When Loaded magazine hit British newsstands in 1994, it ushered in a cultural phenomenon. It rescued 20-somethings from the touchy-feely, cardigan-wearing doctrines of 'New Sensitive Man', only to plunge them in to the bleary misconception that was 'New Lad'. A chaotic whirl of scantily clad women, booze, clothes and gadgets, Loaded suggested the playboy lifestyle was accessible for all.
The winning formula was lapped up and cloned everywhere, with new titles popping up like acne during the 1990s. HIM magazine surfaced two years ago to provide a localised version of the template and in the process, become Hong Kong's biggest-selling men's monthly. Kelvin Kwok is the magazine's managing editor, and he has been quietly charting a media revolution.
'Most men's magazines in Hong Kong are just fashion magazines. Our magazine is for the 100 per cent red-blooded male,' he asserts, stirring three sugars into his coffee. 'Two years ago we hadn't really gone down that route yet. We had local actresses on the cover but they weren't willing to take their clothes off for the camera. Because of this, the magazine wasn't exciting enough. We had to change course.'
Inspired by the seismic shifts in British publishing, the 34-year-old Chinese University graduate decided that the demure celebrities needed to be replaced. 'We could see where the big titles like FHM and Loaded were going, which was too far towards soft porn. There's a fine line, but the pictures were no longer sexy, just crude. We realised that we had plenty of fantastic looking girls here who would be willing to do some sexy photo shoots. According to focus group sessions with our readers, this was what they wanted. After all, they could always buy a Western mag here, but not one with local girls.'
And so HIM was sculpted to provide that sense of playboy living to your average Hong Kong Joe. Beautiful women, gadgets, cars, where to party, what to wear - all the essential elements are there. Yet what Kwok really wants is to persuade more local celebrities to adopt the ways of their Western counterparts, who work in a sphere where provocative photo shoots are regarded as high-profile exposure (in more ways than one) for up-and-coming starlets. Stars such as J Lo or Kylie Minogue have used their opportunities for all they're worth, and you only need to follow the example of Aussie pop star Holly Valance (who seemed to appear in the buff at every given opportunity last year) to realise how marketing principles are more blatant than ever.
Kwok realises cultural differences still make that a bit of a no-no in Hong Kong. 'There are two issues for local stars. Essentially, they're worried that after they take their clothes off they may have a bad image, instead of profile enhancement. There's also a confidence issue - there's the perception that the local media is not established in terms of being 100 per cent professional at the moment, especially after what happened at Eastweek magazine. We want to change the perspective on both of these. You can be sexy without being graphic. Most women's magazines are like this, after all.'
While it may take time to shape celebrity conservatism into a racier perspective, Kwok is confident the seeds have already been sown. 'We recently did a photo shoot with [actor] Simon Yam [Tat-wah] in the hot tub with semi-naked girls. He'd never done a shoot like that before, but he had belief in what we wanted to do, and didn't fear that it could be perceived in a negative light. Yes, of course he loved it.'
Disappointingly, Kwok is determined to play down any playboy pretensions that could be foisted on him. 'I didn't go out once last weekend. I was writing a short story. I love writing ghost stories, you see.'