Page Three girls have been central to the success of the soaraway Sun, becoming a peculiarly British tradition in the process. But their introduction was risky, and their survival never completely assured.
By Mary Braid
BBC News Online
Sun editor Larry Lamb made his big gamble on 17 November 1970, when his proprietor Rupert Murdoch was safely out of the country.
Page three is a tradition going back years
It was a year since Murdoch's second relaunch of a title that was already attacked by its critics for being obsessed
Up until then, the Sun's new Page Three girls had kept their clothes on. But with Murdoch away, Lamb decided to boost the Sun's sexual content further and Stephanie Rahn, a 20-year-old German, became the first of its models to take her top off.
Lamb had no idea how women readers or the newspaper's distributors would react.
Legend has it that Murdoch was incandescent with rage when he saw the first bare breasts to grace his title. But the subsequent rise in paper sales - 1.5 million to 2.1 million in a year - rather soothed him.
Rahn, not heard of since, kicked off a tradition that secured not just the Sun's future but helped finance Murdoch's fledgling media empire. Quite an achievement for a 20-year-old in, what the paper at the time called, her "birthday suit".
Lamb's gamble paid off but in the end he seemed ambivalent.
"I helped make page three part of the language, he wrote before he died in 2000.
"In many ways now I wish I hadn't."
In fact, in the 35 years since they arrived on the newspaper scene, Page Three girls have been the subject of constant controversy.
Soft porn that demeans women or good harmless British fun? It depends who you speak to.
Beverley Goodway, the photographer who snapped Rahn,
went on to make a lifetime career out of the Sun's
"I must be one of the few men who can honestly say I've seen more naked girls in the flesh than I have had hot dinners," he said when he retired last year.
"It's my claim to fame and it has been a pleasure. There's not a single bloke alive who won't swap places with me."
The Sun itself has seemed less certain at times.
Senior executive Wendy Henry made a Sun-style stab at equality by introducing the bare-chested Page Seven fella, but he never really had the same impact on readers and their nakedness never carried the same social meaning.
There has never been a male equivalent of Samantha Fox or Linda Lusardi.
As deputy editor, Rebekah Wade battled against Page Three. She steered clear of moral judgments and argued that topless women were bad for business.
Lucy Pinder and Michelle Marsh are among the top earners
Wade maintained that page three was working against efforts to draw more young women readers in.
Since she became editor, though, Wade has dropped the issue.
Murdoch has also been inconsistent.
He has been lobbied by feminists including Clare Short MP, who failed in her 1986 Commons bid to ban Page Three.
But he also been collared by females in his own family who wanted him to get rid of the girls.
In a 1994 interview with India Today magazine, Murdoch suggested Page Three's days might be numbered but he may simply have been playing to a conservative audience.
In 1999, he told News Corp shareholders in Adelaide that a short-lived Page Three flirtation with bikinis would cease immediately if it affected circulation
Carsten Edwards owns International Model Management, the biggest supplier of Page Three models in Britain.
He has 100 girls on his books and they work for the
Sun and Daily Star and lads mags such as FHM and GQ.
The latter don't tend to pay Page Three girls as much as the tabloids, but they don't require full-breast shots.
Edwards reckons that if the Sun ever does walk away
from the topless Page Three, another paper will quickly step in.
"But I don't think the Sun will ever pull out," he says. "It knows its audience." Page Three plays on male weakness and that makes the business recession free, he says.
Fame and fortune
Like many involved in the business, Edwards says he doesn't often find himself on the receiving end of criticism.
Does he ever get stick from women? "Only when I don't sign them up," he says.
And there are many such unsuccessful candidates, with up to 70 new girls a week approaching him for work.
They come from all classes, with an occasional student lawyer or doctor popping up and that even young mums - "still in
shape" - have modelled.
"Glamour, fame, fortune and a love of being in front of the camera," are all part of the appeal he says.
"And of course they all have a certain amount of
His current top earners - Michelle Marsh (topless) and Lucy Pinder (nipples covered, so far) - can earn in excess of £100,000 a year.
Twenty-one-year old blonde Michelle (vital statistics - 32G-24-34) says such sums should serve notice to anyone who wonders whether all Page Three girls are not bright.
"At the end of the day I could work nine to five, but I would not be travelling the world earning such good money and meeting brilliant people," she says.
Like many girls, she got into Page Three through a local modelling agency and also works for the lads mags.
She says there have been catty comments from one or two women offended by their boyfriend's wandering eye and the odd time when she's wished the men would stop paying her attention, but most people respect her choice - including her family.
"My mum and dad are absolutely fine about it, they collect everything I do," she says. "When they saw how happy I was they were really pleased for me. My dad runs my website."
Michelle, the proud owner of her own house and a sports car, knows she won't be able to continue in her line of work for ever and plans to work as a carer for the elderly.
While she can probably afford to pick and choose, even averagely successful Page Three girls make between £30,000 and £40,000 a year.
"Page Three girls are in demand with magazines right
now," says Edwards.
"Because the bottom has fallen out of the magazine market, titles cannot afford to pay celebrities for sexy photo shoots."
Back in 1970, Rahn and Lamb could have had no idea what they were starting.