John Ryan

Originally published in the Sunday Independent in August 2007

Everyone Love’s a Loser: a look at ill fated magazine, New York Dog and it’s creator John Ryan.

All in all it’s been a bit of an annus horribilus for John Ryan. His much-heralded magazine, New York Dog, crashed and burned in spectacular fashion and he left that city with burnt bridges and bad debts in his wake. His website, which specialised in sniping at others in the Irish media has run aground and appears completely dormant now. If business was bad his personal life wasn’t much better. His girlfriend discovered God (‘there were three of us in that relationship from the start’, he quipped) and one of the creditors of the magazine alleged that rather than paying her he had asked her out on a date. And then to top it all off Winky, the infamous one-eyed Chihuahua and John’s favourite high-camp catwalk prop was taken back by her original owner who had wanted a gig at the ill-fated mutt mag. It was all too much. Asked on radio a few weeks ago if he was depressed John said he was ‘extremely hurt.’

The pain was probably exacerbated by John’s suspicion that many in the Irish media had been eagerly waiting for precisely this moment. They had always, he felt, portrayed him as a poncey Armani-clad upstart, the original Monkstown Man. He publicly announced he had left Ireland to get away from their ‘malice’ and small-minded resentfulness of his big vision. ‘It’s regrettable that everything I’m involved with has a negative connotation taken up in Ireland’, he once raged.

So you would think that some ‘he’s back with his tail between his legs’ shadenfreude would be inevitable. John himself was bracing himself for the onslaught and talking of karmic comeuppance for Blogorrah, his media-bitch sabre rattler. And yet surprisingly the news that his magazine was folding and that he was heavily in debt was greeted mostly with muted sympathy back home. Several well-known columnists confidently predicted that he’d be back and most people I spoke to while researching this piece asked me to ‘be gentle with him.’ Ryan Tubridy offered him a shoulder to cry on, practically counselling him on air. We might have sneered at Winky at the time but now that she was gone back to her mean mommy there was to be no gloating or mentions of pride before the fall. In some ways, you could say John was never so popular.

Part of it is probably his self-flagellating knowingness. Whatever epithets were ever hurled at John, he’s likely come up with much worse himself. He now openly concedes he didn’t cut a very likeable figure when New York Dog was launched. He uses the word ‘failure’ in relation to himself and talks of having to explain what is written about him to his mother. And most irresistibly of all he taps into a national psychosis by admitting that one of the worst things to come out of his various career missteps was the feeling that he could never quite live up to his own father, ‘a real man of letters.’ The aim of being a big success was, he says now, ‘all very complicated and Freudian… I felt a sense of inadequacy in his shadow.’

John Ryan senior was also a renowned bon vivant, publisher, pub owner (of the Bailey on Duke Street in Dublin) and confidante of Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan. ‘He was one of the few of that bohemian 60s crowd in Dublin who actually had some money’, a friend of his son told me. ‘There was only about 20 people in Ireland who had any taste at that time and his father was 5 of them. He was wealthy but incredibly literate with it. And that’s something John (Jr.) wanted to live up to.’

After an ‘unspectacular’ Leaving Cert. Ryan left for London where he hung around worked on building sites, lived in a squat and was generally miserable. He eventually got a job with a local paper and soon progressed to shifts at London’s Evening Standard. The Balkans war was going on at the time and Ryan, attracted to the glamour of war reporting, left for Yugoslavia. He described the experience as ‘like a heightened sense of being alive…the alcohol tasted better, the cigarettes tasted better, the sex was better.’ He later covered the massacre in Rwanda and the elections in South Africa but found life on the front line of journalism ‘essentially sad’ and plotted his return to Dublin.

On his return home his first big gig was editing InDublin magazine, in which he, in the words of another journalist ‘turned down the old hackery’ and made the magazine altogether more slick, sexy and marketable with a Loaded-style editorial.

One of his first big breaks came at this newspaper writing for The Keane Edge during its ‘Sweetie’ heyday, when it was probably the most talked about column in the country. Ryan was well liked at the Sunday Independent and had a close friendship with Terry Keane. Ryan later left the Sunday Independent after a row with a secretary in which he refused to apologise. He claimed the last straw was being asked to dress up in drag as Eddie from Absolutely Fabulous (witnesses remember him rather enjoying the process) – and subsequently seemed to develop the erroneous impression that their was some vendetta against him by the paper’s editors. This seems unlikely when you learn that a short while later he took up a post as features editor of the Irish Independent, where he last only four months. A slew of other jobs some freelance, some permanent followed. He presented the Sunday Supplement on Radio Ireland (now today FM) before Sam Smyth took it over and was also managing editor of Magill under Vincent Browne, which he left after only seven months. He would later move to the Sunday Times and was involved in setting up its Culture Ireland section.

1999 was a big year for Ryan. Along with former RTE producer and close friend Cillian Fennell he was involved in Terry Keane’s infamous Late Late appearance in which she admitted the most open secret in the country: that she had been Charlie Haughey’s mistress for several decades. The episode caused much heartbreak in the Keane family, who were adamantly against the interview and many who saw the events unfold acknowledge John Ryan’s part in brokering Terry’s appearance. ‘I made a friend of him once’, Madeleine Keane, Terry’s daughter, who worked alongside John at the Sunday Independent, remembers. ‘I wouldn’t like to make an enemy of him.’

The appearance on the Late Late was part of a process, which saw the Keane Edge move to the Sunday Times, a move John Ryan loudly took credit for. But it was not to be successful move, the public seemingly uncomfortable with the open secret of Terry Keane and Charlie Haughey’s relationship being brought into the light of day to the embarrassment of their respective families. ‘Sweetie’ wasn’t as much fun when it had all been spelled out and John, perhaps belatedly realising this, was understood to have regretted his part in the move. ‘It’s in my character to beat myself up’, he later said, ‘and I was doing lots of that during the days after the Terry Keane story broke…if I had known what would happen I wouldn’t have gotten involved and would have warned her against it.’

At this point he seemed to have a new job every 2 minutes.‘It was a frantic period for him’, a friend of his remembers. ‘It was as though he had decided he couldn’t bear to work for anyone.’

And so in 1999 he tried to work for himself by breaking out of journalism and into publishing. Together with business partner Michael O’Doherty he set up VIP, a sort of Irish version of Hello! The idea came to Ryan during a dinner with publisher Mike Hogan in Patrick Guilbaud’s restaurant. It occurred to him that ten years before the venue for such a dinner would probably have been ‘Bewleys with the windows steamed up’ and that the newly wealthy Ireland needed a celebrity magazine of its own. With its heavy emphasis on celebrity weddings and soft focus interviews the magazine was sneered at by many in the media who felt that such a small country did not have a large enough celebrity population to support such a title. But VIP quickly won a large readership and its success became one of the symbols of Ireland during the boom.

In many ways John was the man of that moment. Ambitious, brash and charming with a flop of hair and a dandyish dress sense, he was, for many people, the embodiment of the Celtic Tiger; a sort of yuppie 2.0. The camp persona, which he would later work while promoting the dog magazine, was a way off yet and in fact John is not actually gay. He dated a string of semi-famous women, including former Off The Rails presenters Liz Bonnin and Fiona McShane. Indeed for a time it was said that to date John you had to be involved in some way in television programming dedicated to women. One of his most serious relationships was with former Radio Ireland (now Today FM) presenter Cliona Ni Bhuachalla, whose show was proving less than successful, an apparent source of tension in the relationship. He later tried to climb a few rungs up the celebrity ladder to Andrea Roche but she was understood to have spurned his advances. However the image of Ryan as the stereotypical Monkstown Man, a would-be lothario and privileged son of Southside Dublin is disputed by his friends. ‘He definitely wasn’t some sort of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly type’, a friend of his told me. ‘He was way, way brighter than that. He just has a very large personality.’

‘He was a womaniser’, another woman who knew him, tells me. ‘But not like a Latin American womaniser who might make no secret of his philanderings. John made every woman feel like she was the one. And then when they found out the truth he was cowardly about conflict. That’s part of the reason he was so unpopular in many quarters.’

Others saw different reasons. ‘You have to understand there was a lot of professional jealousy of John’, Cillian Fennell told me. ‘And that accounts for a lot of the sniping about him. Some people would have hacked away for years to get jobs that he turned his back on without a second thought.’

Buoyed by the success of VIP and TV Now – a rival to the RTE guide, which he had also set up with O’Doherty – he moved on to new projects, first setting up GI magazine, which aimed at Ireland’s newly legal gay market. The maiden advertising campaign caused some controversy, consisting as it did of two Gaelic football players snogging in their kits. Dubliner publisher Trevor White’s later summation of Ryan as someone who could see the big picture but who wasn’t too keen on the small print was already evident at this stage. ‘There was no particular budget for running GI,’ says former editor Brian Finnegan, ‘which in retrospect I can see was a little strange. But he wasn’t into scrimping and saving. He wanted the best of everything.’ Despite selling fairly well the magazine was unable to attract advertisers and soon folded.

By the time that happened he was already focussing his attentions on Stars on Sunday, a magazine made up entirely of pictures, captions and ads. As if embarrassed to be putting his fair name to such a shamelessly lowbrow rag, Ryan spoke openly of how this was a symptom of the general dumbing down of culture and how he was just riding that wave. For some this was just John being knowingly ironic again for others it was patronizing cynicism. Whatever it was, it wasn’t successful. Ryan was discovering that it was difficult to market a product while maintaining an ironic distance from it. He hardly seemed surprised that people were put off by his persona, noting that if he saw himself on the street he would say, ‘well, he’s a wanker, a total wanker.’

However with John it was always OK if he said it himself but not if others said it. Already he was becoming a figure of fun in the local media and the combination of his thin skin in the face of criticism (some of it valid, some of it unnecessarily bitchy) with his business failures meant that he was eager to leave Dublin. He had, he said ‘an epic sense of self-loathing and much of what was being written about me fed into that.’ He longed, he said, to go somewhere he could start with a clean slate, somewhere people had no pre-conceived notion of him. In an interview he expressed a desire to live in New York even though he had never even visited the city.

He would eventually make it to New York and while walking in Central Park he met a woman who was grieving for her dead dog and presumably after drying her eyes had what he thought was a brilliant idea for a new business. He would set up a magazine to cater to Manhattan’s pampered pooches and their crazy owners. Just as with VIP in Dublin the timing was right for a dedicated dog digest. New York was overrun with lonely people who had lost relatives in 9/11 and were now showering tragic levels of attention on their substitute children. Celebrities like Paris Hilton and Sharon Osbourne were making hideous little toy dogs the rich-bitch accessory du jour. And New Yorkers with their tiny apartments are renowned for thinking that buying a Dalmatian her own ski jacket and booties somehow compensates for the fact that she lives in a cage 23 hours a day. A magazine subscription featuring pet horoscopes (‘today you will be walked’), doggy fashion (‘queer eye for the scruffy dog’) and advice on if your dog really loves you would not be such a leap for such people.

Ryan’s company, which was behind both New York dog and Blogorrah was called Gatsby publishing. It was an interesting choice of name given that F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s creation was a man who made his money in some shady manoeuvres, who is hiding his past and who is obsessed by his own image.

‘If he were a dog himself he’d definitely be a poodle’, one person who was part of the launch of New York Dog told me of Ryan. ‘He’s highly intelligent, a little too well groomed and very, very sensitive.’

And for a while it seemed that it really would be a success. Ryan created a lot of buzz for the first issue – appearing on the Late Late Show with a stand in for Winky (she couldn’t get a visa, apparently) and a pair of silicone dog testicles in his hand – and sales were good initially. However again his habit of patronizing his audience – he described the very dog-owners he was courting as ‘mad’ – grated and soon cracks began to appear in the already heavily under-capitalised company. Staff members at the magazine reportedly heard him screaming on the phone that he needed money and ‘using the ‘C word’’. Soon they were not getting paid and Ryan was unable to pay his bills as they fell due. There are two schools of thought on just why this happened. Janice Ridge, a former out-of-office account executive at Gatsby publishing (Ryan’s company which published New York Dog as well as it’s spin off Hollywood Dog) alleged on digandscratch.com, a former rival of New York Dog, that the failure of the magazine was because ‘the business acumen of John Ryan is a disaster.’ She alleges that she is owed $12,500. Another staffer claimed she had to wait for cheques and that her health insurance had not been paid while a third said she was taking a lawsuit against her former college for ‘finding me this dead beat job.’

When Ryan read these claims he wrote that he ‘wanted to crawl into the foetal position and howl.’ Some of the criticism, he said, was valid but much of it was ‘mad’ and ‘simply not true’. He also took exception to being depicted by disgruntled former employees as, in his words, ‘some monstrous, Armani-clad prick.’ According to Ryan, the real reason the business had failed was because too many advertisers had defaulted on their debts. Many of them were small, new firms, ‘mom-and-pop outfits’ in Ryan’s words, and the sums they owed were so small that in most instances it would hardly be worth his while legally pursuing them. At the time there was a scare in America relating to a supposed Chinese ingredient in pet food, which could be fatal to animals in high doses, which, according to Ryan, lead to a further withdrawal of advertising.

Ryan says he spent much of a ‘particularly grim’ summer trying to court possible new investors who might pick up the tab of the outstanding debts. He added that he had never left any bad debts behind him before and didn’t intend to start now. ‘I’m still trying to make it happen’, he said. ‘Anything’s possible.’

Ryan continues to insist all is not lost. He characterises the magazines as dormant rather than definitively finished. The cash injection of one decent investor is all that will be needed to revive them, he says. Blogorrah, which hasn’t been updated in months, was given another deadline of making its return by the time the kids went back to school. But term has started and the site still looks as quiet as ever.

Some are defensive about the depiction of Ryan as some kind of incompetent rogue director. ‘Not wishing to be uncharitable about it but isn’t it sort of a given that when a business goes under people won’t get paid?’ one of his friends asked me. ‘This was a new business, John risked a lot himself as well and they’re acting like he wilfully set out to screw them.’ ‘I have absolute faith that he will be back (in business)’ Trevor White told me. He’s too talented and clever not to bounce back from this.’

It’s a reaction you hear from a lot of people when you mention John’s name. Ryan claims to not want the approval of the chattering classes but even hardened media hacks sound vaguely protective when they speak of him. When once it appeared he had leapfrogged out of the little pond of Dublin media life he was fair game and his every move denounced as cynical and calculating, now in defeat he’s suddenly become nearly as endearing as Winky. His failure seems like a metaphor for the sober reality of post boom Ireland and we all want to pet him reassuringly on his soft, downy head. The danger is that this won’t help his enormous sense of self-pity or his well-documented victim-complex. But everyone needs a little breathing room now and again and you can’t keep a good dog down. Even if that dog is a bit of a poodle.

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~ by Donal Lynch on February 29, 2008.

2 Responses to “John Ryan”

  1. I really wish John would stop insisting that the demise of his publications was because of the advertisers withdrawing, failing to pay, and because of the dog food problems. To be completely honest, the problems were centered around John’s lack of business acumen. A publisher who will charge the credit cards of his advertisers without telling them, charge them for ads they never submitted, not pay his printers, not pay his staff…the list goes on and on. His staff insisted that he not try to capitalize on the dog food industry problems,as they were all in protective mode at that time, was just not in John’s realm of reality. The magazines, New York Dog and Hollywood Dog, were tightly niched in the “fashion” end of the pet industry, hardly the mass circulation the food comp[anies needed to reach to counteract the horrible publicity they were receiving. I suppose you really must feel sorry for someone like John who simply is his own worst enemy. Unfortunately, he made many enemies of this staff then and the ones before my time. As I understand it, he left the US in some substantial debt not only to the staffers but to the vendors, subscribers, printers and the IRS. Perhaps John should remember the personal guarantee he made to me.

  2. I met John Ryan in a cafe in Hollywood, Los Angeles a couple of years ago. I’ve never met Donal Lynch and after reading above article, have no desire to. To me John Ryan was a very kind, generous, good man. To judge that others were wrong is usually as far as most of us ever get. It leaves the ‘judges’ wallowing in ignorant, righteous arrogance and makes them miserable. Thoreau wrote that “most people live lives of quiet desperation” Anyone can write anything they want-obviously I’m writing this but who can live with what they do without it pervading their whole being in some often subtle way thus everyone re-creates their own misery. So enlightenment is to know that no one is to blame for anything, not even ourselves. So my fears that make me judge you or anyone have to be written down on paper or they are in my head and manifesting in my life.

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