Every year, hundreds of women audition to pose naked in Hugh Hefner's magazine. Why?
Nearly 100 women showed up for Playboy's Playmate Casting Call earlier this month in Kansas City, Missouri. The good turnout wasn't unusual. That many or more will show up for next month's casting in Columbus, Ohio. And Playboy might visit a half-dozen more cities before the year is out, ultimately photographing over a thousand women hoping to pose naked in the magazine's pages.
Not all of them are auditioning to be Playmates—to be immortalized in a centerfold as Miss June or July. Playboy also publishes a host of "special editions." These are glossy collections of pictures—none of those annoying articles to get in your way—with every page devoted to women of a specific age range or body type. (Big this, small that. You get the idea.) Playboy finds about half of all the women who pose for the special editions with casting calls, and usually two or three Playmates proper. The rest of the models in the magazines come through photos submitted throughout the year, either by the model herself, by a professional photographer hoping for a finder's fee, or the occasional proud boyfriend or husband.
They come from all over the country to try out. A good third of the women at the Kansas City casting call came from another city—driving in from surrounding towns like St. Louis, Tulsa, Des Moines, and Omaha. One woman flew from Boise, Idaho. Another came all the way from New Jersey. And she drove—meaning she was in a car for more than 40 hours to go through an audition process that lasted less than one.
That process begins when each woman makes an appointment through Playboy's website, then shows up with two forms of identification to prove she is of legal age. Each prospective model then fills out a short questionnaire and changes into whatever lingerie or swimsuit she brought to pose in. She then covers up with a satin robe that Playboy provides and waits her turn.
Soon, she's called into a photography studio, generic and well-lit, and poses in front of a tan background, holding a card with her name on it. After a brief videotaped interview, she disrobes and is photographed—first wearing whatever outfit she brought, then just in what the Good Lord gave her. Or, in some cases, what the Good Lord gave her, a plastic surgeon augmented, and a tattoo artist has embellished with angels wings and flowers.
An aspiring Playmate will also meet Jeff Cohen, executive producer of the casting calls. Ruddy, with dark hair and a white beard, Cohen has the sated look of a man who has actually lived in the over-the-top male fantasy world that Playboy sells. Which he pretty much has. Cohen began working for Playboy as a photographer in 1967. "And," he says, "I've worn bunny ears in some capacity ever since."
He was wearing them at the Kansas City audition. His pale pink sport shirt had a bantam version of the iconic bunny logo stitched above the heart. Cohen's job, somewhere between a talk show host and Cool Uncle, is to help the girls feel comfortable at the shoot, while keeping the process moving at a brisk pace.
It's a job he adores. Chatting up each girl, he might ask what she does for a living, or what she would say to Hugh Hefner. He might ask another if she remembers the first time she ever saw Playboy magazine. To that, at least two women in Kansas City said they knew from that first glimpse of a centerfold that they wanted to be Playmates some day. Which may have been true, but still came off like the stock patter of beauty pageant Q&A.
One woman, proud in a crimson bikini, gave a different reply, crediting Playboy with helping her sort out her sexual identity as a teen. "Seeing centerfolds made me want to be Playmate, kind of, I guess," Kim said. "But it really made me want to be with Playmates."
The exact location of the KC photo shoot was kept a secret—from me, anyway—until the day before the event. Playboy keeps the casting calls fairly quiet, wanting to avoid a mass of random dudes who lurk, gawk, and ogle. That goes for members of the press as well. Being in the media is no guarantee of access. The same cruel playground mentality that makes people laugh at the tone-deaf contestants in the early rounds of American Idol will make a local TV news reporter think it's funny to show up at a Playmate casting and ask the girls a bunch of embarrassing questions on camera. Even if you happen to have worked for Playboy—which, in the spirit of full disclosure, this reporter has—you still will have to ask nicely and drop a name or two.
The undisclosed location turned out to be StagePort, a rentable production space for film, video and photography in downtown Kansas City's Crossroads arts district. On the day of the casting call, it was positively crawling with beautiful women. Like those American Idol auditions, there were a few women at the casting who have perhaps overestimated their charms. Generally, however, most were smoking, ranging from prom queen pretty to nightclub sultry, to eyeball-popping, make-cartoon-steam-come-out-of-your-ears, die-a-little-inside sexy.