Sophisticated men, and men’s magazines

A sort-of defense of the decent kind of men’s magazines.

Long-exposure streaks of lights from an urban road at night.

I recently had to spend a night out in the city, waiting for the sunrise. It was already past midnight, and on a whim I boarded a bus to Makati. Nowadays, these buses with brightly-lit cabins ply the city’s highways all night. Other souls were shuffling on and off the bus, going around the metropolis for leisure or for labor; it was hard to tell which, here in the offshore-outsourcing capital of the world. They all looked impatient, in any case.

Up until a year ago, I worked graveyard hours in Makati myself, and I’ve memorized the night-time pulse of its wealthy streets. The place always feels safe, even in the most ungodly hour. On a weekend, it is even serene, but not dead. Every turn of the district is illuminated by lights spilling out of innumerable convenience stores; every intersection, by the blinking of traffic lights.

I planned to kill the time by reading in some 24/7 restaurant, picturing myself like Mari Asai in Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, digesting a hardbound at a Denny’s in Tokyo. I didn’t have a book with me then, however, so I dropped by a Ministop and grabbed the current issue of Esquire from the magazine rack. I had to stand and wait a few moments in front of the cashier before the sleepy clerk, who was catching up on some shut-eye, sensed my presence.

As I was paying for the magazine then, and later, as I was settling in a side table at a McDonald’s, unwrapping my glossy magazine, I wondered if the clerk or the few wanderers at the fastfood joint thought anything about me, the young man found guilty holding a copy of Esquire. It was of course highly unlikely that anyone minded at all, but I still remember the first time I bought a ‘men’s magazine’.

It was in September, three years ago, and the talk of the magazine town then was the Esquire-exclusive release of the first songs, in over a decade, by the Eraserheads. The Eraserheads’ fame is such that they’re often called the Beatles of the Philippines. (An unfair metaphor, by the way, but admittedly useful.) They had been doing reunion tours overseas, and the then-editor-in-chief of Esquire Philippines, Erwin Romulo, visited the group’s London show. With some encouragement from the editor, the group decided to reunite in the studio and produce two brand-new songs, which ended up being released through a CD tucked inside every September 2014 copy of Esquire Philippines.

I didn’t want to miss out on having a copy of that CD, but I was also apprehensive of buying a ‘men’s magazine’; I didn’t know better, even then. I went ahead and tried to discreetly buy one. At least, I thought, the cover didn’t have some woman baring her soul, like on all the other men’s magazines on the rack. Esquire’s cover instead had the Eraserheads in London, mimicking The Beatles on Abbey Road.

I loved the songs, the pedestrian nostalgia of Sabado and 1995. I enjoyed Romulo’s rather intimate essay about the band’s London trip. I delighted in discovering the magazine’s Notes & Essays section, which feature literary pieces by reputable writers. And then a friend just had to tease me: so, have you been ‘reading’ the rest of the magazine?, she asked me. When I confidently replied in the affirmative, she was both aghast and incredulous. She thought it was a sleazy publication, and I had just shamelessly admitted to perusing it.

A sleazy publication, the Esquire is definitely not. That’s what I realized, when I read through my first issue, and when I started picking up the magazine in barbershops and cafés. My Catholic schooling taught me to stay away (at least publicly) from all glossy pages published for men’s pleasure. What I didn’t know was that there were two kinds of men’s magazines: those that featured a lot of women, objectified them, and served a petty side dish of culture; or those that featured a large dose of culture, and projected sophistication, yet inevitably still admired women—but with dignity. Esquire, and a few other publications, belong to the latter. Their content apparently revolves around three themes: culture, style, and women.

Consider the latest issue I read. It begins with a letter from the editor—who happens to be currently a woman, Kristine Fonacier. These magazines are for men, but they are not exclusively by men. In this month’s note, she recalls visiting and being awed by Chicago’s Sears Tower when it was still the tallest building in the world. She goes on musing about Ozymandias and other inspiring structures, and ends with the idea that men build these wonders as a means to immortality. She talks about these without a direct reference to any of the issue’s contents. That’s cool; that’s sophistication. It took me a while to realize that the piece was alluding to the cover story, about property empire heir Robbie Antonio, and his latest “obsession” with revolutionizing pre-fab homes.

Notes & Essays remains my favorite section in Esquire. These articles are always stimulating, often written in great prose. Which should not be surprising, given they’re often contributed by novelists and academics and other people of letters. This month’s notes include an anonymous Zamboangueño’s reflections on his city’s history of conflict, and an economic researcher’s confession of guilt about privilege in the face of widespread poverty. These are the writings that changed my perception of the magazine’s place in literature. Or rather, corrected my misconception: I’m too young, after all, and I missed the heyday of the Philippines Free Press and all those publications that were not only true guardians of Filipino literature, but were in fact its workhorses, its primary messengers.

Women grace these magazines, not adorn them. There is no gratuitous centerfold. Their portraits are meant for a kind of liberated but dignified veneration. The interviews serve to bare their life philosophies, not to ferret out what their sex fantasies are and other salacious revelations. This month’s Esquire has Mona Lisa Neuboeck, a surfer, model, vegan chef, and many other persons in one. She is photographed in a two-piece swimsuit, nothing less; the photographer aims to capture her whole, sun-kissed person. The interviewer, quite helpless, cannot avoid commenting about her striking presence the first time he met her. But they start the real work soon, and Neuboeck matter-of-factly reveals the scars underneath her admirable woman-of-now veneer, as if she was in a hurry to humanize her personality. The dark revelation: her Austrian father was an abusive man, but she does not blame him as a person, she blames his generation. “My dad passed away at the age of 90,” she said, “so he was born in 1926, which means he was in the Hitler Youth.” The interviewer was stunned.

The funny thing about these magazines is, after all the wisdom, thoughtfulness, and socio-political awareness, they still belong to, aspire or project a certain milieu—the sophisticated, wealthy, man of leisure. In the 2007 Hitman movie, Agent 47’s companion finds magazines in his car. “These articles are full of shit, why do you buy these magazines?,” she asks, to which the stylish assassin replies, “For the advertisements.”

Advertisements of Swiss watches, Italian furniture, and British boots. Pages of ‘style guides’ where the for-work suits have price tags in the tens of thousands of pesos, and the for-leisure denims cost not much less. It is quite the contradiction that these luxury goods are merely a page-turn away from a confession of bourgeois privilege guilt. As contradictory and complex as society itself, in reality, outside of glossy pages.

The final pages of the magazine have a model brandishing an assortment of blue color-themed outfits. My eyes wandered to the background of the photoshoot, and I recognized the buildings I used to stare at, when I was still working in one of Makati’s skyscrapers. I found it a little funny that the magazine I’m holding did its photoshoots on a rooftop only a few minutes’ walk away from where I was reading it. It felt like a geographic kind of vanity.

I looked up and saw the blue tint of twilight on the streets. The Makati of the magazine was still on my mind—a city of finely-dressed men—when I walked out into the real Makati, a gently-stirring city of sleepy clerks and sweaty middle-aged joggers greeting the light of a weekend morning.

Colorful skyline view of Makati City at dawn.

Photos by the author.


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