When news broke that Ines Rau had been named a Playboy Playmate, getting her first centerfold for the publication in the November 2017 issue, it was a big deal. And with good reason. Rau is the first transgender woman to achieve the honor, and it just so happens to coincide with the same issue that features a cover commemorating founder Hugh Hefner’s death.
For commenters and self-described Playboy experts on social media, that timing was a statement of a new era at the iconic publication. It was a step away from Hef’s legacy. But when looking at Hefner’s legacy, it seems these apparent disciples have left out a few inconvenient truths.
Though November will be Rau’s first centerfold for Playboy, it won’t be her first appearance for the magazine. Back in 2014, the French model, who has also posed for the likes of Balmain and Vogue Italia, appeared nude for the publication. That shoot was slotted into an 86 page A-Z special edition. The company marketed it as a supplement that “offers a unique take on the ideological, sexual, political and aesthetic philosophies that Hugh Hefner and Playboy's editorial team have stood behind since the magazine's inception.” In short: the ideas featured there were not flights of fancy but instead, ingrained into the core of the publication. An informed view of sexuality and gender is a part of that. Where is that evidence? I’m glad you asked.
In 1981, Playboy ran a feature on the upcoming Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, as was typical for the era. For the editorial, the magazine shot all of the Bond girls that appeared in the film. Amongst them was Caroline Cossey — then known as Tula — a popular model in Europe who had done time as both a showgirl and a talk show host. The span of her career included half-naked denim ads, as well as the cover of Penthouse and a variety of other publications. But in 1982, a majority of that work came to an abrupt halt when Cossey was outed by the British tabloid under a headline that read: “James Bond Girl was a Boy.”
That trajectory was typical for trans models at the time. Fellow Brit April Ashley was the second person in the U.K. to undergo sex affirmation surgery in 1960, and was shot for British Vogue later that year. Her work stopped when the news broke that she was trans. The same for Tracey Norman, a trans model of color in the United States who appeared in a Clairol ad. So the 1981 Playboy shoot wasn’t revolutionary, or even particularly noteworthy. But when Hefner brought Cossey back for a shoot in 1991 — almost a decade after she was outed — it was a pointed statement.
Cossey’s second go at Playboy got her a feature in the September 1991 issue. That feature titled “The Transformation of Tula” showed her as an out transgender woman. The text described the model as a "beautiful woman who was born a boy” and the images were just as sexual as any other Playboy spread — Cossey came out of a men’s suit wearing a garter belt. The most notable aspect was that, in addition to the feature, Cossey racked up a few Playboy International covers to go alongside it.
Hefner’s legacy of sexual progressivism is up for debate by some. While one group believes he truly was railing against sexual repression and supported abortion rights, others believe that ultimately both of those stances were ingrained in misogyny, posing as means to ends that allowed him to have more sex without consequences.
But Hef also promoted and made space for people of color in his pages when others did not, and in the realm of this conversation about Ines Rau, advocated for the LGBT community. In 1995, he published a story that flipped the script and persecuted heterosexuals in a homosexual world and went on to call the fight for gay marriage “a fight for all our rights.” What self-serving ends could those stances lead to?
The idea that the publication “waited until Hugh was dead to do this,” as some on Instagram have espoused, or that ”Hef didn’t die for this,” are quite obviously unfounded. Hefner himself met with and chose Cossey to come back for her solo pictorial and would have approved the text that ran with it. His son, Cooper Hefner, chose Rau to underscore those ideals. In fact, Hefner was alive when the decision was made — Ines Rau was even going to be the cover, according to The New York Times. But when the icon himself died, two days before the issue went to print, they changed it.
The publication has since responded to those threatening to end their subscriptions, boycott the publication and burn issues. “In March 1965, we featured Jenny Jackson, our first black Playmate,” the publication wrote on Instagram. “Many fans revoked their subscription or returned the issue. Many more embraced Jenny Jackson, her beauty, and Playboy’s decision.”
The photo that caption came under showed a direct parallel between the 1965 "Letters to the Editor" and the social media reactions to Rau’s new Playmate status. The message was clear: you might not be a fan, but Playboy is going to continue forward.
Next up, how should we remember Hugh Hefner and his Playboy legacy?