2011 has already seen Playboy create a storm; the infamous Hugh Hefner announcing his third marriage to Crystal Harris and the move in January to privatise the business, buying it back from shareholders, has put the iconic sufficer of lustful motives back in the public eye.
Indeed the storm that’s just closed their Headquarters in Chicago for two days, delaying their next edition due to go to print on Tuesday, has also caused somewhat of a stir. But Stephen Randall assures me with Californian warmth and humble charm that his comfy chair in a hotel room in Los Angeles is actually causing him no stress at all. Having been at Playboy for 30 years, being in a deadline business has clearly rendered him a man unfazed by such a “little difficulty as a storm.”
Having seen the evolution of the Playboy enterprise culminating in the current ‘return to its unique position,’ Steve is quite proud to be the creative guy. “I live in the creative realm, part of a team that creates the magazine. I’m not an authority on the business side of things, but the question is not really why are we going private, it’s why the hell did we ever go public? It means the company runs very differently, being obliged to shareholders who want immediate quarterly results. This limits your flexibility besides the fact it’s very expensive, and costs millions of dollars. Even Hef agrees it was not the smartest move he ever made.”
But from Randall’s creative perspective, nothing has been lost from Playboy by going public in the first place, the philosophy has not been compromised.
“Of course, we could have made investments that would have really paid off but shareholders wouldn’t want to wait for hotels to be built. We also closed our New York office, which solved the immediate problem of stemming some losses, but there would have been better ways to weather the storm. Ultimately, there is always a war between the business people and the creative people like me. They have a different mindset to those of us that create the product,” he says assuredly.
Steve is certain that the legacy of Playboy being a liberal arts magazine is not influenced by it being public or private company. “Hef is the leader and has a very clear idea in his mind where the magazine fits into the culture, and he is very good at maintaining that despite the craziness of the economy and the magazine itself.” But as a cultural phenomenon, how exactly does it fit into the niche it has carved for itself? “As a magazine or a brand?” he says; “both!”, I reply.
“The magazine has always occupied a space that its always had, like the sophisticated older brother. We are one part entertainment medium, one part service medium. We are a place to go for guys who are aspirational in nature who want a better life, not just better clothes or fancy car, but a better life intellectually, culturally. We’re not like some other magazines who have a very narrow view of aspirations, like men’s health- that’s great if you want a flat stomach! If you read it regularly you’ll be a much smarter person at a cocktail party in all categories. It helps people achieve it because it’s entertaining and fun.”
No one had tapped into that fact that guys like pinball and like to worry about what’s going on in Cairo.
Indeed, the cover reads Entertainment for Men. “Just a sophisticated type of entertainment, more HBO than a cable channel.” I wonder though, is it really that sophisticated, in spite of Stephen himself being such an interesting, courteous gentleman? Surely it’s just fancier porn for college jocks and builders. But he is completely committed to it attracting a broad demographic readership, and that a balance can be made between its identity as upmarket top-shelf versus sophisticated publication.
“Other magazines which have tried to create that balance have failed the high-low act. But it’s very normal for us; look at something as microcosmic as the 20Questions and the Interview (in-depth profile of a prominent public figure), where the latter might be about someone very highbrow, and the former about some really goofy MMA fighter. This appeals to a guy, because it’s very typical for a guy to like both of those things. And that’s responsible for Playboy’s success early on in that before Playboy no one had tapped into that fact that guys like pinball and like to worry about what’s going on in Cairo. Those things co-exist in a young man’s brain very naturally. And it’s true, women are perhaps less comfortable with accepting such a distinction of interests.
“Women’s magazines are so weird,” Steve laughs, “they don’t address that complexity. If you read women’s mags your view of women would be totally skewed. All women cared about is lipstick, getting a boy, cooking a pot-roast, or losing weight. They’re strangely demeaning to women. Playboy has a huge number of women readers, about 20 per cent. Because what else are they gonna read?!” he asks incredulously. “If they wanna read a good short story they’re not gonna get it in Cosmo! If they want an interview with Robert Downy Junior, they wont get that depth and substance from the magazines targeted at them. Vanity Fair is phenomenal but the fact that lots of magazines don’t take a higher road in targeting both men and women always surprises me.”
It seems, however, irrelevant that what is demeaning to Steve Randall is undermining women’s intellect, as opposed to undermining their bodies, and sexuality.
So, we move on. To find out why such fascinating people have exposed such insightful accounts to Playboy and not other publications. Randall has been in charge of the Interview since 1990 and since edited compilations of these interviews over the years that have received legendary status. The reason is not very complicated, he says almost surprised.
“It’s because we ask! Most magazines don’t reach very high. They play to preconceived notions and don’t allude to there being anything more to be discussed. We want it to be an intelligent discussion so smart people like doing it and rise to the occasion. We spend six hours with a tape running rather than just have lunch, so we get a higher quality of response and attract other subjects to it too. If you’ve been interviewed before, you know when someone’s doing a good job so you want to help them out. It’s rare to get the chance to speak at length now in a world of such distraction and transience.”
But, I ask, does he think the quality of the high-brow stuff is ever compromised by the exploitation of women and the sexuality of the magazine or do they only ever compliment each other?
“It’s a package that works very well. Many have tried. Yes there are nude women and goofy Johnny Knoxville questions, interview, fiction, but there’s something about that package that works when done well.
“Playboy is so visible and so famous because of the women. If you tell someone you work here, they know what you do, what it is. Our visibility comes from the total package, we created this world and it spoke to men. No one aspect would do well on its own.”
Men are offered a reliable package and they trust it. Boobs and intellect are a fair reflection of the average aspirational man; a complete fantasy rather than a partial one, I state. “Exactly” he agrees, “people who fantasise about a sexy woman, are also inclined to fantasise about a nice car, being smarter. If you read the interview with Frank Gehry of course you’ll enjoy the Playmates too, those two things are not mutually exclusive. That was Hef’s genius, he knew that’s how men thought.
As a global symbol it seems Playboy has not been diluted but retained its iconic status. The brand is strong as its ever been, it’s shorthand: a cultural touchstone.
“The magazine is smaller, but I think that’s more to do with the times in which we live. In 1963 when it started, there was no internet, there was no radio, three TV channels, but over the course of the magazine’s life there are now 1000 more things that people get to do every day. Every young man has so many more choices than he used to. If this wasn’t a problem NBC wouldn’t have seen their viewer-ship drop by two thirds. The internet is an amazing time suck, so people spend less time with you now and magazines and network TV are less attractive. With every new development my world becomes more fragmented and our job is to recognise that this is happening, to react to it and adjust to it in a smart way. So you’re the ones who survive and find news ways to serve your reader. You find ways to adapt to the changing marketplace.”
It seems then that Playboy is prepared for the future. But going private will not mean a new direction, ultimately the symbolism and the philosophy will stay the same. “As long as Hef is alive, the magazine you see right now will be very similar to the magazine you’ve always seen. In terms of the company, I’m fascinated where they’ll be assigning the new resources, if they’ll build a chain of hotels. I can assure you Hef will remain the Editor-in-Chief and as long as that’s the case it will evolve a lot but the mission and the purpose will stay the same. And I don’t think print will totally disappear. Everybody appreciates the magazine for the way it enhances the brand; Heff and the magazine are the brand drivers. He is 84 years old so for the foreseeable future the magazine is the brand driver.”
But what is the secret to the driver’s success? Is it to the extent that they’ve entirely invested themselves in the magazine, and blurred the line between work and play? It seems pretty obvious that work at the mansion is both. “You never know where you end and your job begins. I watch what the readers watch on TV, but do I watch Jersey Shore because I work at Playboy – or is it that I work at Playboy so I watch Jersey Shore- I don’t have a clue!” And it seems the same with Hef; is he or does he sustain a persona for the sake of the magazine?
“No. The thing about Hef is really what you see is what you get. He is brutally honest. Hef is so sure of himself that having three girlfriends or getting married is right to him. He just marches on.” And is that the most admirable part of the Playboy fantasy? “The fact that that life resonates within so many people is remarkable.”
And then the feminist in me finally gets it; that’s why it appeals to the average man. The fantasy and the extraordinary figure that is Hugh Hefner epitomises the courage to live the lifestyle that you want to lead, which is what everyone aspires to do. “That’s it in a nutshell”, he says as I wave him off into the storm.