THE LUI EDITOR KEEPS IT LOUCHE
“I do what I like, that’s the greatest part,” says Frédéric Beigbeder. “Most of the people have jobs they hate. I have fun all day — I am very lucky.” Beigbeder is famous in France for being a type of person that isn’t often famous in the United States: the debauched, literary one-percenter. He’s a novelist, memoirist, filmmaker, newspaper columnist, editor, TV talking head, party fixture, and occasional DJ. He’s been a model (for the brand Kooples) and is well known for having dated more than a few himself. In 2014, he finally married one — Lara Micheli, with whom he had a daughter, Oona, last year. (He’s been married before, of course, and tells me, “A friend said the best marriage is the fourth!” before pausing to reconsider his joke: “But we are very happy.”) At fifty years old, and as editor of the retro-softcore tits-and-lit magazine Lui, Beigbeder imagines himself in certain ways as a mix of Don Draper and Hugh Hefner. “I always like to make fun of my life, saying it’s ridiculous,” he tells me. “And maybe it is.”
The first time we were scheduled to speak, Beigbeder had been too busy. He was in the editing room, reviewing footage from his upcoming movie, L’idéal. “It’s a dark version of Zoolander,” he says. “It’s very cynical and very angry, but it’s supposed to make people laugh.” The second time we planned to talk, he was in an editorial meeting for Lui, which, beyond its breasts-out covers, features some very smart French writing by, among others, the author Michel Houellebecq. The publication does not shy away from controversy. Last year, Rihanna put her cover up on Instagram, and her account was quickly deleted for violating the app’s family friendly “community standards.”
Beigbeder first gained attention in 2000 for 99 Francs, a novel that satirizes advertising, and which subsequently got him fired from his job in advertising at Young & Rubicam. The writers he admired and sought to emulate during that time were the so-called Brat Pack of the 1980s American literary scene, including Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, who inhabited the weltschmerz of the well dressed. Beigbeder’s weary, high-gloss epigrammatic style, however, reads more like Joan Didion, albeit with a better sense of humor.
“He’s a boulevardier, a public intellectual man about town,” McInerney says. The two became friends after Beigbeder, a decade younger, interviewed him for a French magazine. They got so wasted that McInerney missed his next appointment. “He’s a gourmand and a ladies man, serious underneath his very slick surface,” McInerney continues. Still, he notes, some in France “question his seriousness.”
After the interview, whenever McInerney was in Paris, the two would meet up for dinner. “He typically came with a couple of models, one of whom was usually his girlfriend,” McInerney says. “It was always amusing to watch them not eat while these great platters came by.” The pair have even house-swapped — McInerney’s “not too shabby” Greenwich Village penthouse for Beigbeder’s “small, three story” Saint-Germain-des-Près townhouse, which McInerny recalls, “has this upstairs living room which is a real den of iniquity.”
In 2008, outside the pitilessly chic Le Baron nightclub in Manhattan, Beigbeder was arrested for doing blow off the hood of a parked car. It was the moment that finally woke him up from his self-centered party-boy mentality and got him thinking about his family, and why he was such an unrepentant hedonist. The entire episode is described in one of Beigbeder’s most celebrated books, his memoir A French Novel. It can be read in part as a kind of lyrical humblebrag of upmarket anomie: “All childhoods may not be novels, but mine certainly is. It is a tragic novella, a failed love story,” he says. “Ours was a Canada Dry happiness. A life that appeared to be happy: a posh neighborhood, spacious villas in Pau, the beaches of Guethary or Bali. You feel you should be happy. You’re not happy, so you pretend.”
The book is also a convincing and insightful document of the nothing-to-complain-about complaints of his class who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s. “In a weird way, for forty or forty-five years of my life, I thought I had no history. I had no story to tell, my life was normal, ordinary, and boring,” he says. “I still believe it is true, but now I’m not ashamed in telling the story. My generation was very lucky. We didn’t have a war, we had food on the table. For me the worst thing that happened was not getting in a club, or being arrested for cocaine in the street, or even the divorce of my parents.”
“I do what I like, that’s the greatest part,” says Frédéric Beigbeder. “Most of the people have jobs they hate. I have fun all day — I am very lucky.”
Although he deals with similar themes of globalism and French cultural exhaustion, his books are different than his friend Michel Houellebecq’s. “He’s writing about the poor. He wants to write about the people who have difficult lives. It’s more like a descendant of Zola,” Beigbeder says. “I prefer to talk about the rich. That’s the difference. I find them more funny. I like movies about people who are well dressed.”
Beigbeder’s life is suitably camera-ready, and always has been. This year, Assouline will release Caca’s Club, a photo book about a “secret society” that he founded as a teenager in the 1980s. “Because of this club, I carried the reputation of a rich kid, a little jerk, a daddy’s boy,” reads his foreword. “At twenty, I was a snob and a sex addict.” It sounds juicy. “I spend half my life to try to make people forget the Caca’s Club, and now I try to remember it,” he says.
Beigbeder’s father had a pied-à-terre in Manhattan, where he could go and pretend he was living in a movie, or, in the 1990s, drink at Latin dance night at the bar on the top floor of the World Trade Center (“I loved caipirinhas!” he says). This location would become the title and setting for his 2002 book Windows on the World.
The novel is set on September 11, 2001. “It was a way of talking about the utopic ’70s,” he says. “The crazy dream of building all these places and thinking people are going to be traveling with American Express cards and going to clubs like Regine,” he says. In the book, when the planes hit the towers, that utopia is turned upside down. “You live this safe, comfortable life and then, OK, hello, you will die — there is no explanation.”
He says this in the aftermath of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 and the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last November. In this climate, his revitalized Lui resembles an act of defiant cultural mythmaking — nipples and all. “It’s more than just a magazine, it’s a lifestyle and a universe,” he says. “It means a lot for guys who were teenagers in the ’70s and ’80s like me.” And no, it’s not all about the nudity. “There was a long history of reading Lui not only because there were naked women” — which the Internet provides plenty of these days. “It used to mean something when girls took their clothes off in the ’70s,” he admits. “But now there’s nothing extraordinary about it.”
Of Lui’s legacy, Beigbeder says, “It was the magazine for my father: a businessman who had an Aston Martin. I have a crazy nostalgia for this period — a lost era of France when it was a place of Serge Gainsbourg and [Brigitte] Bardot. It’s not just a magazine, it’s a kind of dream full of regret. It reminds [readers] of when France was great. Many people don’t even care about the boobs.”