I was mildly surprised when I read today that Playboy has decided it will no longer feature full female nudity in its pages.
I mean, I haven't seen the magazine in years, but I think it's probably fair to say that Playboy, and its relatively tame photos, have touched the psyche of any American kid who came up in the age of Hefner, that is to say the second half of the 20th century.
Almost everyone I know has a Playboy story or two. Perhaps they once found their father's stash. Perhaps their mother once found their stash. For an American teenager at one time, sneaking a Playboy was almost a rite of passage. I have a couple of stories myself.
Around 1972, my parents bought a beachside cabin in Baja, between Rosarito and Ensenada. It was a shack, really, and the sole bedroom was barely big enough to contain a bed. The previous owner, a Navy man, I believe, named Chester C. Crush (memorable name, plus his initials were carved into the doors), had papered the ceiling of the teensy bedroom with Playboy centerfolds.
My mother was totally grossed out.
She chopped up a bunch of Sunset magazines, and glued photos of landscapes and gardens over the rampant ceiling boobage. As a joke, though, she left one pair of breasts uncovered. I would lie on the bed with my friends and ask, "Do you see anything unusual on the ceiling?"
Many years later, I was asked by the Detroit Free Press magazine to write a story about a young Michigan woman who had been selected to pose as Playboy's Playmate of the Month. I'd worked at the Detroit Free Press as a fashion editor and columnist for several years, and when I took a job at the L.A. Times in 1990, the Free Press asked me if I could squeeze in a freelance assignment.
What feminist wouldn't want to write about the antediluvian custom of photographing naked women for the pleasure of horny dudes? I leaped at the chance.
Frankly, I did not have a huge objection to pictures of nekkid ladies, although I have never bought the idea that women who choose to pose nude, or dance nude, are exercising true agency over their own sexual lives. They are allowing themselves to be exploited for cash. That's not my definition of empowerment. But hey, as long as there is no coercion involved, I can live with that.
At the time, I was told by Playboy spokespeople that I was the first reporter ever to be invited to cover an actual playmate shoot. Was that true? Really, I have no idea. But of course, that made the assignment even more enticing.
I recall meeting the young woman at the Playboy Mansion for a pre-shoot interview. I pulled up to the massive gates of Hef's Holmby Hills mansion and felt like an idiot announcing my presence to a giant rock.
The gates swung open, I drove up to the circular driveway in front of the mansion and, to my shock, there were kiddie toys all over the place, including a swing hanging from one of the big trees. (Another Playboy memory: When Hefner, then 63, announced he was marrying 26-year-old Kimberly Conrad in 1990, People magazine put him on the cover. The subheadline: "Next week: Hell Freezes Over.")
I visited with the playmate in a guest cottage near the mansion. It seemed like a very luxurious prison. She wasn't allowed to come and go as she pleased, or have guests.
So how hot was the centerfold shoot?
Well, honestly, watching something like that is about the least sexy activity on the planet.
We were in a studio on Sunset Boulevard, at the Playboy offices, I believe. The theme of the shoot was nautical. Well, naughty-cal.
The playmate -- and I am sorry, I don't remember her name because I can't find the story online and all my old clips are in storage -- was pretty. She had assuredly come by her impressive assets in a plastic surgery suite somewhere, though she denied it.
I remember standing behind her at one point, and she looked like a Potemkin Village sexpot. All her hair had been brushed forward past her ears to make it look fuller. The back of her head, which had a full part running down the middle, was full of bobby pins to keep her unluscious locks in place. From the front, though, her hair looked pretty good.
She sat for several hours, uncomfortably, on some sort of box, as the photographer yelled sexy little nothings: "More left breast! I need more left breast!"
At one point, I recall, she grew faint from hunger, but pressed on. I would love to know what became of her.
Corey Jones, Playboy's chief content officer told the New York Times that he's not sure whether the centerfold will still be part of the new magazine when it debuts in March. Women will still be featured in provocative poses, he said, but perhaps not fully naked. He's trying to appeal to a younger audience that simply doesn't need to turn a magazine sideways to get revved up.
A Playboy centerfold just doesn't have the same sexual zing in an era when every iteration of erotica and porn is an iPhone tap away. What was once subversive has now become commonplace. That, to me anyway, is a definition of boring.