Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Jessanne Collins: The Truth About 'Playgirl' and Levi Johnston

Levi JohnstonI don't know about you, but I'm tired of having Levi Johnston's penis thrust into my consciousness every time I read the news. And believe me, I've got a high tolerance for explicit visuals-I was Playgirl's managing editor until the print magazine folded last year, leaving in its place the softcore subscription website that's been publicly courting Sarah Palin's would've-been son-in-law for months for a shoot that's scheduled to take place later this week. It's not that I'm bitter. More power to Playgirl if it can ride the brawn of a small town teen father back into the limelight, and more power to small town teen fathers who can make their mark on the world with their undeniably virile genitalia.

Really, I'd be happy for both of them if I weren't so alarmed at the way history is being rewritten in the midst of the media shitstorm surrounding this moment-and the fact that no news outlet has accurately reported who's really behind Playgirl's big comeback.

DWEEZILPlaygirl's 35-year history is incredibly nuanced and totally absurd. Its archives offer an archaeology of American sexual identity before and after the turn of the millennium, and, if it had evolved differently, it could have informed contemporary conversations about what women desire and how we construct our sexualities. But if you've read the media coverage of Playgirl's current resuscitation you wouldn't get this idea; instead, you might catch a whiff of an enduring myth that the earliest incarnation of Playgirl was intended to deconstruct-that women are out of touch with their sexuality and can't even figure out what's hot and what's not.

Most of this coverage, which has run the gossip gamut from People to TMZ to the Daily News and back again, is lazily built around quotes from either Johnston's press corps or the PR gun Playgirl.com brought on in August, a gay nightlife promoter named Daniel Nardicio. In Jacob Bernstein's November 5th Daily Beast article, "Levi Unzipped: Inside Playgirl's Big Stunt," Nardicio, who is the only quoted source, quips that "The women working on [Playgirl] weren't keeping up with the times. They didn't admit that there were a lot of gay men reading the magazine and gay men don't want to see guys with flowing long locks looking like they came from the cover of a Danielle Steel novel."

And on Monday, Nardicio told The Advocate that "Playgirl was kind of stuck because the women who were working for it were old and they thought that Fabio-looking characters with long-flowing hair and uber-tans… were really hot."

Hey PlaygirlOK, so he has a point about the abundance of Fabio-looking characters. I wasn't big on the long flowing locks myself. (For the record, I also wasn't "old"-at 28, I was the eldest member of the editorial staff.) And we never had a problem admitting that there were gay men reading the magazine-we published letters from them all the time. (We got plenty of colorful correspondence from women too, which is one of the main reasons the magazine never "came out"-our gay readers seemed content with, even titillated by, a magazine with hetero overtones; our female readers were not so easily placated with gayer fare.)

So it's not that we were clueless, but here's a little secret: we were almost totally powerless over the aesthetic content of the magazine.

Which brings me to a rather glaring error in Bernstein's piece-and the huge, pulsating point he misses because of the oversight. The company behind Playgirl.com, Trans Digital Media, doesn't, as Bernstein wrote, own the stoner rag High Times. The dorm-room staple is published by a company called Trans High Corporation. (THC. Get it?) Trans Digital Media, on the other hand, is an affiliate of Blue Horizon Media, which does own High Society, a porn title for straight men-think Hustler but more D-list-and half a dozen similar brands with equally mistakable names, like Purely 18 and Finally Legal. All of which churn out (or churned out-some of them could have folded by now, and nobody but lonely truckers in Midwestern gas stations would be the wiser) clinical quality closeups of heavily Photoshopped labia with an industrial efficiency to give any third-world sweatshop a run for its money. In short, Blue Horizon, which owned Playgirl the print magazine, is a hardcore-porn company (with one vanity magalog-Elite Traveler, "the private jet lifestyle magazine"-that it wears as a beard) that's run by and for straight men.

HOW SLYThis is why Playgirl failed in the first place. The men in the boardroom had no idea how to market or appeal to either women or gay men-never mind to both at the same time, an unattainable magic act, in my opinion, but one the company insisted on attempting for years. The tragicomedy of Playgirl's particular aesthetic failure starts to make a lot of sense if you consider that it wasn't constructed by anyone who professed actual physical interest in the male physique. If would-be Fabios were standard, that's because "musclebound with a ridiculous mane" is a comfortable caricature of what women find sexually attractive as doodled in the minds of out-of-touch old dudes.

My colleagues and I wished we could've made something relevant and fresh out of the troubled, tousled remnants of what had once been one of the world's most unique and successful magazines for women. I don't know if we would have succeeded-we never got the chance to find out-but in its last few months, despite the brewing recession, Playgirl was actually seeing an increase in newsstand sales. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Playgirl.com, which, I hear, has seen its subscription rate fall since the print magazine was shuttered. Perhaps this is why, in a desperate attempt to breathe new life into their biggest name brand, the same suits who've always worked for Blue Horizon's elusive millionaire owner, Carl Ruderman, hired a new flack and sent him out into the media armed with a high-school hockey player from Wasilla, Alaska.

YesNardicio himself brings some new gay-scene credibility to Playgirl, and he certainly knows how to drop names in the right places-all of which conveniently distracts from the fact that exactly nothing has changed in Playgirl's management or mission. It's obvious if you read between Nardicio's own lines: for instance, the photographer he says is earmarked for the shoot happens to have shot a majority of Playgirl's sets since the 90s. The claim that the downtown and dirty fashion photographer Terry Richardson was entertained for the job is probably true-in exactly the same way I've weighed the option of shacking up with Jude Law.

Which isn't to say that the Men of Playgirl, so to speak, are steady on their own feet. They may call the shots but they don't do the grunt work; that's where we came in. And that explains why one of the first people Blue Horizon called when Levi Johnston's name came up was Playgirl's last editor-in-chief, the now 27-year-old Nicole Caldwell. She is one of those very "old" out-of-touch women Nardicio claims Playgirl is better off without-who has been working on contract all along to facilitate the shoot and who has been assigned the Johnston interview.

In short, its business as usual at Playgirl. From day one this has been little more than a publicity stunt orchestrated on behalf of two fallen icons: a floundering brand that's completely lost its identity and a teenager who's trying to define his, in the wake of his incidental introduction to the bright, bizarre lights of American quasi-celebrity. It would be a typical story-a stunt that's taken on a life of its own because of the low standards and laziness we accept in coverage of this type of "news"-but instead its become a particularly troubling one for the myths and misconceptions it's perpetuating about what Playgirl was and what its failure says about female sexuality.

These misconceptions, unfortunately, may be the only lasting legacy this strange moment in American media has. Because regardless of how much we eventually see or don't see of Levi's johnson, this stunt is starting to feel, well, flaccid.

Jessanne Collins has written for Salon, Radar, The New York Observer, and The Morning News.

39 Comments / Post A Comment

Needs more peen.

I'm kidding, this is actually very interesting.

Although Levi Johnston better be packing some serious junk if he hopes to live up to all the hype.

HiredGoons (#603)


NicFit (#616)

So the old cigar chomping board members (ha) thought that women thought that Dweezil Zappa was hot? Weeeiiirrrdddd.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Burt Reynolds just lifted his head out of a pile of Cialis on his desk and croaked, "Say hello to my little friend."

tankengine (#1,835)

playgirl is not going to be able to stop people from leaking his nude pics so what does it get them anyway? playgirl is stuffy and isn't sexy in anyway.

Pop Socket (#187)

The last Playgirl I read was my gay roommate's in 1985. The fake letters to the editor were cliche and formulaic even by wank mag standards.

jfruh (#713)

When I was in college (mid-90s) I worked in the main undergrad library and we had Playboy both in the microfiche archives and (the latest copy, anyway) behind the front desk available to patrons upon request, because in addition to tits it (at the time, at least) also featured things that were of genuine academic interest (interviews w/Henry Kissinger, stories by John Updike, etc.). At some point one of the women who worked there convinced management that this arrangement was sexist, so they also subscribed to Playgirl. I'm pretty sure that they did not in fact keep back copies on microfiche, but the latest one was always behind the desk, right next to the Playboy.

Naturally this was the most coveted magazine for all library workers on checkout duty to be casually perusing when people came up to the desk with their books. Also, one or more of fraternities on campus had pledges as an initiation stunt come to the desk and ask for a Playgirl and then ask for directions to the bathroom, which was vaguely funny the first time and then not at all for the next three years.

I laughed. Did they also have to return it with the pages stuck together?

HiredGoons (#603)

Chest hair = sexy.

Chest-length hair = not so much.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Well, I'm going to make a typical (of me) comment here and say "small town" has noting to do with Levi Johnston's fame; he'd be the same guy if he had impregnated some "big town" GOP VP-canidate's daughter and been part of the ensuing publicity stunt. But whatever.

Might "why Playgirl failed in the first place" also have something to do with the fact that the kind of naked male torso Playgirl trafficked in for many years is now so widely on show (sans penis) on so many TV stations, commercials, theatres, websites and grocery isle magazines, that Playgirl's offerings got washed out and that an explosion of magazines such as Bust etc. (not to mention the websites) created a great deal of similar competition (many of which, of course, owe a great deal to the Playgirl trailblazer of old)?

And it's clear you are personally upset about Playgirl. As was clear in the NYT story last year. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/16/fashion/16playgirl.html. But as for accusations of publicity stunts, how is this that much different from Playboy's Marge Simpson thing or Playgirl's Men of Enron thing in 2002 or basically what almost any magazine does when it leverages a famous person's nakedness? "its" a particularly common, if troubling, stunt of almost any magazine.

That's so Abe > That's so Raven.

flossy (#1,402)

The small-town thing may not entirely account for his fame, but it sure has something to do with his allure, especially in the context of a porn shoot. He is the virile, outdoorsy,"fuckin' redneck" of our (my?) fantasies; the kind of guy who will take you out to the woods, throw you over a felled tree and get you mad pregnant. If some generic Brooks Brothers-wearing DC lackey had impregnated Bristol Palin–or any VP candidate's daughter–I think we'd all know his name, but would we really want to see him naked?

Abe Sauer (#148)

I'd agree with that, but add that he isn't really from that small of a town Wasilla is 6000 people but a suburb of 300,000+ Ankorage. It's like calling Westchesterites "small town" Americas. In this case I probably would have passed on it if not for the "nobody but lonely truckers in Midwestern gas stations…." bit.

jfruh (#713)

Abe, I'd say that, with interstate highways everywhere and the miles of infill sprawl said interstates spawn, there are very few places left that might qualify as true "small-town America," if you're going to get technical about it. Most towns that might have once been considered small towns are now less than 45 minutes of commuting time from some decently sized urban center of 50,000 people are more, and thus are more properly considered exurbs than small towns. And of course their small-town downtowns are completely empty, replaced by a string of big box stores on the edge of town near the freeway exit, thus further degrading their sense of place as a distinct locality. Of course there are still real small towns that exist more or less in isolation, but outside the very thinly populated states in the north-middle of the country, most people who may think of themselves as living in "small towns" are actually in outer-ring suburbs.

(This of course is beside the fact that most coastal elitists think of any city with less than 200,000 people as a "small town".)

ProfessorBen (#1,254)

Abe can you really fault a write their 'its' mistakes? I'd prefer calling your first sentence "breathless" than a run-on.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I'm also not a managing editor complaining about the less intellectual direction direction my magazine took.

ProfessorBen (#1,254)

Right on; I do love your work by the way, and don't mean to be snarky. I hail from the midwest and it's always nice to read some smart commentary with that region in mind. (Though having spent a tiny bit of time in Alaska really don't think it's a stretch to call any part of it 'small town' – even Anchorage had many qualities related to 'small-town-ness'.)

@jfruh: There are scores of small towns* in every non-east-coast state in the country.

*your definition: more than 45 minutes from a 50k-person or larger town (I'll even add) and more than 10 miles from an interstate highway.

daniel11211 (#2,172)

there is very much truth to what Jessanne says- it's practically impossible for a brand to re-envision itself unless people in that structure are willing to change, which, remains to be seen at PG.
I ultimately chose the entire Levi shoot moreso to make a politcal statement and boost PG's national image than to completely overhaul the brand.
And its working.
And for the record, Ruderman didnt just "hire a new flack and arm him with a hockey player…etc"
I walked in there proposing a new vision, sold that vision and have worked really hard to make changes and enforce that vision, which i really dont think you tried to do.
great insightful article!
daniel nardicio

Aatom (#74)

Well played.

miss c (#2,193)

Daniel -
How adorable. From reading your reply I can tell that you really DO believe you walked into the Playgirl office, sold a "vision" and will successfully overhaul the brand. But I've got news for you. You were hired because you had an idea that will make the magazine some one-time money…and you'll eventually be let go because you don't actually have anything to offer besides bravado and an ability to lie to the media about "old" editors that came before you. People stopped caring about Playgirl a long time ago. I realized this when I worked there, and none of us were crying when it shut down.

And it's pretty stupid of you to not fully understand why the last batch of editors were actually let go…it could end up saving you a lot of trouble in the end. It's not that the employees working on the magazine "didn't try to enforce a vision," but your new bosses being too incredibly out of touch to put through anything we pitched that would have brought the brand out of its (still continuing) downward spiral.

I feel bad for you that you don't want to believe that the same will happen all over again. But at least don't slander me and my equally amazing girls to whatever media outlet thinks you have something to say. It's immature and completely besides the point of the silly charade you're involved in now. I know it's hard, but TRY to not be such a little dumbass.

MontaukMonster (#2,174)

A better title would have been: "Playgirl: How the Sausage is Made"

Then again, you sound a little too bitter to use humor.

They could ad it as a tag.

Bucko (#1,599)

What an odd article. As if anyone cares what the "truth" of the matter is with respect to some porno magazine's management strategy. I can see why the author wants to be vindicated, but why is theAwl interested in providing her a platform to air her personal grievances?

Natan (#1,967)

I was interested to learn that Dweezil Zappa was a goddamn piece of ass.

The difference is that it was not always just a porno magazine in the sense that Playboy was not always just a whack it mag and at one point in history actually had editorial content.

Then Playgirl was bought by a porno publisher and not unlike movie porn producers they had no idea what women were interested in seeing and reading and no interest in finding out. So they hired a gay guy because everyone knows only gay men read Playgirl.

CNBClass (#2,176)

Does anyone remember Sweet Action Magazine? They were known as 'porn for girls-only' and photographed hot rocker types. If you don’t remember it, you're not alone, it died quickly. Point being, the business model that Jessanne says she and her pro-female porn workers wanted simply doesn’t work.

An article about relieving soggy menstrual blood opposite a sexy guy is a fucking stupid idea.

LMGTS (#2,177)

Great article and I will post an excerpt of what I just emailed….

Dear editor,

The story about who and why Levi Johnston is doing this Playgirl spread is missing the key element – my involvement. I am 'cc' ing a copy of this email to my attorney monsieur Philippe Praliaud in Lyon, France just as a matter of record.

I am happy to have read today the story on your website by Jessanne Collins who might remember me from Arizona n 10 or 11 years ago – I am the CNN producer who help Greg Weiner coordinate the Men of Arizona edition and gave the story top billing on our TV station and advocated the other networks in Phoenix to do the same which they did….

Anyway, here a misadventure which you might want to correct supported of course with documents such as phone records and e-mails.

Playgirl is lying to the media… Yes, read on. Yep they are:



Next time you set up a photo shoot for Playgirl perhaps you could find a subject women find attractive.

MattP (#475)

What does Mike Honcho have to say about all of this??

Hustler is way worse than High Society.

joeclark (#651)

And he’d frigging well better be uncut.

LMGTS (#2,177)

No comment. I was involved only for the publicity. I prefer men in fact I have four books out there if you are intersted.

LMGTS (#2,177)

Daniel did what? I think not. But wait, it's gonna hit and hard — I ain't talking aboutthe wall either. National boycott is what ought to occur, Hmmm. brb.

Godot (#2,199)

Interestingly, as a gay male, I happened to LIKE the somewhat out-of-date aesthetic- maybe not so much the long hair, but certainly the willingness to show men who didn't NECESSARILY look like screaming twinks. And I think that's true of most of Playgirl's gay following. Though I can't speak for the women, I also have to say that the issue with the magazine wasn't JUST the photos, but also the actual article content. Whereas Playboy at least has some pretension to intellectualism, the actual articles- written by females for females- tended to be puerile and embarrassing.

As for Daniel Nardicio- I have met him many times over the last decade, and I know many people who have dated him and worked for him and with him. He is a self-aggrandizing narcissist, and an absolute bottom feeder ("promoter" is a very kind term for "pimp," but whatever.) That he is using Playgirl and Levi to get quoted in as many publications as possible has little to do with Playgirl and everything to do with him.

she of the socks (#2,248)

I interned at Playgirl on-and-off for two years and was initially extremely confused by the news that Levi was posing for Playgirl. I was under the distinct impression that the magazine no longer existed and I recall constantly being told that "male stars don't ever want to pose nude." So while the second point still remains true (apologies to Hollywood Ricky), I'm still uncertain about there the nude pictures are showing up. Are they going to be plastered all over Playgirl.tv? Are they making a special print edition just for Levi? Is the magazine coming back? Can they hire me?

As for the press coverage on Playgirl that paints the former staff as some coven of homophobic spinsters, well. I'm glad Jessane cleared that up. The editorial and artistic staff had to pretty much shank someone in the eye in order to get a piercing or a tattoo or a nude picture of someone with actual body hair into the magazine.

she of the socks (#2,248)

That should be "about where," not "there." But you all knew that.

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