If the success of the Magic Mike and Fifty Shades of Grey franchises have taught us anything, it’s that women ~love~ spending their free time watching nearly nude men perform for the camera. In fact, it’s safe to say some women can’t get enough. And yet, despite this demand and pop culture’s increasing acknowledgment of it, one iconic franchise appears to be missing from the roster of mainstream outlets through which women can feast their eyes on sexy male flesh.
I’m talking, of course, about Playgirl.
If you identify as a female who is sexually attracted to men, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’ve probably never held a copy of the nudie magazine in your hand. You’ve probably never read any of its articles, either. And you’ve likely never spent time gazing at photos like this one, part of a spread from a recent issue titled—wait for it—“Cocky Sutra.”
The reason you’ve never held, read, or seen any of these things is because the magazine has all but vanished, both from circulation and cultural consciousness. I write about sexuality for a living and I confess that, until recently, I thought the magazine had gone the way of Sassy—until my editor stumbled on a copy at a Barnes & Noble in midtown Manhattan, buried in the Women’s Interests section. When I got my hands on the thin edition, my thoughts progressed from “Is this what's sexy to women now?” to “Wait, who is the intended audience for this?” to, finally, “WTF, Playgirl still exists?”
It didn’t have to be this way. Four decades ago, Playgirl’s editor dreamed that the magazine would be a feminist, sexually progressive beacon of liberation—an envelope-pusher, where women could indulge in both eye candy and mind candy. And for a while, it was. Had the magazine continued on this path, who knows the role it might play in women’s lives today.
Instead, the current Playgirl feels no more essential to women than a Chippendales ad buried in the back of a city newspaper. So what happened?
Let's begin at the beginning. Twenty years after Hugh Hefner launched the iconic men’s entertainment magazine Playboy, a Los Angeles nightclub owner named Douglas Lambert had an idea: If men wanted Playboy, wouldn’t the sexually liberated women of the 1970s want a nudie/lifestyle magazine of their own?
His question seemed to be answered in 1972, when Cosmopolitan released its wildly successful centerfold of Burt Reynolds in all his hirsute glory. Lambert launched Playgirl the following year. (Despite what some people think, Playgirl is connected to Playboy in concept only—the magazines have always been owned and operated by different entities.)
But while the magazine’s creator was a man, its first editor was a woman—and one who recognized its promise. Marin Scott Milam believed the magazine had “the potential to be a voice for women of the ‘70s, much the way Cosmo was a magazine of the ‘60s,” she told the Milwaukee Journal in 1976. She also believed Playgirl should push the boundaries of female sexuality in ways that Cosmo, then helmed by the famed Helen Gurley Brown, wouldn’t—by including more nudity, yes, but also by being bolder in spirit.
In the same interview with the Milwaukee Journal, Milam said that while the Cosmo girl “is desperate without a man,” the Playgirl “is her own person first.” Shots fired.
The magazine was successful right out of the gate. Playgirl’s very first issue sold 600,000 copies, and in its first three years, circulation soared to 1.1 million—taking its Los Angeles-based staff from two to around 50 employees.
You know that joke about the husband who gets caught with a collection of Playboys under his bed and claims, “What?! I read it for the articles!” Well, the same scenario could have been applied to Playgirl, too. In its early days, the magazine’s readers were served a balanced diet of centerfolds and serious journalism—on topics ranging from inflation to nuclear energy to the decision of whether to “breed or not to breed.” The magazine also featured interviews with celebrities from Chevy Chase to Bruce Jenner to John Travolta.
Its initial mission was clear. “The trouble with women’s magazines in the past is that they have been relentlessly one-dimensional, recognizing only a woman’s acceptable lighter side, refusing to acknowledge her sexuality, her anger and her tears,” Milam told The Harvard Crimson in 1974. “I’ll be damned if Playgirl falls into that trap.”
But that was then. Today, Playgirl is almost unrecognizable to the magazine of Milam’s golden days. Its subscriber base has plunged to around 3,000, and perhaps most notably, its target audience is no longer straight women. You need only open to the first page of the Winter 2016 issue—which promotes a call line service called “Magnum Male” advertising an “ALL MALE PARTY!” and “BI CURIOUS” Andy—to know that the target demo has shifted to gay men.
While the magazine was printed monthly at its peak, it now retains no full-time staff and comes out only biannually to quarterly, according to multiple sources I interviewed for this story. For nonsubscribers who are interested in picking up an issue off the shelf—good luck. Despite my editor’s initial encounter at a Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t find the magazine at any other major New York City magazine retailer. (I visited nine and counting). You can’t even access the content online because Playgirl.com is owned by an entirely different company than the one that owns publishing rights to Playgirl’s print edition.
Since its 1973 launch, Playgirl’s publishers have changed several times. Most recently in 2008, the company publishing the magazine, Blue Horizon Media, decided to stop printing. It still, however, maintains ownership over Playgirl.com and all its web-related content—but sold publishing rights to the magazine to a publishing company called Magna. I should note here that it’s easier to get blood from a stone than it is to get in touch with either of these companies. Magna’s website is down, the mainline to their HQ in Paramus, NJ goes unanswered and the CEO did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
This is a strange business story, to be sure—but it’s also a sad one. When I asked Nicole Caldwell, the sex and dating editor at Thrillist performing double duty as the editor-in-chief of Playgirl’s most recent issue, where I could actually buy the magazine, she said, “I honestly don’t know. I think Borders??” (Borders closed its stores in 2011.)
So how did we get here?
Despite the fact that just a few years after its launch, Playgirl had accumulated 2 million subscribers, as the sexually liberated ‘70s gave way to the conservative politics of Ronald Reagan’s eighties, its popularity began to decline. In fact, the popularity of all sex mags began to decline.
In 1986, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof took stock of the industry-wide slump. “In the past 18 months, more than 17,000 stores have stopped carrying sex magazines. About half of those stores succumbed to pressure, including picketing, from an unlikely combination of conservatives and feminists who feel that pornography degrades women,” he reported. Circulation of Playgirl magazine had dropped 60% since its 1973 launch, Kristoff said. And according to an article from the same year published in the Los Angeles Times, advertising executives claimed that “the Playgirl formula bored the career-oriented woman of the 1980s.”
Throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, Playgirl turned away from what had been a one-time successful formula, says Jessanne Collins, the magazine’s managing editor from 2007 to 2008 and the author of How to Be a Playgirl, an e-book about her time at the glossy and its history. The magazine that once served up political and lifestyle-based content for women with a side dish of naked men had pivoted towards “pornier stuff”—shiny, greasy-bodied beefcakes.
“By the ’90s it was on rocky terrain,” Collins writes in How to Be a Playgirl, “When, lo and behold, the gay population was starting to come into its own as a demographic. From then on, Playgirl counted on a dual market to keep its circulation numbers up.” According to Collins, the marketing statistics from the ‘90s put straight female readership at 60%, while gay male readership accounted for the balance.
“Entertainment for women” still remained the magazine’s official tagline, and does to this day, but Caldwell, the editor-in-chief, explained that coming into the ‘00s, there was a belief among the magazine’s owners that women weren’t really looking at porn—and that gay men were, in fact, the more bankable audience for the magazine.
Longtime Playgirl photographer Greg Weiner (heh), who has shot for the magazine in some capacity since 1994, confirmed this in an interview. The articles are still for women, he says, but the visuals are for gay men. Now, if you ask me, even that’s a little bit of a stretch. Yes, the erotic fiction features a heterosexual fantasy, but as far as “articles” go, we’re mostly talking titles like “10 best places to have sex in public” and “Which Star Wars character would you have sex with?” While fun and creative, these topics pale in rigor to Playgirl’s early pieces on abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Of course, producing a magazine targeted at gay men is fine—the downside is simply that, in the process, an iconic women’s brand has disappeared. And I know I’m not the only woman who would like her sexual appetites acknowledged more, not less. The magazine undoubtedly helped lay the groundwork for the Magic Mikes and even the feminist porn of today—signaling to the world that women are sexual creatures who enjoy gazing at nude bodies as much as men do—but I can’t help but feel that Playgirl lost steam as a feminist change agent too soon.
As it stands now, Playgirl holds little cache with those who pose for it. On their shoots, Weiner says the male models either assume it’s connected to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy (it’s not) or know nothing about it at all. If we define a magazine’s legacy by its ability to be recognized among younger generations, we can say Playgirl’s is a failed one—something I explored further when I spoke with Steven Frank Mejia, the model from "Cocky Sutra." (Please, you didn’t think I’d let that go.)
Mejia, I learned, is an author, actor, and part-time model. He told me this was his first time posing nude, but that he’s wanted to do it for a while because he’s genetically blessed. (Agreed.) He’s proud that his spread takes up twelve pages of the magazine, but he told me he hasn’t gotten any fan love since the shoot. This surprised me since his name is listed on the first page of the spread, and you’d think avid readers would take to the web to chase him down. But no! Even more curious, if you search: “Playgirl” or “cocky sutra,” nothing comes up in Google images, underscoring how non-existent Playgirl the magazine is on the internet.
And today, no magazine can be successful without the internet.
Would Playgirl have always been squeezed out by the emergence of the web? Possibly. But Collins believes the magazine could have had a second life as a smart site for women online. Think Jezebel, but with nude photos. (A few indie publishers have indeed tried to launch contemporary takes on the Playgirl formula, but all attempts have been short-lived.)
Playgirl.com, meanwhile, is its own beast entirely. The site doesn't feature any articles. It’s a pay-per-view pornography website with roughly 60,000 subscribers, according to Danny McKaren, the managing director for Playgirl.com. He told me Blue Horizon Media, the company he works for, might be in talks to buy back the publishing rights of the magazine. If that happened, maybe Blue Horizon would decide to revamp the magazine. But it hardly seems financially worth it with a subscriber base that’s smaller than the size of some high schools.
From the industry insiders I spoke to, it seems the saddest part of Playgirl’s slow demise is that they believe the brand may have squandered its potential. There are so few spaces in the mainstream that allow modern women to flex both our hyper-sexual and intellectual muscles at the same time. So for every media entrepreneur reading this, take note—there’s a gaping hole in the marketplace that’s just waiting for someone savvy to fill.
Cleo Stiller is a digital producer covering the intersections of sex, tech and culture. Words to live by: get your money's worth.