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Steinberg: Playboy abandons sexy, goes for . . . weird

April 2016 issue of Playboy magazine

When I heard that Playboy is for sale — its supposed worth, about $500 million — my first, unvarnished thought was: “Who’s going to buy the magazine? I wouldn’t buy a copy of the magazine.”

Last fall, when Playboy announced that they would no longer publish nudity, I wasn’t even curious. Who cares? The world has hurtled past them.

Now I realized that journalistic rigor demands I get my hands on an issue. Look at the thing. They used to send them free to the newspaper, where the fat brown envelopes, with discreet “PEI” — Playboy Enterprises Inc. — return addresses, would stack up, unopened. Life is just too short to browse $10,000 stereos and endless variations on the same pneumatic airbrushed babe.

No more. I felt a trickle of dread at the thought of buying Playboy. There’s still a whiff of shame associated with buying pornography.

Tried the 7-Eleven at Franklin and Lake. The magazine rack had Maxim — the bawdy lad mag that kneecapped Playboy. The store also had the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, eating Playboy’s lunch.

No Playboy. Hidden behind the counter? No.

Ditto for the CVS on Madison. Scientific American but no Playboy.


The newsstand at Union Station carries it. At the register, I babbled to the clerk that this copy is for research.

“There are many varieties online,” she replied, enigmatically. “Do you want a bag?”

“God yes,” I exclaimed.

Safely at home, I looked at it.

Lo, how the mighty have fallen.

The cover is matte, not glossy. A model wearing a pale blue bra, her hands braced behind her hips, pelvis thrust forward, hair in her face, a flash photograph that has the feel of a snapshot of your older sister taken at Wisconsin Dells in 1974.

One hundred and six pages, total. Five pages of Playboy product ads — bunny logo baseball caps, Playboy cologne. Marketing is what keeps Playboy afloat, supposedly.

Two photo spreads. The first, shot by Nate Walton “celebrated for her serene images of nature.” Half a dozen of perhaps the most un-erotic photos ever to appear in a magazine not dedicated to dentistry. The third particularly sticks out: model Molly Steele in a lake, her head resting on her hand as if supremely bored, her face blocked by a brown clump of weeds. In the last, she clutches a sheet, tongue lolling out, no doubt intending to invoke Miley Cyrus, but more an expression of nausea. I can’t imagine a horny 15-year-old boy would find interest in any of them.

The second set, of Miss April, Camille Row, are a little better. Playboy centerfolds used to be shot in swank Victorian mansions; now, framed against beige shag carpets and goldenrod curtains, which I’m sure struck the Playboy editors as raw and real, but just looked tired. I showed the centerfold to my wife and she said, “That’s not a flattering picture.”

There are articles — an interview with actor Don Cheadle, a short story, candidly titled “Insipidities,” I soldiered through the tale, and could criticize it, but am too grateful to see fiction in a magazine in 2016. It brought to mind Samuel Johnson’s quip, “the remarkable thing is not that it’s done well, but that it’s done at all.”

Which might be an epithet for Playboy. Nobody who works for a publication can take pleasure at its decline — we’re all cooking in the same pot — and Playboy is as Chicago as the stockyards. Hugh Hefner, a proud graduate of Steinmetz High School, created it right here.

But the first obligation of anyone intruding upon the public’s attention is to be interesting, and, while acknowledging that I am not the target audience, I just couldn’t see anything in the April Playboy — not one thing — that justifies tracking it down and paying $8. Maybe if you are really, really interested in Don Cheadle. But even then. Plug “Interview with Don Cheadle” into Google and nearly half a million hits come up.