When you take a job as a Playgirl editor, you become desensitized to abdominal muscles and erections pretty quickly. But the sheer awkwardness of nude photo shoots and porn office politics? That takes a bit more time.
Half a year into my tenure as managing editor of the infamous magazine, body parts looked like machinery to me. But I was still struggling with just how emotionally sticky the business of low-brow porn production could be when the annual Win-a-Date contest rolled around.
The Win-a-Date was a relic from a forgotten era: the time when Playgirl had an international reputation for taking Hefnerian ideology and translating it for sexually liberated Virginia Slims-smoking feminists. By the late ’00s, however, the brand had devolved into an assembly-line skin rag. And it was in the midst of an existential crisis over its sexual orientation and raison d’être in a world that was, if not post-feminist, then certainly post-print pornography.
During Playgirl’s feather-haired 1980’s heyday, the Win-a-Date was a real (fake) date, which sent a lucky reader out for a night with one of the magazine’s centerfolds. In 2008 it was really just a way to get a cheap “couple set,” which was one of the ways we paid homage to the idea that Playgirl was still “entertainment for women.” We still advertised it as a chance to win a “date” with a model. But then we chose a “winner” strategically. She had to be in New York, since we didn’t have a budget for travel, and she had to seem willing to get at least semi-naked, because after dinner (which would suffice for her compensation) we’d get the two of them to fake make-out for a budget photo shoot.
Choosing Jade was a no-brainer. An art student from Queens, she submitted an artsy nude self-portrait with her entry. And then, unsolicited, a whole bunch more. She was perfect.
At least we thought she was until hearing the reaction of Tyler, the model she was set to pose with.
“Oh,” he said upon seeing her photos. “Her?”
Tyler was something of a celebrity in the adult modeling world, which, like all New York worlds, is pretty small. He knew who Jade was because, in an act of either rabid fandom or creative branding—or both—she had adopted his rather distinctive Italian surname as a pseudonym. Not the one she had used to enter to win the date, but the one she used on her apparently self-maintained Wikipedia entry, which turned out to be fairly robust with adult modeling credits. Was she a cunning would-be stalker or just a cunning wannabe model? It was hard to tell.
But Tyler, a true professional, agreed to play ball. He and Jade first met in person in the back of the limo on a slushy Friday night. When they arrived at the nondescript Chelsea bistro that was comping their dinner, Jade was damp with wintery mix and wearing strappy summer heels. She was in her not-early twenties and had shell-shocked platinum hair. Tyler, self-tanned and smaller than he looks in print (they always are), escorted her on his arm.
Tyler, self-tanned and smaller than he looks in print (they always are), escorted her on his arm.
My colleagues and I kept jittery vigil over martinis at a table across the room as the “couple” settled into dinner, the photographer clicking away. Until: “It’s really hard to have a date when someone’s in your face with a camera all the time,” Jade snapped.
She then started using Tyler to relay certain requests to us. She thought they could catch a movie after dinner. She wanted to go to a spa. Gently, we suggested that these items were not on the evening’s agenda. Instead, with our nonexistent budget in mind, we’d appropriated the loft where our editor in chief was dog sitting. Earlier that day we’d anointed it with rose petals and cheap champagne, and devised a plausible storyline: They head back to “Tyler’s place” for a nightcap.
“She’s macrobiotic and 80% raw,” Tyler announced while Jade was in the ladies’ room. “And she really wants raw ice cream for dessert. She says there’s a place on the east side and I told her: ‘Anything for my beautiful date!’”
With the clock ticking on the comped limo, and dessert seeming like a small price to pay for this girl’s cooperation, I rushed off on a quest.
Here are some things about raw ice cream. A cabbie likely won’t know the “raw ice cream place on the east side” off hand, necessarily. You may have to circle the block once or twice, on foot in the wintery mix. This is 2008, remember, and you work in low-brow porn production and therefore do not possess a smart phone. The hipsters behind the counter, when you do stumble in the door, will laugh when you express disbelief that the stuff costs $15 a pint!?! Clearly, they are not familiar with how long an expense report takes to process.
As the cab barrels downtown, where the shoot is already underway, you will say out loud: “$15 a pint?? There better be some clothes coming off for this!”
Then you will begin to wonder when, exactly, you became the worst feminist on earth.
Back at the apartment things were going downhill fast. Jade was splayed out on the leather sectional sofa in shiny red underwear. Tyler’s cheekbones were glistening with bronzer and frustration. He was refusing to take off his pants. The cake was perched on the table between two effervescing champagne glasses and the bodega roses. The dog was taking huge sloppy licks of frosting. And I was paralyzed—with awkwardness, with exhaustion, with ennui—to do anything about any of it.
Tyler was aspiring to become a fitness model, he was explaining, and so he was trying to leave his ass-baring days behind him. And anyway, Jade was creeping him out. She kept trying to kiss him. He wanted to go home.
When did I become someone who expects people to show me their tits for a pint of raw ice cream, I wondered, who would stand by silent while others are in danger of UNKNOWINGLY CONSUMING DOG SALIVA?
Tyler was aspiring to become a fitness model, he was explaining, and so he was trying to leave his ass-baring days behind him. And anyway, Jade was creeping him out. She kept trying to kiss him. He wanted to go home. We reminded him how much his “readers” loved him. Could he do it for them, his ogling masses, we pleaded? File this with the rest of the dirty little secrets about pornography: egos need fluffers too.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the professional puppy eyes were alight again. Fortunately, there was an acoustic guitar in the room.
“This is a song for Jade,” Tyler pronounced, picking it up. “For Jade... who has... it made.”
He was strumming. She was sketching his portrait in charcoal.
He was feeding her raw macrobiotic ice cream. She was licking her lips.
He was reaching clumsily for her face. She was puckering up.
I was praying the dog would not vomit frosting. Mostly, though, I was thinking about the nearly naked girl in the room. I was admiring her self-confidence, her single-minded focus. By now, it was obvious that we weren’t the only ones with a strategy in mind for getting what we wanted out of the evening. I hoped the set up didn’t seem super bunk. I hoped she didn’t think we were bitches. Until that point I’d seen her as a cartoon character. Now she was starting to seem like a real girl, full of awkwardness and appetite and ambition herself.
There isn’t always an air of exploitation in the business of pornography. But when there is, it’s not always easy to tell where it’s coming from. If you’ve ever had the drive to make a fetish or a dream a reality—nude modeling, say, or magazine editing—you probably found yourself making certain decisions along the way that defied easy moralizing.
Most days in the office, I was pretty sure that “the power,” in whatever Marxian or metaphysical sense it existed, lay somewhere behind the locked doors of the executive suite upstairs. Tonight it felt like a little bit had trickled out, and things had gotten sticky. It was a strange sensation, feeling it brush past in the cab with the melting ice cream. And in the chaos of that borrowed loft, it was pretty much impossible to tell where it had ended up. It was shifting minute to minute, pose to pose.
With a squawk of perspiring skin on leather furniture, the models traded places. Now Tyler was reclining, stiff as a corpse, and Jade was erect, one stiletto poised delicately on his waxed chest.
“That’s it!” the photographer was saying. “Toward me!”
She was wriggling out of her shiny underwear. He was watching haplessly.
She was hopping into the marble shower. He was hovering at the bathroom door in his pants.
She was turning the water on. He was out of the frame.
Names, even fake ones, have been changed. How to Be a Playgirl is available as a Nook Snap.