As the mag announces its closure after 18 years, an ex-staffer remembers her time there in all its perverse glory.
Who can say they nearly got their boss sacked for writing a feature on menstruation porn? Who can win pub chats with tales of interviewing a dude from Hull who fantasises about being cannibalised by women in angora sweaters? Who suffers at least one sleepless night a week due to flashbacks from researching videos of men shoving live worms down their bellends? Me, that's who.
Writing for alternative culture magazine Bizarre has given me and my comrades enough effed up brain material to last a lifetime. But after 18 years of newsagents across the land muttering things like, "Where the fuck do I put a magazine with a Charles Manson blow-up doll giveaway on the front cover?", the freak show has been run out of town.
The first issue of Bizarre went out in February 1997. It was hailed as Britain's first alternative publication and its job was to muscle into a mag scene dominated by the likes of Loaded and Maxim cracking the lad culture whip over Donna Air's back. "It was a more extreme Fortean Times, a brasher Sky, a weirder FHM," says former Deputy Editor, Kate Hodges. "It covered the counterculture and the counter-counter-culture. It was the only place you could read an interview with Edward Bunker next to an A-Z of voodoo, followed by a poster of a pin-up dressed in an inflatable, latex frog head."
The internet spoils us now. You can search "Lactation Porn" and get 1,530,000 Google results in under 0.33 seconds. But remember, kids, there was a time when you couldn't hunt down a snap of a milky tit fuck for love nor money. For a while, Bizarre was the only British publication brave enough to dedicate whole features to topics like this and delve unflinchingly into the underworld of pretty much everything your mother warned you about.
Jonathan Ross and Kevin Smith were fans, Louis Theroux and Courtney Love wrote for us, Vic Reeves drew for us and, allegedly, Charles Bronson perused our pages in the clink. We built an incredible family of regular contributors, like trans porn pioneer, Buck Angel, Lauren Harries and Harold Ivey, a kindly pensioner who lived in the Biloxi woods and wore ridiculous leather outfits.
"If you'd ever flicked through Bizarre in passing, you might have thought it was weird, gross, shocking, or all of the above," says former Production Editor, El Goodman. "But if you paid attention to the ink on its pages, you'd realise that, like all good magazines, it was about people and their stories. We covered weightier subjects, such as the practical, emotional and financial aspects of what it's like for men to be gay for pay, transgender issues and government legislation on porn."
Former Front Section Editor, Alix Fox, never shied away from trying out the more extreme stuff to give a first-person perspective. "One of the most intense things I've ever done in my life was a report on underwater bondage for Bizarre," she recalls. "I was dressed as a mermaid in a suit that had lead weights in the tail, fitted with a SCUBA tank, tied up by a shibari [Japanese rope bondage] expert at the bottom of a swimming pool and then had my air supply taken away. I was utterly dependent upon my captors to swim over and give me oxygen when I shook my head to indicate that my lungs were going to burst. It was the ultimate in submission. I lived and breathed my job on that magazine. Even when I couldn't breathe."
Readers' letters fantasised about us hammering away on our keyboards, ball-gags in mouths, casually dildoing ourselves silly at lunch in between bites of a Pret sandwich. The reality? A dysfunctional version of Press Gang, with the strains of Christopher Lee singing opera on the stereo and shouting out things like, "Dave... can you add in that picture of the girl licking the bloody pig's head on page 42?"
A typical day would see us lurking in the darkest recesses of the internet, casually striking up an email exchange with a guy into eating his own shit, or venturing outside to attend a sex party in Kent, or sit in on a gory facial scarification session.
Answering the work phone and opening the post became a game of Russian roulette. While I imagine the offices of Cosmo were bombarded with complimentary pots of fancy face cream and fashion week invites, we got biro sketches of men being tossed off, tortured and killed by aggressive female Nazi soldiers and an envelope of dried skin scabs from an amateur death metal band.
Every week for a year, I was plagued by phone calls from an annoying old guy called "Little Ken" who begged me to do a feature on "tall, strong, powerful women". He liked the idea of paying an Amazonian dame to pick him up and throw him across the room. I'd have fucking done it for free. Alix found herself talking to a Jackass fan who had a cunning plan to catapult his way into the aeons of fame.
"I ended up having to explain to him why it would be unwise to circumcise himself with a pair of nail scissors, wrap his severed foreskin in a condom, swallow it, shit it out, and attempt to stitch it back on using a sewing needle," she remembers.
Up until the death knell, only four staff members had been bravely battling to keep the mag afloat, painfully aware that the end was nigh. One of them was Bizarremag.com editor, Stephen Daultrey. "The closure is very sad, but certainly not unexpected," he says. "What pains me most is that the Bizarre brand never got a chance to adapt with the changing times and consequently, evolve, grow and flourish into something really big, new and spectacular – a digital portal of weirdness, individuality and subversive culture."
The stories, characters and experiences are endless, but I can't wrap this up without mentioning our community of readers. If it made us laugh, we knew it would make them laugh. Serious features like the self-harm one we put together were constructed entirely from their own letters and experiences. They sent us homemade cookies, wedding snaps, 20 pages of geeking out on how to improve the mag. Hell, they even had portrait tattoos of staff members etched in their flesh.
Our readers got firmly behind our Proud To Be Different campaign, in support of the S.O.P.H.I.E. charity, set up after Sophie Lancaster was murdered because she dared to dress differently. We even got to meet over 2000 readers in the sweaty flesh at our now-legendary live events; the Bizarre Balls. The mag also entertained the British and American troops on tour in Afghanistan. They took the time to write to us, pose for silly pictures and try to charm us into sending them free copies, begging, "It's the only thing that keeps us going in this shit hole!"
I felt like Brooks Hatlen leaving Shawshank when I said goodbye to the mag in 2012. Spat out into "civilian" life and awkwardly trying to fit into a normal working routine that didn't involve test driving a pneumatically powered dildo before breakfast. So long, Bizarre. In the grand scheme of things, you were just a magazine. But to a tribe of outsiders, misfits, deviants, freaks, perverts and open-minded souls, you were a lifeline, a celebration of the flipside, a nod of recognition and a smack in the mainstream's kisser.
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