Ana Dias photographing Teela LaRoux, Playboy's July Playmate. Pictures: Stephanie Noritz/The New York Times

Los Angeles - “This is a full nude shoot to be conducted underwater,” a woman said into a phone, her voice carrying across a row of cubicles.

“Right, that’s right,” she continued. The person on the other end didn’t seem to quite get it. “As in, it won’t be on land.”

It was a Tuesday morning at the Westwood headquarters of Playboy Enterprises, and editors were preparing to close their summer issue. Gathered between a velvet love seat and a view of Santa Monica, they discussed upcoming stories - a piece on BDSM, a profile of Pete Buttigieg - while in the kitchen, a barista stenciled bunny ears into latte foam.

In his office, Shane Singh, Playboy’s executive editor, explained that the underwater photo shoot, to be photographed that weekend, was for the magazine’s cover - but not in the way that older, leering readers might expect.

This is a newer, woke, more inclusive Playboy - if you believe what company executives tell you, and if you are inclined to give an ageing brand yet another chance at reinvention.

Even before the #MeToo movement, there had long been debate over whether a publication with the tag line “Entertainment for Men” had any place in an equitable world. But when Playboy’s founder, Hugh Hefner, died in 2017, that argument grew louder: Had Hefner been a forward-thinking voice for sexual liberation and free speech or a creepy old lech who fostered a culture of misogyny?

Ana Dias photographing Teela LaRoux, the July Playmate, in Los Angeles.

At the time, Playboy was in a dizzying sequence of revival attempts. In recent years, the company has cut the magazine’s circulation; reduced its frequency; stopped printing ads; replaced chief executives; and, most notably, briefly banned nudity - before bringing it back, with the tag line “Naked is normal”.

Using sex to sell

It all seems genuine enough. Except for the elephant in the room - which is that Playboy is still a magazine full of nude women, whose chief executive is a straight white male, with a dead man still listed at the top of the masthead as the founding editor-in-chief.

“Through today’s lens, Hugh Hefner is grotesque and his women victims,” said Joanna Coles, a former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, when asked if it was possible to reinvent the brand. “They should lay it to rest with Hugh’s smoking jacket.”

Contradiction, though, has always been part of Playboy’s ethos - or what newer employees might call its “brand architecture”. Staff members today proudly recite that in 1955, just two years after Playboy’s debut, Hefner risked backlash to publish “The Crooked Man”, a short story about an alternate reality where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are persecuted.

At another point, the famed rallying cry “Gay Is Good” first appeared in a headline in the magazine. Playboy was an early backer of abortion rights and donated money to the Equal Rights Amendment campaign, civil rights causes and free speech organisations.

The New York Times