As "Playboy" magazine's 50th anniversary nears in December, this icon of American pop culture has been warmly embraced throughout Eastern Europe. A leader among monthly publications in Bulgaria and Slovenia, "Playboy" also occupies near-the-top spots in Poland, Hungary, Russia, Romania, and Croatia. International editions are following the corporate philosophy of "Playboy" founder Hugh Hefner but adding their own local touches.
New York, 4 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For its launch in April 2002, "Playboy Bulgaria" secured a photo session with Lili Ivanova, a 62-year-old crooner on a par with Alla Pugachova of Russia or Karel Gott of the Czech Republic.
Rumor had it that the pictorials had been heavily airbrushed, but the first issue became an instant success. With more than 53,000 copies sold each month, "Playboy Bulgaria" dwarfs the country's second-biggest magazine, the women's monthly "Eva."
Anthony Georgieff is editor in chief of "Playboy Bulgaria" and a former editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He attributes the magazine's success to a fusion of global and local content.
"There are 15 lifestyle magazines in Bulgaria today. In a country where neither 'life' nor 'style' exist, there are 15 lifestyle magazines. 'Playboy' does not participate in this [lifestyle] game. What we are trying to do in Bulgaria is a magazine with 90 percent original Bulgarian content. I think that Bulgarians are interested in things Bulgarian. Of course, it's thrilling to show once in while what's going on in the world, but the Bulgarian [men] are interested in Bulgarian women. They want to read interviews with Bulgarian personalities. They want to read commentaries written by and about Bulgarians. This is what we are trying to do."
Playboy is the world's best-selling men's magazine, with a monthly circulation of more than 3 million in the U.S. An estimated 4.5 million people read its 18 international editions. During its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, "Playboy's" editorial formula -- coverage of real issues, as well as an up-front acknowledgment of sexuality through articles and nude pictorials -- was considered on the cutting edge. It also made a fortune for "Playboy" founder Hugh Hefner and spawned a companion magazine, "Playgirl." Hefner once said: "I never intended to be a revolutionary. My intention was to create a mainstream men's magazine that included sex in it. That turned out to be a very revolutionary idea."
Today, most of "Playboy's" editions in Eastern Europe have to compete in a much more saturated media market. Lifestyle magazines abound, and a successful recipe in the U.S. does not necessarily translate within the local context.
Maksim Maslakov is editor in chief of "Playboy Russia," which has a monthly circulation of 105,000. He tells RFE/RL that the magazine strives to abide by the original "Playboy" formula of being hip and entertaining.
"The Russian 'Playboy' pictorials are distinguished by the more natural appearance of the models," he says. "Unlike the U.S. 'Playboy,' where there are many silicon blondes, the Russian 'Playboy' is following a different venue. It better suits the taste of the Russian men. Our girls are more naturally attractive, more relaxed. In my opinion, our photo shoots are more contemporary. I wouldn't like to brag about myself, but if you peruse through both magazines, you'll notice some differences."
David Walker is vice president of Playboy Enterprises and closely monitors "Playboy" publications around the world. Walker usually spends half of the year traveling to the countries where "Playboy" magazine is published. He says he is keenly aware of the nuances in the magazine among its Eastern European editions.
"[There are] radical differences between them. 'Playboy Slovenia' is a more classical design, a slower design deep in lush graphics. 'Playboy Bulgaria' compared to that is more edgy. 'Playboy Russia' is a superb balance of graphic design, editorial quality, pictorial quality, interviews. 'Playboy Bulgaria' had some of the most aggressive and interesting interviews in any of the editions. They do different elements of the 'Playboy' mix."
Walker's job is to ensure the integrity and quality of "Playboy" is uniformly maintained. But that does not mean the magazine looks the same in each country. The magazine adopts a more liberal or conservative attitude, depending on the market. "Playboy" in Eastern Europe leans in a more liberal direction.
"We [at 'Playboy'] approach women as our friends, our colleagues, our spouses, our lovers, our partners in life, our partners in business. It is a fully formed vision of women. That was lost often because there was no category [in the past] for a men's lifestyle magazine. 'Playboy' was the only one. Now there are half-a-dozen in every country. That's great for us! We no longer have to discuss what a men's lifestyle magazine is. We only have to demonstrate that 'Playboy' is the best of them and is the only one that touches all elements of a man's life."
Through the Internet, pictorial content is shared among all editions of "Playboy." Sometimes, models appearing in one edition are invited for a photo session in another. Bulgarian model Sonia Vassi appeared in the U.S. edition in 1991. She became a Playmate in "Playboy Bulgaria" in 2002. Russian model Irina Voronina took a similar route.
But as Walker tells RFE/RL, it's not often that a model from Eastern Europe is invited to do a photo shoot for the U.S. edition.
"[It happens] very rarely, in part because to do a shoot in the U.S. there's so much of a promotional angle to being a Playmate. Obviously, being a celebrity is also a very regional, national thing. A number of Playmate pictorials are used within different editions inside Eastern Europe or within Europe as a whole, but it's very important in the United States that the models and the Playmates are able to speak English because there is a very large promotional element to their job."
Movement in the opposite direction -- from the U.S. to Eastern Europe -- is more common.
Interestingly, a recent survey found that 50 percent of "Playboy" readers in Bulgaria are women. Perhaps this is due to the quality of the journalism and interviews -- the latter a feature for which the original "Playboy" is famous.
Maslakov of "Playboy Russia" tells RFE/RL that it is rare for someone to decline an invitation for a "Playboy" interview. But it does happen. He says he really wanted to interview Mikhail Gorbachev, but the former Soviet leader declined.
"Perhaps he didn't feel very comfortable. Although a reformer, he is of the old school, a communist, and maybe he still has some prejudice toward 'Playboy,'" Maslakov says. "I think his opinion is very valuable right now, and we'd appreciate having him in 'Playboy' so he can comment on the current situation. He is one of the people who created the mess that transformed itself into something that perhaps even Gorbachev did not expect. I'd be interested to hear what he has to say."