What I Learned When I Posed for ‘Playgirl’

by Jessanne Collins


On a June day in 2008, I found myself in a novelty sombrero. I was dangling my feet in the deep end of a swimming pool at a ranch outside of Santa Fe, sporting a red Forever 21 sundress, $1,000 worth of borrowed turquoise jewelry, and wide sunglasses, which I hoped would make me appear glamorous … and anonymous.

It was the afternoon of day two of Playgirl’s annual Campus Hunks photo shoot, an event that I’d coordinated, budgeted, contracted, and conceptualized. And the hunks were coming.

In the last 48 hours, I’d gotten to know this ragtag pack of models pretty well. I knew all about their girlfriends or wives. All about their ambitions and their day jobs—pro basketball, fitness modeling, veterinarianism. All about their rationalizations. Carl, who had the adorable, dopey, eager-to-please countenance of a golden retriever, spent long hours in the hotel hot tub explaining that, though he was definitely straight, he did gay porn videos as a sort of cockeyed Christian goodwill mission. “I’m here on this planet to make people happy,” he insisted. “And if it’s by having sex with another guy on camera—if that’s my talent—well, as long as I’m putting positive energy out there into the world, then I’m so happy to do it!”

Despite how strange and sweet and human these men were, it was hard not to see them just as oversize (and anatomically correct) Ken dolls. The truth about asses and dicks is that they’re basically just muscles, like pecs and biceps. When they’re all bronzed and polished to perfection, they don’t even have the qualities of human flesh. They seem like plastic—or machinery.

And now, here I was, posing for it. That I would end up in a swimming pool full of naked men was precisely the nightmare my mother had when I told her I’d been offered a job at Playgirl.

That I would end up in a swimming pool full of naked men was precisely the nightmare my mother had when I told her I’d been offered a job at Playgirl.

She’d dosed me heavily, after all, with Free to Be You and Me and Our Bodies, Ourselves. As a kid at the food co-op in our rural New England town—an uncommon outlet, in the mid-80s—I pored over colorful buttons protesting Apartheid and the Iran-Contra affair. I went to Montessori school and later to underfunded but well-intentioned public schools, where I started environmental movements and student newspapers. I had holistic peanut butter in my lunches and strict instructions that girls could do anything.

In seventh grade, I picked up a copy of Sassy at the newsstand in the mall. For the next several years, I read it obsessively, as if it were a bible, stitching dresses out of pillowcases, treating my skin with avocado, and working myself into abortion-rights frenzies. From my little backwoods bedroom, Sassy gave me a window into a world beyond the front yard: a world full of books and movies and music that were imbued with the meaning of life (and also, they were cool), one where the personal and the political intersected seamlessly. One where awesome women had awesome jobs making awesome magazines.

By 2007, the year I found myself living in New York, having an awesome job at an awesome magazine seemed like an increasingly unlikely prospect. In college I’d studied sociology and wrote for the radical student newspapers, railing against the IMF, sweatshop globalization, and eating disorders. I interned for a progressive economics magazine run out of a dusty church attic in Boston. I intended, I said with particularly 1990s adolescent earnestness, to do social justice journalism.

What I ended up doing was retail. For several years straight out of college, I applied diligently for every job at a feminist newsletter, health food magazine, or alt weekly that came along, but my job in Boston at a bookstore was what paid the bills, barely. It was the early ’00s and the economy was terror-shocked and, well, the world I had so painstakingly prepared to enter and shape had changed. You couldn’t expect to get a job critiquing Nike’s foreign labor practices or bringing down bovine growth hormones on newsprint when there were two wars being fought and two million blogs.

I’d made it to New York, eventually, and found a comfortable job in the marketing department at an academic press, where I excelled at writing catalogs. It was a good job, and an editorial job, sort of, but no, catalogs were not magazines. Magazines, everyone said, were falling to pieces.

It wouldn’t make sense, everyone said, to take a $10,000 pay cut for a job at one. My parents would not have blinked if I’d turned out to be a lesbian and joined the Peace Corps in Nepal. Instead, here I was, at 27, all grown up and choosing instead a job in pornography. Maybe-gay pornography? Certainly, penis-oriented pornography. At this development, they were more than a little baffled and extremely concerned, phoning in a panic after they visited their small-town bookstore to pick up a copy of what (after my justification that, although it was “technically” porn, Playgirl had a circulation of half a million!) they referred to with pointed vagueness as “the national magazine.”

“That’s not how it works, Mom.” I’d insisted. “The managing editor doesn’t pose for the magazine!”

Unless, of course, she does.

***

I’d been under no illusions that a job at Playgirl was going to be a glamorous Devil Wears Prada kind of experience. Rather, my hope was for something like a bizarro Sassy—a bunch of girls, working on a thing together. Sure, it was less of a cool thing and more of a ridiculous thing, but maybe we could make something useful out of it, for someone somewhere? Maybe we could touch somebody’s life, in some unlikely way? But the bottom line was, Playgirl was a magazine and it was willing to hire me.

Between all those pages of muscles and penises, there were a news and culture section, interviews with models and D- or lower-list celebs, travel and health coverage, a sex ed column, erotic fiction. (“My forte!” I joked. It wasn’t.) There were even full-length features, stories about crazy swinger sex cruises and how porn figured into Middle East politics. This was what I found awesome about the job—the fact that within the parameters of our “editorial content,” we totally controlled the editorial content.

I’d go to a press lunch and sit at a table with Gloria Steinem—heroine of my youth, my alma mater, and, well, the entire feminist publishing industry—hoping she wouldn’t ask me where I worked.

In the year that followed, I’d suffer long phone conversations with callers of questionable motive, like the Southern gentleman who wanted to hear all about the cock sizes of different models in upcoming issues so he could decide which ones to buy “for mah wife.” I’d write a bunch of pithy copy about the abs and pecs of Daniel Craig and Mario Lopez for a spread of paparazzi shots of celebs at the beach, pausing briefly when I got to Owen Wilson, who was in the tabloids that day for having been hospitalized after a suicide attempt, to wonder whether he was an appropriate inclusion. I’d interview a professional wrestler about his exotic-dancing career. And I’d go to a press lunch and sit at a table with Gloria Steinem—heroine of my youth, my alma mater, and, well, the entire feminist publishing industry—hoping she wouldn’t ask me where I worked.

It wasn’t that I was ashamed of my job—in fact I was proud of it. I loved the instant notoriety, the double-takes people did when I told them “what I did.” At first they didn’t believe me. “Does that even still exist?” they’d ask. I liked explaining that, in fact, it did. I liked watching the looks on their faces turn from dubious to sort-of impressed. I was someone they might remember tomorrow: “You guys, I met a Playgirl editor last night. Did you know Playgirl even still exists?”

But I felt complicated about the job too—all of the explaining sometimes felt like justification. I couldn’t decide whether what I’d done was take advantage of a lucky break or whether what I was doing amounted to faking it. Playgirl may have still existed, but existing was just existing. I wanted to work on something good. Porn, I’d quickly learned, is a just another grind. We slogged along, churning out pages, month after month, musclehead after musclehead. The challenge, at the end of the day, was to see how much we could do for how cheap.

Anyone who’s worked in an adult industries will tell you that when it comes down to it, it’s just business. Producing porn feels like producing anything else—spark plugs, catalogs—the only difference is that in this case the materials involved are bodies. In between, it’s just paperwork and networking, like any job. And professionals are professionals. In most cases, in my experience, there’s very little actual awkwardness involved. Everyone shows up, hangs out, chit-chats, gets photographed naked, gets paid, goes home.

When there is a note of awkwardness—and these are notes to which by nature I am highly attuned—it comes from somewhere other than the exposed genitals in the room. It comes from mismatched expectations or miscommunications. It comes when somebody’s ambition exceeds the parameters of the situation. When what’s exposed is not just a well-waxed body part but something more raw—an insatiable motivation that feels out of places on a shoddy porn set.

I saw an awful lot of penises that year. An awful lot of pecs and abs and other muscles. After a while, they just looked like plastic. But that other thing—that palpable sense that someone knows what they want and will do anything to get it? I got a close-up look at a lot of that too. From that, I couldn’t look away.

***

I hadn’t been lying when I’d told my mom there was no way I’d end up posing for the magazine. But things changed. I’d done a lot of things that year that a previous me would have balked at. I talked about sex with wrestlers and reality television stars. I shared my own intimate secrets with half a million strangers. I wrote really bad puns.

Spending so much time with aspiring porn actors and reality TV stars had made me think that maybe to be ambitious was always to be a little bit hungry. Maybe ambition and insatiability were the same force. In that case, what does satisfaction mean? Were people like that—whose dreams always seemed a little bigger than the day-to-day reality of what they had attained—doomed to live like little Sisyphuses, where every tiny kernel of success they managed to attain became another thing they had to push up a hill?

Maybe my problem was that I wasn’t ravenous enough. Maybe I wasn’t like these people at all—they were so single-minded in their ambition that they invested everything of themselves in it. They worked hard. I wasn’t sure I worked hard. (I am, after all, still from New England.) Maybe holding the job title I’d set out to hold wasn’t enough. Maybe the chaos and unpleasantness it came with wasn’t just a side effect to be endured. What if what I had to do to find my way in this world was to throw myself more completely into its murky gray areas and unpleasant substances and existential awkwardness?

Maybe the darker the place we live, the more the little things we do matter.

Maybe I had to stop separating who I was from who I used to be and who she thought I would’ve become by now. After all, I’d made my way here. I wasn’t some misguided girl getting off on the wrong foot in New York City, falling in with seedy characters unknowingly, and being taken advantage of. I’d made each of the decisions that had put me here, and I’d made them carefully. No one was responsible for where I was but myself. And that went both ways: I owned my success, whatever that meant, and I owned the questionable things I’d done in pursuit of it.

I knew, now, what I was willing to do to get what I wanted. And what I wanted, at that moment in time, was to visit Santa Fe.

As always, the budget for the Campus Hunks shoot was tight. We’d conceptualized a narrative, in which the (ostensible) college boys were spring break road-tripping through the grand American Southwest. In the adobe-lined adorableness of downtown Santa Fe, they’re puzzling over their map, trying to find their way, when—what do you know?—a convertible full of chicks pulls up and offers them a ride! They head back to the girls’ ranch for a “fiesta,” where the girls cook up some tacos (this was part of the “plot,” and it was going to double as lunch on set—a brilliant bit of budgetary strategy). The boys would ditch their shirts and take a few whacks at a piñata. Yes, really. Then everyone would hit the pool, and, well, you can guess the rest.

We’d have to fly to Santa Fe for a long weekend, five hunks from various reaches of the country in tow. My editor in chief, Nicole, and I sat with our boss, Vince, to go over the budget. There was money allotted for cold cuts. Shared rooms at the Days Inn. Flights with layovers. $1,000 fee per hunk, for two days’ work plus travel time. $200 to be paid to local models to be the “girls” for the plot.

We needed to crunch further.

“I think we can make this work,” said Vince from his usual spot at the head of the conference room table. “If you guys are the girls.

Nicole and I looked at each other and laughed. The thing about imaginary lines is it’s easy to cross them and then just draw a new one.

****

After the pool scene had wrapped and the hunks had toweled off and were sitting under the cabana gorging on Slim Jims, I stretched out in a lounge chair in the sun to dry and contemplated the brilliant contrast of my outfit—expensive accessories on cheap fabric. It seemed to sum up, as well as any wardrobe could, the place I’d found myself. It was somewhere undeniably seedy and lowbrow, especially for a girl with loving parents and an expensive liberal arts degree. At the same time, it was somewhere that had given me access to ideas I’d never considered, places I’d never been, and people I’d never have met. Including, I realized, a side of myself I hadn’t really known.

There had been a lot of moments when I wondered whether what I was doing at Playgirl amounted to “selling out.” There by the side of the pool, selling out seemed like an irrelevant concept. Was I saving the world? Hardly. Was I changing it? Who could say? I wasn’t sure that “changing the world” meant what I had grown up thinking it meant. How do you change something so big you can’t see it? Maybe it was a matter of the little things we do in a day and the way they add up to a life. Maybe the darker the place we live, the more the little things we do matter.

Maybe you could change the world with a laugh—like that proverbial butterfly beating its wings unassumingly over the ocean, stirring up a hurricane. Maybe budding porn star and bizarro Christian Carl was right, and you could change the world with an orgasm.

Or maybe the only thing you really had the capacity to change was your expectations. Maybe you stopped waiting around for circumstances to start resembling some reality you’d imagined a long time ago. Maybe you went out and changed them yourself, into something entirely new.

Jessanne Collins is the editor-in-chief of mental_floss magazine. This is an excerpt from her ebook ‘How to Be a Playgirl.’