Blood Surges Back to Playgirl With Johnston Shoot: Former Editor Dishes On Pub’s Future

playgirl cover.jpgThe Internet has been abuzz about Palin-impregnator Levi Johnston’s plans to pose for Playgirl, so let’s just assume you know all about the photo shoot that’s going down right now here in New York. It seems the magazine, which went online only after its January/February 2009 issue went to press last year — with little success — is planning a comeback of sorts.

So we asked Nicole Caldwell, who formerly served as editor-in-chief at Playgirl before its print edition was shuttered, to let us in on the behind the scenes workings at Playgirl today. Caldwell has been brought back on board to help put together one “special” issue of the magazine for this year and four more for 2010. She will be interviewing Johnston during his shoot today and tomorrow, and the whole package (ahem) will run online only — and may be up on by next week. She spoke to us about the relationship between Johnston and the struggling Playgirl brand, shooting down the idea that the magazine faltered because of a disconnect between the staff and the magazine’s audience.

“What matters is Playgirl being back in the public eye if for no other reason than the one I joined the magazine in the first place for: Women should have every available sexual outlet men do,” Caldwell told FishbowlNY. “Levi is symbolic: He’s become a public figure, he holds allure for a wide cross-section of the American public, he knocked up the VP contender’s daughter, and he’s willing to pose nude at a time when most people stubbornly continue to consider male nudity more extreme than female nudity. He’s young, he’s hot, he’s virile, and he goes against every stereotype out-of-touch people have for a magazine they’ve never read: that Fabio-type guy with locks down his chest who I’ve only seen in 1980s Playgirls.”

More questions for Caldwell, after the jump

nicole.jpgFishbowlNY: How did Playgirl decide to reach out to Levi Johnston?

Nicole Caldwell: My understanding is that a third party brought the concept to one of our photographers, and from there it was just a matter of pitching the shoot to Levi. He was instantly attracted to the idea, as were his “handlers.” Logistics are a bitch, but with everyone so excited it was only a matter of ironing out the details.

FBNY: How has Playgirl been surviving since its print version folded?

NC: It’s no secret times have been tough for magazines. The decision to shutter Playgirl was a hard one, and came from the upper echelons. My staff — and our immediate superiors — had been making big strides to keep the magazine relevant; with issue release parties, the doing away with guido mimbo types; and increasingly high standards for our writers. The hard work was paying off, with sales numbers on a steady climb. By doing away with the recognizable brand Playgirl‘s been providing for 35 years, the fallout was catastrophic. With no PR staff (nothing new — the editors and design staff essentially did double duty for years) and suddenly no magazine arriving on newsstands each month, the already shaky relevance of the magazine took a bad turn. And with an ever-shrinking staff and pay-to-play Web site, online competition was fierce. The powers that be quickly saw the error of their ways — which is why, just a year later, they’re pulling out all the stops with Levi and reintroducing the print magazine (a special calendar issue will be out the second week of December). As with anything, Playgirl is constantly evolving.

FBNY: What does the future look like for Playgirl?

NC: We’re rebuilding. Slow but steady, with a lot more attention to detail. The men at the top seem to be inviting a lot more feedback from the young, co-ed staff; which can only be a good thing when you’re trying to master the art of giving women — and men — what they want in one inclusive package. The atmosphere at the office feels energized and excited. The forward momentum is palpable.

Levi’s shoot will be online-only, but the special calendar issue will be out in December. The theme is campus hunks. Four more issues are due out in 2010; and with a strong reception we could see Playgirl in full force by 2011.

FBNY: Have you gotten any feedback from readers about Levi as model or relaunching a print Playgirl?

NC: Everyone seems titillated by the idea of Levi posing nude. It breaches all kinds of presumed boundaries for politics and stardom; but I also think it’s particularly interesting that even in today’s world of “Sex and the City,” liberal men and sex-positive women, a male celebrity stripping down gets infinitely more media “exposure” than his female counterpart. The public can’t seem to get used to the penis; instead leaping to the tired cliches of male nudity as raunchy, outlandish, or explicitly gay. But I’ll tell you what — there are going to be a lot of women logging onto for that spread. And gay men. And people who have never wondered what Levi looks naked. The buzz has been generated; and if there’s one thing I know for sure about Playgirl‘s fanbase, they like a good buzz.