Chris Sullivan – Rebel Rebel: How Mavericks Made the Modern World

Chris Sullivan is not what you would call a household name. Instantly recognised by the blitz kids and new-romantics fans of yesteryear, this maverick has had his fingers in many iconic pies that defined British Culture, spread it throughout the world and went on to inspire so many rebels.

Blue Rondo a la Turk, the infamous WAG (Whiskey and Go-Go) club and The Blitz are just some of the cultural phenomena Chris Sullivan is known and celebrated for in London. Chris has been and mostly still is a DJ, author, nightclub host, style commentator, pop star, painter, entrepreneur and fashion designer.

But of course, his imprint on culture and views of British youth reaches further than that up until present. Namely, journalist and lifestyle guru Sullivan has helped a lot of publications to international success – I-D, Face, Deluxe, GQ among others.

Chris Sullivan © JOE ALVAREZ

More recently, Chris has been working with the likes of The New European – a niche newspaper founded just after Brexit Referendum and is teaching journalism in Central Saint Martins college in London helping to form the doers of tomorrow. As if that alone wasn’t enough, Chris released his second book called ‘Rebel Rebel Mavericks that made the modern world.’

We caught up with Chris Sullivan to talk about the future of publishing, social media, and mavericks he interviewed throughout his career.

You can buy Chris Sullivan’s new book on Amazon.

Print versus online publishing

I’m teaching journalism at the Central Saint Martins. Last year it was my job to teach them how to launch a magazine from scratch. The features, the layout – the whole kaboom. 90% of them chose print magazine and 98% of them (apart from one person) preferred print to online. They all wanted to have a print magazine. None of them wanted just online magazine at all. Never looked at them. They are all into the magazines like Face and ID – the old stuff. What they said they wanted something to hold, something to read and to keep.

Chris Sullivan © JOE ALVAREZ

They said they don’t do online. And I don’t do online magazines. If there is a particular article – I read this article and I’m off. What we used to have with good newspapers or magazines is you would pick it up and start reading thing you never thought you would be interested in. So, that’s the danger of this big revolution – we’re going to have a vast number of people who’re going to know nothing about anything.

Look at the Evening Standard… it has to be price point issue. If you make it cheap enough, people will read the papers. Because when you go to a newspaper agent and it’s £2.50 for The Guardian – it’s too much.

JA: Well, it’s already happening to a degree, with university degrees where you can’t fail. It’s almost impossible to fail an A level with an almost 99% pass rate. You can get most of the exam wrong and still pass.

CS: You can fail if I’m your teacher.

The rising cost of magazines is an issue

I think if there was a magazine that is really well constructed with lots of great information, it would sell well among the youngest generation.

CS: Most of my students said their grief is with the cost of magazines. No one is buying magazines because they are too expensive. Don’t forget that when the Face started, it was like 50p. It was affordable. When I started with I-D, it was 15p. It was like fanzine. That’s the problem. They are so expensive now – they outreach the very people they are trying to attract.

Look at the Evening Standard… it has to be price point issue. If you make it cheap enough, people will read the papers. Because when you go to a newspaper agent and it’s £2.50 for The Guardian – it’s too much.

So, I asked my students ‘would you buy a magazine?’ They all said ‘yes if it was something worth keeping.’ So, I think there is a point between a magazine that is virtually collectible. Comes out annually and is like a book. It has to be amazing. And then you can charge for that let’s say a tenner. The price is important – I went to a newspaper shop that was closing and some magazines were £25 – £50 a copy. Hold on, who is going to buy that?

I think if there was a magazine that is really well constructed with lots of great information, it would sell well among the youngest generation.

Because every year I do this course and every year around 99% of them would rather have print. So, I believe it’s there it’s just people are not pushing the right buttons.

Reconsidering monetising

JA: It’s sad to see that so few people buy printed magazines. There is a newsagent in Soho that sells all kind of magazines – from floor to ceiling are all various ‘arty’ publications. No one buys them but the publishers and advertisers are happy that there is a hard copy of a magazine. The printed format in publishing -newspapers and magazines- has been on a terminal decline for many years now.

CS: Maybe a different monetising platform would make a difference. Like Kickstarter where people would fund a printed version of a magazine and you send a copy of a magazine to them afterwards.

Chris Sullivan © JOE ALVAREZ

Advertising dictates editorial content

This brought about whole this debate whether advertising should dictate the editorial content, which of course it does nowadays.

CS: The other thing that killed the magazines… When I was at GQ, it started then. My demise at GQ [in 2002 – ed] was that I refused to do what I was told in a way that they wanted me to write about awful stuff. I believe that the ratio of the advertorials and the editorials has to tally. And sometimes I’d get the advertising request: “could you write about this item favourably.” I had 19-pages style section and they would say – could you write a good piece about this watch. And it was horrible. It was ostentatious, it was ugly and expensive. And I said “No, I’m not going to do that…”

Which brought about whole this debate whether advertising should dictate the editorial content, which of course it does nowadays. Only a fool doesn’t believe now that if you read about say L’Oréal moisture and how fantastic it is and out of 16 pages, 2 will be L’Oreal advertising.

I did an interview with an Interview magazine about 5 years ago. I was trying to find my article and it was 166 pages in before there was even any writing.

Magazines lost their identity

CS: So, magazines have lost their integrity. For example, when I was with Face and I-D – there was no advertising so we weren’t governed by that. The magazine was like a youth club where you pass on the information: you should read this book or listen to this record. Because we weren’t governed by sales.

Whereas now the advertising sometimes makes up to 80% of the magazine… I did an interview with an Interview magazine about 5 years ago. I was trying to find my article and it was 166 pages in before there was even any writing.

There was an editor’s letter about 40 pages in and 75% of it was advertising. So perhaps the problem with magazines is GREED. Because the owners try to make as much money as they can and greed ushers any product’s demise, doesn’t it?

Even the magazines that would charge you £25 would still be full of adverts. It’s like if you have a free ads catalogue, you don’t pay to get it – you get it for free.

When I went to teaching, I was expecting students to be 90% in online magazines but all up to the last person they are moaning ‘Where are the great printed magazines’. And they are very vocal about it too.
I took a load of magazines with me starting from 1975 going through some of the earliest style magazines like De Luxe up until as recently as last week – Italian Vogue…

And even the magazines that would charge you £25 would still be full of adverts. It’s like if you have a free ads catalogue, you don’t pay to get it – you get it for free.

So, the greed of the magazine owners – who still want to earn the same money even though the times have changed – leads to them hiring interns to do the job that qualified journalists should be doing and the result is just dreadful.

I bought The Guardian the other week and I couldn’t believe how bad it was. I was thinking to myself: Would you really want me to pay for this?’

JA: Yes, it’s the same with PR and events. They employ kids and interns. It’s a revolving door of lower paid people. They don’t know who is established in the industry and they idolise young inexperienced ‘bloggers’ because that’s who they follow. Yet most bloggers don’t have opinions, don’t investigate anything, don’t probe into products, they’re just yes men. Fakes.

About Social Media

Having 40 thousand followers on Instagram doesn’t make you a writer!

CS: Yes, what I always find funny how people get jobs in major publications because they have 40 thousand followers on Instagram! That doesn’t make you a writer!

Not only that but I asked one young woman recently about all this Instagram fad and she said “I just follow people, look at their photo once and never look again.” So, it doesn’t mean anything anyway. And the same with Twitter. Some people get writers’ jobs with 40 thousand Twitter followers. 9 sentences is not an article, sorry. It’s like saying ‘I made a photograph, now I’m going to make a feature film’.

9 sentences is not an article, sorry. It’s like saying ‘I made a photograph, now I’m going to make a feature film’.

I work for one particular newspaper now that seems to be doing really well. The New European – the anti-Brexit paper. And I also work for one brand new newspaper launched a few weeks ago called Byline Times. That’s completely different because it’s all established writers. Everybody gets paid. There are no interns, nothing like that. I’m doing mainly film articles for them. I was covering film since 2003. Now I was also dragged back into writing about style – for GQ again.

JA: How do you feel about going back to GQ?

CS: Fine, you know, as long as I can add write about quirky stuff. They don’t pay as much as they used to but still.

Rebel Rebel

CS: I did ‘We can be heroes’ book and I wanted to do another book. One day I was looking through my old interviews for inspirations. And as I was reading them, I realized that there is one common running thread among the best of them – these were the real individuals that were just themselves. What I do when I write, I always tragically overwrite. Sometimes I double the word count.

And so, I had an imaginary hard-drive stack of unpublished interviews because they were so large. I put them together and sent them to my publisher John. He thought they were great and so we decided to do a book.

Chris Sullivan © JOE ALVAREZ

Self-awareness stops mavericks

And it was also spurred on by the fact that everybody cut out these days… even big Hollywood actors – they are spending all this time in gym and eat their salad. They are not going out and trying to be so careful about everything. So, that’s another thing.

JA: Yes, I find it very tiring. To be going to film awards and being lectured by actors on identity politics!

CS: I used to go to Cannes Film Festival from 2006 to about 2015 and I stopped because it just doesn’t mean anything anymore. It used to but now it’s just a lot of people poncing around in tuxedos… And the selection of movies is dreadful I think. Because you never heard about these films – no one has and then you have to sit through a few hours of this shit, utter nonsense. And you also get the influx of all these bloggers so I just gave up and don’t waste my time.

A lot of people of my generation say ‘Oh, we must have these bloggers, these Instagrammers. It’s just wrong. Most of the young people are fed up with it.

JA: That’s why I quit London Fashion Week after 36 seasons.

CS: So, a lot of these younger people think that social media is the best thing after sliced bread because they are clueless. They are clutching at straws. A lot of people of my generation say ‘Oh, we must have these bloggers, these Instagrammers. It’s just wrong. Most of the young people are fed up with it.

The kids in Central Saint Martins Martin’s 22 – 23, they think it’s a lot of nonsense as well.
I really believe there will be a reaction against all this very soon. Because I can see it. When you have a lot of clued up young kids like in Saint Martins, who will run the game soon who say ‘No, we had enough, it’s all nonsense,” something will change.

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Chris Sullivan © JOE ALVAREZ

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