Issue no. 4 of Playboy magazine, published in March 1954, featured Dolores Del Monte, an aspiring actress from Spokane who agreed to do some “figure modeling” for a calendar. Somewhere between home and the photographer’s studio, she realized it probably meant sans clothing, but it was $50 for an hour of work, so she said all right. She was in relatively exclusive company, having followed Marilyn Monroe’s debut centerfold by only a few months, but Del Monte, who got married and had three children not long after her nude pictures were taken, didn’t realize they had ended up in Playboy. Years later, her college-age son happened to be perusing a 25th-anniversary retrospective issue of the magazine, featuring thumbnails of all the centerfolds to date. He called up and said, “Mom, I’ve got some news about your past.” Her reaction was equal parts embarrassment—he was her son, after all—and pride.
In the decades that followed, the publication that pledged to highlight only the prettiest girls next door spawned an entire empire synonymous with a certain kind of louche sophistication: clubs all around the world, a Playboy jet chartered by celebrities like Elvis, the famous grotto, Hef’s silk robe. It had even somehow made bunny ears into a sexy accessory, which is one of those very strange things cultural historians in the far distant future will be unable to cogently rationalize in their treatises on the mating rituals of the 20th-century American. Helena Antonaccio, who posed in 1969, had seen a pinup from the magazine in her father’s garage when she was 5 and grew up wanting to be a Playmate. When she was told by a modeling agent she wasn’t sexy enough, Antonaccio figured out a way to make cute seem seductive. (For her Playboy spread, it involved an ice-cream cone.) “I loved the attention,” she says. “I still love attention. Especially from men.”
There is a lot of talk of ever-more-microgenerational differences these days, but if you want to get down to the brass tacks of it, the American population can more or less be divided into two groups: those who snuck their first illicit looks at flesh-for-the-ogling in print, and those of us who had the bawdy cornucopia of the internet for such endeavors. (Attention, porn profiteers: bawdycornucopia.com is not yet registered.) Playmates, in retrospect, seem awfully innocent. Del Monte says she’d never model today: “They show too much.”
But even before it had to compete with on-demand porn, Playboy had to compete in what was dubbed “The Pubic Wars” with more explicit magazines like Penthouse and Hustler. In 1972, Playboy published its first full-frontal nudity, a shot of centerfold Marilyn Cole Lownes. But to Cole Lownes—and other Playmates of that era — the photographs didn’t feel like they were about getting men off so much as they were about celebrating women. Cole Lownes’s father told her the photograph that ran in Playboy was like a Rubens painting. Using the language of the era, she now describes the whole experience “liberating.” (At the time, she wrote to her parents that she’d be a rich old lady, since “every time they change the backdrop I make $300.”)
All the women in these pages—who went on to become journalists, entrepreneurs, real-estate agents, and sexagenarian nude models; who married, divorced, and, in one case, gave birth to a Victoria’s Secret supermodel — say the Playmate title imbued them with a sense of confidence that seems more of a precursor to the sexual freedom of third-wave feminists than related to the objectification and degradation that their contemporaries saw in the magazine. “I think everyone who walked in that door to be a bunny girl or Playmate knew what they had,” says Cole Lownes. “They may not want to admit it, but I think they knew [their power].”
Today, despite the increasingly raunchy — and specific! — pornography online and the sea of look-alike blondes in Playboy (the girls-next-door-to-the-plastic-surgeon’s-office?), the classic centerfold shot is alive and well and living on the smartphone. The nude selfie lets every woman who so chooses remove the middlemen of photographer and magazine. She can capture herself from whatever angle and with whatever lighting she prefers, in a photo to be kept for her own eyes as a memento, or to be sent to someone she wants to see it. She can be both object and objectifier. She has complete control.
Except, of course, when hackers break into the Cloud and leak her nude photos all over the internet or the text she sends to one person gets forwarded on to others who weren’t meant to see it. When it comes to women’s bodies, people are always eager to wrest away control. In galleries of sext screenshot after sext screenshot, they become pinups robbed of their choice, and of their particularity — of what lends such pictures their erotic valence in the first place.
Still, for the women of Playboy who decided to step back in front of a photographer’s lens for New York, that sense of control, however illusory, was a large part of the appeal of posing — both then and now. There is, according to Playboy magazine’s official style guide, no such thing as a former Playmate. Once earned, the cultural designation as sex symbol, according to Hugh Hefner’s surprisingly embracing philosophy of beauty, is one a woman retains for life. “When you look at pictures of yourself from long ago, you see this young girl,” Cole Lownes says of her own centerfold. “You look into the eyes of the model, and you realize she doesn’t know what she knows now.” In these portraits: some knowledge.
Additional reporting by Ann Lemon and Lisa Mehling.
*This article appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
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