End Run

How a few black publishers are making a play for the Maxim man

He met Angel at a runway-model competition at the Newark Airport Marriott about a year and a half ago. She wasn't competing; she was in the audience. And although Angel had no prior experience, Blassingame liked her look and all the attention men at the event were giving her.

Angel adorns the cover of BlackMen's April–May 2007 issue, which Blassingame proudly displays, calling her look "fire." With dark eye shadow and a tattoo across her neck, she tugs at the drawstring of her bikini bottom.

"When I take my pictures, I'm not thinking about butts and titties," says the model, an Ethiopian-born resident of Washington, D.C., whose real name is Fershgenet Melaku. "I'm more into showing beauty, how Marilyn Monroe used to do. It's not about sticking your butt out. It's about showing sex appeal."

Antoine Clark lets Jazz do the heavy lifting.
photo: Alana Cundy
Antoine Clark lets Jazz do the heavy lifting.

Angel, 34-22-40, has also graced the covers of Smooth and I.B. Concept magazines. Blassingame predicts similar success for his new discovery, Tasha Destiny, who has a 50-inch backside, bigger than Buffie's and seeming to approach the limit of what a petite woman can support on two legs. (For comparison, Playboy's Miss May is 34 inches around.)

"I think we finally got our mojo," he says. "We've become comfortable now, knowing who our audience is. To come up with one product that can reach guys from the East Coast, the South, L.A., Jamaicans, Haitians, Creoles, all those type of guys, it's a learning process."

Since his magazine's reinvention, Blassingame goes on, circulation has increased 50 percent, to 200,000. That would sandwich it between Manhattan publications Smooth—which editor Sandy Vasceannie says now prints 150,000 copies per issue, up 25 percent in the past year—and King, founded in 2001 and considered the genre's first breakthrough. King's circulation has been steady at about 250,000 over the past few years, making it about one-tenth the size of Maxim. (Maxim and King are monitored by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. BlackMen and Smooth are not.)

The marketplace may be shifting. FHM, a "white" lad magazine that is enormously popular in the U.K., recently ceased publishing the American version of its print magazine, while new urban titles seem to spring up like weeds. Show magazine, launched just last year by a former Smooth staffer, claims an (unaudited) circulation of 200,000.

Vibe and XXL have long featured teasing pictorials of black women, but titles exclusively devoted to the subject are a relatively new phenomenon, and national advertisers don't yet seem convinced of their power to persuade. While King features spots from Newport cigarettes, Harley-Davidson, and Budweiser, BlackMen relies partly on porn titles like The Big Ass Party 2 and Booties on Duty 3. Smooth resorts to penis-enlargement pills.

"Advertisers refuse to advertise in Smooth because a black woman with curves seems a little gratuitous to them," says Vasceannie. "They think it resembles pornography."

"These magazines are a niche within a niche," counters Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based research company that specializes in black media. "African-American magazines are by definition only for a segment of the population, which constitutes one niche, and a men's magazine constitutes another niche. As far as advertisers are concerned, it's a small audience."

Though urban lad titles dominate New York City newsstands on streets and in subways, Smikle says they have a more difficult time winning rack space elsewhere.

"It's a very competitive environment to begin with, and retailers generally have been conservative in how they display their magazines," he says. "Even covers which don't show frontal nudity still sometimes have to be covered up."

"It's a double standard," contends Buffie the Body. "You can go in a grocery store and see Maxim up front, but you're not going to see BlackMen in the checkout aisle, because people would be offended by it and go and complain to the management."

Yet Smooth editor Vasceannie contends that urban models look more like the women buying the groceries. She says Smooth helps promote a more confident body image.

"In the '80s and early '90s, women were led to believe you had to be skinny to be attractive, that the Barbie doll was believed to be the perfect body type," says Vasceannie, a rare female executive in the industry. "But Smooth and its competitors have completely destroyed that belief. You're as beautiful as you feel. Across history, black women have always been more curvaceous, but it's just now that full-figured women are getting some attention."

Back in Buffie's boudoir, the woman who says she takes in practically nothing but Southern-fried pork and Kool-Aid is telling her touching life story. While living in Athens, Georgia, her family was abandoned by her father. She now supports her mother with her big-butt earnings, and recently bought her first house.

Buffie wasn't born with her prodigious moneymaker, she says, and her siblings and parents certainly don't have similar physiques. Her attributes developed about 10 years ago after she started drinking GNC supplement shakes. "I weighed only about 120 pounds and wanted to gain weight," she says. "Black women don't want to be skinny."

Her behind plumped to her satisfaction within a few months, and guys on the street began taking notice. Three years ago, a friend put amateur photos of her on a Yahoo group, and 20,000 people signed up to view them within a week.

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