The Wild Life of Suze Randall, Playboy's Legendary Photographer
A rare insight into the secret world of the 72-year-old pornographer from London who charmed her way to the top.
Images courtesy of the Suze Randall estate.
A stuffy male interviewer asks a woman who looks just like Marilyn Monroe if all the filth she has written about herself is true. The mischievous look answers first. "Yes, it's true. Don't think I could make those things up do you?" Some could, he offers. "Well, they've got jolly good imaginations," she responds, her eyes flitting between him and the camera, flirting outrageously with both.
The interviewer – from Australian television show, A Current Affair – gets worse, asking pornographer Suze Randall a question that typifies the attitudes of many towards women who dared to monetise their sexuality during the 1970s: "Are you prepared to do anything for money and fame?"
The answer: "I'm prepared to do anything that I enjoy doing, and I enjoy sex. And I enjoy talking naughtily and being a little risqué and shocking people, just a little bit. You know, you have to know how far to go. You mustn't go" – an eyebrow raise before a smile – " too far."
Suze Randall ended up with money, but not fame. Her name should be one of the most iconic in porn – she was the first female Playboy photographer to shoot a full-frontal, the first woman to sell her nude photographs to The Sun, dominant in an otherwise male-dominated world – but is largely unknown to those outside the industry.
She scarcely gives interviews, and the book her husband wrote about her wild days – Suze – is out of print, with second-hand copies now listed for hundreds of pounds on Amazon. So when she recently agreed to a phone interview, it was a rare opportunity to hear about all the "tremendous fun" she has had over the past 72 years.
"My family encouraged me to stand up to bullies and not be intimidated by teachers, because they can be unfair," she says, of a childhood that marked the start of a rebellious life. "It was a family tradition to stand up and question authority. It's helpful for everyone; society can take advantage of you terribly."
Suze grew up in Worcester, England, her father a physical ed training teacher at the local college, her mum a nurse. She remembers picturesque countryside and riding horses and her private school – which "didn't do me any good." She fought with the headmistress, frequently got thrown out of class, wore the wrong uniform and did her knitting under the table if class was boring.
After school she worked as a nurse at St George's Hospital in London, and enjoyed it. But "everything changed" on her 22nd birthday, when she met her husband and life-long partner, Humphry Knipe. "I went from being a good girl to being introduced to the world," she says. "I was half a virgin when I met him."
This new world involved getting stoned, swinging and joining the burgeoning free love society. Anecdotes about this time are short and sweet. There was Amsterdam's Wet Dream Festival, which sought to explore communication through nudity and sex. According to Humphry, "They made you watch porno movies all day and screw all night. There were mattresses thrown on the floors. There were about five times as many guys as girls. People would come off the streets to watch, and say 'Can't you do any better!?'" There were the weekly swingers' parties ("like church: you had to show up"), one of which the Metropolitan Police raided, looking for drugs. Since everyone was naked and unsearchable, Suze says the police's only option was to carry off the fish tank in case the brown residue on its walls was hashish.
"You talk about having to do what men say in porn, but in the fashion business it's much worse. You're really vulnerable. You’ve got to flirt and what have you with the art directors, to get a job."
Sex was free, but London wasn't, and neither were the drink and drugs. Humphry was a struggling writer working on his first book, The Dominant Man, and Suze's nurse wage wasn't enough to cover the lifestyle they'd envisioned, or even basic rent costs. An International Times ad for topless modelling – offering £100 a day, ten times Suze's £10 weekly wage – led to a brief stint of nude work. The room Humphry and Suze rented, near Hyde Park, belonged to Magnum photographer David Hurn, who told Suze, "For heaven's sake, keep your clothes on," before giving her a job at women's weekly Petticoat Magazine, where she started doing fashion modelling.
"You talk about having to do what men say in porn, but in the fashion business it's much worse," says Suze of the power dynamics in the industry. "You're really vulnerable. You've got to flirt and what have you with the art directors, to get a job. You get to fly to Paris and Milan and all over, but it doesn't get you anywhere. I never liked working for other people anyway, begging for a job or giving a blowjob for a job or whatever." Surely not? "The fashion industry? In France and everywhere. Men, they've all got this willy that they want to get up. They all need help, but… It was ridiculous."
At the age of 28, on a manic "high" after being photographed for Vogue, Suze stomped out to Bond Street, got her bank manager to lend her money and bought a camera. Backstage at fashion shoots she'd shoot her model friends in the nude, and soon started selling those photos to The Sun for its Page 3 slot – something of a lightbulb moment. "I actually shot Jerry Hall and sold it to The Sun," she says, laughing. "She wasn't especially pleased later on."
Very quickly, this felt to Suze like her calling. There were very few nude photographers in the UK at that point – "it wasn't cool" – let alone female ones, which is perhaps why the tabloids gave her the nickname "rebel camera-girl Suze".
"It's always very good when things are disapproved of," she says. "I could be the kingpin, too. The men hated me because I had such an advantage [having been on the other side of the camera]," adding that while male photographers chose to focus on the technicalities of the shoot, she focused on the girls themselves, many of whom were modelling for the first time. "Men are so worried about the structure, the editors, the business, they forget about the models – but you're only as good as your model feels," Suze points out. "Make them relax, make them see this chick behind the camera who doesn't know what she's doing or being an idiot, and they start to laugh and not take it so seriously."
And there lies the gold.
"Hefner was very kind – he helped me get my green card. He was a generous man, because all he wanted to do was get laid."
This knack for bringing out the best in her models propelled Suze towards that money (rather than fame) I mentioned earlier. When Hugh Hefner "fell in love" with photos Suze – then-29 – took of Norwegian model Lillian Müller, he flew the pair to the Playboy's main office in Chicago. "Had I been a guy he never would've flown me over with Lillian; he wouldn't have had anything to do with me," she says – but a new nude model photographed by another woman? Hef was curious.
Lillian had to be on the cover, but it was clear that Suze wouldn't get a look-in. Staffers at Playboy's Chicago office told her that photographing nudes is difficult, and a serious business – the implication being: leave it to the men. "So then I said, 'Oh damn, then I'll have to sell the pictures to Penthouse because I’m broke.' Then they had to [buy the photos]," she laughs.
Holly – Suze's daughter and biggest fan, who followed her mother into adult photography – tells me, "My mum is very charming and good at getting her way. She was very good at flirting her way into situations, and then muscles her way in. She'd use both sides of her personality: she'd be a feminine, charming, sexy woman, but other times – when it suited her – she could be ballsy. It was an intoxicating mix that I think really threw a lot of people off."
Suze laughs at this observation. "As a woman, you have huge power if you're brave enough to confront those boys."
At the Playboy Mansion, Suze photographed Lillian for the magazine's cover, making it the first full-frontal Playboy spread to be shot by a woman. When it was confirmed that Suze would be exclusively contracted to Playboy, Humphry flew over and the couple got an apartment in East LA. "Hefner was very kind – he helped me get my green card," Suze remembers. "He was a generous man, because all he wanted to do was get laid."
Playboy was very much a boy's club – but the magazine's West Coast photography editor, Marilyn Grabowski, was a central player and took Suze under her wing. "She taught me a lot about styling and draping, and she was very critical, so I learnt a lot from her," says Suze. "I think she really did that to piss off the male photographers" – who were already irritated enough by what they perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the special treatment Suze received from the off. She remembers, on one of her early shoots, a bitter male assistant telling her to "load your own bloody film". Despite the disrespect, she remembers the assistants who helped her fondly. "You know, men are quite useful. They mustn't be put down, they must be used."
It was at Playboy that Suze's party years truly began: the sickening and sparkling heights of hedonism her and Humphry had always wanted. In the mid-1970s, you'd find the pair at the Playboy Mansion three to four nights a week, Suze microdosing acid (although they didn't call it "microdosing" back then) so she could stay alert while drinking. It was rare that a staff member had the privilege to join the fun – and bringing your husband was absolutely outlawed. "At the mansion, you can only go if you're a girl – you don't bring boyfriends," says Suze. "But they knew I wouldn’t come without Humphry, so I had special treatment. If you're a woman and you don't get frightened, you can have a huge advantage over these little guys."
Suze talks about the parties as if she's just referencing her Sunday dog walk, about the drugs and champagne like a routine toenail-clipping in the bath. Casually, she mentions her technique when it came to getting the party started at the mansion: "They're not taught in America how to introduce themselves – they just stand around. All these famous people... it's hard to get a party started. I used to dance, and flash and horrify them."
Flash? I ask. Her husband interjects: "Dancing without pants on."
"No, I never wore knickers," says Suze, as if the thought of wearing underwear offends her.
Even Holly has heard the stories: "The one time I met Hef, he told me that they used to call her The Flasher, because she'd come to the mansion and not wear panties. That was her thing, and they'd make her do the show every night."
Suze didn't know it at the time, but this relationship wasn't to last.
According to Suze, Hefner felt betrayed by the gory details in her 1977 biography, and tried to get her to change some of them – but their blazing falling-out didn't actually happen until she was publicising the book.
The story goes that Larry Flynt – the infamous porn publisher and founder of Hustler magazine – was blackmailing Hefner with some photographs he had of Hef with a girl who wasn't Barbi Benton, his then-girlfriend. "Hef always thinks he can fix everything," says Suze, going on to explain the Playboy founder's ruse this time around: "'I'll ask him up to the Sunday party,' he thought. 'That'll be fine.'"
Suze met Larry at that Sunday party, and the pair got on extraordinarily well.
"He said – not realising that no one who reads Hustler reads [books] – 'Oh Suze, why don't you shoot yourself for Hustler and promote that book of yours?'" So Suze shot herself for Hustler, like she had for Playboy but far more provocatively, doing pink-shots: vulva-exposed photos. "Larry is so funny, he put on the cover: 'Playboy photographer shows pink'. Oh, that was too much for Hefner," Suze remembers. "'We're not pornographers!' he said, and marched me out of the mansion. I never went back."
Fittingly, Suze Randall is herself a hustler. She "conned" Larry into giving her a three-year contract, which replaced her Playboy one, and spent years with the magazine, becoming one of the only people who would stand up to the notoriously bolshy publisher. "And as I always do, I fell out with Larry; I can't remember why," she says.
A switch to freelance life suited her disposition well, and also stood her in excellent stead for the remainder of her career, in a way neither she nor anyone in the industry could have predicted. Being "free" meant she owned all the rights to her photographs, unlike male photographers on well-paid contracts. "I didn’t know I owned them at the time; I just did it because I'm a naughty girl and don't like being bossed around," she says. "When the internet came out, I owned more pictures than anybody – I was lucky, I hit the internet hard."
The internet, conversely, hit the magazines hard. The owner of Penthouse went broke and gave Suze the rights to her many images, as did High Society. Together, she and Humphry planned an 80,000-image online archive of her work, suze.net. A booming success – thousands of subscribers paid $24.95 (£18) a month – the pair were making $400,000 (£300,000, at today's conversion rate) a month from the site, at its peak.
Suze was smart, but her empathy set her a cut above the men in her field. Not just in the way she helped models to relax, but in the sense that over her entire career, she helped women out of various difficult patches. Ginger Lynn, one of the most famous porn stars of all time, credits Suze with helping her overcome her drug addiction, while she literally resuscitated Briana Banks on a shoot. "It can be handy being a nurse," she once remarked on her daughter Holly's podcast. Clearly, she sensed she occupied a surrogate mother role – however temporary, to the young women who passed in front of her lens.
Today, she doesn't work. She lives a comfortable and quiet enough life with Humphry in the mountains behind Malibu. "Luckily, I've got this 30-acre ranch, so every day I ride two horses. I'm schooling, training, trying to become a lady." By that, she means she wants to become a lady dressage rider, since her kids won't let her jump anymore. She got kicked in the face by a horse and lost her eye. That means no more photos. Instead, she allows photographers to come up to the ranch for shoots of their own. "I boss these men around and watch them stress and sweat, and I take their money and it's wonderful."
Suze Randall prefixes many of her anecdotes with "luckily". But, to me, none of her achievements sound like they were based particularly in luck. A bit of fate, maybe, but more than anything: balls – the astonishing courage and boldness to live the life she has led.