The Evolution of Playgirl: Reviewing Three Decades of Covers

by Jen Doll

How to Be a Playgirl, a Barnes and Noble Nook Snap by Mental Floss editor Jessanne Collins, is a short — just 24 pages — and highly readable recounting of the highlights of her year-long experience as an editor of Playgirl magazine. Playgirl “debuted in the summer of 1973 and was billed as a sex-positive, fun-oriented feminist response to Hugh Hefner’s empire”; when Collins started there in 2007 and until it shuttered in 2008, it bore only a slight resemblance to the original.

In a recent two-hour conversation, Collins and I pored over the covers of select issues of Playgirl. It’s a fascinating journey to go from the first issue, in which editor Marin Scott Milam defined “a Playgirl” as “independent, self-confident, aware, involved, adventurous, daring, curious, vital, ambitious, sensuous, loving, giving, alive, liberated, free,” to the magazines of the late-aughts featuring increasingly greasy, provocatively posed “hunks.” They reveal much about women, men, magazines and magazine design, and, not least, the evolution of Playgirl, and how we think about sex, too.

Note: Some photos sorta NSFW. Scroll with caution.

1973: The Inaugural Issue

Jen: So, this is the first one.

Jessanne: It’s the very first cover. This is very “Our bodies, Ourselves” looking. The story was that Lyle Waggoner [from the Carol Burnett show] was the first centerfold, and he didn’t show full frontal penis, and so many people wrote in so angry there wasn’t actual penis. The thinking was that women didn’t want to see too much, and all these readers were like, we want to see actual penis. The first cover is so artsy and erotic, and totally cheesy too, obviously. What does it say that this woman is clinging onto him, worshipping him?

Jen: And that there’s a woman at all on the cover… in comparison to the later years.

Jessanne: The early covers showed women a lot; you see the woman and man interacting. I think the reader looks to identify with the woman in the picture. The thought, with the inside couple shots too, was that women interacted with this material through this narrative storytelling.

Jen: How does this compare to the sort of stuff you’d expect to see in Playboy, or other porn magazines aimed at men?

Jessanne: In terms of what I witnessed in the production of porn at a place that also did magazines for men, it was, here’s a woman’s body, in some ridiculous pose. It’s very clinical: boobs and vagina, every part on display. That was the formula applied to Playgirl — more erections, greasier bodies — toward the end. I mean, look at the “artful erotic shadow” here! In the later issues, it’s page after page of straight-on naked in-your-face body parts. It was in line with the trope of the porn that the men’s magazines were publishing.

January 1977: A Very James Caan New Year’s Eve

Jen: Are we ALL hookers?

Jessanne [reading from the article]: “What is prostitution: the trick is not getting caught.” This looks like a stock photo; it doesn’t seem like we’d shoot him. There’s a James Caan interview, and it looks like there’s another stock photo.

Jen: There’s no woman and he’s not looking at anyone. It’s a celebrity. Is this a departure?

Jessanne: Well, it’s a very dignified portrait. He’s very respectable. Later on there will be a contrast. He looks like…

Jen: You’d want him to be your date…

Jessanne: You’d bring him to a party or he’s your dad and you’re proud of him and he’s getting an award.

February 1977: The Special Valentine’s Issue

Jessanne: It’s just awesomeness. The mustaches, the collaging together all of these guys — it feels like a grownup teen magazine.

Jen: It’s like those postcards that give you four scenic shots so you don’t have to choose just one. What’s up with the cover line, “Boy-Rapist Next Door”?

Jessanne: Oh, I just opened to a three-page spread called “menstruation” and it’s kind of an explainer. It’s really hard to find things in here! OK, it profiles “the typical rapist” and makes the case that he’s the boy-next-door type: “he’s a college grad, pays his bills on time, he comes home to his wife.” It’s giving some context that a rapist…

Jen: Could be someone you know. Funny how we’re still talking about that today. These images on the cover, they all have a different expression, which is sort of funny.

Jessanne: It’s like a flip book. It’s like, here’s your valentine: Do you want quizzical, dreamy?

Jen: Recently beat about the head with a mallet? There’s no woman on this cover, I note.

Jessanne: They’re all white dudes with a sufficient amount of hair.

Jen: Only one is wearing a shirt. Is there any rule on jewelry? Yes or no?

Jessanne: There were no rules, especially back in the day. Some man jewelry is cool.

Jen: What is “Sex Before Sex”?

Jessanne [paging through]: Oh, there’s a whole section on how to shape your eyebrows! There used to be a lot of makeup tutorials and fashion spreads with really funny flowing chiffon dresses. Ah, it’s an opinion piece: “let’s revise the lost art of flirtation: sex before sex.” There’s also article in here titled, “Working Women Part 7: The Myth of the Superwoman.”

Jen: Could we have it all?

April 1977: The Woman in Sunglasses

Jen: It’s weird, but this actually looks almost kind of modern to me.

Jessanne: It’s one of my favorites of all time. Not to get too philosophical; I love to get philosophical about these! It’s a great composition, really appealing and interesting. I love the combination of cover lines: this great cocktail of heavy and light. The terrorism article is really, really serious.

Jen: There’s no sex angle to it?

Jessanne: There’s no sex angle, it’s pure politics. You saw this a lot, photos of naked dudes alongside discussions of abortion and contraception. Some of the topics were women’s politics, but it was also just politics in general. Look at the symbolism of the woman looking at this guy. She’s in this power position, and he’s lying down, splayed open, below her. He’s looking at her adoringly.

Jen: Would she see him duplicated in both lenses?

Jessanne: Ha! It’s doesn’t quite work, but this idea that there’s a full circle gaze — he’s checking her out, she’s checking him out — it’s very compelling. I wanted to use a version of this for the cover of my book but it was too hard to figure out.

Jen: It’s interesting that she has sunglasses on, and in the place of her eyes it’s him.

Jessanne: She could be you, checking out this hot dude.

Jen: I might wear those sunglasses. Maybe that’s why it feels modern?

Jessanne: It feels timeless. He looks like he could live in Williamsburg. There’s no incriminating hairstyle or body hair.

Jen: And she’s wearing hipster sunglasses.

May 1977: Men in Speedos

Jessanne: I love this one, this is one of my favorites!

Jen: That mustache!

Jessanne: This is quintessential early Playgirl. She’s like, “Heck yeah, I’m the center of attention.” It’s kind of reversing — well, it’s not reversing, it’s the male gaze, they’re looking at her — but it’s a little bit badass: “I have three guys, I’m living my life.” I think this one is an interesting example of how women look to women on the cover to identify with. Who doesn’t want to be surrounded by these guys? Look at the attention they’re paying her. That’s the hot thing, being the object of desire. I would buy it.

Jen: She looks happy and confident, and they look adoring. Also the eye contact is interesting. She’s looking at us, and they’re looking at her. Oh, and I sort of love that striped Speedo.

Jessanne: The striped Speedo is amazing, as is the color scheme. It’s like the colors of ’70s kitchen equipment.

Jen: Is the background tie-dyed?

Jessanne: It looks… batik?

December 1978: Bianca Jagger and Ricci Martin

Jen: OMG, Dean Martin’s son, “Ricci Martin”? Dean Martin had a son who posed for Playgirl?

Jessanne [reading the interview with him]: He just finished his first movie, and he’s touring the continent with his own rock band. “Being Dean Martin’s kid doesn’t bother me at all,” he says. It’s a one-page profile.

Jen: There’s a lot of fur on the cover. A kitten!

Jessanne: The kitten is not making eye contact with us. He’s possibly asleep.

Jen: Is it a prop kitten?

Jessanne: I think it’s a prop kitten! To me this again brings up that ’70s ideal of living the good life, the female ideal. She’s wearing all this fur and the big ring and holding the soft kitten and this man is also wearing fur. In the early covers with women, there was this presentation of, “this is a Playgirl,” this is this cultural portrait of this modern woman. They’re showing you the ideal woman, and here’s how to be her.

Jen: It’s such a fluffy cover.

May 1979: Jon Voight and Lady Friend

Jen: I think this is creepy because it’s Jon Voight.

Jessanne: You kind of want to hide from this one.

Jen: Who is she?

Jessanne: I guess she could be a generic stand-in model. [Turning pages to find out] there are so many pages! This one has 124, which is pretty thick compared to modern Playgirl, but also really compared to anything, except maybe Vogue. Hm, maybe she’s a model. In that case what’s interesting is, she’s not unattractive, but just kind of unremarkable.

Jen: An everylady.

Jessanne: Today on magazine covers you don’t generally get the “glorification of the everywoman.”

Jen: The way he’s holding her, and his look — again, maybe this is just Jon Voight — but compare that to Bianca and Ricci. He seems so aggressive.

Jessanne: He’s like, holding this woman hostage. He’s smirking. Not to nit-pick but it’s not a very good picture, the lighting is bad. It feels very drab.

Jen: Neither of them seem happy.

Jessanne: But there are “Hot Shots of Tight Pants.”

March 1985: Jameson Parker

Jen: It looks like she’s trying to poke him in the ear and missed.

Jessanne: Simon and Simon, was that a show?

Jen: It must be, it’s in italics.

Jessanne: This one has an amazing shoot where they try to impersonate celebrities in the nude.

Jen: Oh my God, I thought those were mugshots! So, Parker, he looks dignified.

Jessanne: It looks like they’re getting ready to go to the Met Gala. She’s got the matching ring/ necklace/ bracelet set. It’s artfully arranged, a portrait of ’80s material excess, and blush.

I have this theory. In the ’70s, Playgirl is trying to define the modern woman as this vibrant ’70s chick with a life of leisure. And in the ‘80s — I’m talking in stereotypical terms about what was going in politics and culture — there was a turn to boom times and the good life; this was something we’d attained in a middle-class way. At the same time, though, women were more and more struggling with how to reconcile being a successful career woman and being sensual, alive, free, and in touch with desires, and also being materially responsible and being a mother.

I think when Playgirl starts to decline at the end of the ’80s, it was because this idea that was such an easy sell in the ‘70s — the idea that women need a magazine about the good life — became a really hard sell in the ’80s, maybe because cracks were showing in the idea that you could just pursue a life of leisure. There’s one issue in the ’80s where they do a reader satisfaction survey, and there’s all this disappointment in it, women being like, “I thought things were getting better but now I find myself still struggling.” There was a disillusionment; it’s not just all the frilly good life.

Jen: There was, of course, a huge, empowering feminist surge in the ’60s and ’70s, and then by ’82 the Equal Rights Amendment had failed and conservatives has mobilized, which seems like it pairs with this disappointment women were feeling.

Jessanne: Playgirl turning away from the formula that had been successful and into the pornier stuff of the ’90s and ’00s, I feel, had to do with women’s experience and expectations. What they were looking for had changed. Playgirl couldn’t respond to it in the same way and wasn’t able to create a new formula that worked.

September 1986: Mark Harmon

September 1985: Joan Collins

August 1980: Jane Seymour and Chevy Chase

Jessanne: I really like the Mark Harmon cover. I love NCIS! I think he’s way hotter now, though.

Jen: He’s so Miami Vice.

Jessanne: It’s so ’80s, and like, we’re all rich now, everything’s under control. The Reagan era. There’s that ’80s gleam, that polish to all of those covers.

Jen: Around this time, or a little before it, there was the cover with Chevy Chase and Jane Seymour, and one with Joan Collins.

Jessanne: Those sorts of celebrities on the cover show that it was taken seriously as a magazine that had sex in it but was also this definitive women’s magazine. There were all these facets to it, and it wasn’t getting laughed at. Later it becomes a thing that it’s hard to tell how seriously it’s taking itself; it’s not trying to compete in this mainstream marketplace. There was a decision that it was going to make money in this porn industry where the rules and numbers were different.

March 1989: The Guy in the Leotard (Michael Corbett)

Jen: Let’s look at that shift you mentioned, as evidenced by Leotard Man.

Jessanne: He’s wearing a leotard and pulling it down.

Jen: There’s something super porny about the leotard.

Jessanne: And there’s so much chest. I guess maybe the first cover guy had chest, but most of the men we were looking at were a dignified man trope. This is a real turn away from that. He’s wearing spandex, he has a look on his face that’s like, “This is ridiculous.” He doesn’t look super-confident. He’s in a different category than the dignified man. The lines on this, too, are all just silly: “How to Do It on Your Desk,” “Kiss Off.” It’s very, “we’re just having fun.” The interesting thing is I turned to the editor’s letter, though, and it’s this long political screed in which she’s talking about all the issues I was just bringing up: Frustrating politics, abortion laws in Missouri and the threat to overturn Roe v. Wade, and where does pleasure fit in with politics? There’s still very much this feminist undercurrent.

Jen: It’s just not on the cover.

Jessanne: It’s a turning point. From what I know, it was ’86 or so when they sold the magazine, which had been California-based, to this New York company. It was a long series of mergers and acquisitions; sales had declined and there was this effort to regroup. When they first bought it the new publisher was like, “We’re not going to have any penis because women don’t want to look at penises,” and again, it nearly put them out of business. There was all this backlash. People were asking for, literally, pictures of penises. Here, maybe the magazine has regained its footing a bit, but it’s kind of trying to feel its way. It’s a stupid cover, a smart editor’s letter, and the rest of the content ricochets back and forth.

November 1996: Brian Austin Green

Jen: We must talk about this Brian Austin Green cover! Why does it look like a teen magazine to me. Or like Sassy!?

Jessanne: There must have been some marketing study done in the ’80s or ’90s that made for a mandate of more covers with white backgrounds. When Sassy was trying to save itself they would annotate things and speak with this editorial voice; I remember it being like, “Don’t you love our newsstand sales-friendly white cover?” In some of the ’90s issues of Playgirl, I see the same thing. I don’t know if it was industry practice.

Jen: This could also be, like, the cover of Bop.

Jessanne: Part of it is probably Brian Austin Green, who sort of only has one look. He’s David Silver on this cover, with his underwear showing. There’s this long interview with him inside. At a certain point, after the ’90s, it was rare to have a shoot with a celeb. But here is Brian Austin Green posing in a smoking jacket, along with a five-page interview.

August 1999: The Wet Issue

July 2000: Hot Hunks

Jen: Now we’re starting to get what I’d describe as “porny.”

Jessanne: The super porny stuff, yes, and the clinical level of detail. The hands on “Hot Hunks” are interesting. There’s a woman involved in a strategic way, you could be this woman, maybe, with this nice manicure, but you’re not even seeing her, she’s just implied.

Jen: And she’s way below him. Only interacting with his junk.

Jessanne: Contrast this to the one where the woman is being worshipped by the guys in Speedos. He’s like, on a pedestal, very Greek statue looking, and she’s peeking up at him, and I don’t know the details of who’s in charge at this point, but to me this picture is like a man’s version of a porn magazine for women. The dude, all the details of his body, and a woman who’s not really present. I don’t find there to be anything hot about it. There’s also a little more of an acknowledgement that gay men are becoming a part of the readership, and the inside cover spread and back cover spread are all these ads for 900 numbers with guys showing a lot of butt. I don’t think these were aimed at women.

Jen: Meanwhile, there are all these cover lines about pleasing men!

Jessane: In the beginning, it was please yourself, and this is like Handjob 101, blow his mind. how to be the dirty girl that every guy wants. That’s the antithesis of the original, vivacious, carefree spirit in touch with her sensuality.

Jen: Do you have a least favorite cover?

Jessanne: I don’t think there’s one that I hated, but there are so many that are easy to laugh at, to either feel like they’re not taking themselves seriously or they’re getting it so wrong. They just got so boring and cookie-cutter. In the ’90s and 2000s…

Jen: It’s very neon!

Jessanne: It’s very shiny! This greased-up man thing became the standard. I don’t understand the grease thing myself. It works to physically highlight muscles, and it has a sweaty sex liquid connotation, I guess. It’s like, we’re going to clobber you over the head with the idea that this is a sex object.

September 2000: The Virgin

March 2008: Spy Guy, Dog the Bounty Hunter, & Friends

Jen: Goran of ER! It’s like a baby’s butt. That doesn’t turn me on. Nor does the “play doctor” line.

Jessanne: I mean, a butt in the air in this pose… Oh! This one has Mark Harmon, too!

Jen: How funny that the ’00s are as cheesy as the ’90s. The ’70s, strangely, seem more modern.

Jessanne: History goes in cycles.

Jen: Just like Mark Harmon. Is there a cover that you worked on, in the magazine’s later years, that we should mention?

Jessanne: There’s one that’s got women’s hands all over this guy’s chest. And it has Dog the Bounty Hunter on it.

Jen: “Doggy Style,” aherm. Working at the magazine, did you ever try to change its cover mission? Was that even possible?

Jessanne: We wanted to bring smarter, more relevant editorial content in and cover the type of stuff we thought women interested in sexy things were also interested in, but there was the sense that the way things worked from a production level was just the way it worked. I’m only speaking for myself, but it didn’t feel that we really had control of the direction in which things were going to go. It was like a content farm, kind of, churning out the formula, and that was a penis on every page, lots of chest, and celebrity names as much as possible, even if the content inside was minimally celeb related.

Jen: Or an in-depth Brian Austin Green feature.

Jessanne: Well, those were the 90210 years. His prime time!

November/December 2008: Campus Hunks

Jen: This Campus Hunks cover is the issue you posed for (clothes on, in interior shots), as one of the “everywomen” in the shoot. You write in How to Be a Playgirl, “Months later, long after the magazine folded and the office was shuttered, the Campus Hunks issue hit the newsstands. In the image of that moment, Derrick’s naked butt rose like a moon over the horizon of the water, his charming boyish grin aimed at me full force. There’s a little bit of color in his cheeks and mine. I’m laughing and looking the other way.”

Jessanne: When I talk in the piece about posing for the issue, in a way I think Nicole [Caldwell, Playgirl’s EIC at the time] and I were justifying it. It was like this feminist act to put ourselves in this magazine that was all about idealizing bodies. Here we are, the girls, not models but normal girls, and maybe there’s some interesting political action to that. When I look at the photos now what I see is how much fun we are having. We are clearly not models, because the whole time, we are laughing our asses off. In my memory, which is the way I wrote about it, I am blushing and looking away, but in reality, at least in the shot that ultimately ran, it turns out I am looking right at the camera (in my sunglasses) and hollering or something! Throughout the whole set we are just dying laughing. There’s this total absurd goofiness, like we are fully aware of how insane this thing is, we have our pinata and our tacos and our dudes, and it’s just the most hilarious thing that’s ever happened. I’ve spent all this time “processing” that day and churning it through the wheels that memories go through when they become “memoirs,” and narrating it and philosophizing about it. But looking at it again, it’s like looking at a high school yearbook or something. I’m thinking, damn, that really looks like it was fun!

Jen: Do you wish the magazine still existed, or might someday return?

Jessanne: I’d be most interested to see how something that spoke to the original Playgirl’s concerns could take a new shape today. A different thing, for different times, for a new type of “playgirl.” That’s something I’d be curious to see.

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin. Jessanne Collins is an editor at Mental Floss. Her book, How to Be a Playgirl, is available here.