EXCLUSIVE: Glenn O'Brien Opens Up About His Final Days At <i>GQ</i> And The End Of His Style Guy Column

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Complex Original

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When news officially broke yesterday that Mark Anthony Green—the young GQ associate editor and, in the interest of full transparency, friend of Four Pins and Complex—would be taking the reins of the iconic, long-standing Style Guy column, we were as happy for him as we were perplexed. What had happened to the column's originator and author for over 15 years, Glenn O'Brien? Despite O'Brien's legendary pedigree—writer, critic, first ever "editor-at-large," member of Warhol's Factory, television host—to many he was the Style Guy, making his exit from the most popular and visible men's fashion magazine in the world that much more of a shock. Clearly there was a story here, or at least a side to it, that you couldn't get from a press release. Despite our penchant for speculation, this particular changing of the guard, so to speak, seemed too monumental to ignore, so we reached out to O'Brien directly to get his take. Presented below is an exclusive and candid conversation with the man himself in which he opens up about his final days at GQ, the end of his Style Guy column and what the future holds.

Were you made aware that your time as GQ's Style Guy was coming to an end? Did things transpire abruptly or was this the plan all along?

First of all, I find the notion that this is a "rebranding" of the Style Guy offensive. I created the Style Guy, not GQ. It existed before I went to GQ. It had a long run in Details. I published a book under that title. It's not something that existed before. It's not like "managing editor" or "film critic." Their proprietary attitude toward what I've done is not only insulting, but really unoriginal. They could have at least called their replacement the "Style Intern."

My contract was expiring the last day of June. Nothing about the future was ever discussed, but then nothing about the future was ever discussed before. I was annoyed that there was no Style Guy column in the February issue, and that the first time I learned that was when I saw it. Then it happened again. I assumed that this had to do with the extraordinary thin-ness of the magazine and not what you might call editorial direction. There wasn't even a masthead in those issues, not to mention a letter from the editor-in-chief.

After that there was a disagreement about a feature that Jim Nelson wanted me to write and he said he wouldn't discuss my contract until it was done, so I simply resigned two months before my contract expired, at the loss of a couple of checks, because things were not handled in a gentlemanly manner. Jim Nelson acted regretful; he told me his budgets had been slashed and that he could no longer afford me, but he wanted me to continue to write for the magazine. This was not going to happen because of his disingenuous behavior.

It was just a year ago when they did an entire special issue of GQ Style on me. And one year ago, because of my popularity, they wanted me to do the Style Guy as an animated series on TV for Conde Nast Entertainment, but their TV people were so out of touch and their execution so embarrassing that I refused. The animator made me look like a leprechaun in lipstick.

To have had a brilliant success for fifteen years with something I created and then to try to make it appear like suddenly I wasn't modern enough or they needed to go younger is completely dishonest. In fact it is entirely about going cheaper. Look at the top contributors over the last several years. Look at the editors they've lost. They're all gone. Blame it on poor editorial judgment, or corporate mismanagement, or the failure to transition to digital, or the ridiculous moves of their television division, but don't blame me. I would have been happy to just go quietly away from such a vulgar operation, but I am offended at being made a scapegoat for their spectacular incompetence. Gentlemen? I don't think so.

From your end, was the Style Guy column something you wanted and intended to write for the foreseeable future?

I didn't really think much about the future of the column. I liked having a regular magazine column, which is an increasing rarity, because you have a real audience. That column had a very good audience and it was always, I was told, the most popular feature in the magazine. I knew this from talking to people on the publishing side. I think it was the biggest draw until the very end, although I don't think that would be easy to check at this point. It was partly for that audience that I wrote the book How To Be a Man, which is a best seller now in its fifth printing. I suppose I thought I would write the column until men ran out of questions or I no longer had one free day a month. The Style Guy actually began at Details and only moved to GQ when the former editor of Maxim arrived at Details for a brief tenure, so it had a very long run.

At any point did you feel that your column was out of step with today's fashion trends and the industry's increasing reliance on technology and social media? GQ's rebranded Style Guy 2.0 seems to revolve heavily around integration with Twitter and Snapchat.

I don't know how you know so much about "rebranded Style Guy." Do you want to share some press release with me? I saw an announcement on Twitter that linked to a column online and I didn't notice anything particularly futuristic or on-point about "Style Guy 2.0." I think that what made my column a success was that it was a rare instance of a magazine allowing a writer to have his own voice. I have never seen eye-to-eye with the fashion department, but I respected their POV, as they did mine and that actually broadened the point of view of the magazine. I was the guy without the tie clip. I think that any magazine that sacrifices the voice of individual writers for a house style is going to be corny and out-of-it. I think that what readers valued about the column was its breadth. I'm not a fashionista. I write mostly about art, but I think the fact that I can write intelligently on many subjects has allowed me to be philosophical and unpredictable. Isn't that what the advertisers want? Philosophy? I'm kidding. Incidentally, I seem to be doing quite well on Twitter and Instagram. Obviously GQ had to say something about why I'm not there anymore. Snapchat? Why not? It sounds better than saying that they're struggling financially, or that when people heard GQ they thought of me and not Jim Nelson. By the way, isn't he getting a little old to be editor of GQ?

What do you think about the inaugural column? What about Mark Anthony Green, your spiritual successor in all this? Do the two of you have a relationship, professional or personal, from your time working together at GQ?

I don't think he's my spiritual successor. I don't know Mark Anthony Green at all and I don't want to comment on him after reading one rather brief column. Over the years I worked with some great people at GQ, particularly Michael Hainey—a brilliant editor recently gone at-large—Adam Rapoport who has done a great job at Bon Appétit and Andy Comer who has gone over to the fashion world.

Have you reflected at all on what the end of your column, one that you've been doing for so long, means to you personally? I'm curious as to how you've processed this part of your career and life coming to a close.

I love having a regular audience month after month, but I'm sure that my readers and I will find each other. What GQ is now is not what I signed up for. It used to be smart and stylish. Now they're struggling. They'll save some money since they don't have to pay me and my 15 years of raises, but that won't make up for the fact that now you can slip GQ under the door. I have plenty to do. I am writing a major book about how the art world has changed in the last 50 years. I've got a few other books in the works and I write for magazines that smart people read. And I have a secret life in the field of commerce that brings home the bacon.

Can you talk a little about what you think your column accomplished over its long run and deliver a direct message to your fans and readers who will surely miss both you and your column?

What did I accomplish? Well I think I see less baseball caps! And I don't know how much I had to do with it, but I see men looking more interesting and fearless, more men looking like stylish individuals and not fashionistas and I love it. If I have fans who miss me you can always find me on Twitter and Instagram, plus glennobrien.com where you might have to put up with the occasional poem. If you have a question that desperately needs an answer, send it and we'll deal with it gratis via Twitter. I can be found in every issue of 10, 10 Men and Purple, frequently in Artforum and Another Magazine, occasionally in Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman, and in small independent magazines like Bad Day, Content, Paradigm and Let's Panic. Good to be small and independent! Several books are on the way. Coming this fall, the publication of a play I wrote with the late, great Cookie Mueller.

Can't say much now, but there's also TV in the works—no, not TV Party—although the oldies should all be available soon via Internet. À demain!


When reached for comment GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson said via spokesperson:

I don’t think about it so much as "rebranding" Style Guy as just rethinking it, which you always have to do in magazines, particularly with columns, even the very best of which can get predictable after a while. And Glenn's was among the very best. I loved Glenn's column, his wit and his take on fashion and style history, for many, many years—and he's absolutely right that he has a unique voice. But I thought, after 16 years, it was time for a different perspective on fashion and style. Things have changed so much, not the least of which is the way people want information and advice. And I'm interested in Style Guy moving forward, being in different places, being more responsive to the modern reader, more immediate and helpful. I actually don't think of it so much as a "column" anymore as an ongoing style conversation with our readers. I think they're hungry for that.

[Photo via Vivian Killilea/Getty Images]

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