Gavin McInnes: the godfather of vice

The founder of 'Vice' was once the definition of hipster. Now he’s trying to scrape out a life, post-magazine

The godfather of Vice

Photograph by Lee Towndrow

On the wall of Gavin McInnes’s Soho office hangs a large, beautifully executed photographic print of artist Dash Snow sprawled on his stomach snorting a line of cocaine about as long as your forearm. Ryan McGinley, who took the shot, which appeared on the January 2000 cover of Vice magazine, was little more than a New York street kid then; today, thanks in large part to the image of cool propagated by Vice, he is one of the globe’s most successful shooters, with multi-million-dollar ad campaigns for the likes of Levi’s and Edun. Snow, the scenester muse to many New York chroniclers, died of a heroin overdose three years ago, at 27. And McInnes, who grew up outside Ottawa, founded Vice in Montreal in the mid-’90s, and helped make it the only Canadian magazine ever to succeed in the U.S., is still trying to scrape out a new life post-Vice.

Marching purposefully along Broadway, McInnes, 41, is telling a story about his own cocaine use, once prodigious, when he stops. “I don’t do coke anymore,” he says. “Once you have kids you can’t.” He yanks his shirt down, exposing his breast, where his wife’s name—“Blobs” (the former Emily Jendrisak, a one-time New York publicist)—is tattooed over the nipple; they have two young children. “I might smoke the odd doob. All my old drinking buddies are in AA.”

He steps into Uniqlo, the Japanese clothier, and plows through a kaleidoscope of pastel: the one-time front man of Ottawa punk band Anal Chinook is after the same pair of black pants he’s wearing now, and has a snapshot of the inner label—34X34—on his phone. “When you get to be my age you just buy four of the same thing,” he says. Outside, he eyes Broadway warily. “This is Soho, the perfect-ass capital of the world,” he explains. “This is why I’m pro-burka—that just ruined my day. You know how you get a flash in your eyes? I’m going to see that ass for three hours.”

Along with Vice co-founders Shane Smith, also from Ottawa, and Suroosh Alvi, a McGill University grad, McInnes transformed a small, government-funded Montreal community paper into a New York glossy with a reputation for caustic exposés on louche subjects—mainly drugs and edgy sex. It made the trio wealthy. Vice is now a global, multi-platform enterprise that’s said to have generated over $100 million in revenues last year, projects to make twice that in 2012, and enjoys partnerships with Google and Time Warner. But in 2008, McInnes mysteriously left Vice, walking away with a substantial settlement. He cannot discuss the details of the split, and Vice would not comment for this story. “There isn’t any hidden secret, like I f–ked someone’s wife,” he says. “Usually the most boring answer is the right one.” Regardless, the rupture severed ties that went back nearly to adolescence. “Any divorce is going to suck,” he says. “That’s when you can tell it’s a good deal—you think you’re paying too much, the other person thinks they’re not getting enough.”

McInnes has since been expunged from the Vice brand: his name barely appears in its sprawling online presence, and he is never mentioned in the documentary produced last year by filmmaker Spike Jonze that Vice calls “the most comprehensive history of our company ever filmed.” One photo of the three founders appears in the doc with McInnes’s face Photoshopped out, a blurry absence. He has not spoken to his former partners since he left, and admits he cannot even bring himself to look at video of them—not even the scene from the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times in which Times columnist David Carr belittles Smith, who has a reputation for bluster. When Smith slams the Times for not reporting on cannibalism in Liberia, where he has made a film featuring shots of human feces, Carr snaps: “Just ’cause you put on a f–king safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.” This is the new face of Vice, post-McInnes.

In a new book, How to Piss in Public: From Teenage Rebellion to the Hangover of Adulthood, out next week, McInnes reinserts himself into the Vice narrative as the triumvirate’s driving force. The book, a string of confessional, scatological, often very funny anecdotes, outlines McInnes’s youth as a punk kid in Kanata, Ont., his sex life, and the rewards of fatherhood. Yet it also acknowledges his unpredictable, often unpalatable nature. In the chapter “Lying to the Press,” he details how he told the New York Times in 2003: “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted.” Prompting the outburst was a “self-destructive” impulse to “push buttons until our fingers bled,” he writes. “Where French v. English was the big deal in Montreal, America was all about race . . . this quote ballooned into a gigantic Super Ghost that has haunted me ever since—and maybe it should.”

His fascination with the unutterable culminated in McInnes’s 2005 stag, where friends surprised him with a faux KKK rally complete with hoods, a flaming wooden cross and his best friend, Derrick Beckles, who is black, officiating with a wedge of watermelon in his hands. Smith and Alvi did not attend. “Maybe they were right to be offended by that gay, multicultural, Klansmen rally, because that maybe isn’t a bright future for a brand,” McInnes says. “There’s been a lot of studies that say the founder of a company should leave after 10 years because he becomes more steadfast in his beliefs, and the company can’t grow.” The relish with which he engages the subject of race—a send-up of boorishness so deadpan it risks actually becoming the opposite of satire—was a significant factor in the split. “Gavin liked to push buttons, and he got a lot of personal notoriety for dealing with race issues,” Smith told Wired in 2007. “It’s not the way we want to go.” McInnes continues to stir the pot during TV appearances on shows like Fox’s Red Eye alongside Ann Coulter.

Yet his willingness to showcase the marginalized, and his eye for debauched cool, defined Vice. He is widely considered the godfather of “hipsterism,” the dominant youth culture for much of the last decade, associated with skinny jeans, large plastic glasses and grilled cheese sandwiches. But if hipsterism was in part a celebration of style-over-substance hedonism, McInnes is a workhorse. For a long time he wrote most of the magazine, and he scouted photographic talents like McGinley, going so far as to rummage through boxes in McGinley’s bedroom to find shots. McInnes’s influence peaked after Vice decamped to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 2000. For Vice’s influential “Dos and Don’ts” feature—street photography accompanied by McInnes’s funny withering fashion commentary—he began documenting young people around Bedford Avenue, where crack was still a significant social ingredient. “Bedford now is like a fashion show,” he says. “I know women who won’t walk down it if they’re not dressed right.” He owns a home there: “If you create a neighbourhood,” he says, “you should live in it.”

McInnes became an arbiter of hipster cool, but what’s often forgotten is the extent to which Vice’s period in Montreal shaped its sensibility—an attitude and sense of fashion it retained even after the move to New York. “ ‘Dos and Don’ts’ wouldn’t have existed if Gavin wasn’t from Montreal and hadn’t been observing the wild characters of Quebec,” says his friend Melissa Auf der Maur, the former Hole bassist. “I feel pretty confident that I’m right. The Québécois are a time warp.They’ve never been permeated by homogenized American culture, so there’s such originality.”

Get anyone who remembers the Montreal scene in the mid-’90s—the bar crawl along the Main—talking about McInnes, and sooner or later they will tell you about the guy who tried to bite McInnes’s ear off in the alley behind the Bifteck. The scuffle had something to do with a soured deal between a punk trio and Vice’s new record label. Really, it had to do with Vice’s undeniable arrogance—and success. Sitting in the Brooklyneer, a bar across the street from the offices where he runs his advertising and production start-up, Rooster NY (named after his penis), McInnes puts his dukes up and mimes the first few moments of the fight. “It was so f–king cold that the ice out back was zero per cent friction, so we were both standing like this”—he does a little shuffle—“and we started wrestling. And I just felt heat and I touched my ear and he had gone right through. He claims it was his zipper. Trust me. It was his teeth.”

McInnes left his ear to fester for four days before he saw a doctor. He’d prove a better businessman and editorial force than a street brawler. It seems he’d still like to be all three. “Every old dude hates young people,” he says. “I hate them too, because they get so laid. They don’t have hangovers. They’re gorgeous. I hate them all.”

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