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Grindr's new agenda
Photography Rankin, styling Alister Mackie. Taken from Dazed issue 17, 1996

What’s Grindr’s new agenda?

From streaming fashion shows to helping gay Syrian refugees get to safe houses, there’s a lot more to the world’s most infamous app than you realised

I meet Landis Smithers, Grindr’s Vice President of Marketing, on day three of London Collections: Men, the city’s biannual menswear fashion week. He shows up to our meeting in a neoprene coat that's been printed with a photograph of a nude man, covered in what looks like white paint – a part-time fashion photographer, the image is one of his own. On most, this kind of self-indulgence would not be a good look. Somehow, Smithers actually pulls it off.

That morning, Grindr, the almost seven-year-old app best known for bringing cruising into the 21st century by providing a virtual buffet of nearby users for gay hook-ups, had its first major foray beyond the bedroom. Four days previously, they'd announced via a story in The New York Times that they would be live streaming J.W. Anderson’s AW16 menswear fashion show on the app, which currently counts an astounding million users a minute across the world. The surprise partnering was the result of a relationship between Grindr, Anderson and PR Consulting, the New York-based public relations company that in certain capacities represents them both. For the designer, it lent a kind of exposure many can only dream of (as well as being a way to rattle any remaining establishment pearl-clutchers); for the app, it aligned their brand with a pioneering, dynamic fashion force, won them a lot of mainstream press, and brought users more than the usual carousel of shirtless men.

"It couldn't have gone better," Smithers sighs with obvious relief as we sit down in the bar of his hotel, revealing he’d been tossing and turning all night with worries about technical meltdowns. Things went as planned – users logging on to the app got a pop up notification inviting them to stream the show, with the video available for up to 24 hours after it ended, thus ensuring the entire world got a chance to get in on the action. “For me it was how could we reach 196 countries in one moment,” designer Jonathan Anderson said backstage of the partnership. “It’s quite amazing to be able to access seven million people at once... I feel like it’s very important that brands explore media, it’s the only way forward. I don’t see any differentiation between Grindr, Tinder and Instagram.”

Nor do Grindr’s users, apparently. “I joke that there’s the first-adopters, or as I call them the ‘knees to neck’…” Smithers makes a gesture, boxing off his torso in the crop many users have in their profile pictures, “then there’s the second generation who have their full face, a link to their’s just a part of life, it’s not a big deal.” Having downloaded the app a few days prior to our meeting and discovered it to be more like a location-based version of WhatsApp than the dick pic free-for-all I was expecting, I know what he means. Young, attractive men see nothing wrong with having their faces on display. Why should they? “Ultimately, people will know I’m gay,” said one guy I messaged on Grindr to ask if he ever felt uncomfortable about being so upfront. “If I recognise someone at a supermarket then so be it. Why would I be worried?”

For Smithers, who joined the company from branding heavyweight Pepsi in September, the foray into fashion was just the first move in a strategy that will see Grindr’s “0 feet away from” tagline used to bring people closer to everything from intimate, behind the scenes access to the world’s best musicians to the educational talks they plan to host at their currently under-construction cultural centre in Los Angeles. No doubt the £68m investment they just took from Chinese gaming company Beijing Kunlun Tech will help bring all this to fruition, as discussed in a statement from founder Joel Simkhai. To Smithers, expanding their offering seems a logical move. “I was looking at my Tumblr feed and I realised that it’s basically fashion, fashion, porn, porn, interior design, art, porn, porn,” he explains. “It’s just how we absorb things these days. And I would like to have a tool where I can do that in real life.” In other words, there’s no reason men can’t get their popular culture the same place they go to pick up.

“I was looking at my Tumblr feed and I realised that it’s basically fashion, fashion, porn, porn, interior design, art, porn, porn. It’s just how we absorb things these days” – Landis Smithers

While Grindr has dipped its toes into partnerships before – it counts Uber, Audi and Airbnb among advertisers, and offered users a chance to buy Nicki Minaj and Madonna tickets before everyone else, a move which almost sold out The Queen of Pop's tour – a fashion partnership felt like a suitable starting point for Smithers. “Fashion is in my blood and I think for a lot of gay men it is as well,” he explains. “It’s a form of expression, but also our version of sports in some ways – who’s on the team, where are people moving to.” The desire also came from wanting to do something unexpected (with “poking fun at the fussy establishment a little bit” coming as an added bonus). Still, Smithers was cautious about the execution. “It had to be the right thing. I just didn’t want it to be an underwear brand or a swimwear brand, I didn’t want it to be predictable,” he says. As the fashion establishment’s golden boy, the choice of Anderson certainly wasn’t expected – but with the openly gay designer’s penchant for provocation it was a pairing that definitely made sense.

However, while the show may have gone without a hitch, not everyone was pleased about the partnership. “There was some controversy,” Smithers admits. “There were a couple of model agencies that wouldn’t send their models to Jonathan. There is definitely a prejudice. I’m not gonna drop the homophobia bomb here, but there was a fear… I guess they think we’re salacious or something.” Admittedly, despite the app’s no profile picture nudity policy, it doesn’t exactly have a safe for work reputation. Instead, it’s seen by some as a reinforcer of pervasive, negative stereotypes about gay men – primarily that they are promiscuous and practice unsafe sex. One 2014 Time op-ed went so far as to say that hook-up apps were “destroying gay youth culture”. Smithers puts the negativity down to the stigma that still surrounds being gay – one he admits he didn’t realise was so prevalent until this project. “It kind of did shock me. Everyone who thinks that Tinder doesn’t have the same result as Grindr has obviously never used Tinder,” he asserts. “No one’s ever really owned up to what’s going on there – it’s like, oh it’s all okay because they’re just ‘dating’. They’re just ‘watching Netflix’.”

Grindr aren’t fazed by their association with sex – it’s what the app is built on. “We’re going to be absolutely unapologetic about what we’re doing,” Smithers says. “Trying to deny that sex is a part of it is just a waste of time for all of us because, God – it’s fun! Everybody does it! Why would we not want to openly talk about it and share information and make it better?” It’s this educational dimension they’re championing – from ads telling users where to get an STI test in their neighbourhood to disseminating information about PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, a pioneering drug that’s little known in the US but shown to slash HIV transmission rates by up to 92 per cent. “We’re going to work hard for people’s health and wellness and we are going to help people with any issues that they have, but we’re also not going to judge,” he continues. “If we weren’t here, people would still be taking chems and going out to bars, right? Or they’d be finding fuck buddies and doing it that way. People will find way to get what they want. Which does not mean that we’re encouraging unhealthy behaviour – it’s just that we’re not being naïve about the way human beings operate. HIV really created such a huge stigma – sex became life or death for so many years, even decades. I think the gay community has to get over its own shame.” 

Grindr’s social agenda extends a lot further than hook ups. For the 35 per cent of the app’s users who live in a country where it’s illegal to be gay, and the many more besides who reside in communities where it’s still frowned upon, it’s a lifeline – a connection to a world that accepts them for who they are. “Joel is constantly reminding me that there are boys out there in the midwest of America, there are boys out there in Africa and in China, whose only access to this culture is through the app,” Smithers says. “They know that when they are of age they can find that there are other people like them. Every time he says that I get really quiet because it’s heartbreaking…I remember being in Houston, Texas and I had to put myself in a car and drive to the only gay bar I knew of and sit outside of it three weeks in a row – I was too afraid to go in, when I finally did it was fine! That was the first unlock for me. Now, people can go online and meet people and go on Tumblr and access things they’re into and I just think, thank God.”

“HIV really created such a huge stigma – sex became life or death for so many years, even decades. I think the gay community has to get over its own shame”

Quietly, Grindr have also been using their access to users for social good for years, and while news of the stake-sell to a Chinese company has prompted questioning of whether the app will soon be available there, the truth is that it already is – and it comes with sexual health advice in colloquial Chinese. But there’s more to their mission than health – “When the Syrian crisis happened we sent out messages to everyone leaving Syria,” Smithers says. “So if you’re gay and you’re leaving Syria and you opened Grindr, there was a message that told you were to find a safe house. We spend a lot of time worrying about like, whether or not screen pictures are showing up, and then Jack who is head of our equality department will come in and be like, ‘There’s are really bad syphilis outbreak in Africa and I just helped people understand how to prevent it’ or, ‘There’s a crackdown in Libya where they’re imprisoning people’ and we’re like – oh yeah, we’ve got nothing to worry about. We are so privileged and we need to re-focus ourselves.”

Grindr may have got people talking with their runway debut, but for the most part, things will be business as usual with the app. While Smithers does envision a time when users could invite friends or family to interact with the extra content it offers, it’s staying true to its primary function. “We’re not going to eliminate what we are,” he reassures. “It’s still going to be super easy, super clean and super direct. These things will be more like special offerings that add on to the experience now and again – we’re not going to bombard people on a daily basis with this type of stuff. Here are the hot guys that you’re looking for, and here’s some cultural moments that maybe you didn’t even know that you wanted to see.” The good news is, Grindr isn’t about to become squeaky clean. “The only way to do this is to be unapologetic,” concludes Smithers. “You either get us or you don’t. You either buy it or you don’t. We are who we are.” That’s not going to change any time soon.