For the first time in its 64-year history, Playboy magazine will feature a transgender Playmate, a decision that Cooper Hefner, a top executive at the magazine, said on Thursday was in keeping with its founding mission of embracing changing attitudes about sex.
French model Ines Rau, 26, will appear as the November centrefold in the first issue since the death of Hefner’s father, the magazine’s founder, Hugh Hefner.
Selecting Ms Rau “very much speaks to the brand’s philosophy,” said Mr Hefner, 26, Playboy’s chief creative officer. “It’s the right thing to do. We’re at a moment where gender roles are evolving.”
Mr Hefner said he selected Ms Rau to be a Playmate two months ago because she’s “lovely” and has “a remarkable personality”, but also to resolidify the magazine’s voice. “This is really a moment for us to take a step back and say that so much of what the brand stood for in the early years is very much still alive in culture.”
When Ms Rau — who has appeared in American Vogue, Italian Vogue and a Balmain campaign, among others — heard that she would be a Playmate, she cried from happiness, she said Thursday.
“It was a compliment like I’ve never had,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of beautiful compliments from gentlemen before, but this one really made me feel very special, beautiful and feminine. I was speechless.”
But the announcement was not without resistance. A quick scroll through Playboy’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages Thursday revealed a mix of reactions. Many commenters expressed support and marvelled at Rau’s beauty, but others said they were shocked or even appalled by the decision.
“I’ve seen a lot of hateful comments,” Ms Rau said. “I would have never thought about people being so transphobic. I knew we still had a lot of work to do to get to a point where people see trans women as women, but I would have never thought of that.”
But that resistance only adds to her determination, Ms Rau says. “It makes me even more proud and happy to have done that, because we need to make a mentality change. We have to.”
“My story is very heavy, and you’re going to always have people who don’t understand and are being very mean, and seeing that, it makes even more sense to fight for awareness and respect,” she said.
Mr Hefner, who said he had not questioned his decision in the slightest, said he was more concerned about moving the conversation around equality and sexuality forward, and less concerned about alienating readers.
“I didn’t make that decision based off of whether or not individuals who were paying for products or are fans of the brand are going to be satisfied with it,” he said. “I made the decision because it was the right decision to make, regardless of the comments that come out.”
On Sept 27, two days before the November/December issue went to press, Hugh Hefner, the founder and embodiment of Playboy, died. Ms Rau was originally supposed to appear on the cover, but it was changed to a 1965 picture of Hugh Hefner, photographed by Larry Gordon.
Some commenters on social media insisted that Hugh Hefner would never have allowed a transgender woman to appear in his magazine. But in addition to the fact that Ms Rau was selected months before his death, her appearance is not the first time Playboy has featured a transgender woman in its pages — nor is it even Ms Rau’s first appearance in the magazine.
The May 2014 issue came with a special section called Playboy A-Z that featured Ms Rau fully nude for a spread titled Evolution.
And in 1981, Caroline (Tula) Cossey, a transgender English model, appeared in a Playboy pictorial for the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only alongside other Bond girls. She was outed shortly afterward by a British tabloid but returned to the pages of Playboy in 1991 for a solo pictorial, a first for a transgender woman.
“It’s unbelievable the lack of knowledge people have in understanding what he was trying to accomplish,” Mr Hefner said of his father. “And that was really to have a conversation about sex that was healthy and bring it out of the closet.”
In March 1965, Playboy had another notable first when Jennifer Jackson, a black woman, was made Playboy Playmate of the Month. Mr Hefner said the choice elicited letters that used similar language to what he saw on social media on Thursday about Ms Rau. Playboy’s social media accounts will soon post some archived letters from subscribers from that time, he said.
One of the letters, which was shared with The New York Times on Thursday, read: “At the risk of being labelled bigots, racists, reactionaries and sundry other things currently in vogue, we entreat you to return to your time-tested format of Playmate selection, which is more in line with the thinking of the vast majority of your readers.”
But similar to what populated Playboy’s feeds about Ms Rau, others writing in 1965 applauded the magazine’s progressive stance. “In your leadership of the avant-garde in modern America, you have taken another giant step forward,” one letter read.
As for the recent rising tide of concern about women’s rights and the objectification of women — issues that re-emerged after Hugh Hefner’s death — Mr Rau said: “I think Playboy always embraced women’s freedom and beauty. It empowers women in nudity, which is the most simple and beautiful way to empower women.”
When asked about her experience being photographed this year, Ms Rau said: “I’m was just thinking of being this little lonely boy in the ghetto, in the shadows in my room. And now I’m in Los Angeles shooting Playboy looking so beautiful, feeling so amazing. I cried of happiness.”
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