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When All Else Falters, Airbrush

Trends: From Joey Heatherton to Nancy Sinatra, women 'of a certain age' are baring it all and declaring themselves the silver standard of eroticism.

May 15, 1997|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The woman onstage is a poofball of black, all silky long legs and fur trim. Her hair is bobbed in a spray of Easter chick yellow. When she talks to the hungry crowd at the Century Club, you can still hear her breathy bedroom voice. She is, as her press release would have it, a "sex kitten on the prowl again."

"I'm Joey, I'm a girl and I'm on the cover of Playboy," she coos, before promoting her pictorial with an encore of "I Get a Kick Out of You."

If Joey Heatherton is still a girl, then it would seem she's playing the part again and again until she gets it right. In fact, there's little visible evidence that the long-ago Rat Pack mascot has reached the lofty age of 52. Just open April's issue of Playboy, where her pink pouty lips and other more intimate trademarks seem almost cryogenically preserved. It wouldn't be hard to imagine her rising from the ashes of her fast life to sprawl on a TV bed selling Serta mattresses once again.

Heatherton is the latest in a lengthening line of women over 40 who are taking it all off to become objects of readers' desire--and curiosity. They're making mincemeat out of the truism that women "of a certain age" are over the hill. When presidential daughter Patti Davis posed at 41 nearly three years ago, she told Playboy she was irked by "the nasty little press reports that call me middle-aged. . . . I thought, 'You know what? This is what middle-aged looks like.' "

Of course, in the Playboy universe, middle-aged looks like, oh, 24, give or take. Heatherton says she trained more than 30 hours a week for a month for her shoot. Davis lifted weights for seven years and God only knows what 50-year-old covermate Farrah Fawcett had been doing to stop the clock at 19--and an awesomely fit 19 at that.

"It's like a P.T. Barnum thing: Come see this 60-year-old woman who looks like she's 20," says Susie Bright, author of the recently published "Sexual State of the Union" (Simon & Schuster). "Making up someone to be beautiful is like making up Boris Karloff to be Frankenstein."

As aging baby boomers inherit the Earth, they're declaring themselves the silver standard for beauty. Older women who were not long ago considered nearly invisible and certainly not sexual are being eroticized from one cultural extreme--the porn industry--to the other--the more rarefied pages of magazines such as Vanity Fair and Mirabella.

"The marketing and advertising people have finally caught up with an eternal truth, which is that men of all ages, let us say from 12 on, find women of many different ages attractive," says Playboy men's columnist Asa Baber. "The male appreciation of female beauty is wide and deep."

*

Wide enough to create a market for "wrinkle movies," a hard-core porn genre featuring older women that's sprung up in the past few years. Mickey Bee, producer of the San Clemente-based porn video company Shooting Star, reports brisk sales of more than 50 such movie titles.

Bee, who says his stars bring him chicken soup on shoots, says his market is "men of all ages. Guys are animals, but for the most part it's baby boomers who are our biggest audience. They want to fantasize about 18-year-olds, but in reality, a lot of guys have a hard time identifying with superstar models."

"This is not a fad," says Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of "The Anatomy of Love" (Columbine, 1992). "This is a real trend in human evolution and human culture. We'll see more and more middle-aged women looking powerful and sexy."

Penthouse has run pictorials of over-40 newsmakers Gennifer Flowers and Lauren Hutton. "We have nothing against age," says Editor in Chief Bob Guccione. "It's just a question of finding them."

Hustler ran its first and only 50-year-old centerfold in 1975. "We were exploring a lot of new territory," Publisher Larry Flynt says, "and at the same time we ran a girl who was eight months' pregnant and a girl who weighed 300 pounds. But the readers were apparently titillated by the older centerfold. Why? I have no idea."

But Playboy didn't just stick its toe in the water when it published whatever-happened-to layouts of former centerfolds in the late-'70s. Since 1981 when it published its first senior celebrity layout--the then 51-year-old Vikki LaMotta, wife of raging bull boxer Jake--the magazine has run almost a dozen such pictorials. So far, its oldest model has been Terry Moore, onetime amour of Howard Hughes and 55 when she posed for Playboy.

"Reaching 30 used to be a big deal," says photography director Gary Cole. "Reaching 40 used to be a midlife crisis. Now people don't have them until they reach 50, and as we get older, we don't want to be thought of as older.

"Does Playboy redefine or reflect? It does both. Playboy is not a cutting-edge magazine. We're in the wave, but we're not in the front of the wave because you can't be and sell so many magazines."

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