Former Editor: Playgirl's "A Relevant Brand Name Once Again," Thanks In Part To Levi

By Nicole Caldwell for Fishbowl NY (click here to see original)

Levi Johnston is standing naked in a 13th-floor studio in midtown Manhattan holding a hockey stick.

He swivels his head and looks into the camera as -- click -- the photo is taken. This is the money shot: the one Daniel Nardicio is tweeting about right now; the one Levi's manager Tank Jones will gush about to Us Weekly; and the one Gawker and Life & Style and a cajillion other gossip outlets will mention as proof positive that, in the words of Tank Jones, "You'll see what you need to see in these photos."

But the truth is, for all the public frenzy over rumors that Levi would go full frontal for Playgirl, the outdoorsy Alaskan-kid-turned-sex-symbol was never actually interested in going "full monty." It was hard enough reassuring him his fake-tan lines weren't too extreme; and that he didn't look fat while seated with his shirt off (actually, he's gorgeous). We're settling for ass shots, torso pictures, sultry portraits, and Austin Powers-like draping of props over what usually comprise key ingredients of Playgirl photo shoots.

It's not a new concept. Most celebrities who "take it off" for Playgirl limit their exposure. David Duchovny wouldn't go past tighty whities and carefully placed tea cups, of all things; Scott Bakula went topless but revealed little; and country music singer Darryl Worley showed everything but. This is why Playgirl clings to a stable of extremely talented photographers who can make a sheltered kid from Alaska comfortable enough to stand naked in front of a camera crew from "Entertainment Tonight," several stylists, a photographer, and a half-dozen people from Playgirl's staff. It's a bummer the world won't get to see Levi's johnson; but the images you will see should satiate several primal urges.

Playgirl pulled out all the stops to make this shoot a media circus — overexerting itself financially to compensate Levi and bring on board new and old staff members to see the project through (including wunderkind party promoter Nardicio and myself, Playgirl‘s editor-in-chief from 2006 to 2008); and marketing the hell out of all things Levi (an ironic Levi Johnston line of Playgirl condoms due out in the spring, a Levi Johnston poster complete with signature). The 36-year-old magazine miraculously rose from the ashes of the Phoenix to become in recent months a relevant brand name once again.

But how did we get here?

The decision last year to make Playgirl exclusively a for-pay online site didn’t work. Photos of naked men are easy to come by for free on the Web. A huge cross section of Playgirl‘s longtime readers (surprisingly enough, middle-aged housewives from the Midwest) didn’t have computers, period. And one of the chief rules of recessionomics is not to turn invisible when times are tough, unless you’re ready to disappear from people’s radar completely. An online magazine in step with its print version and proper marketing can be fierce; a disjointed mash-up of recycled images won’t be.

But an error in judgment can hardly take down such a cultural icon. From its beginnings in 1973 as the brainchild of Ira Ritter, a man who purported to know what women want (it seems he did — the magazine had 11 million subscribers by the time Playgirl turned 8); to the weird decision in the 1980’s to keep all the models clothed, to going online-only, Playgirl has seen its fair share of failed experiments. Like the faces of feminism and gay culture, Playgirl is ever-changing. But to grow, you have to take chances. They won’t all work.

So, we’re doing something different yet again — and this time all the pieces so far seem to fit. The Levi shoot went off without a hitch. The Web site is totally revamped and updated. The print version of the magazine will be back in the public’s hot little hands in December. And the two arms are at last working together with the men at the top to produce really exciting, beautiful and compelling work.

I’m not sure Levi is at all aware of the cultural significance of this shoot. Instead of pontificating on his role as pop icon, the politics of his would-be mother-in-law, or Playgirl‘s future, he chewed tobacco, sipped canned soda through a straw, and chatted with me about the new snowmobile waiting for him in Wasilla and his 11-month-old son. Levi really is just a small-town guy who’d rather be out hunting with his friends than in an Armani Exchange jacket and boots. So it was a relief to have him be a good sport about draping himself across brown leather couches and using a hockey glove to cover up his nether regions. Dare I say, Levi Johnston is a fun guy to hang out with.

We’ll see how the public reacts to the hockey stick pose, and the shower scene, and Levi flung across a bed. And there will certainly be uproar at all the things we won’t be seeing in the shoot. But I’ll be paying particularly close attention to Playgirl‘s next move; which will say so much about where this strange ship of desire is sailing.

Nicole Caldwell is a freelance writer and editor, as well as the owner and operator of an educational center and artists’ retreat in Redwood, N.Y. Her work has appeared in New York Press, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, Green Edge NYC and Playgirl, among others. She graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2006.