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 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, 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, 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.