It has been 20 years since Eddie McGuiness, his then-partner Paul O’Connor, and artivist and designer Will St Leger launched a brand new publishing venture: a glossy LGBTQ+ culture bible in B5 format called FREE! Magazine. Alan Kelly looks back at a magazine that proved so popular it expanded into the world of telly, extended its reach to the UK, and featured Westlife in their first-ever interview for a gay magazine.
FREE! Magazine’s signature salacious style was perfectly in synch with Ireland’s gay scene at the time. It offered plucky, readable, and informative think pieces, personal columns, and vital information on healthcare (not always available in 2002 outside the city) for its LGBTQ+ readers.
Something people took from FREE! was a sense of fun, camaraderie, and humour. In the years since there has been a slew of other Irish-focused queer magazines -Gay Ireland (also known as GI) was glossy in a similar vein to Britain’s Attitude or Gay Times. Butcher Queers (edited by Will Saint Leger) was a radical zine (yours truly was a contributor), politically motivated, and advertisement-free. Their mandate was to prioritise edgier content over homonormativity. None, however, made the same impact as Free! Although, there was GCN.
Rather than becoming a direct rival, FREE! and GCN complemented each other and FREE! took certain thematic cues from Scene Magazine - another sexed-up queer bible circulating at the time - so at one stage there may have been three LGBTQ+ magazines in circulation in a small city. So what was the motivation for FREE!? “The reason we put out the magazine was because there wasn’t enough information in the areas of safe sex, drug abuse, and use,” says editor Eddie McGuiness. “In a way we were slightly ahead of ourselves, we didn’t want to sugarcoat anything, we didn’t want to sweeten anything, we wanted to be very direct - the scene wasn’t just about the partying.”
McGuinness wanted FREE! to collectively celebrate Ireland’s (via Dublin) gay scene. Drag kids, queens and queer aficionados (and of course, GCN readers) with a soft spot for ultra-violet wordplay will need no introduction to gay icon and telly personality Eddie McGuiness. With a career spanning 25 years, a large chunk of that time was spent navigating the echelons of the entertainment industry and Dublin nightlife. It all stood him in good stead for his time in publishing. He knew this world inside out and had grown a little disillusioned with the scene until the magazine enabled him to reconnect with his community. “Well, I did feel that FREE! would not have survived only for the circumstances at the time and that was of me being an editor and publisher and also a salesperson,” Eddie recalls. “It was mentally exhausting. I still do personally feel that in magazines on the scene- there isn’t enough talking about the scene, more of a focus on individuals.”
A dynamic self-starter, the former editor of the magazine is now Dublin Pride’s Event Manager and runs a highly successful Public Relations Agency called EMCG. Unlike now, Eddie and his coterie didn’t always have access to unlimited resources and often had to go down the DIY route when putting the magazine together - “Every issue became at times a tall order. I always remember Will St Leger, cofounder of magazine and our designer, along with my former partner, for three days and nights we would edit it in my bedroom, well, my house. One would sleep and the other would edit it. Designing it was a tall order and afterward we slept for two days…the fire in our belly kept us going.”
A common misconception among FREE! fans now is that it only catered for Dublin’s gay scene - and that was not the case: “We weren’t actually just on Dublin’s gay scene, no, no that was another magazine called Scene City-based around Dublin,” Eddie laughs. “We had Kristian Nairn as our voice from Belfast. We had a voice from Limerick, we had a voice from Cork, the midlands, and at the same time, Dublin was the biggest scene. Being a country boy myself, we thought it was important to have a magazine that spoke for those from the country. For nearly four years it gave us country bumpkins a voice.”
McGuiness always had an open-door policy (for interviews and features) for emerging pop groups, columnists, and drag artists, and worked with some household names right at the very beginning of their careers: Panti Bliss, Westlife, and everyone’s former favourite frenemy, Annie Balls.
“Annie Balls is still around but not as Annie Balls - Annie was one of our many writers, Annie at times was close to the bone and very blunt and got us into trouble.”
One can only imagine how the wildness of FREE! magazine would be received now. “I don’t think FREE! would survive cancel culture,” Eddie says. “We didn’t have the infrastructure because we were very much ‘scene’, heavy on entertainment. Most of our promotors were based around that. And that was what kept it going. But at the same time, as we developed and the major brands start coming on board, we turned it into a TV program once a month on City Channel. We were also featured on RTE and we utilised other forms of media. Once we even got barred from The George for a cheeky bum cover and we ended up on The Gerry Ryan Show which gave us even more publicity. So we didn’t take ourselves seriously but at the same time, we had a serious message.”
With print media rapidly declining and a transition (that started years ago) to New Journalism and press outlets online - could Free! magazine be resurrected (alongside Annie Balls) in the digital age? Free! could easily compete with other popular online magazines. It had some innovative writing including articles on travel, tips on sex (from Eddie), comic strips (from J Mills), features on gay-friendly travel, and hilarious (and searingly slanderous) opinion pieces from local drag superstars. What more could we want?
“I would love to bring it back - to give an additional voice to LGBQ+. I do think it would be complimentary to GCN, and in a way, it’s a compliment to the dedication of the decades of people who came before me and after me, being a publisher and an editor. And since it is 20 years since our last issue - it still has a legacy there,” notes Eddie. “When I did FREE! magazine in the first place, it became a passion and also a love - interviewing people I would never ever get a chance to interview… Each time we were doing something different, every issue had a message around sex, gender, and drugs - which is still out there, even though at times people still don’t talk about it. It was a passion and I couldn’t have done it without the people behind me -Declan McGregor, Paul O’ Connor, and Will St Leger.”
Some of FREE! magazine’s best bits
Eddie conducted an in-depth interview with Ireland’s favourite boy band. It was their first time and Eddie happily popped their cherry - we mean their first interview in a gay magazine.
Annie Balls ‘Ask Me Bollix’
Renowned troublemaker, the wickedly entertaining queen of mean Annie Balls (alongside Revvlon) had a column. Like a latter-day Hedda Hopper, she regaled readers with her mean-spirited gossip, rapier wit and venomous barbs.
Free to Express on City Channel
FREE! quickly gained traction, earning it a segment on the now-defunct City Channel TV. Free to Express aired three times a day, seven days a week and was loved by scene queens everywhere - in Dublin, that is.
Eddie’s Gay to Z of Sex
From fellatio to felching -Eddie’s sexpertise was a hugely popular column.
— We wonder what columnists, rebels and troublemakers would grace its pages now?
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