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Serving Up-to-Date Slice of Cheesecake

November 25, 1994|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday

They were morale-boosting companions in wartime, those impossibly curved and seductive women drawn for Esquire by Alberto Vargas.

Fifty years after these pinups first appeared, the so-called Varga Girls have been reconstituted by Esquire in Timothy White's computer-enhanced photos of '90s-era super-models. Amber Smith is sprawled languorously across two pages in the November issue; a wispily clad Vendela reaches skyward in December.

These are not nude shots, as some misinformed advertisers had feared. As highly stylized renderings of gorgeous women, they are less provocative than Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue and most of the ubiquitous ads for Calvin Klein's fabwear.

The Varga Girls are an old idea made new again, if only for older guys.

"I've been trying to connect the magazine to its heritage in an up-to-date way," says Edward Kosner, 57, who left New York magazine to become Esquire's editor in chief last fall.

"We have all these trademark features at Esquire, such as the Dubious Achievement Awards, Women We Love and the Varga Girls. It occurred to me that, if we could update the concept with these new creatures called super-models, it would be kind of sweet, kind of like up-to-date cheesecake. Female beauty is still an enduring value."

*

Reaction in the magazine industry has ranged from respectful applause from men of a certain age, including Playboy Editor in Chief Hugh M. Hefner, to yawning dismissal from younger editors trying to tailor their men's books for a new generation.

The return of the Varga Girls does raise a larger question of how sex is used to sell magazines in the increasingly competitive men's field. What choices are editors making--and why?

"My big seller in '94 was the February issue with Geena Davis on the cover," says Art Cooper, 57, editor in chief of GQ. The actress, who was blond at the time and wore a high-waisted Armani suit opened at the hips to reveal her navel, helped move 400,000 copies off newsstands--a 70% sell-through of the print run that far exceeded industry norms.

He suggests, however, that the new and enhanced pinups would not work in GQ because the median age of his readers (27.5) is younger than Esquire's (even if GQ did run a recent feature on Betty Page, the frequently topless pinup queen of the '50s).

Cooper, who competes directly with Kosner, offers little reaction to Esquire's revival of the Varga Girls except to say, "If it works for them, it's a good idea."

Hefner, 68, who employed Vargas at Playboy for many years after the artist left Esquire (Vargas died in 1982), identifies another elementary advantage to the new Varga Girls: "When you create a men's magazine and you leave out the one thing that men are most interested in, you have a little problem."

According to Hefner, Playboy's February issue will dust off more archival pinups in a feature about George Petty, an illustrator who was popular in the '30s and '40s.

Meanwhile, Hefner goes back to the future in Playboy's December book, which presents a nude layout of a 38-year-old Bo Derek, 15 years after the actress starred as the perfect 10 in "10."

Sounding like someone who claims to buy Playboy only for its articles, Hefner explains: "Playboy first and foremost is devoted to the romantic connections between the sexes, and part of that connection is based on nostalgia." Re-enter Derek in Playboy's 40th-anniversary year.

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Marvin Scott Jarrett seems bored by such features. He's the 34-year-old editor and publisher of two hip magazines for young men, Ray Gun and Bikini, and a new music mag called Huh.

"Maybe I'm being egocentric, but I would think that Bikini was an influence on Esquire's bringing back the Varga Girls," he says.

Bikini, a square-shaped and manically designed magazine that Jarrett publishes out of offices in Santa Monica, has drawn media attention since its launch a year ago, partly in response to its periodic semi-nude profiles of Tatum O'Neal, Traci Lords and other celebs who appeal to twentysomething guys.

Former Vanity Fair writer Angela Janklow Harrington, now editor in chief of Mouth2Mouth, a new youth-oriented magazine, says, "Women's fashion magazines for the longest time have been showing photographs of women looking fantastic in very little clothing. . . . I think it (the Varga Girl) celebrates women."

And then there is Madonna, who has long since transcended the MTV audience so that her ever-marketed and ever-evolving sexpot image is turning on the VH-1 set and beyond.

Esquire's double-barreled cover of August, "Mailer on Madonna," which displayed the fabulous one in a come-hither bikini pose, sold 204,000 newsstand copies to become the magazine's top draw since its 50th-anniversary issue of 1983. Details, which tries to lean sullenly on the cutting edge, featured a trashier Madonna ("Come and Get It") on the cover of its December issue.

It portrays the blond chameleon at her sleaziest. "The look we came up with is based on Madonna's own idea of the way she wants to look," Details creative director William Mullen says.

In his view, why not Madonna? "There's a lot of retro-mania in the air. A lot of people would tell you that retro is really modern."

* His column is published Fridays.

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