Teen detective Nancy Drew, of all people, led Peggy Wilkins to Playboy. It was July 1978 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and 13-year-old Peggy was a huge fan of the TV series. That summer the actress who played Nancy, Pamela Sue Martin, appeared on the cover of Playboy. Coyly holding a magnifying glass, she was wearing an artfully draped trench coat and clearly little else. Peggy had to have it. But how?
The shopkeeper peered at her skeptically. "Are you 18?" he demanded.
"No, sorry!" Peggy admitted, and ran away.
She screwed up her courage to ask her mother.
"Not gonna happen."
So Peggy did what any real fan would do in the face of adversity. She went back to the store where the magazine was, made sure the coast was clear, and stole it.
That was the start of a long romance between Wilkins and Playboy, but the courtship had begun three years earlier. Ten-year-old Peggy stumbled across her parents' Book-of-the-Month Club copy of Norman Mailer's Marilyn. The Milton Greene photographs of Marilyn Monroe sparked a fascination with the aesthetic and glamour of 50s-era Hollywood. "The women are almost always smiling," Wilkins explains. "It's not a detached model—there's a connection with the viewer, a sense of fun."
Marilyn kept the self-described "geek" in the library for long hours, reading biographies and poring over microfilms of old magazines, and drove her to take the bus around town buying old books and magazines from library and garage sales. Her schoolmates didn't understand her affinity for these materials—or, for that matter, for old movies, pinup art, and big band music; Wilkins says they were "more interested in popular music and current TV shows." As a result, she entered her teens "totally ostracized."
Marilyn was Playboy's first Playmate—or, as she was called in the December 1953 issue, Sweetheart of the Month. When the 25th-anniversary issue came out in 1979, Marilyn was featured prominently in its 410 pages. Of course, Wilkins had to have that, too. Having no more luck procuring that issue by honest means than the Pamela Sue Martin issue the year before, she resorted again to thievery. When she finally got her hands on it, she was floored. "It just had amazing content," she says. "It spoke to many of my personal interests in terms of pinup style photography. They present their Playmates very much in a similar way that Hollywood presents its glamorous movie stars, especially 40 to 50 years ago."
Wilkins was 14 in January 1980, when she successfully bought a Playboy for the first time, and since then she's bought every issue, new and old. She hid her magazines from her mother in boxes in the closet—and she hid her obsession from just about everyone else she knew too. "The first person I told was my high school boyfriend," she says. "Of course I told him." In 1983 she left Kalamazoo for the University of Chicago, where she took out a subscription. She's been a subscriber ever since.
Nowadays Wilkins has far too many Playboys to hide in a closet. She shares an apartment with her current boyfriend, Dean Armstrong, in Hyde Park, and rents the one-bedroom apartment above them to house her collections. ("Having a Playboy collector as your girlfriend is fantastic," says Armstrong. "There's no downside to it.") The apartment is packed with loose magazines and stacks of boxes, and its walls are lined with posters of Marilyn and famous Playboy covers. The bedroom walls disappear behind leather Playboy storage cases embossed with the famous bowtied bunny, which sit on wooden shelves held up by cinder blocks. These cases hold the best-preserved copies Wilkins could find; the others, stuffed into cardboard boxes, are duplicates. "I worry about these bookshelves sometimes," she admits. "They just came with the apartment. This has got to weigh like 3,000 pounds."
In the living room, positioned so it's the first thing you see when you enter the apartment, is the crown jewel: one of the original 53,991 issues of Playboy Volume 1, Number 1. On the cover, Hugh Hefner's autograph ends by Marilyn's smiling face.
In the upstairs apartment's bedroom, which doubles as a guest room, Wilkins pulls out her copy of Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds, 1953-2002, a 35-pound leatherbound paean to the girl next door. Many of the pages have been autographed by the women on them. "Basically, it's classic pinup art," Wilkins says. "They used to spend over $30,000 a month producing this single image, taking hundreds of shots on eight-by-ten film. Literally, many of them are works of art. They could be hanging in a museum." Flipping through, she stops on May 2002, Christi Shake: "Look at the note she's holding! If you look close, it says, 'Dear Mr. Hefner, I would love for you to consider me for a Playmate. Sincerely, Christi Shake.'" April 2003, Carmella Danielle DeCesare: "The sign says no co-eds in rooms after 10 pm. If you look at her watch it's after 10 PM, so the idea is that she's breaking the rules." This attention to detail, to Wilkins's mind, creates the illusion of an intimate romantic relationship with the viewer. "It's just charming, that's all," she says.
Wilkins has attention to detail in her genes: her father had a job in high school operating an electron microscope at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati; later, he became president of Aviation Computer Systems. She joined a computer programming club when she was in junior high—still an oddity in the late 70s. She studied music at the University of Chicago but went to work in the Regenstein Library as soon as she graduated. Today she runs Unix servers for the library.
When the Internet emerged, Wilkins used it to find other people who shared her interest in Playboy. She participated in conversations on alt.mag.playboy on Usenet and was one of the first ten subscribers to the Playboy Mailing List, started in 1994 at the University of Michigan. Now she moderates it.
Through the mailing list—which its members call the PML for short—she met Mark Tomlonson, who, oddly enough, was also from Kalamazoo. Tomlonson began reviewing centerfolds on the list in an "attempt to recall the impact certain outstanding centerfolds had had on me when I first saw them," he explains in an e-mail. Eventually he took on all of them, churning out a 200-word review on each Playmate's birthday over the course of 18 months: "In my personal life, several things were taking a turn for the worse. . . ." he writes. The reviews "provided structure in my life at a time when the old structures seemed shaky."
Wilkins gave Tomlonson's reviews a larger audience by linking to them on a Web site she created on her computer at work, a "memory aid" of all the knowledge she'd accumulated about the Playmates—and then some. The searchable database (now at wekinglypigs.com) stores their names, the months they appeared in the magazine, their birthdates and birthplaces, and who photographed them, plus their height, weight, and astonishing measurements. She also created databases for the Playboy special editions—photo-only issues of Playboy models—and the Playboy Cyber Club Daily Doubles, new photos of Playboy models available only to paying subscribers of Playboy.com. "I used to have it all memorized," she says. "Not to that degree of detail, obviously—but I was constantly wondering, has so-and-so model been featured in the Daily Double? It got to be too much to handle."
The site was featured in Wired and on MSNBC.com, both of which sent it so much traffic that the U. of C. machine she was hosting it on slowed to a crawl. Wilkins's online devotion to Playboy also captured the attention of the man at the top: Hugh Hefner. The company's new-media division in Chicago found the PML in the mid-90s and began to follow it. Wilkins says Mary O'Connor, Hefner's longtime personal secretary, would print out posts she thought would interest him. "I think we have a lot of common interests," Wilkins gushes. "We're both big movie fans. I talked about how I got interested in Playboy and how I came to collect it, I talked about the times I met Jane Russell and Alice Faye. He became quite familiar with me through my writing."
In 1997, Wilkins and her PML cohort learned about GlamourCon, a yearly convention that celebrates pinups and commands appearances by past and present Playmates. Wilkins couldn't afford to make the trip to Los Angeles, so PML member Dan Stiffler organized a collection to send her. Hefner heard about it and invited both Wilkins and Stiffler to visit the Playboy Mansion. Wilkins, normally reserved and bookish, lights up when she recalls the weekend. "It was really cool. He led the tour himself, which they told us is very rare," she remembers. "Oh, it was really cool. We had dinner and went to one of his movie nights, where we saw Liar Liar. It was his birthday and we saw his wife light the candles on his cake and everything." Since then she's visited the Mansion twice more and has run into Hefner at Playboy events. "I've written to him several times and he's always written me back," Wilkins says. "He's just one of the nicest, most generous people I've ever met. A great human being, basically."
But Wilkins's fondness for Hef can't overcome her distaste for the direction Playboy has taken in recent years. Her beloved centerfold, photographed on large-format film for decades, has changed to medium format and then digital photography over the past decade. Wilkins seethes when she looks at the first digital centerfold (March 2006, Monica Leigh). "Look at this!" she cries. "It's grainy. Her skin tone is all off. It's just a technically bad picture."
About a decade ago the PML began rumbling with discontent over a perceived new emphasis at Playboy on celebrity over the Girl Next Door. When it was young, Playboy interviewed celebrities—sometimes at enormous length—but it didn't depend on their faces to sell the magazine. Hefner preferred to put Playmates on the cover, and though Marilyn Monroe launched it, during Playboy's first 25 years it appeared with a celebrity cover only seven times. (The numbers are all in Wilkins's database.) But eventually Playboy joined the crowd. It's published at least seven celebrity covers, and usually more, every year since 1997.
Also troubling the PML were the rapidly diminishing word counts of the articles. Around the time of Playboy's 50th anniversary Wilkins saw the media referring to it as "your grandfather's magazine" and dismissing it as a "dinosaur." Saddest of all, she saw Hefner in interviews "quoting some of those things, and it became clear to me that he actually kind of believed that, that the world had changed, that people don't want to read as much anymore."
Wilkins refused to believe that the Playboy she'd grown up with was a spent cultural force. "I'm sorry," she says indignantly, "but Playboy is not irrelevant."
She set out to persuade Hefner. In 2002 she convened the 50th Anniversary Playboy Roundtable, an e-colloquium "bringing together dedicated Playboy readers and contributors to discuss in detail Playboy's past, present, and future, using the past and present as a springboard to the future," according to its mission statement. Hot topics included covers (no longer as artistic and no longer a reliable tribute to a Playmate, lamented roundtable contributors), Playmates (when even they were displaced on the cover by celebrities a line was crossed), and Playboy's general drift toward Maxim. This drift didn't simply take the form of shorter, more superficial articles. In the fall of 2002 Playboy hired Maxim's executive editor, James Kaminsky, as its editorial director. Because Kaminsky was in New York and wanted to stay there, the magazine pulled up stakes in Chicago and moved east.
The e-colloquium continued on the PML for months. When it finally settled down, Wilkins printed it all out, went over the reams of pages with a highlighter, and wrote index cards stressing the most important points. In 2004 she bound everything together and sent it off to Hef. "It was a very happy day of my life," she laughs.
Did it make any difference? "It may have been coincidence, but within two weeks of me sending the report he replaced the editorial director," she says proudly. Since then, she says, there have been changes for the better, though "quite subtle" ones, with somewhat less emphasis on star power and less "hitting you in the face with a page of nothing but graphics." Last year the magazine moved back to Chicago. (Maxim still casts a shadow: for the past year the editorial director and then "chief content officer" of Playboy's print and online versions has been Jimmy Jellinek, another former Maxim editor.)
Nothing about Playboy says Playboy more than its centerfolds, which are pornographic in some eyes and simply archaic in others. When they went digital Wilkins almost canceled her subscription. "Fortunately," she says, "they got a higher resolution camera and I'm still hanging on. It's become acceptable, but it's still not as good."
The current Playboy, the January/February double issue, offers two Playmates, and Wilkins looks them over with a connoisseur's eye. She observes that January's Playmate is over 30—"which I love"—and "there's the sense of a romantic relationship. They're in Paris, and you can see a bowtie hanging on a chair and a suit in the background." Miss January is "a real beauty"—as is Miss February, both of them "beyond reproach." But the centerfolds themselves are merely "OK images," she says. "If this were the first Playboy I'd ever seen I wouldn't be that impressed." She prefers the "stunning" photos of the Playmates that can be seen only by subscribers online.
Hugh Hefner turns 84 this year, and Wilkins is sure now that she'll stay a Playboy subscriber as long as he's around. But once he's gone, "anything could happen," she says. Her beloved centerfolds might not survive; but it's more likely, she believes, that the entire magazine will disappear, "just because it's been so intimately tied up with him, and also because print magazines are in a steady decline."
She'd miss the photography most of all: "To me, the mere fact of nudity—what's degrading about that, especially when it's presented artfully, beautifully? If I were photogenic enough I'd have been a Playmate in two seconds."