How I’d make a success of a nude-free Playboy

Toby Young remembers his time at the Playboy mansion

I can’t say that I’m surprised Playboy has decided to stop publishing pictures of naked women. On the contrary, I was amazed to learn that it still does. What on earth is the point of a nudie magazine in an era when pornography of every conceivable kind is available at the click of a mouse?

Hugh Hefner, the magazine’s 89-year-old founder, has always strongly objected to the word ‘porno-graphy’ — he prefers ‘erotica’, obviously — and, to be fair, he did manage to position Playboy as more upmarket than rivals such as Penthouse and Hustler. In its heyday, it included interviews with the likes of Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter and could afford to pay proper writers such as Norman Mailer and Martin Amis to contribute. I’ve even taken Hef’s shilling myself.

But will this sophisticated gloss be enough to sustain the brand after the famous pictorials have been junked? The ‘new’ Playboy will only include photographs that can be categorised as ‘PG-13’, suitable for those aged 13 and above. And by ‘suitable’, I mean considered appropriate by the mothers of 13-year-old boys, not the boys themselves.

My cynical view is that Playboy’s patina of seriousness was just a fig leaf, a way of enabling men to conceal their true motives for subscribing — ‘I just buy it for the articles.’ Whether they were deceiving their partners or themselves is a moot point, but it’s hard to imagine anyone buying Playboy for these psychological prophylactics alone. The equivalent, I suppose, would be if Marlboro stopped making cigarettes and tried to reinvent itself as a company that sold cowboy outfits.

Playboy’s other excuse was that it was advancing the cause of sexual liberation — curing America of the neurotic illnesses caused by sexual repression. Its pictorials were dressed up with words such as ‘uninhibited’ and ‘frank’ and the girls presented as wholesome outdoor types — pillars of sanity. Whether gazing at pictures of naked women does improve your mental health is debatable, but if Playboy’s aim was to destroy the taboo around female nudity it has succeeded like gangbusters. Today, you cannot leave your house without seeing naked women on billboards, posters, magazine covers, not to mention the internet. Thanks, in part, to Playboy, you no longer have to pay £4.99 in order to see such images. It is a victim of its own success.

My view is that it should reinvent itself as a top-shelf magazine for the over-50s — and I don’t just say that in the hope that they’ll employ me again. In 2008, the director of the film version of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People took me to Hugh Hefner’s Fourth of July party at ‘the mansion’.

I was pathetically excited on the way there, peppering my companion with questions about things such as ‘grotto etiquette’. I shouldn’t have bothered. It was one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. Yes, there were a few beautiful women in attendance, but they looked listless and bored, as if they were only there on sufferance. And no wonder, because the average age of the male guests was 75. Hef himself was 82 at the time. The women were more interested in playing rummy than engaging in full-blooded debauchery. I was the only person there to trouble the barman for a drink. The bunnies were sipping Diet Coke and the men were drinking cocoa.

I was suddenly gripped by the idea of sneaking into the house and hiding in a cupboard until all the guests had gone home. My plan was to sneak out at 9.30 p.m. and gather material for a piece about what really went on at the Playboy mansion after dark. The gag, of course, would be that everyone was asleep. I even had a beginning: ‘It was the night of Hef’s Party and not a creature was stirring…’ But my companion vetoed the idea. ‘I’ll never be invited back,’ he said.

A magazine aimed squarely at this crowd would surely be a big hit. Like Saga, but for ageing swingers (unless that describes Saga’s readership already). It would contain ads for Viagra and other cures for erectile dysfunction and pieces by octogenarian lotharios on how to keep up with women half your age. Jack Nicholson would feature regularly on the cover. It could change its name to Oldboy.

Hef, if you’re reading this, I’m willing to take on the editorship. No need to invite me to your Fourth of July party, a huge salary will be fine.


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