The job came with certain unassailable perks. When Raquel Pomplun was anointed Playboy's 2013 Playmate of the Year, the 25-year-old model knew she could expect a Playboy Mansion luncheon hosted by Hugh Hefner, a tomato-red 2014 Jaguar convertible and $100,000 in congratulations cash. Pomplun didn't anticipate a detour into contemporary art.
Hours after the ceremony, the Playmate found herself whisked from the mansion to Bungalow One at West Hollywood's louche Chateau Marmont, where Playboy staff politely asked Pomplun to strip. Not in the service of another pinup pictorial, but for chaste portraits by fine arts photographer Malerie Marder. After being interviewed (clothed) by video artist Alex Israel and mingling with a cocktail crowd of fashionistas and art-world mavens, the model disrobed again — to roll in paint and press her naked body against canvases for multimedia artist Aaron Young.
"At first I was like, 'Why did I say yes to this?'" Pomplun says. "But if you look back to the '60s, Playboy has always been a big supporter of art and abstract artists. They told me, 'We want to bring that back.' To try to make the brand what it was with what we have nowadays. I thought, 'Why not?'"
Turns out that as Playboy approaches its 60th anniversary, the magazine is drawing upon that past to try to return to the cultural forefront. After decades of ebbing influence, declining circulation (from a 1972 peak of more than 7 million issues distributed monthly to 1.25 million today) and, worse still, a lowering in August by Standard & Poor's of Playboy Enterprises Inc.'s corporate credit rating from a B-minus to CCC-plus — junk bond status — Pomplun's dynamic collision of eroticism and fine art represents a key piece of Playboy's game-changing efforts.
In an era when many Playboy readers have grown up viewing online pornography and a monthly title featuring nude women can seem downright antiquated, the men's lifestyle magazine is in the midst of an editorial reboot.
"You could tell by looking at it, the carpets had gotten a little bit musty," says Playboy's editorial director, Jimmy Jellinek. "We made a conscious decision two years ago that we needed to make some profound changes to the aesthetic and construction of the magazine."
Playboy's DNA as a handbook for the urban male is still intact, Jellinek insists. "That became obfuscated," he says, "within layers of outmoded design, photography that had become passé and covers that had become cluttered."
Spurred by a global brand tracking study that benchmarked Playboy's most valuable assets — Playmates, the bunny logo, the mansion and, not least, its founder Hefner — the company made sweeping changes to the flagship U.S. edition. It now functions as the "brand ambassador" for Playboy Enterprises, whose holdings include a TV station, digital network, online division, radio station and an apparel and collectibles group as well as nearly 30 international editions of the magazine that combine to bring in an annual revenue of $135 million.
The most immediately apparent change is referred to as the "three Gs": God Given Gorgeous. That is, nude models notably absent the kind of double-D surgical enhancements that came to be associated with the magazine over the last two decades.
"What we heard repeatedly is, our audience is much more female than we thought," Playboy Chief Executive Scott Flanders says at a time when approximately 1.1 million of the magazine's 5.6 million monthly readers are now women. "[They] wanted us to move away from obvious artificiality."
Since hiring art director Mac Lewis from fashion heavyweight V magazine in late 2012, adding a batch of new staff photographers and replacing long-tenured editors with fresh recruits, the magazine boasts a more sophisticated look and tone. The course change is literally and figuratively intended to catapult Playboy out from under the mattress and onto the coffee table. It's a deliberate pivot away from the scandal mavens, reality TV stars and pro wrestlers Playboy put on its covers until recently.
To wit: the July/August 2013 issue cover features 25 synchronized swimmers forming the rabbit head logo, a conscious throwback to the kind of concept-driven, art-directed aesthetic of Playboy's 1960s-'70s golden age.
"Taking a step back and being more art than porn is a very smart move," says Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. "Just making the magazine less obnoxious makes it easier to pick up and buy."
"You cannot stay static," says Hefner, 87, who abides as Playboy's editor in chief and has personally blessed the title's revamp.
Seated in his wood-paneled study at the mansion in signature smoking jacket and pajamas, Hef quietly contemplated the magazine's continuing evolution.
"You have to change. At the same time," he adds, "if one were going to find a touchstone in terms of what's happening now, one would have to go back to the very beginning of the publication."
In June, along a stretch of Highway 90 outside Marfa, Texas, a neon bunny logo went up atop a 40-foot pole flanked by a '72 Dodge Charger. The installation, by Richard Phillips and commissioned by Playboy's creative director for special projects, Neville Wakefield, is the magazine's highest-profile art tie-in to date. According to Phillips, who shows with the powerhouse Gagosian Gallery, the muscle car represents American power and idealism; its vintage, a nod to the zenith of Playboy's readership. Marfa stands as a far-flung art destination, put on the map by Minimalist artist Donald Judd.