For those of you who don’t know, February is Black History Month and we here at Lion’s Den U decided to pay tribute in one of the more awesome ways we know how: with beautiful women. Black women have not always had a place in American culture as sex icons, and their still-growing relevance and popularity, as women all men want to be with and all women want to be, has not been without its obstacles. Playboy was one of the earliest proponents of Black women appearing in mainstream media. While its extraordinary political and cultural reach may come as a surprise to many of you, its history as one of the largest driving forces in changing the culture of the publication industry is hard to ignore. Dating back to 1953, it has featured the works of some of the best literary minds ever published from Hunter S. Thompson to Roald Dahl, Margaret Atwood, Normal Mailer and Jack Kerouac. The magazine, with its diverse body of articles on politics, culture, entertainment, interviews with celebrities and cultural icons, in addition to featuring a singular nude centrefold every month, reached its largest circulation in 1972 when it was distributed to 7.2 million readers.
Today, it has over 1.5 million readers and over 5 million people visit playboy.com each month. My fascination with vintage Playboy and the rise of the Playboy empire began when I discovered a catalog of every issue ever made dating back to 1958 in a local London book store called City Lights (there is also a similar catalog in UWO’s Weldon Library!) When I realized how much more there was to the Playboy story, I began keeping a blog to share some of my more interesting discoveries, in addition to some other forms of vintage erotica and examples of sex in the media. You can check it out at http://shesabiter.tumblr.com. I wrote up this post about the history of Black women in Playboy a few weeks back, and decided to share it with you all this month, as a way to celebrate the extraordinary journey, bravery (and jaw-dropping beauty) of some of these women.
The first issue of Playboy hit news stands in December 1953 with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. Twelve years later, in March 1965, Jennifer Jackson (below) graced the magazine’s centrefold as the first ever African-American Playmate of the Month. This set the precedent for future Black Playmates whose centrefold frequency increases by the decade. However, Black women appearing as popular American sex icons was not yet a rapid movement.
It was not until October 1969 that the second African-American centrefold was featured. While she never received her own cover, Jean Bell shared the January 1970 cover (NSFW) with four other Playmates, all of whom were Caucasian. I can’t say with certainty that it was intentional, but Bell’s photo is the only one of the five on the cover to be cut in half.
That said, it was only one year later, in October 1971, that model Darine Stern(below) became the first Black woman to appear by herself on the cover of Playboy. The cover has since become a classic for the magazine, and a momentous milestone in the tumultuous history of African-American figures in pop culture. Shot by Richard Fegley, it was so well-received and heavily commemorated, that it served as the inspiration for the famous November 2009 Marge Simpson cover (click here for Marge’s Playboy spread.) This cover made headlines everywhere from Perez Hilton to CNN and was a milestone of its own, as Marge was the first ever animated Playmate.
While surprisingly little information is available about the public’s reaction to the controversial and historic cover, it is known that Playboy did not go out of their way to market the issue as groundbreaking upon its release. In fact, the pictorial spread and accompanying article did not draw attention to Stern’s race. Naturally, this did not stop the large response and widespread dissension that surrounded Stern’s image, regardless of the words used to present her. Though the magazine did receive letters of concern and some negative race-related hate mail, Hefner claims the fan mail Stern (and Jackson) were receiving was unprecedented and mostly positive. Based on the progression of Stern’s career following her cover, public acceptance of her as a beauty and sex icon is evident. During the 1970s and 80s, Stern continued her career as a high-profile model represented by the likes of Ford Models, Nina Blanchard, Ellen Hart andShirley Hamilton Models of Chicago. Sadly, in 1994, at the young age of 46, Stern died from complications due to Breast Cancer, leaving behind a legacy for the long list of future Black celebrity-Playmates, which includes Naomi Campbell, Latoya Jackson, Robin Givens and Stacey Dash, among many others. (I insist you click this link to see all 17 incredible photos of the ageless Clueless actress, at 40, posing for the men’s mag.)
Since (Jennifer) Jackson’s groundbreaking centrefold in 1965, Playboy has hosted 23 African-American Playmates of the Month in its pages. In the Sixties and Seventies, two of the twelve months were devoted to Black women, whereas in the 1980s through to the 2000s, up to four or five playmates in the year are of African-American decent. In the small sea of modern-day Black Playmates, one stands out in particular. After appearing in the magazine as Playmate of the Month in November 1989, actress and model Renee Tenison (cover pictured top right) was named Playboy’s first ever African-American Playmate of the Year, back in 1990. Tenison has appeared on the pages of Playboy three times, including a shoot in 2002 with her identical twin sister, Rosie, who also works as a model (interesting fact: Jennifer Jackson, Playboy’s first Black PMOM also had a twin sister who worked as a Playboy bunny and model). As Playmate of the Year, Tenison became a recognizable public figure both in print, in film and on television, wearing her label as one of the sexiest women alive with pride. You may remember her as one of Will Smith’s many short-lived girlfriends on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
But why is all of this significant? The gradual increase of African-American women appearing as sex icons in what is considered a staple of both modern and historic pop culture solidifies the triangle that exists between politics, public opinion and popular media. Playboy sets a lot of firsts in the arena of publishing and the men’s entertainment industry. The social implications of the appearance of non-white models both on the cover, and in its pages is no exception. What was happening in Playboy both before and after 1965 is undoubtedly a reflection of what was happening in terms of political and public acceptance of African-Americans in North American culture on the whole. 1965 was a catalytic year for Civil Rights activism, especially in the South. Events of that year included, but were not limited to the assassination of Malcolm X; the riots of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ where police notoriously and inhumanely fought off activists marching in support of voter rights with tear gas and whips; and the enforcement of Affirmative Action by President Johnson. Given the events of that year, and the lack of non-white, female public figures by that date, the controversial nature of what she was about to do was no secret to Jennifer Jackson, or to Hugh Hefner himself, who knew he could not make Jackson Playmate of the Year, despite his idealistic wishes to do so, for fear of public backlash and her safety.
When asked about the public’s reaction to her centrefold, Jackson said:
Hefner was very brave at that time in ‘65 when there were a lot of riots down South. Hefner told me in order to be Playmate of the Year, the person would have to go on speaking engagements around the country and he was afraid for me security wise — his reason for not making me Playmate of the Year — I thought it was kind of lame, but at least he did it. I received fan mail from all over South Africa and Germany, men asking me me to marry them — White guys. The thing is I was making a difference.
And a difference she did make. After receiving her Masters, Jackson became a social worker and an investigator of child abuse in the sexual abuse unit.
”I put a lot of pedophiles in jail and saved lot of children from additional abuse from parents, and mother’s boyfriends, uncles… ”
Jackson insists that since her days as a Playmate, the standards of beauty in North America have become more accepting of a diverse racial palette.
“When I modeled, they just wanted light-skinned black models. As I got married and had kids in the 70s they started auditioning dark skinned models. Black is beautiful and it comes in all different shades. They recognized a Black woman can be sexy too. At the time Playboy magazine was the mainstream of setting beauty standards with Marilyn Monroe. Black women — we were recognized as beautiful [because of Playboy]. I got a lot of positive fan mail and feedback, people still remember me today.”
As documented in the 2009 film Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,Hefner was a man determined to use his erotic empire to fight against sexual repression, war and segregation. While modern proponents of feminism may disagree with his methods, the right for women to express themselves sexually, regardless of race, remained a priority for Hef. Over time, he broke down many walls for his largely White male audiences, who despite their best efforts, could not deny the allure of the African-American women whose beauty and sexual liberation were celebrated in the magazine, and who subsequently garnered respect among readers not just as sex icons, but as brave erotic revolutionaries.
For additional proof of Hef’s commitment to a color-blind society, one needs to look no further than the writers whom he consulted, and the interviews he commissioned in the magazine’s early years. According to The Grio, African-American writer Alex Haley (below), who published the biography of Malcolm X in 1965, conducted Playboy’s first ever interview with jazz legend Miles Davis (1962). Other interviews in the mag which called attention to influential Black public figures, included Malcolm X (1963), Martin Luther King Jr (1965) and Muhammed Ali (1964), to name a few. (Click names for full Playboy interviews.)
By doing this, Hef stood to build an irreparable gap between the magazine’s content and its readers. In the early stages of Playboy in particular, Hugh Hefner was the ultimate status icon for the every day white, American male. Thus, as a respected and ruling media entity of the time, it is no surprise the magazine’s readership was comprised mostly of this class of person, whose ideals were likely to be be more than a little discriminatory or anti-civil rights, especially in the South, where circulation was high. Hef was taking a huge risk by highlighting the agendas of these figures to reluctant audiences, and promoting the present and future success of Black models, athletes, musicians and other such celebrities. This was all while introducing Black sex icons to White males, in an era where interracial relationships, of a romantic or sexual nature, were seen as socially deviant and even unacceptable in the opinion of most.
So why, after all of the ways it defied convention, did the magazine continue to hold its place as the leading men’s publication in the world for decades to follow? The answer is simple, and embedded within the question itself; because it defied convention. While the older generation met revolution with great resistance in an effort to maintain the hierarchical status quo between Whites and Blacks, haves and have-nots, the younger generation welcomed progressive social change with open arms and adopted an “everything’s a battle” mentality between those skyrocketing into the future and those stuck in the past. The 1960s were a time of rapid and unstoppable change, for Civil Rights, for sexual liberation, for the fight for peace in a time of war and turmoil, for feminism, and for freedom from the metaphorical prison cells preventing the youth from exploring the world outside of society’s pre-scripted norms. Not unlike modern times, there was a divide between those who saw the magazine as rubbish pornography which promoted a sinful lifestyle and those who saw it as art and an outlet for sexual emancipation. Hef’s focus lay with those excited about a new era of sex as a staple of culture, and his instincts were on point. In any case, the controversial nature of the magazine and the ongoing publicity it received for its groundbreaking interviews, articles and centrefolds only fueled sales and furthered its revolutionary influence.
It is clear that Hefner’s vision when he founded the Playboy empire in 1953 was one rooted in social change; ne that welcomed the shocking, the preverse and the unseen. This vision was of course not restricted to the way he created admirable public figures out of beautiful, Black women in a time where these women were given few opportunities for equality or admiration in the eyes of the “superior” White male. It is, however, a primary example of his willingness to disregard popular opinion in favor of ultimately crushing archaic social boundaries, and his commitment to feeding the change-hungry youth of America.
About the Author: One for you Glenn Coco! You Go Glenn Coco! My friends say I've got "Chutzpa", otherwise known as extraordinary boldness, for good or for bad. Follow me on Twitter @GlennCocoLDU