"Hello, is this David Chan?"
"I hope I didn't call too early--" It was 9:30 a.m.
"It's not too early...Are you in bed?" That was the first question of many Playboy photographer David Chan asked me that I wasn't sure how to answer.
As I got ready for my interview, I worried that my face had broken out, that I was five pounds overweight, that I was dressed wrong--sweater, jeans, boots--was I trying too hard? I took my measurements for the first time, and had to wonder, Do you breathe in or out? Do half-inches round up or down? I found myself thinking, What should my measurements be, and then how do I get them close to that standard?
David Chan had been at the Somerville Holiday Inn for a week already, interviewing potential models for the "Women of the Ivies" issue, and his visit had been a subject of controversy in Cambridge for twice that long. I had joined most of the Crimson staff in opposing the publication of Playboy's ad, and I had a lot of theories about what posing as one of Hugh Hefner's "bunnies" does to a woman. But then I realized, how the hell do I know what it does to you?
Sixty women from Harvard supposedly applied to pose--why did they do it? Sure, much of the porn industry relies on women forced into it by their economic situation, but this could hardly be the case with an Ivy League Playboy issue that only pays $100 to $500. So I decided to see for myself.
I arrived late last Friday for the interview, with my friend Amy along for moral support. When we entered Room 525, the two of us were impressed by how nice the room was for a Holiday Inn, and we immediately noticed the camera equipment piled on the double bed. Chan guided us over to a sofa while he finished a newspaper interview. As he spoke to the young reporters, he called on us to corroborate what he was saying.
"If a guy says to you, 'You're beautiful, you should be in Playboy or Cosmopolitan or Vogue,' that's a compliment, isn't it? Whereas, 'You should be in Hustler,' that's degrading. Isn't that right, girls?" Chan asked. I knew that the right thing to say would be: 'Oh, yes! I can't wait to be in Playboy!" But I couldn't get over the feeling of playing a part, so I punted with "I guess that's part of it."
We filled out the application forms: address, social security number, waist measurement; academic major, minor, bust measurement; hobbies, activities, cup size; special achievements, college affiliation, hip measurement. I decided to include my school address, on the theory that once he had my name, he could get that stuff anyway, but I left out my home address. Under "special achievements," I wrote "aerobics instructor, dancer," figuring those were my only achievements that would be of interest to Playboy. For some reason, they didn't ask for SATs or GPA.
No den of iniquity, it looked any other normal room at the Holiday Inn. A nice room, even: plush carpet, sofa, chandelier. But this was no average hotel room, I reminded myself; this was where three-dimensional women with intellects and personalities are instantly transformed into two-dimensional sexual objects in a flash of David Chan's camera.
That was our conviction when we went in. But it wasn't easy to remember it. It was a nice room, and he was a nice enough guy. So there were a lot of pictures of naked girls lying around--so what? They were nice pictures, not like Hustler. It began to seem perfectly normal to sit and discuss topless, bottomless, nude and semi-nude, and completely natural to pose hips out, bust forward, lean a little, smile, a little more bust, turn your head...normal, natural, socially acceptable.
Chan centered in on the most marketable aspect of each of our bodies, and made no bones about concentrating on that. His eyes were chest level on me: he asked me if I had a strong bust. "Yeah, I can lift heavy objects with it--what do you mean?" He asked me if I would come back in a bikini the next day, and suggested I pose semi-nude. He noted that I was "hippy" and that that would be good for some poses.
He reached out and touched Amy's face. "You're so white. You have beautiful skin," he told her. "Heredity, environment, whatever it is...if you've got it, you've got it." Not really knowing what to say, Amy thanked him a little shyly.
When Amy asked what the Polaroids would be used for, Chan assured us that no pictures could be used without a release. The Polaroids were just for the selection process. If we didn't make it, they would burn the pictures. We talked about Vanessa Williams' Penthouse pictures. He said Playboy was offered those first and wouldn't touch the pictures. His organization didn't do that kind of work. The women who pose for him do it because they want to. Playboy had nude pictures of Caroline Kennedy, of jackie kennedy, but wouldn't use them.
Several women came in while we were there. Two Harvard women stayed for about five minutes, filled out forms, took a Polaroid, and left. We smiled at them when they walked in. They looked at us icily. Competition. The one who had her picture taken was beautiful: olive skin, long curly black hair, dressed all in black. Her friend, a prim-looking blonde in an '82 Harvard athletic department sweatshirt, told Chan she wasn't applying, but then relented. "As long as I'm here..." She said, picking up a form. Out of the blue, Chan asked if any of us were farmer's daughters.
One woman walked in wearing tight jeans, boots, heavy make-up, and a spiky blond haircut. We were chatting with David about Harvard, and she said. "Oh, is this just for Harvard? I don't go to Harvard." He said, "I know. I can tell."
I asked the Playboy photographer how he could tell. "Do we fit some stereotype?" "I can tell immediately if they're from Harvard. You come in straight from class, no makeup, you look yourself, fresh and natural. I can always tell who's from Harvard and who's not."
We sat down with the old campus issues in front of us. He pointed to them and asked, "Do you like the issue? What do you think of it? Which one do you want to do?" I asked if it would help my chances to do nude as opposed to semi-nude. "I can't promise anything. If we have a lot of nudes, we might bump someone into semi-nude. It doesn't really help your chances to do one or the other."
When I said I would feel pretty comfortable with semi-nude, Amy said, "Well, if you're going to do that, why not go ahead and do full nude? I mean, you get so much more money."
"Don't do it for the money. You have to do whatever you feel comfortable with. You have to make up your own mind." David Chan was not sleazy. David Chan was a nice guy. He did not try to talk us into anything.
Chan has been doing his job fairly and well for almost twenty years. He doesn't call it art. He compares his work to other glossy magazines like Cosmo or Glamour. And he's right--they're not so different. But how far is it from Hustler, either? David Chan's job is to see women as the sum of their body parts.
Sitting there with Chan, we began to see it that way, too. Surrounded by the layouts of beautiful, happy women displaying themselves in comfortable, Iuxurious, sexy settings, Amy told me that she had found herself thinking, "I could look beautiful like this. I still would not want to do a nude of any kind, but maybe a clothed shot." In that room, it seemed more than okay, it seeemed like something we should want to do.
Chan took two Polaroids of me. Both were clothed, one standing, leaning against the window, one hip out; the other sitting, leaning forward on both hands in more of a Playboy-bunny pose. There was nothing sleazy about the pictures per se and maybe my nervousness was the same as I would feel posing as a model for any photographer. But posing for the pictures was a very strange experience. Putting what I thought was a "Playboy-bunny" expression on my face, sticking hips and chest out, doing all the things that are required for that sort of pose and shot...all these things made me start feeling like my body was a commodity that I had to sell well.
When the pictures came out, they didn't look like me. They were pictures of another girl, sprawled in Kodacolor with a come-and-get-me smile, and when I looked at them, I saw myself the way people look at centerfolds, checking out the merchandise. It was scary.
When he separated us by pointing out Amy's face and my bust, we found ourselves being hurt that one had been picked out for one feature, and one for the other. When the other two Harvard women had looked at us as competition, we were amazed that they took the whole thing that seriously, and thought, we would never be competitive about something like this. And here we were, thinking, "He likes her face better!" "He likes her figure better!"
We were buying into it--we were starting to see ourselves as the sum of our body parts, too, and it made us feel pretty vulnerable. All of a sudden, our self-worth could depend on what the representative of this magazine that set beauty standards had to say about our bodies. All of a sudden, we were Amy, good skin, potential clothed model, and Ariela, strong bust, potential semi-nude.
Amy would not let him take her application or her picture. She had originally come along with me for moral support, but then decided to play along. But she couldn't go through with it. "What would my dad say?" she asked. Later she thought she might have been a little paranoid, but felt glad that he did not have any pictures or her name. "I just didn't want him to have anything on me. I mean, who knows what might be done with those things?"
This didn't make me feel any better. But I kept telling myself, "Well, they can't reproduce Polaroids, and why would they want to, anyway? And if they did, I could sue them." But David Chan has pictures of me coming on to the camera.
As we left, Chan said "Have a good time, whatever you are doing tonight... Jump on those Harvard boys, they need it."
Back at The Crimson, I was typing and a friend leaned over and said, "If I told you you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" I flinched. "Relax," he said, "it's from a country song." "Not today," I said. "Please, just not today."
The next morning, the phone woke me. It was David Chan, asking me to come back in a bikini. "The editors in Chicago won't be able to tell how good you look from the photos I have."
"Well," I said, "maybe I'll drop off some pictures later this weekend or something."
Somehow, I never got around to it.
Amy N. Ripich, W. Robert Genesier Jr., Arthur S. Rublin contributed to this article.