Last month Playgirl announced it was shutting down shop, retaining the brand name for an online pay-per-porn service sans editorial. This made me sad and pine for the days of dildos and Sloppy Joe lunches in NY I enjoyed when interning at the magazine two years ago, so I decided to catch up with my ex-boss Colleen Kane who edited the magazine for two years to look back at the history of the ladies’ "quality" wank mag.
Vice: What was your own first encounter with Playgirl?
Colleen Kane (That is her over there, portrait by Ashley Savoy): Somehow I found out about Playgirl as a little kid, probably from my first "bad influence" friend. A few years ago I found an old diary in which I listed my favorite stuff and under the magazines category I put Playgirl. Then I wrote "Just kidding!" I guess that was in case I didn't know I was kidding when I went back and read that later, or in case anyone was spying on my diary. A little later as a young teen I remember looking at them at the bookstore, and then in high school my friends would steal them from the mall and we'd look at some of the long haired models and think they were hot. I never really had a boyfriend in high school so the magazine was pretty much my introduction to nude dudes.
How did you go from mall fantasies to editing the whole thing?
Before Playgirl, I edited BUST, I saw the ad for the Playgirl job and thought it could be fun. Like working on a lad mag for women, but with a bit of feminism thrown in there. When I first started, three out of the tiny staff of four were newcomers, and we were all ready to start a whole new improved Playgirl but we eventually realized there were a lot of factors working against us.
Who were the most interesting "playmates" you dealt with during your tenure?
One of the models from the annual Campus Hunks issue turned out to be a convicted murderer. On a more public level, both the most successful and the most controversial model was Julian Fantechi. He was this super personable, unaffected guy. For whatever reason, readers went nutso over Julian, so we kept bringing him back over and over. It turned out Julian worked at a school in Queens as a physical therapist. Someone tipped off the Daily News and it was picked up by a bunch of other news services and caused a real storm. I think Julian hid in his apartment til it blew over.
How has the format of the magazine has changed from its early days?
I just picked up a copy I have here from 1973, and it has an interview with Stacey Keach, articles about the psychology of the male mind, travel in East Africa, design ideas for a holiday house, recipes, non-erotic fiction. Despite how unsexy that all sounds, and despite the cheesy soft focus used for the male nudes, some of the models in this issue look more like guys I'd want to hook up with. There weren't that many nudes in those early issues, but by the time I worked there it was a boner bonanza. Many less pages were devoted to editorial and any articles the magazine did have were much shorter.
How do you think the readership has changed?
Are you asking about the gays?
Yes, I am asking about the gays.
I'm sure they were always in the readership. Some older guys have told me that back in the day, Playgirl was their only source of male nudity. But there were probably a lot more women reading in the earlier days of the magazine. Despite what everyone guesses, I'd say the majority of the readership when I left last year was still women, but not at as high a proportion as in the 70s. Also, comparing the readers' letters of then and now, the intelligence level of some of the readers seems to have nose-plummeted. The letters in the aforementioned 1973 issue were mainly responding to articles, while the vast majority of the ones we got while I worked there were strictly concerned with models. Some of the emails we got made me fear for the future of adult literacy.
Is there any correlation between Women's Lib and the rise and fall of Playgirl?
I don't think I'm schooled enough in feminist history to be the official word on this, but I've picked up on a general reluctance of mainstream women to associate with feminism, even if they live it. The fact that Cosmo blows a smart, funny, interesting magazine like BUST out of the water in terms of distribution and sales is depressing. It seems like there was more of an obvious female readership for Playgirl in the 1970s, but something happened to that category of women, I don't know what. Maybe their interests changed, or maybe other media started covering their interests it’s hard to generalise.
What’s the skinny on Playgirl packing it in? Will it, or can it, ever be replaced?
I think one key reason is budget. If Playgirl had the scratch to pay celebrities to drop their trousers as handsomely as Playboy things would be different. And I believe under alternative (i.e: non-hardcore porn) ownership, things would have been different.
I am so fucking annoyed that Playgirl is a goner.
Me too. It's lame.
Colleen currently resides in Baton Rouge where she writes for RadarOnline, Asylum.com and various endangered print magazines. She is also compiling her memoir right now so watch out for that.