How the net killed Playboy's naked ambition
As Hugh Hefner's iconic mag reveals it is to end nude photo shoots, our reporter ponders its place in publishing history
Published 15/10/2015 | 02:30
The news that Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine will no longer feature naked ladies has been met with widespread head-scratching.
To most of us, Playboy without nudity is like an Irish summer without rain or a José Mourinho press conference minus the intemperate outbursts. The very idea is inherently ridiculous.
Announcing the bombshell, the magazine's publishers this week explained that, with the rise of internet pornography, comparatively tasteful shots of topless film-stars and models are old hat. With nakedness - and far worse - on tap, who has time for Playboy's Mad Men-esque, cigars-and-cognac idea of titillation?
"You're now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free," Scott Flanders, Playboy's chief executive, told the New York Times. "It's just passé at this juncture."
"This decision certainly represents a huge turning point for the Playboy brand, but I can understand why the decision was made," says Irish model Rosanna Davison, who posed for Playboy Germany in 2012. "It's so easy to access nude images online now, that the magazine probably felt that an overhaul was needed. On a larger scale, I think this represents the natural evolution of print media and the impact that the internet has on every aspect of it."
Others have wondered whether a soft-porn magazine can survive without the pornography. "What is Playboy without the nudity?" wrote Jezebel's Kate Dries. "A magazine you can actually say you read for the articles. Like all those other ones out there."
To claim you bought Playboy "for the articles" was, of course, a long-standing joke. Yet its intellectual aspirations were undeniable, with the magazine publishing lengthy interviews with Martin Luther King Jr, Vladimir Nabokov, Malcolm X and Jimmy Carter (the preacher turned president admitting he lusted for women other than his wife). Playboy was a literary powerhouse too, ushering into print short fiction by Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami.
Journalistically and culturally, it wasn't at all in the same league but having contributed for several years to a leading lads magazine - stuffed to the brim with the usual scantily-attired models - I can personally attest to the high standards holding sway at downscale men's publishing.
In my experience, the editorial team tended to be extremely well educated, politely spoken and focused on good writing (ie, as far removed as possible from the stereotype of the typical reader). When you were commissioned to pen a piece, you were presented with a detailed list of what it should include - deviating, it was made clear, was not an option.
The editors were also advocates for the supposedly imperilled genre of long-form reportage. I was once tasked with writing a detailed feature about the downward trajectory of a previously popular chain of strip clubs. Having never stepped foot inside a strip club, I was dubious but found myself embarking on a proper odyssey of investigative journalism, interviewing dozens of sources and engaging in genuinely exciting reporting.
Sure, some people refused to talk to me because I was representing a lad mag. But most were incredibly open and went out of their way to make themselves available. It was a learning experience, I'll say that.
Playboy's business model has been in trouble for many years, with circulation tumbling to a record low of 800,000 (the publication is estimated to lose $3m annually, with most of Playboy Inc's revenues accruing from licensing deals).
That's quite a decline from its early 1970s circulation peak of 7.2 million (this when it was banned in Ireland, where it was regarded as the epitome of Godless decadence). In 1972, a quarter of all US male college students were Playboy readers (and those were the ones who admitted to it).
Feminists flocked to Twitter yesterday to cheer the demise of Playboy in its present form - correctly highlighting the magazine's leading role in the objectification of women. But, along with tut-tutting at the publication's flagrant sexism, it is also possible to take a more nuanced view and acknowledge that Playboy, in its own skewed fashion, served as a progressive force in society.
Playboy could be cheap and nasty - but its key message that sex should be a source of pleasure rather than guilt was extremely forward thinking by post-war standards. More than merely a collection of nudie pics, with Don Draper-esque publisher Hefner at the helm, Playboy preached a sexually adventurous lifestyle (albeit one in which men remained very much in control). However uncomfortable it may make us feel, it must be recognised that Playboy had a part in the sexual revolution of the 1960s (not that you would have noticed in this country, where, incredibly, it remained prohibited until 1995).
Culturally, its influence was tremendous - by the 1980s posing for Playboy had become a rite of passage for a certain stripe of female star. Madonna has graced the magazine, along with Dolly Parton, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss (not every celebrity bared all - plenty were happy to).
Playboy was founded by Hefner in 1953, with archetypal bombshell Marilyn Monroe its first cover-girl. Now aged 89, the fast-living patriarch was not behind the decision to drop the naked ladies. Instead, the proposal was put to him by editor Cory Jones, who visited his boss at the still notorious Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills over the summer.
As several of Hefner Playboy 'bunnies' frolicked on the manicured lawn, Jones sat down with Hefner in an oak panelled antechamber and made his pitch. The internet was a pornography pipeline, pumping licentiousness into every home with a broadband connection. How could Playboy compete with such a deluge?
To his surprise, Hefner agreed. In a redesign to be unveiled next March, Playboy will go upmarket. There will still be curvaceous models striking provocative poses - but now their intimate parts are to be under wraps. Rather than pitting itself against xxx internet sites, Playboy's rivals will be the more demure likes of GQ and Esquire. Henceforth, people really will be buying Playboy for the writing.
This is quite a turnabout. Politically incorrect even by the standards of the 1950s, it is to Hefner's credit that he never pretended that Playboy was anything other than it was. His goal was to create a magazine he wanted to read. If other men happened to get a kick out of it, so much the better.
"If you're a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you," he said in his first editor's letter. "We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex..."
However cringeful such a mission statement might seem in 2015, half a century ago it was absolutely radical - particularly the idea that a gent-about-town could regard intimacy with ladies as just another sophisticated pursuit.
Hefner was born in Chicago in 1926 and fought in World War II. Having studied psychology he took a job at Esquire, then the dominant men's journal. Quitting the publication after being denied a pay-rise in 1953, he mortgaged all his possessions and launched his own magazine (with help from a $1,000 contribution from his mother). Initially the new venture was to be called Stag Party. At the final moment Hefner had a rethink and opted for something a little classier - Playboy (the fact that Stag magazine was threatening to sue helped to sway him).
Issue one boasted a Marilyn Monroe image from her notorious nude 1949 shoot and sold a respectable 50,000 copies. In his office in an skyscraper in downtown Chicago, Hefner - possibly sipping a martini and almost certainly attired in crushed velvet - surely felt a shiver of vindication. He was right and everyone else was wrong: there truly was a market for a men's magazine that celebrated sex rather than pretended it didn't exist.
His world view was of course fundamentally chauvinistic. Hefner may have seen himself as forward thinking - he was unquestionably a revolutionary. But feminists rightly identified the knuckle-dragging aspect of his grand project.
Tellingly, the famous Playboy "bunny" logo was an articulation of his belief that women and rabbits had much in common. A bunny, he once said, was "a fresh animal, shy, vivacious, jumping - sexy. First it smells you, then it escapes, then it comes back, and you feel like caressing it, playing with it. A girl resembles a bunny. Joyful, joking".
Hefner has not spoken publicly about the decision to take Playboy upmarket. It is possible he has mixed feelings. Perhaps he believes Playboy without nudity a contradiction in terms. On the other hand, he may understand that the sexual uprising that he hoped to foment through the pages of his magazine has achieved its goals.
Ours, after all, is a society saturated in sex, where, with even a little technical savvy, any teenage boy may access images that would have readers of 1970s girly mag scraping their jaws off the floor.
As Hefner kicks back in the mansion that pornography built, the old cad may conclude that Playboy's work is done.