Vice started out even more oddly than I’d imagined:
Before it was the future, Vice was Voice of Montreal, a free magazine created in 1994 under the auspices of a welfare-to-work program, with the goal of covering Montreal’s cultural events. Its founders were Suroosh Alvi, the son of university professors from Pakistan and a recovering heroin addict, who was on welfare, and Gavin McInnes, a tree planter turned cartoonist, who had to get on welfare in order to be hired. Instead of covering street festivals, the two wrote about what interested them: drugs, rap music, and Montreal’s punk-rock scene. Voice of Montreal’s first issue carried an interview with the Sex Pistols singer John Lydon. Alvi, who is now forty-four, pointed out that he and McInnes wanted to pursue “authenticity.” “We were going to cruise around with drug dealers while they were doing their rounds,” he told me. “Instead of writing about a prostitute, we were going to get prostitutes to write for us.”
Their salaries were paid by welfare checks, but the magazine was financed through ad sales. McInnes introduced Alvi to Smith, a childhood friend from Ottawa, whom he’d given the nickname Bullshitter Shane. Smith, who had been going door-to-door for Greenpeace, had ambitions of becoming a novelist. But sales turned out to be a natural fit. “He could sell rattlesnake boots to a rattlesnake,” Alvi said, and added, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “He could sell water to a well.” “We’d go to these major record labels, and he’d convince the president to give us ads.”
In polite Montreal, McInnes wrote, in a 2012 memoir called “How to Piss in Public,” their “gonzo journalism stuck out like a thumb covered in shit.” But perhaps their greatest transgression was espousing an ambition that seemed suspiciously American. In Canada, Smith has said, “everyone’s a C-minus.” Within two years, they’d taken the magazine national, and infiltrated U.S. record stores, changing Voice to Vice, to avoid confusion both with their previous incarnation and with the Village Voice. According to McInnes, Smith had a habit of calling late at night from pay phones and shouting, “ ‘We are going to be rich,’ into the receiver again and again, like a financial pervert with O.C.D.”
Vice’s move to the U.S. began with a prank. Smith falsely told a Canadian newspaper that the magazine was being bought by the local dot-com millionaire Richard Szalwinski. According to Smith, the article caught Szalwinski’s eye, and he requested a meeting—where he offered to buy twenty-five per cent of the company, for just under a million dollars, and to finance a move to New York. (Szalwinski told Wired that he doesn’t remember reading the article, and that his investment was a few hundred thousand dollars.) Szalwinski envisaged a “multichannel brand” and built a state-of-the-art Web site, at Viceland.com. (At the time, “Vice.com” was owned by a pornographer.) In 1999, Vice moved into offices on West Twenty-seventh Street, in Manhattan, with pink couches and gold-plated espresso machines, and branched into retail, selling streetwear by labels like Stüssy in stores they opened in Manhattan—on Lafayette at Prince—and in Toronto, Montreal, and Los Angeles. “His plan was great,” Alvi said of Szalwinski, “but it was way, way too early.” In 2002, after the dot-com bubble burst, Szalwinski’s money evaporated. Vice owed money to landlords and to venders. From a valuation of just under four million dollars, Alvi recalled, they discovered that they were three million dollars in debt.
Vice moved to the offices of the clothing company Triple Five Soul, in Williamsburg, and attempted to regroup. Though at one time or another the founders had had a hand in every part of the business, a rough division of labor emerged: McInnes handled the magazine, while Smith and Alvi shared responsibility for everything else—the record label, the Web site, ad sales, business development, and Vice’s fledgling international expansion. Smith spent the year cutting deals with creditors. The dot-com experience, Alvi said, confirmed their faith in what they call “punk-rock capitalism”: the principle of paying in advance, instead of going into debt. They returned to a mantra of “One page of ads equals one page of content.” Within a year, Smith says, the company was profitable again.
A certain type of downtown denizen likes to talk about his first encounter with Vice. The magazine presented an aggressive hedonism—early covers featured lines of cocaine—combined with a love of everything taboo. Sample cover lines: “Retards and Hip Hop”; “Pregnant Lesbians”; “80s Coke Sluts.” Inside, the writing was inscrutable. “It was like it was written in another language,” Amy Kellner, the magazine’s former managing editor, who is now a photo editor at the Times, told me. Bylines were often made up. Articles tended to launch directly into rants. One reader said, “It was like a zine come to life.”