Confessions of a Playgirl editor

A former insider dishes on the magazine's unmentionable gay fans, absurd photoshoots and bizarre reader mail

Published June 16, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

Blue vein meatroll, liver turner and purple-helmeted warrior of love. These were just a few of the words on the "13-page thesaurus of synonyms for penis" that Jessanne Collins collected as an editor at Playgirl magazine, which now only exists as an online brand and rare print publication. In her new e-book, "How to Be a Playgirl," a bite-sized memoir of her time at the nudie mag, she writes, "Who were these people, who were turned on by words like tickle gizzard?"

Turns out the editors of the much-ridiculed magazine were often asking themselves the same questions as the general public: Who reads this?

Those "tickle gizzard" fans -- "the wankership," as she puts it -- would flood her desk with letters. "Frequently, the handwriting on the envelopes [was] what one might call 'serial killer,'" she writes. "Just as frequently, it was heart-inflected in the manner of a giddy teenager. Sometimes the pages were tacky or crumby with substances better not wondered about." The mail was "totally creepy, a little bit heartwarming, and super tragic," she says. "Always, it made me need to immediately wash my hands." Among those were the often bizarre submissions from everyday men who wanted to appear in the magazine. She remembers one that read, "'I would like to pose in your prestigious magazine as a lumberjack and beside a nest of hornets."

There was nothing sexy about the job -- not the photoshoots with overly toned hunks and not the office, which was shared with "middle-aged, overweight, mushachioed" men who edited trashy men's magazines and would brainstorm headlines out loud in neighboring cubicles (“Sex Toy Sluts Ram It Deep?” "All Girl Dildo Fuck?"). Her boss had "an artsy black-and-white photograph of a gentle ocean wave cresting over an unkempt vagina over his desk," she writes. Collins was greeted with a blowup doll in her cubicle on her first day of work.

The book doesn't just dish on the inner workings of the infamous publication, though. It's also an earnest and insightful look at sexuality and female desire in particular. "Desire ... is something that takes real work to sell," she writes. "Its shape is impossible to trace, its lines invisible. It's built out of thin air, on anticipation and possibility. It lives between seduction and the tease, in every step it takes to identify what it is we don’t have yet and every step it takes to make it ours. It's bordered by those invisible lines we draw, and then erase and draw again."

I spoke to Collins by email about what went wrong with Playgirl and what it would take for a women's porn magazine to succeed.

How was it that you, with your "expensive liberal arts degree," as you put it, with capital-"s"-serious journalistic aspirations, ended up an editor at Playgirl?

I'm sure a lot of people have this experience at a lot of moments in history, but my story is that I grew up being a good student and doing all the things good students are taught to do in order to become a competent and competitive professional in some field someday. I loved print media. Or as we called it back then, just media. Ha. So I studied the industry and I did my internships, and all that. And then right as I was graduating and starting to look for work, the industry -- the world, really -- kind of changed. It was 2001. I went earnestly out in the world to go get the job I thought was out there waiting for me, and it just wasn't.

So the short story is I waffled around for a lot of years, doing a lot of things, working in retail, in book publishing, going back to school. But I was still vaguely dreaming of and aiming for a job at a magazine, even though I recognized that the rules were not what I thought they were and I basically had no idea how to do that. And when I ended up making a connection at Playgirl, I just saw it as finally, an open door, after all those years of having no access points. Granted, it was not the door I'd been looking for! So, in both a personal way and kind of an industry way, the story I tell is about what happens when things are in flux, or when they don't go according to your best laid plans. How do you adapt? How do your priorities, your expectations, your values change?

Why were Playgirl's publishers so set on presenting the magazine as "for women" when it obviously had a large gay male following?

The short answer is that they were trying to have their cake and eat it too. The basic thinking was that by speaking directly to women we could appeal on some level to both markets: gay men would still buy it, since they were fine with, and maybe not even averse to, enjoying something not overtly aimed at them. But that, if we marketed it the other way, the reverse would not hold true: no woman was going to buy gay male porn. So really, this is another way the story is about adaptation and resilience, or lack thereof. Print media and porn were both very much at flux at this time, and this iconic brand that at that point had 30 years behind it as "entertainment for women," was flailing around, trying to figure out where it fit in. How to be a sexy monthly magazine when so much better content was available online whenever, whereever? How to capitalize on this other market -- gay men -- that was clearly out there and interested? How to speak to women through all of the chatter around sexuality that came with "Sex and the City" and the pop culture of that moment?

How did the magazine change over the decades?

In the seventies and eighties, it really did emulate Playboy, which had its famously serious articles, and it did so pretty successfully in my view. And of course it had all of the amazingly mustachioed men with the big seventies hair -- the Burt Reynoldses and the like. You can just see in those old issues that it really was a pretty mainstream endeavor. The ads are all for Virginia Slims and Baby Soft and cosmetic type products, that are so safe and familiar. So it had this mainstream female appeal, but, of course, uh, there were a lot of penises. It really was quite a revolutionary mix!

By the [naughts] it was a straight-up porn rag. We did want to include articles that were smart and that would appeal to a well-rounded woman, but ultimately the emphasis was not on the articles. The ads were not for mainstream commodities. The magazine was being produced by this boilerplate porn company, not by a company with broader mainstream media market experience or aspirations. The guys were really chiseled and waxed and fitness model-y and the penises were even more in your face. It's amazing to compare the issues over the years and see how, right along with the fashion and the pop culture, the male physiques changed with the times. I think there's some incredible PhD thesis to be written about that.

Why do you think it ultimately failed?

The brand is actually still around -- the website, and they started publishing issues again, now and then -- so ultimately in the end it kind of morphed rather than failed outright. But it's nowhere near the level of household name-brand that Playboy is, or that it itself was in earlier times. And that, I think, is because of this identity crisis it suffered, where it was trying to appeal to both men and women at the same time, and doing neither quite well enough to compete in this very robust porn marketplace we have now. And at the same time, by pigeonholing itself too far into the porn realm -- losing the things about it that gave it mainstream palatability. The bottom line though, in my view, is that it wasn't more successful because the company that was running it was best versed in making porn that appealed to straight men. They tended to take that formula, sub out the women for these buff dudes, and assume that women would find that that spoke to them. And it wasn't really that good a product, because that switch-out just doesn't exactly work. Something is lost in translation.

Did you ever witness a Playgirl shoot that you found legitimately sexy?

Honestly, no. I mean, maybe this is another sign that I was very much a fish out of water, but I just did not at all get the aesthetic. I don't buy the myth that women are "not visual" people whatsoever. I check out dudes. I know we all have specific aesthetic triggers. And yet in all those pages upon pages of photos -- none of them did it for me. There was an almost clinical approach to photography -- almost as if these bodies were specimens under a microscope, every muscle all waxed and on display -- and I think that's the major thing. It's this certain type of porn trope that doesn't translate well for a real female audience.

What would it take to publish a successful porn magazine for women?

Again, I think it's very much a myth that women don't like to look at hot visual content. I think the hard part is that there's literally no formula for what that is. There's something about expectedness, in fact, that just kills intrigue immediately. And this is a challenge because porn's a pretty formulaic thing, most of it, especially what's produced in a corporate capacity. So a porn magazine for women would have to be out of bounds -- it would take a real eye for the particular chemistry that goes into making content that is suggestive and explicit, even, without being cheesy -- it takes nuance, subtlety, a kind of storytelling. I think women are visual, but I also think perhaps they're a different kind of visual than men are, maybe, in that a little can go a long way -- there's something hotter in an insinuation, a possibility, a tease than there is about a straightforward close-up of a giant penis. For many women, anyway. This is why the romance genre is so wildly successful where porn for women, in today's porn terms, can be a hard sell. Also, smart words! Language can do a lot to turn women on, but it has to be the right language.

You write about the masses of reader mail that you would receive at the magazine. Did you learn anything about female, or male, sexuality from those missives?

I learned that it's an incredibly diverse world. I learned, for better or for worse, to see sexuality in almost everything. I stopped thinking that anything was freaky! And, of course, I learned that women are most definitely turned on by visual things.

It sounds like there might be a lot of competition for this, but what was the weirdest reader letter you received?

A female reader once sent in this giant collage starring Cathy, from the comic strip. It was one of those typical scenes where she's frazzled at her desk with all this work piled up, and the person had written this narrative in the speech bubbles, making it about working at Playgirl. I thought it was fitting because my desk was always piled up with all this weirdo mail and dildos and whatnot and it was funny to think of myself as this frazzled, bizarro porn Cathy.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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