Dan Stiffler <email@example.com>, 29 Nov 2002
They say you can't judge a book by its cover and, generally, I believe that is true. It really doesn't matter if you put Demi Moore on the cover of The Scarlet Letter; the text is still a classic. Putting Demi Moore in a film version of The Scarlet Letter is, however, quite a different matter. So is judging a magazine by its cover...quite a different matter.
The first issue of PLAYBOY had a celebrity cover, one of its best, and Marilyn Monroe sold it. Her "famous nude" inside was the draw. Giving a man an opportunity to take home Marilyn's "Golden Dreams" was an unexpected gift during the holiday season of 1953. Maybe he had seen one on a calendar at the neighborhood tavern or the local garage, maybe not. He had at least heard about it. Buying the first issue of PLAYBOY made it his.
Marilyn beckoned from the cover, riding on the back of a convertible during a parade, waving to an adoring crowd. She is wearing a plunging neckline and an inviting smile, with half-closed eyes. On the day that photograph was made, Marilyn waved to thousands at the street side. Later she would wave to thousands more at the newsstand. Fifty-one thousand men would take her home.
It was great sales, putting a rising star on the cover of a first issue, promising the "famous nude" inside. Still, it would be twenty issues before another celebrity cover would appear and, again, it would be Marilyn's. This time she is part of a larger design, a "feature photo" on the front page of a mock newspaper. Marilyn is wearing a show costume, leading an entourage. Nearly two years have passed since her appearance on PLAYBOY's first cover, and Marilyn is now America's sex symbol. PLAYBOY is selling 372,000 issues.
Surprisingly, the cover story identifies Marilyn as "Lady Pamela Forbes-Randolph," a socialite who has been seen in the company of a "long-eared gadabout," who himself has a "feature profile" on the newspaper cover. "Lady Pam" is rumored to look like Marilyn Monroe...we do a double take at the photo...but...oh, the byline reads Cholly Knockerknicker. Any relation to Dietrich Knickerbocker, aka Geoffrey Crayon, aka Washington Irving, a master of satire and irony?
By its twenty-first issue, PLAYBOY was building a cool, literate readership that would eventually grow to historic numbers. PLAYBOY did this without using celebrity photographs on its covers, although the likes of Lily St. Cyr, Gina Lollobrigida, Marlene Dietrich, Bettie Page, and Tempest Storm had pictorial coverage. Instead, the real star of early PLAYBOY covers was that "long-eared gadabout." Mr. Playboy, the gentleman rabbit, represented a man who enjoyed the good things in an urbane life: good writing, good humor, good dining, and a good girl next door. It was that shared lifestyle—Mr. Playboy's—that appealed to hundreds of thousands, eventually millions, of readers.
The next celebrity cover, Feb 57, featured a tiny photo of Jayne Mansfield, Miss February 55, in a double-sided heart-shaped locket. Sharing her locket is Mr. Playboy. Again, two years have passed and a rising star has reached stardom and has landed a PLAYBOY cover. Six more years would pass before Jayne's second cover in Jun 63; then, Mamie Van Doren would follow a year later, and that was the end, for a long time, of PLAYBOY's celebrity covers. Mamie's issue would sell 2,426,000 copies (slightly less than the previous issue, with PMOY cover girl Donna Michelle).
From 1953 until the late seventies, only five PLAYBOY covers featured stars (excepting Peter Sellers, Apr 64) and four of those also featured Mr. Playboy. Interestingly, the importance of the celebrity image declines from its initial central role, to the mock newspaper photo, to a small locket image, to the final suggestion, with Jayne's and Mamie's sixties covers, of not being on the cover at all, but within the pages, as Mr. Playboy "peels back" the lower right corner of the cover to reveal the celebrity photo "inside." It's true that Marilyn was scheduled for the Dec 62 cover and it's also true that some might argue celebrity status for several PLAYBOY cover models during the sixties and the seventies (Barbie Benton comes to mind). But no one was close to the stardom of Marilyn, Jayne, and Mamie...no one until Barbara Streisand in Oct 77 and Dolly Parton a year later, both interview subjects. Farrah Fawcett, Dec 78, was the first celebrity pictorial with a cover since Mamie. Many celebrity pictorials were published during those fourteen years, but Ursula Andress, Kim Novak, Valerie Perrine, Elke Sommer were never PLAYBOY cover girls. Raquel Welch closed out the seventies with the Dec 79 cover; thus, the decade's two biggest sex stars broke the long celebrity-cover hiatus.
It has been well documented that PLAYBOY's greatest growth came during its first two decades. Once circulation peaked in the early seventies at seven million, it dropped steadily for a decade and then, more or less, leveled out. The drop has been attributed to a number of things (the infamous pubic wars among them), but the magazine was bound to lose numbers during the seventies as the baby-boom readers got married and started raising families, a move not befitting the original PLAYBOY lifestyle. PLAYBOY's covers tell the story of its response to the loss of circulation.
The eighties began with Bo Derek on the Mar 80 cover and she would reappear on Aug 80, Sep 81, and Jul 84 (with another in Dec 94). Bo was the first instant celebrity to appear on a PLAYBOY cover. Marilyn, Jayne, Mamie, Farrah, and Raquel—all had lengthy resumes. The month before Bo's first cover, PLAYBOY published photos of Suzanne Somers, "TV's Hottest Sex Star," but featured instead playmate Candace Collins' stunning eyes on the cover. Bo had one hot film, yet PLAYBOY decided to feature her as "the first sex star of the eighties." The essay accompanying her pictorial heralds Bo in no uncertain terms: "she is magnificent, elusive, breath-taking and more—comparable to Garbo, Harlow, Monroe, Bardot and all the great screen divinities since Gloria Swanson and Theda Bara." Bo's prominence is indicative of a change in editorial direction: increasingly, celebrities would begin to dominate PLAYBOY's covers.
Bo Derek was a spectacularly beautiful girl but her celebrity candle was brief, kept alive mostly by her PLAYBOY covers. Ursula Andress and Linda Evans were also featured in earlier John Derek pictorials for PLAYBOY; neither garnered a cover, although each was arguably a bigger star than Bo and just as much a "10." Something else was happening in the eighties: PLAYBOY was investing in the cult of celebrity. Earlier, it was okay to run a pictorial of, say, Margot Kidder (Mar 75) or Barbara Bach (Jun 77) and not feature her on the cover. By the eighties, Barbara Bach would make it to the cover (Jan 81).
During the eighties, such celebrities as Jayne Kennedy, Mariel Hemingway, Tanya Roberts, Kim Bassinger, Nastassia Kinski, Joan Collins, Christie...well, you get the idea—all on the cover. In a brief period, PLAYBOY covers began a shift away from those featuring playmates or studio models towards the, as Peggy recently put it, "celebrity du jour." During the eighties, twenty-five percent of the covers featured a celebrity (this, after only seven in the first twenty-five years); during the nineties, the percentage rose to fifty; for the first few years of this decade, PLAYBOY ran two-thirds celebrity covers.
Exactly what constitutes "celebrity" these days is, at heart, a PLAYBOY endorsement. A girl gets in trouble with a T.V. evangelist or sportscaster and she gets a PLAYBOY cover. A girl appears on a cable series and she gets a cover. Girls with the star status of a Marilyn or Raquel are rare, once or twice a decade. Now, a girl needs only her fifteen minutes of fame and she becomes part of PLAYBOY history, which sometimes gives her somewhat longer fame, if not greater.
Celebrity pictorials have always been a part of PLAYBOY, and they should remain so. The tradition is fine and, for myself, that brief viewing of Brigitte Bardot in Nov 58 was crucial to a memorable first impression of PLAYBOY. Many superb celebrity pictorials have been shot for PLAYBOY over the years, some by celebrated photographers.
Celebrity pictorials should not, however, be the greatest part, the dominate cover feature. The other day, I was showing off my collection to a friend, one who is twenty years younger. I had shown him some of my autographed PMOY issues when I moved to my display of autographed college-girl issues, all featuring playmates on the cover. He said, "Those are the ones I always liked...somehow the girls always seemed within reach."
PLAYBOY's early success was based upon featuring, every month, the new girl next door. In recent years, the emphasis has shifted towards celebrity—by any definition. Nothing makes that more clear than the covers. And nothing threatens the future of PLAYBOY more than a continued reliance on celebrity pictorials.
Men who read PLAYBOY do enjoy seeing what the "celebrity du jour" looks like without her clothes. But what they really dream about is getting to know the playmate, college girl, or secretary next door. The more that PLAYBOY emphasizes its celebrity pictorials, the less the magazine will associate with the girl seemingly "within reach." And the sooner the dream will die.
PLAYBOY must take this opportunity—the one offered by its fiftieth anniversary—to reconsider its focus on celebrity. The issues have become more and more identified with a celebrity cover, less and less with the girls next door. Even the playmates, some will argue, have been influenced by the cult of celebrity. That, however, is a topic for another day. For now, let us hope that soon the girl next door comes home, more often than not, on the cover.