Wednesday, November 28, 2007

best life diet

Zinczenko is having a good year. Actually, he's having a good five and a half years -- the years since he was made Editor in Chief of Men's Health at the ripe old age of 30. Since then he's overseen the growth of the Men's Health empire, which has included a massive circulation hike, two spinoffs, Best Life and Women's Health, a fast-growing books imprint, new international editions, and a 2004 National Magazine Award for Personal Service, followed up by a nom in 2005 for General Excellence. Also, he sometimes shows up in Page Six.

I first encountered Zinczenko on a stage -- well, he was on the stage, I was in the front row capturing his every word for posterity. It was the night of the infamous Jon Stewart MPA event, and after the transcript I published -- liberally sprinkled with my own tart commentary -- I did not expect to make a new friend. Yet when I finally met Zinczenko he laughed, complimented my work and told me not to worry about it. Classy. That kind of grace and genuine good-naturedness has made him popular with his staff, his colleagues, and with random fans on the internet. It also made him popular with Fishbowl, because that same good grace led him to agree to submit to this interview on a dime, in which he has gamely participated in the midst of travelling to Mexico for a meeting of 40+ Men's Health edition EICS, publishers and marketing directors from around the world. In between meetings (and, I hope, Margaritas), he took the time to answer my questions about Men's Health, Best Life, his abs, and that infamous night with Jon Stewart back in September.

Come on, you didn't think I was going to make it all the way through that introduction without mentioning his abs, did you? Oh, ye of little faith. DZ, take it away.

How much do you love your job?

I have one of the best jobs in publishing, because I create a magazine designed to improve the lives of guys who are very much like me. In a way, I'm on a long journey of self-improvement, but it's a journey I get paid to go on.

How has it changed over the five and a half years you've been doing it? Is it still challenging, or have you ever craved a change?

I'm lucky to be surrounded by really creative and talented people who are always challenging me. My editorial creative director, John Tayman, gets a rave review for his first book in the Times last Sunday (The Colony, Mary Roach review), and I think, "Damn, how can I get my writing closer to that level?" My executive editor, Peter Moore, wins a National Magazine Award for a story on heart disease last year, and I think, "How can I come up with ideas that are as smart and informative as that?" I spend more time on my toes than Baryshnikov, thanks to these people.

Is it ever exhausting to embody the brand? Do you sometimes crave a banana split chased by fries followed by vegging out on the couch?

I do, and many times I indulge my cravings, as anyone working at Cold Stone Creamery will tell you. Embodying the brand means being a regular guy who's trying to improve himself, personally and professionally, all the time. And like any regular guy, I need to splurge, pig out, and channel-surf now and then.

"The Greatest Abs Exercise Ever" and more after the jump!

The Abs Diet. It spawned an eating guide and you just published a follow-up, all with MH contributing editor Ted Spiker. Did you ever think it would be such a success?

Honestly, yeah, I really did. Maybe not selling a million copies of the Abs Diet books, but still creating a bestseller. I got incredible support from the company, particularly the folks in the Rodale book division, and when you have so many people getting passionate and excited about something, you can't help but expect success.

Describe DZ's workout regimen. Is every MH workout tested by you/your staff? What about the other articles (i.e. "30 Red-Hot Sex Secrets" (and let's not forget the "The Men's Health Position Master") - is there a Rodale love lab, perchance?

Well, we don't have a Rodale Sex Lab per se, but we do have several unlit parking lots around the Emmaus offices.

The truth is, all of our workout and sex tips--and health and nutrition and grooming and tech and fashion advice--come from the best experts in the field. We generally test-drive them on our own time, and we know we've got a solid source for info when our staffers feel a boost, in the gym or wherever.

Of Nipple and Ripple: Eric Bana, shirts; Adrien Brody, skins. How do you decide which coverboys go topless? Will there ever be topless men on the cover of Best Life? If so, will you send it to me?

Some celebs feel that going shirtless is the right thing for them at that point in their careers--Adrien Brody, for example, was showing off how his hard work made him worthy of heading up an adventure flick [December 2005 issue for King Kong]. Bana [Jan/Feb 2006 for Munich] was in a solemn historical drama, so he didn't want to equate Munich with his abs. As for Best Life, I think [Editor] Steve Perrine and his team have created a very different aesthetic with a very different message, and sell-through is climbing rapidly. So, keep your shirt on.

At the MPA event, Jon Stewart asked: "Why is your magazine so gay?" Everyone howled, because, well, there are hot, shirtless guys on the cover often. Do you think of gay/straight appeal when you're considering content? Is that something you even think about? Since you bill Men's Health as a full lifstyle brand (trifecta: health/career/relationships) how do you address the gay/straight readership?

We're a magazine about health, nutrition, fitness, relationships, fashion, technology, career -- last I heard, gay men and straight men were both interested in that kind of info. The reality is, straight or gay, American or European, white or black or Hispanic, men are just a lot more similar than they are different. We all have the same core concerns, dreams, fears, ambitions. As far as the covers are concerned, I dunno. Nobody ever calls Cosmo or Glamour or Shape a lesbian magazine, even though the women on the covers are often exposing a lot of skin. So come on: Why the double standard?

"Fit is the new Rich" emerged as one of the more quotable moments from the MPA panel. Do you wish you'd never said that, or do you still stand behind it? Jon wasn't really that interested in letting you (or anyone else) elaborate. Tell me about the logic behind that statement, and how you've seen that play out in tangible results in terms of MH and BL (and, if you so wish, DZ).

Well, I didn't get the sense that Jon wanted a serious discussion, so maybe it wasn't that best time to float the idea. He was being a comedian, not an interviewer, and he was in control of the stage, not us. But here was what I was getting at: in a country where everybody shops at the same stores, buys the same electronics, wears the same clothes -- where everything is available in plenty and cheap and right from China -- there are very few things that one can point to as widely accepted status symbols. Being fit and in shape is one of them: Everybody can have a wide screen TV. Not everybody can have a 32-inch waist. If fit isn't the new rich, what it is in fact is the new symbol of status.

You've described Men's Health as "the smarter, fitter older brother you never had. The guy who's always ready with a good joke and a sound piece of advice." Who, then, is Best Life?
Oh, Best Life is still your older brother. It's just that the two of you have both moved on to new concerns. Whereas Men's Health is the older brother you turn to in your 20s and 30s for advice on moving up in your career, understanding women, staying fit, figuring out how to make it in the world, Best Life is the older brother you turn to in your mid- to late 30s and 40s. He's the guy who's telling you what to do with your money now that you've made it in your career; how to eat right and stay fit when you're traveling on business and running a household; how to deal with issues of marriage and children and aging parents and saving for college. You're older, more complicated and involved, and responsible to more people. That's when you turn to Best Life.

Who have your mentors been in this business? Whom do you admire?

Steve Murphy, Rodale's current president and CEO, is a real mentor. He often says, "it starts with great editorial," and he gives me and my team tremendous freedom to execute the right vision for Men's Health and Best Life. On the women's mag side, I would say both Kate White and Cindi Leive have been great confidants and a tremendous help to me, as has Peter Bonventure at Entertainment Weekly. I got my start under John Rasmus, whom I still respect a great deal, as well as Jeff Morgan, the former worldwide publisher of Men's Health who is now an executive at Ralph Lauren. And probably my biggest regret is that I didn't get to know Art Cooper better. He would have been a great mentor.

Time to throw it down: You said the men's market is "freaking out" about Best Life, which is the fastest-growing men's mag out there. You have not been, er, impressed with Esquire according to your comments of record, and that goes double for GQ. Is that symptomatic of something happening in the men's mag market right now?

I think some traditional men's magazines are struggling to stay relevant. One minute they're competing with lad magazines, putting starlets on the cover. The next they're competing with celeb magazines, trying to do hip, snarky humor about Brad Pitt. That's fine, but I can get that every day on the Onion's website, or on VH1 specials, or in Page Six. So the question becomes: do I need a magazine for that particular thing? In this case they're covering stuff that just isn't relevant to most men's lives.

Then you look at the current issue of Best Life, fore example: how to get back in shape. How to talk to your kids about sex. How to improve your marriage. How to invest for your family's future. And these are stories written by people like Jay McInerney, David Mamet, Mark Leyner, and photographed by people like Mary Ellen Mark and Dan Winters. The writing and photography in the magazine is at the level or better than other men's books, but we're doing it while also covering topics that really, really matter to men. So yes, parts of the mens' market are freaking out, especially when they see advertisers like Ferragamo and Versace and Breitling coming to understand and appreciate the importance of a magazine like Best Life -- while selling more than a hundred thousand copies a month at newsstand for five dollars after launching just a year ago.

Do you feel like part of the reason Men's Health has done so well (and that the brand has expanded so impressively in to books, spinoffs like Best Life and Women's Health etc.) is because of some shift/Zeitgeist that you were able to tap into?

What we've been able to do well is respect our readers and believe in their personal quests to take control of every aspect of their lives. It's not just a magazine idea. It's a profound category of human endeavor. It's a philosphy for success and happiness and a way of life, which is pretty exciting.

At the risk of engaging in overstatement, I think at least for guys, Men's Health is the trend. Men increasingly have been acknowledging that they have a responsibility to their loved ones to be active managers of every aspect of their health and well-being. We've gone from a world where men barely acknoweldged their health to one in which their cholesterol numbers and their bench press are a point of pride.

Your circ. is 1.725 million, yet in the Jan/Feb issue you cite reaching "9 million Men's Health readers," and according to the latest MRI numbers (Fall 2005), Men's Health increased its audience by 9% for a total audience of 10,280,000. I assume those extra numbers come from the internet. What have you done to expand your reach and what's the arc for these numbers been? What's the plan going forward?

No, they're not from the internet. 1.75 million is our circulation, and our readership is more than 10 million [basically, around five to six readers for each copy sold, which is about the industry average].

Also, Men's Health is the world's largest men's magazine, with 35 editions in more than 40 countries. This week I'm at our international conference in Puerto Vallarta, meeting with Men's Health editors from Australia, Germany, Indonesia, China, Russia...and we're launching in Brazil and India this year. Like I said, men are more similar than they are different, and that's why the Men's Health formula works in every language.


Okay, your turn to set the record straight.

How did the MPA sell the event to you?

A celebration of magazine humor, just like it said on the invite. I think we all assumed there'd be some humor, as well as a few pointed questions designed to make us squirm a bit, but in general we also assumed it would be a tout for the magazine industry.

At what point did you realize that you were toast? What was going through your mind - was it all adrenaline or did you feel like you were going to throw up?

I didn't feel like I was toast. I felt like everyone on stage was toast, including Jon, as soon as he came out and said he didn't want to be there but, hey, the MPA was paying him a lot of money. So at that point you just throw in the towel, make a few attempts at humor and try to get through the beating.

Did you guys talk to Jon afterward? What did he say? What did you say? Page Six reported that Graydon stormed off saying "Never again." What happened after? Did you all go get drunk?

The most important thing that happened afterwards is that Steve Murphy, Rodale's CEO, came backstage and said, "Heck of a job. Don't worry about it." And if I have the support of people like that, well, then I'm not going to worry about it.

Nat Ives wrote in AdAge: "One could almost hear the ad dollars draining from the room." Was there fallout? Did you hear from advertisers either way (you were the most pointed about addressing advertiser-related issues, and it was Adweek after all).

No, I don't think it had any negative effect. It just didn't have the positive, uplifting effect we were hoping for.


So, are you rocking a six-pack or are you the James Frey of the "Abs Diet" series? How do we know?

It's only a month past Christmas, so I can't say I'm rocking the tank-tread stomach right now. But summer's a few months away, so give me a pass for now, okay?

(Ed. We recommend "The Greatest Abs Workout Ever" on page 137 of the Jan/Feb Men's Health, by David Zinczenko)

What are your must-reads? Guilty pleasures? (Media-wise)

The Week is my favorite new magazine of the last few years. Their sensibility and their readership is very much the same as Best Life's.

Guilty pleasures? (carb-wise)

Cold Stone Creamery, after a night at Elaine's. Which is why I'm not rocking the abs.

What's the 5-year plan for Men's Health?

Continued international growth to the tune of five new editions per year, turning Best Life into a category killer, and I want to someday sell 800,000 copies at newsstand -- we just broke the 735,000 mark with our January issue.

What's the 5-year plan for DZ?

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Like many other expats in Bucharest, my initial one-year tenure here seems to have become indefinite, and I am now in my third year.

The influx of western businesses into Romania has put a high premium on native English speakers, and a combination of teaching, journalism and copy-editing gives me the freedom to work on that book that we all believe is in us but lack the time to actually write.

This year I intend to take an MA at the University of Bucharest and involve myself in some local charities. I am also tenuously considering a foray into the Romanian property market.

Introduction to Bucharest: Given that most expats' preconceptions of Bucharest will be largely negative � stray dogs, gypsies, corrupt officials and the like � settling in can be reasonably pain free if a few rules are borne in mind.

The first is to forget all notions that you have of customer service. Otherwise, after 90 per cent of your dealings with waiters, shopkeepers and members of the public you will be left wondering what you had done to offend the person to make them so curt and rude to you.

Of course you have done nothing wrong: the ostensible hostile way Romanians behave with each other � and most foreigners � is just normal conduct in this country.

Despite their initial demeanour, local people go out of their way to welcome and assist foreigners, anxious to leave you with a good impression and counter some of the pejorative outside perceptions of which they are acutely aware.

Secondly, you must get used to a new traffic system. Drivers have assumed right of way on both road and pavement and routinely park right across the latter, forcing pedestrians into the street where they will then be hooted at by passing cars.

All surfaces have bumps and potholes, an ad hoc style also evident in the town planning, where bland communist blocks have been thrown up next to pretty inter-war villas. Some areas did escape the communist bulldozers, and there are charming pockets to be discovered.

The expat can also escape the general greyness in the city's clubs and many excellent restaurants, a bargain for any western budget.

The interim seasons are more pleasant than in Britain, warmer and with fewer rainy days. Most locals agree that spring and autumn are shortening, and the switch from bitter cold to summer heat can come particularly suddenly. When bad weather does come, it comes with a vengeance � storms flood the streets and tear down anything from adverts and market stalls to huge trees.

Getting around: Bucharest suffers from a surfeit of cars in a city designed for few. Parking is practically non-existent and drivers stop almost anywhere they spot a space, regardless of pedestrian access.

Driving is characterised by relentless hooting, aggression, gesticulating and hazardous moves. Some junctions are complete chaos. Accidents are frequent.

To drive in Bucharest, the expat must be brave. City police are poorly paid and corrupt and constantly stop motorists for so-called preventative checks, during which they will happen upon a minor infringement and threaten the driver with an extortionate fine in an attempt to elicit a bribe. There is no way to avoid this, so the best idea is to try and bear it with good nature.

The law permits a driver only one alcoholic drink, but neither the police nor the breathalyser can be relied upon, so it's safer to abstain altogether. For driving between cities, motorists have developed a system of flashing their lights at each other to warn oncoming drivers of police with speed radars parked by the road.

The result is that for much of the way cars bomb along at around 120km/h, before dropping to a surreally slow 50km/h at urban spots where the police are waiting.

Only two highways currently have a central reservation � the number is set to increase � and driving a few metres away from onrushing lorries can be nerve-wracking.

Cheap and usually easy to find, taxis can be booked by phone or hailed in the street, but there are some sharks out there ready to charge a hapless foreigner as much as ten times the real fare, so if picking a car up use only one with a name you know and insist the driver use the metre; most will automatically.

Even drivers from reputable companies may take you the scenic route, so it's useful to know a smattering of Romanian and show no sign of British hesitancy.

Public transport is extremely cheap. The subway system is fairly civilised but slow and not comprehensive. Buses and trams are more frequent and serve most areas, but in peak hours can become so full they resemble a cattle truck, or, worse, the central line at 7pm.

Public transport in the city is extremely cheap
Pickpocketing is rife, and you are advised to vigilantly guard any bags and pockets. It's worth taking public transport a few times, if only to remind yourself how lucky you are to be able to afford a car or taxi. The system runs from around 5am to 11.30pm.

Expat accommodation: Thanks to Ceausescu's town-planning ideas, the majority of Bucharest residents, rich and poor, live in apartment blocks. Most expats head for the upmarket north of the city, where many of the ambassadorial residences are situated.

A replica of the Arc de Triomphe, wide boulevards and pleasant green spaces make the area feel more like Western Europe, as does the glut of cafes and restaurants. Those wanting to engage more in the local life � particularly young, single foreigners � often choose to live in more central areas.

Taxis are cheap and plentiful, and the city relatively small, so your location shouldn't matter too much. However, there are no suburbs in the sense of quieter, greener neighbourhoods on the edge of town � the outer areas are poor and drab � so it makes sense not to venture too far away from the central axis of squares.

Though rising quickly, property prices are still low by our standards, and some long-term expats choose to brave the bureaucracy and buy a place as an investment. The law still currently prevents foreigners from owning land, but there are ways around this. Most people rent at first, although it is advisable to get a local friend to help you. Once the landlord realises a foreigner is involved, the sums involved suddenly leap upwards.

The majority of Bucharest residents live in apartment blocks
Climate: Like many things in Romania, the temperature is unpredictable: April, for example, could see snow or feel almost tropical. Winter and summer are often extreme. From December to February, lows of �20°C and severe snow are possible, even in the capital.

Summers, which can start in May or June and continue to September, often see 40°C and melting pavements � although this is partly due to the poor quality of the tarmac.

Personal safety: Obvious foreigners are in some danger of being the target of a low-level crime � pickpocketing or a scam by which a fake policeman tries to extract a 'fine'. Most would-be criminals are pretty hapless, and can generally be thwarted with vigilance, scepticism and common sense.

Bucharest doesn't have Britain's binge drinking culture, and it is rare to see drunken yobs on the streets. There are glue sniffers, but they are unlikely to harass strangers. Some beggars can be insistent, but they too are usually harmless.

Possibly the greatest hazard, aside from cars, is the stray dogs which the city's mayor wanted to cull until Brigitte Bardot stepped in. Their aggression is usually limited to barking, but some do bite.

Women, especially young ones, will be the subject of staring and comments. On the whole, though, the city feels much safer and less violent than London, and the expat will rarely feel threatened, even at night.

Bureaucracy: When the country experienced a 6.0 Richter scale earthquake in November, one radio commentator remarked that at least something in Romania was moving.

Bureaucracy can be a huge headache throughout the country, which is still trying to emerge from the communist mentality. Simple, everyday tasks that would not take more than five minutes in Britain, such as getting a receipt or a guarantee for an appliance, require reams of forms and queuing.

Getting a work permit is especially laborious, with low-level officials seemingly taking a perverse pleasure in finding one of your photocopies or translations missing and sending you away to return on multiple occasions.

Sometimes they want a bribe, sometimes it is inefficiency, sometimes pure stubbornness. Unfortunately bureaucracy is an ingrained part of life here, so looking upon it as a cultural experience is probably the best way to keep stress levels down.

While most useful information for foreigners tends to be on the negative side, Bucharest is a dynamic and exciting city, and many expats' initial short-term tenures turn into years.

After the vibrancy and unpredictability of life here, returning to the comfortable UK holds little immediate appeal. Having experienced some of the country's ups and downs, I am happy to answer the questions of anyone else thinking of giving Bucharest or Romania a try.

Education: There are two British schools with a UK-based curriculum for children up to the age of 16, as well as an American school. Fees vary according to the age of the pupil, but can reach £7,000 per year and above.

Health: Bucharest has several private clinics with standards ostensibly as high as anything at home. Professionals used by the locals are highly spoken of, but the facilities may seem a bit primitive.

It is possible to follow a very healthy diet in Bucharest, with shops and markets full of fresh fruit and vegetables, tastier and less treated than the oddly perfect looking produce available in Britain.

One omnipresent health hazard is second-hand smoke: Romanians are heavy smokers and there are few venues with non-smoking areas.

Entertainment: Life in Bucharest can be austere and dull, and working hours long, so people like to make the most of their leisure time. The city has many first-class restaurants, covering most international cuisine.

Prices are far lower than in Britain. Service can suffer from post-communism apathy, but places are increasingly catering to foreigners, and realising that some courtesy and efficiency are good for business.

Bars and clubs are numerous and open late. They range from cheap and cheerful to pretentious, upmarket places where you'll pay the same as in London.

The Romanian Opera is another bargain with ticket prices starting from less than a pound. Its interior is a touch shabby, but the standard of performances is high. The other notable cultural building is the Atheneum, which, when not undergoing renovation, hosts classical concerts.

Theatres are also plentiful but performances in English are rare. The National Theatre, built at the most central point of the city, also hosts exhibitions.

Cinemas broadcast films in their original language with sub-titles. While most stick to Hollywood drivel, some honourable exceptions show an impressive range of classic, challenging and foreign films, some dating from the early twentieth century. There are frequent film festivals.

There is little pleasure to be had from walking in the big cities, owing to a combination of the terrible pavement surfaces dotted with parked cars, stray dogs and the pollution from an excess of old bangers. The countryside, though, is scenic and walkers will find plenty of mountains, lakes and pretty villages.

Romania's ski resorts are upgrading their facilities to try and attract some of the package holiday business away from other competitive Eastern European destinations such as Bulgaria.


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