Approaching its 60th anniversary, Playboy sees its future in its past sophistication.
By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times
September 14, 2013, 8:00 a.m.
The job came with certain
unassailable perks. When Raquel Pomplun was anointed Playboy's 2013
Playmate of the Year, the 25-year-old model knew she could expect a
Playboy Mansion luncheon hosted by Hugh Hefner
a tomato-red 2014 Jaguar convertible and $100,000 in congratulations
cash. Pomplun didn't anticipate a detour into contemporary art.
Hours after the ceremony,
the Playmate found herself whisked from the mansion to Bungalow One at
West Hollywood's louche Chateau Marmont, where Playboy staff politely
asked Pomplun to strip. Not in the service of another pinup pictorial,
but for chaste portraits by fine arts photographer Malerie Marder. After
being interviewed (clothed) by video artist Alex Israel and mingling
with a cocktail crowd of fashionistas and art-world mavens, the model
disrobed again — to roll in paint and press her naked body against
canvases for multimedia artist Aaron Young.
"At first I was like, 'Why did I say yes to this?'" Pomplun says.
"But if you look back to the '60s, Playboy has always been a big
supporter of art and abstract artists. They told me, 'We want to bring
that back.' To try to make the brand what it was with what we have
nowadays. I thought, 'Why not?'"
Turns out that as Playboy approaches its 60th anniversary, the
magazine is drawing upon that past to try to return to the cultural
forefront. After decades of ebbing influence, declining circulation
(from a 1972 peak of more than 7 million issues distributed monthly to
1.25 million today) and, worse still, a lowering in August by Standard
& Poor's of Playboy Enterprises Inc.
corporate credit rating from a B-minus to CCC-plus — junk bond status —
Pomplun's dynamic collision of eroticism and fine art represents a key
piece of Playboy's game-changing efforts.
In an era when many Playboy readers have grown up viewing online
pornography and a monthly title featuring nude women can seem downright
antiquated, the men's lifestyle magazine is in the midst of an editorial
"You could tell by looking at it, the carpets had gotten a little bit
musty," says Playboy's editorial director, Jimmy Jellinek. "We made a
conscious decision two years ago that we needed to make some profound
changes to the aesthetic and construction of the magazine."
Playboy's DNA as a handbook for the urban male is still intact,
Jellinek insists. "That became obfuscated," he says, "within layers of
outmoded design, photography that had become passé and covers that had
Spurred by a global brand tracking study that benchmarked Playboy's
most valuable assets — Playmates, the bunny logo, the mansion and, not
least, its founder Hefner — the company made sweeping changes to the
flagship U.S. edition. It now functions as the "brand ambassador" for
Playboy Enterprises, whose holdings include a TV station, digital
network, online division, radio station and an apparel and collectibles
group as well as nearly 30 international editions of the magazine that
combine to bring in an annual revenue of $135 million.
The most immediately apparent change is referred to as the "three
Gs": God Given Gorgeous. That is, nude models notably absent the kind of
double-D surgical enhancements that came to be associated with the
magazine over the last two decades.
"What we heard repeatedly is, our audience is much more female than
we thought," Playboy Chief Executive Scott Flanders says at a time when
approximately 1.1 million of the magazine's 5.6 million monthly readers
are now women. "[They] wanted us to move away from obvious
Since hiring art director Mac Lewis from fashion heavyweight V
magazine in late 2012, adding a batch of new staff photographers and
replacing long-tenured editors with fresh recruits, the magazine boasts a
more sophisticated look and tone. The course change is literally and
figuratively intended to catapult Playboy out from under the mattress
and onto the coffee table. It's a deliberate pivot away from the scandal
mavens, reality TV stars and pro wrestlers Playboy put on its covers
To wit: the July/August 2013 issue cover features 25 synchronized
swimmers forming the rabbit head logo, a conscious throwback to the kind
of concept-driven, art-directed aesthetic of Playboy's 1960s-'70s
"Taking a step back and being more art than porn is a very smart
move," says Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, director of the Magazine
Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. "Just making the
magazine less obnoxious makes it easier to pick up and buy."
"You cannot stay static," says Hefner, 87, who abides as Playboy's
editor in chief and has personally blessed the title's revamp.
Seated in his wood-paneled study at the mansion in signature smoking
jacket and pajamas, Hef quietly contemplated the magazine's continuing
"You have to change. At the same time," he adds, "if one were going
to find a touchstone in terms of what's happening now, one would have to
go back to the very beginning of the publication."
In June, along a stretch of Highway 90 outside Marfa, Texas, a neon
bunny logo went up atop a 40-foot pole flanked by a '72 Dodge Charger.
The installation, by Richard Phillips and commissioned by Playboy's
creative director for special projects, Neville Wakefield, is the
magazine's highest-profile art tie-in to date. According to Phillips,
who shows with the powerhouse Gagosian Gallery, the muscle car
represents American power and idealism; its vintage, a nod to the zenith
of Playboy's readership. Marfa stands as a far-flung art destination,
put on the map by Minimalist artist Donald Judd.
Taken together, the signifiers provide a handy metaphor for Playboy's "everything old is new again" approach.
"When Playboy was at its strongest, politics, literature and
eroticism were working together — that made the magazine powerful,"
Phillips explains. The installation "is about looking at these elemental
and fundamental qualities, then setting up an off-site focal point to
generate a starting point for new energy."
Wakefield, an influential writer-curator who became involved with
Playboy after hosting an extravaganza for the magazine in 2010 at Art Basel Miami Beach
acknowledges that Playboy and the niche contemporary art world make
strange bedfellows. But as far back as 1967, the title was commissioning
works by pioneering modern artists including Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol
and Ed Ruscha.
"Although it seems like a weird thing to connect Playboy with this
esoteric audience, it's really continuous with its original mission,"
Wakefield says. "It was always a bit of a Trojan horse, offering nudity
but providing in-depth writing. I think it can do something similar with
these radically different audiences and generations as well."
The endgame is to create an aspirational extreme.
"At the top of the pyramid is the super influencer crowd," Jellinek
says. "The hybrid between fashion, art and celebrity, Russian hedge fund
oligarchs, supermodels — we want those people engaged with the Playboy
brand because they are the living, breathing manifestation of the
Playboy dream. Then it can start to trickle down."
Bettina Korek, who produces public art initiatives and helps create
cultural partnerships under the auspices of her Los Angeles-based
company ForYourArt, credits Wakefield — who enlisted such A-list art
stars as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince to reinterpret the centerfold
for a recent feature — with persuading the art community to rally around
the magazine's efforts to embrace higher culture.
"What's great about the way Playboy approaches commissioning work is,
they're taking the role as a patron rather than creating one-offs,
projects that have authentic connections to what is happening in the art
world," Korek says. "It provides an opportunity to rub up against the
outer layer of popular culture that's very compelling for artists."
Playboy is hardly the first global brand to draft in the art world's
cultural wake. Louis Vuitton extensively collaborated with Japanese pop
artist Takashi Murakami. Levi's is helping bankroll artist Doug Aitken's
"Station to Station" art train. But will Playboy's shift from trashy to
classy pay off in new readers and revenue?
Melissa Reekers, newsstand buyer for West Hollywood's taste-making
Book Soup, notices that Playboy's conceptual covers so far aren't as
popular as the quasi-celebrities showcased until recently.
"When they used to put people like Jenny McCarthy or Lindsay Lohan
on the cover, they would fly out of here," Reekers says. "But now, sales have kind of died down."
It should be pointed out that 95% of Playboy's readers are
subscribers, not newsstand buyers. Still, the magazine's page count
shrunk by more than 11% from the first quarter of 2012 to the first
quarter of this year, while ad revenue declined by 13.5%, according to
Publishers Information Bureau.
And the Standard & Poor's debt downgrade arrives just four months
after Playboy Enterprises took on $185 million in loans — on the heels
of licensing deals that didn't close in the first half of this year. The
CCC-plus rating can indicate that a company is at elevated risk of
violating its debt agreements because of decreased earnings.
But Playboy executives insist the company is in good financial
health. Company spokesman Jeff Majtyka says in a statement, "While the
timing of closing new licensing deals in our pipeline is prone to shift
and can affect our results quarter to quarter, we remain in full
compliance with our covenants."
Flanders, who followed Christie Hefner, the founder's daughter, as
CEO in 2009, when Playboy was losing about $12 million a year, took the
company private in 2011. Since then, Playboy has consolidated its
editorial operations from Chicago, London and New York under the roof of
its sprawling Beverly Hills offices, and shed 75% of its employees over
the last four years. The porn-skewing Spice Channel and other digital
properties were sold along with more than 70 apparel licenses that were,
as Flanders puts it, "appealing to the lowest demographic."
In addition, the magazine reduced its annual issues from 12 to 10 and
outsourced advertising, marketing, circulation and other key
"We are tracking toward breaking even with the U.S. magazine for
2014," says Flanders. And ad sales for upscale fashion designers and
cars are on the uptick.
Playboy is reaching out to readers via such zeitgeist-y online platforms as Vine, Tumblr and Instagram
But its CEO remains bullish on Playboy's old-media foundation. "We'll
stop publishing the U.S. magazine in print over my dead and buried
body," Flanders says.
The 60th anniversary issue appears set to capture the buzzy overlap
of art, celebrity and sexytime while emphasizing Playboy's upmarket
tilt. Ending months of speculation in the fashion press, Jellinek
confirmed to The Times that British supermodel Kate Moss
is set to appear on the magazine's January/February double issue cover,
appearing nude in a pictorial by fashion photography tandem Mert and
"You're talking about the most important supermodel of the past 20
years," Jellinek says. "This creates a heat for the brand globally. It
started with Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Playboy 60 years ago, an
icon for her time. Now we've got Kate Moss!"