Need to Know: How to Be a Playgirl
By Jerry Portwood
Photo of Jessanne Collins by Jason Merrell
For many young men in the 1970s to the early '90s, Playgirl was their first (or only) way of getting a peek at man flesh, although it was ostensibly a magazine for women (who can forget Greg Louganis stripping for a centerfold in 1987?). Of course, soon enough there was a renaissance of actual gay men's magazines for men, by men (including this one, Read Out's 20th Anniversary coverage). But somehow Playgirl stuck around.
In 2007, Jessanne Collins was a young woman looking for an entry into the world of glossy magazines and she got her chance with a job as managing editor at the notorious monthly. “From day one, when I discovered on my desk a deflated blow-up doll, a pile of dildos, and a package of something called 'adhesive underwear,' I was in alien terrain,” she begins her mini-memoir, "How to Be a Playgirl," available as a Barnes and Noble e-book.
Collins went on to become managing editor of Out magazine as well (she's currently at Mental Floss), so don't think the year she spent at Playgirl damaged her—or her reputation. We got her to go on a rampage (with the help of a little rosé) to explain why she decided to write about her times at the magazine—and whether it was really a gay magazine in disguise.
How long did you work at playgirl?
I was there for just over a year, from the summer of '07 til the fall of '08.
Wasn't it another woman who hired you?
Yes! Well, as I explain in the book, operations were overseen by an editorial director who was a guy, who oversaw all the magazines the company published. So I did interview with him. But the editor in chief, Nicole, was a young woman about my age, and she more or less hired me.
After years of trying to get a chance at a magazine job, you probably found that it was a male-dominated world. Did you find it unusual that women were running the show at Playgirl?
Actually, the situation ended up being the reverse. I'd been lucky up to that point to have always had very powerful female bosses and mentors. The situation at Playgirl was definitely unusual but not in the ways you'd expect. If anything, I was in a little bit of culture shock because I'd always taken for granted that women could hold positions of real power, and at Playgirl, that wasn't exactly the case.
There was sort of a puppet show going on. On one hand, in many ways, we did direct the nitty gritty of the content and it was pretty incredible how much control we had, and how little supervision—and I don't mean as women, but more as young, relatively inexperienced editors. On the other hand, we did in the end answer to these man-pornographer bosses, and, it's not just that they were men and we were women, but that they were straight men, who's primary business was to make porn for other straight men.
So in the end, there was something lost in the translation about what it was they wanted to make and what it was we wanted to make. And it was, actually, now that you mention it, my first experience with a world that actually was incredibly male dominated.
Did you have a "feminist" agenda when you joined? Thought you would subvert it in some way?
I definitely did. And Nicole made it clear when she hired me that she, too, had a feminist agenda. We really did want to imbue the late-'00s Playgirl with what we the spirit of the original '70s and '80s Playgirl, which was this liberal sex-positive feminism. We were very tongue-in-cheek and brassy in tone, but there was definitely an embrace of feminine sexuality at the core of what we were doing. We wanted it to be smart and sassy and sexy all at the same time. I think culture had definitely proved by that point that those things weren't mutually exclusive. And our editorial mission, for what that was worth, was in that spirit.
We know about the photospreads, but did you have intelligent editorial coverage the way the brand leader (although not affiliated) Playgirl was known? Did you have idealistic goals to bring that in?
I can't say that the editorial coverage was Playboy-caliber, but I would say that we had that pipe dream intention, yes, and that if it were up to us, the two things -- sexy photos and smart content -- could've easily coexisted. I am really proud of the stories we did do, as a few twenty-something editors with very little training and no mentorship. But in the grander scheme of things, unfortunately, that just wasn't the worldview of the company.
They wanted to churn out issues cheaply, and their definition of what made a saleable issue was pretty lowest-common denominator. I remember sitting in conference room for reviews of issues and our editorial director being like "this is a great story about this important health issue, but... is there any way we can get a picture of a penis on this page?" Mind you, this is one of like five pages among 90 something that doesn't have a penis on it. So, again, our visions didn't totally align.
It was one of the first porn mags I ever saw (gay or straight), and although it was ostensibly for women, did you find that you had to figure out the "male gayze" for shoots, etc.?
We were always toeing this line, and sort of trying to have it both ways, I think. The print mag at that point was, ostensibly, as you say, for women. But I do think in many ways what we were doing with shoots by that point was a lot more for the male gaze. (And I do think those two things are different, which is another story!) Really crucially though: I don't think it's just that we were trying to appeal to "the gays," I think what was going on is that we were directing the traditional "male gaze" on men's bodies, and hoping that was going to appeal to women or to gay men or to both. That came from this larger corporate culture, which was that we were owned by a company that made porn for straight men, primarily.
It wasn't that they were against doing something that would really appeal to women, or to being open to being for gay men, they just didn't quite know how. What they knew how to do was to make porn for the standard status quo heterosexual man. To embody, literally, the textbook "male gaze." And in reality, that wasn't, really, the perspective that either men OR women wanted to look at male bodies from.
What was the most difficult decision you had to make while you worked there? Any strange encounters where you felt skeeved out?
That's a really good question. I got into a few different tricky decisions I had to make in the book. Mostly about how much of a role I was being asked to play. So there was posing for a shoot, I guess. It was a complicated decision in that, to describe how I ended up doing it, I wrote a novella. So be sure to check that out! [Laughs].
There were tons of strange encounters, which the book also details, but what was really tricky about this job, for me, was the emotional territory more than the physical one... The ambiguities and awkwardnesses that went along with it. One thing I will say is that pornography is a profession, like any other, and most people you meet there are very much professionals, and know how to handle themselves as such. As ridiculous as my stories are, I hope what also comes through in my telling of them is that overall on a basic level there really is, most of the time, a level of respect and professionalism that makes even the most uncomfortable stuff comfortable, in an "all in a days' work!" kind of way.
I honestly met some of the sweetest, most genuine and interesting people in this job. On the other hand, of course, there were times that I got off the phone with someone and was like, "gross." But then, I'd have this heady philosophical moment with myself about why I was like "gross," and what my prejudices were, and what the power relations were, and what it all meant. And those layers of complications, to me, were much more affecting than any particular moment where I was like, Uh, that person possibly was jacking off on the other end of the line, or whatever.
I went to a few of your magazine parties which could be fun/silly. Did you enjoy those?
Yes! We had epic parties. That's something that didn't really make it into the book because it's not that interesting to read about my memories (or non-memories) of our great parties. But we had them regularly at Happy Ending [in the East Village] for a while, and they were fabulous. Everyone got bags of lube and all kinds of novelty items. One time, we were wearing light-up penis Santa hats. That must've been Christmas.
How long did the gig last? Were you sad to move on?
So I was there about a year before we got word that the print edition was folding. I was and wasn't sad. I was, in some ways, just getting into my groove. I think it takes a year at any job to feel at home and in control, and so the timing was very ironic. I'd really just started to feel like I was making the most of my position, and also like I knew what I was willing to do in the service of it. On the other hand, I was like, OMG thank god. Because I don't know how many more penises I can really look at before I am done with them forever [Laughs]
Did you jump from Playgirl to Out immediately? How was that different? Any "bad habits" you had to unlearn or change for the "luxury" magazine arena?
I was incredibly fortunate to come on board at Out immediately, especially because so many talented people were job hunting that fall (it was an awful time!). It was definitely a little bit of a learning curve going to the highbrow fashion world from the lowbrow world I'd come from, and it took me a while to shake my habit of writing heds and deks that were just really bad puns. But I actually felt right at home at Out right away.
Even though I'd come from a "women's"-oriented mindset, it was just liberating to come "out," as it were, and work for a publication that was for a niche, on purpose, and with pride, and see the editorial liberty that came with that. (As opposed to always speaking in double entendres and with a tongue-in-cheek, I guess.) It was an amazing place to end up, actually, because Out does exactly what I would've done at Playgirl, if I was actually in a position to make it happen, in terms of that ideal edit-photo mix.
Out's editorial is super smart. Its pictures are sexy. It's politically relevant, and yet it's sophisticated and indulgent. It still drives me crazy that straight women don't have the equivalent in a magazine! If I was going to invent Playgirl from scratch right now, I'd model it on Out, not Playboy.
How long have you been working on the memoir? What inspired you to put it on your "must do" list?
My second week on the job I started sending emails to my friends recapping all the crazy shit that had happened that week. I'd transcribe creepy phone calls and mail and the conversations that were happening in the office because it was just such a bizarro land I could not ignore it, and yet I knew I couldn't have a blog or I'd get fired. I called it "Pornworld Weekly," and I always knew I was also taking notes for an eventual book. The stories just told themselves. And people were fascinated when I told them where I worked.
They just couldn't believe it and they had so many questions. So I knew there was a book there. I finally, about a year and a half ago, pushed it to the top of my to-do list and worked on it along with everything else until early this spring.
Now that you're at Mental Floss, did any of your colleagues think it was weird or funny that you got your 'start' at a porn mag?
Yes, they think it's totally weird and funny and they have been some of my story's biggest promoters. Mental Floss is an ideasy magazine, and I'm always saying things like "this photo needs more bulge!"—which makes them blush and wonder where on Earth I came from.