Scenes From a 'Playboy' Playmate Casting Call

Every year, hundreds of women audition to pose naked in Hugh Hefner's magazine. Why?


Hampton Stevens

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.

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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.

Why would these women travel so far and go to so much trouble for just a slim chance of being asked to pose? Money, certainly, is a lure. Playmates are paid $25,000. Not a fortune, but a fair chunk of change. Others hope posing will be a springboard for Hollywood success. Pamela Anderson started her career in Playboy. Jenny McCarthy was a Playmate in June 1994. Ola Ray, Miss June of 1980, played Michael Jackson's date in the Thriller video—something to tell the grandkids. Sure, your average Playmate-turned-actress won't be fighting Meryl Streep for roles, but a few seasons of reality TV stardom like Kendra Wilkinson, for instance, has got to beat slinging Dilly Bars at the Dairy Queen back home.

Most of the women, though, have different motives. Surprising ones, sometimes.

As Jeff says, "With a lot of the girls it's a singular statement. Posing is a one-time event. This is not a career direction for them. They aren't going into modeling or fashion. Being recognized by Playboy is something they have always aspired to, but it doesn't define them."

Many, frankly, don't seem all that fired up to appear in the magazine. Posing at the casting call itself is the point—a sort of self-dare to meet, like skydiving or running with the bulls. At least two women in Kansas City used the phrase "bucket list."

Having their picture taken by a really top-notch photographer once in their lives is a treat. Even if they don't get chosen, their photos of from the casting call don't necessarily go to waste. The women can buy a package that includes an "I Posed for Playboy" shirt and six of the best images taken at their audition as keepsakes. Or, possibly, gifts.

But for all the good things a woman can get from coming to a casting call—from ego boost to five-figure paycheck—the audition process necessarily involves a ruthless dissection of a women's bodies. Which is when the big, fat, honking paradox inherent in Playboy smacks you in the face.

On one hand, there's no question that the magazine played a crucial role in the sexual revolution, helping to liberate America from the straight-laced repression of the Eisenhower era. Playboy, in their use of lighting, make-up, and especially fresh-faced, smiling models, communicated the radical notion that Nice Girls, wonder of wonders, might like sex.

But if feminism and Playboy found common cause early in the sexual revolution, they were strange bedfellows, and the union didn't last. It's nearly impossible to hang around a Playmate casting without having feminist watchwords like "exploit" and "objectify" come to mind.

Talking to several of the women auditioning, though, those words began to feel a little prudish. Take Sarah, a statuesque bartender with auburn hair and fair skin. At the suggestion that she was being exploited, she laughed—loud enough to turn heads—and had a reply that sounded prepared in advance. "Sex is a totally natural, totally healthy thing," she said. "I'm a very sexual person, and I love it when other people think I'm sexy. What's wrong with that?"

Certainly there was no shortage of the buxom, giggly blonde exemplified by the Girls Next Door. But there were also plenty of smart, self-assured women at the call. There was the woman we'll call Lana, who works for an international non-profit and had just returned from a humanitarian trip to Africa. And Emily, with an impish smile like Karen Allen, circa Animal House, who graduated from an Ivy League school—and it wasn't Cornell.

If Playboy's idea of sexy hasn't changed much in the last few decades, the culture around it has grown more crass, making Playboy seem almost innocent by comparison. Maybe the best indicator of just how very non-scandalous Playboy has become came just before leaving, while talking to a slender, blue-eyed blonde in a peach negligee.

She looked more than a little nervous, and also wore a wedding ring. It occurred to me that she might be was nervous because her husband didn't know where she was.

As it turned out, she was just shy. She said she'd been painfully shy in high school, not very popular, and posing was "a way to show them all what I've made of myself."

Just then, she got a text. It was her husband. He not only knew where she was, he was super supportive of the idea, and "making me follow though" she said. Now he was sending her a quick word of encouragement—a text just to tell her that's she's beautiful. And he signed it with love.