather for eight years. That is time she can never get back.

Read interview with Jon Stewart of Sleeper: why we’re better now than we were in the 90s

This got me thinking about my time at FHM. It was an era of stereotypically working and playing hard. Of spending most of my time with my colleagues either in the office, at parties, or in the pub.

Georgia Lewis at work in Dubai

How complicit was I, a mere sub editor, in contributing to the culture that allowed – or still allows – alleged sexual predators to hide in plain sight?

I was part of a magazine best known for photographs of women wearing not very much. It can be easily argued that such content is inherently sexist, pandering to the male gaze. Even though the women were always aged 18 or over and consented to the shoots.

When it came to headlines, captions, and content, pretty much anything was fair game for a joke. Apart from rape or paedophilia. I can’t say for certain that racist or homophobic content never made it through the net, but I’d need to dig through the back issues that are probably lurking at my parents’ house 10,000 miles away to check.

As well as sub-editing layouts, I compiled the sex pages. Assorted adult toy tests, one staff writer plunged his bits into a tub of some sort of sex custard to fill a paragraph. Naked Barbie and Ken dolls photographed demonstrating human pretzel sex positions. That actually attracted the ire of Mattel, as FHM was published by the same company that had the contract for Barbie magazine. But po-faced legal letters were water off a duck’s back.

FHM was inundated with women keen to appear in the magazine… was I exploiting women..?

I thought hard about the monthly shoot and sex discussions I oversaw. Back then it was different! FHM was inundated with women keen to appear in the magazine. I never struggled to find models willing to pose in swimwear or lingerie for a shoot before I took them to the pub on expenses to chat about a sex topic. Was I exploiting women eager to boost their careers by getting them to talk about everything from foreplay to whether older or younger men were better in bed. While getting them a bit drunk after posing in next to nothing?

There was always a lot of laughter at the pub, everyone had plenty to say and when the magazine came out. I received delighted emails from the participants. One model is still a friend, although she did confide in me years later about how a young, cocky intern she met via FHM behaved inappropriately, grinding his pelvis against her in an unwanted advance. I wish she’d told me at the time, and I hope I would have done something about it.

I’m sure that not everything we wrote has aged well. It feels weird to have been part of the latest “back then it was different.”

The one incident that sticks in my mind is a harassment complaint from an entrant in FHM’s Girlfriend of the Year modelling competition. In the analogue early noughties, hopeful young women would often send photos by post, so the retouch artists had to laboriously scan loads of pics for the mag. One entrant received multiple phone calls from a retoucher, who saw her number on the back of her photo. I am pleased to report the retoucher (what a damn job title…) was fired. And nobody felt sorry for him, or blamed the entrant for being a scantily clad temptress.

I’m sure that not everything we wrote has aged well. It feels weird to have been part of the latest “back then when things were different.” Although some of the worst things I wrote in that era were in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I remember a clumsily worded column about bowel cancer versus breast cancer. And a ridiculously unsisterly rant about married female colleagues complaining that their husbands wanted sex all the time, while my own personal life was a car crash. I am relieved these columns seem to have vanished with the Herald’s website’s multiple redesigns.

But this week’s events gave me pause for thought. My tiny part in “back then” was miles away from Russell Brand, working on a magazine that was more interested in Shane Warne than the creepy, thesaurus-swallowing booky wooky author. But it was part of lad culture in a faraway country that will probably always glorify toxic masculinity to some degree. I won’t lose any sleep over it now, but I agree with Marina Hyde that we can all do better, and get things right this time.

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About Georgia Lewis
In a career that has spanned Australia, the Middle East and the UK, Georgia has written about all sorts of things, including sex, cars, food, oil and gas, insurance, fashion, travel, workplace safety, health, religious affairs, glass and glazing... When she's not writing words for fun and profit, she can usually be found with a glass of something French and red in her hand.

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