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Last Updated: Friday, 9 May, 2003, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Playboy Magazine: Cover-up?
by Bob Chaundy
BBC's News Profiles Unit

Playboy, arguably the world's most respectable top shelf mag, is soon to turn 50. Fittingly, the mature publication plans to calm down, hoping to attract a new audience.

"The reader would rather see a hot pictorial of Britney Spears that may not be completely nude, rather than a nude pictorial of somebody's cousin."

So says Hugh Hefner on the makeover he has granted his "baby" for an early 50th birthday present.

Playboy Magazine, which reaches its half century in January, has a new formula: photos have elbowed out some of the traditional illustrations, there are more lifestyle and fashion features, the ethnic background of its Playmates has been broadened and there will be more pictures of celebrities, tastefully topless but with their modesty preserved.

And the "surgeon" entrusted to perform not so much a facelift, more a question of nips and tucks, is Jim Kaminsky - brought in from rival men's periodical, Maxim, last September.

Hugh Hefner with Playmates
Hef's kissing the old Playboy goodbye
"My goal is to take this great editorial package that has worked for 50 years and move it forward for a new generation," says the magazine's new editorial director.

The emergence of such publications as Maxim, Stuff and FHM, has threatened Playboy's pre-eminence as the leading male magazine, at least at the newsstands.

Playboy is currently selling around three million copies per month, less than half the number it was shifting during its peak in the early 1970s.

Boy, Playboy

Then, the magazine represented a certain kind of chic, "a handbook for the urban male" who aspired to the kind of character epitomised by James Bond; suave, sophisticated and surrounded by beautiful, scantily-clad women.

It had been moulded into this iconic form by Hugh Hefner. At the age of 27, Hefner bought a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe for $600, stuck it in the centrefold of a magazine he assembled on his kitchen table and achieved instant success.

Hefner wanted his message to be that "nice girls were sexual beings too".

Jim Kaminsky
Jim Kaminsky is pitching at "a new generation"
To prove it, in 1955, he persuaded his 20-year old blonde circulation assistant, Charlaine Karalus, to bare all. Her wholesome looks encapsulated the Playboy philosophy, which has remained to this day.

The Playboy Bunnies and the Playmates of the Month were handled personally by Hef, in more ways than one, he soon made them world famous.

To give the magazine respectability, the nudity was always tasteful, the product always glossy.

What's more, the magazine managed to attract high-quality writers, including Kingsley Amis, PG Wodehouse, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller and John Updike.

X rated

It boasted interviews with high-profile figures such as President Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X and John Lennon. The joke became, "I only read Playboy for the articles".

But by the early 1980s, the literary standards had started to slip and more explicit rival publications and the adult video industry were eating away at Playboy's sales.

Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev in 1960
"I only bought a copy because you were in it, Fidel"
In what became known as "the pubic wars", the decision was finally taken to go "full frontal".

In the meantime, Hefner was under attack from the feminist movement which accused him of reducing women to the status of sexual playthings.

The company's retort has always been that there is nothing degrading about a woman flaunting her sexuality.

The magazine's reputation was also dented by scandal. Hefner's favourite Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten, was murdered by her estranged husband.

Then, the group's casinos in London and Atlantic City were closed for breaches of the gaming laws.

Handing over

By the time Hugh Hefner handed the reins of the Playboy empire to his daughter Christie, it was in a sorry state.

With severe pruning, Christie turned its fortunes around. Last year, the entertainment arm of Playboy Enterprises which produces cable and video programming, made a profit of $32.4 million, dwarfing the $2.7 million of the publishing division.

Yet the magazine remains the core brand and James Kaminsky needs to improve its business.

Playboy Bunny, Deanna Brooks
Have we seen the back of the Bunny?
"The fact that Maxim is selling two million copies after only three years must have sent shudders through the Playboy management," Ben Raworth, editor of Bizarre magazine, told BBC News Online.

"Having more celebrities on your front cover is clearly a good commercial move. Look at Rolling Stone - they now have a nude Christina Aguilera on their front cover, rather than Bruce Springsteen. But the danger is that Playboy won't be Playboy anymore - just another celebrity mag."

At its best, Playboy created celebrities. Now Jim Kaminsky has hired someone to persuade Hollywood's brightest to reveal their charms in Playboy.

No one has yet followed the lead of Diana Rigg. At the height of her Avengers fame, she declined to become a Playboy centrefold with the comment, "I don't want staples in my navel".


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