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Bunnies across the border: Playboy's back

After a four-year absence, the magazine relaunches its Mexico edition with fingers crossed.

October 15, 2002|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — The last time Playboy put out a magazine here, it was embarrassing. The editors had trouble getting Mexican women to take off their clothes. A few actresses and models complied, but mostly in coy poses behind palm fronds or other obstructions. Lorena Herrera, a television comedy star, hid behind the pseudonym Barbara Ferrat, whom she later claimed, unconvincingly, was her twin sister.

"The Playboy philosophy was to feature Mexicans -- a mix of celebrities and the girl next door -- but attitudes toward nudity made that almost impossible," said Cesar Romero Solis, an editor who remembers just two Mexicanas in the centerfold during his five years at the magazine's Mexican edition.

Imported pictorials from the U.S. edition filled the gap, but readership dwindled from 60,000 to 20,000 before the Mexican Playboy, hurt by a nationwide financial crash, folded in early 1998 after a 22-year run.

Now Playboy is back. Turning to foreign markets as its status fades at home, Hugh Hefner's magazine has launched a revised Mexican edition on the hunch that loosening moral strictures here will free a new generation of women to vie for exposure on its pages.

That's a bold assumption in a country where Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith and the family is still a potent moral force.

Equally uncertain is whether advertisers, wary of those pressures, will support the magazine and whether Mexicans will pay $4 per issue.

Yet Chicago-based Playboy Enterprises Inc. and its Mexican partner, Consorcio Sayrols, are bullish on Mexico, with its new democratic freedoms, recovering economy and strategic position as a testing ground for the magazine's appeal in Central and South America.

Before nearly 1,000 guests from Mexico's corporate and entertainment worlds, Playboy threw a party last week to introduce the Mexican edition -- its November issue hit newsstands today -- and to trample on the country's traditional restraints.

As a warmup, three women in nothing but bikini bottoms, go-go boots and head-to-toe body paint writhed on a runway, clutching electric razors supplied by a Playboy advertiser. Models paraded fall fashions. Fireworks exploded, introducing the edition's first cover girls -- a trio of big-busted singers called Las Chicas Tentacion (The Temptation Chicks).

In the main event, eight wannabe playmates chosen from 53 respondents to a Mexico City casting call strutted in swimwear and evening gowns before a jury, which selected four to pose for the first centerfolds of 2003 and earn $5,000 apiece.

"The country is ready for a magazine like Playboy," said Manuel Martinez Torres, the Mexican edition's 31-year-old editor. "Our society is more open, more diverse, more daring. Two years ago voters dared to get rid of the old ruling party, but it's more than that. Mexicans are making their own decisions and worrying less what their parents will say, what the priest will say."

And actresses worry less what the conservative Televisa will say. The TV network lost its monopoly of the airwaves here in the mid-1990s, along with much of its control over what performers do off screen.

The November issue carries a message in Spanish from Hefner saying that Mexico's recent political and social changes remind him of Playboy's pioneering years at the dawn of America's sexual revolution.

Playboy executives have distributed 50,000 copies to newsstands and say advertising has exceeded expectations. Yet publishing analysts wonder how Playboy can reach its first-year circulation target of 70,000.

Mexico is awash in the same down-market skin magazines and Internet porn that contributed to the former Playboy's demise. The revised Playboy must compete for upscale readers with a new crop of men's magazines such as British-based Maxim, which features scantily clad models in a Spanish-language edition.

"Playboy's circulation goals are very optimistic," said Manolo Barberena of Pearson Intelligence in Marketing and Opinion Research here. "Only celebrity gossip magazines get that many readers, and they're aimed at a wider audience."

Playboy's strategy is to combine a slick format modeled on the U.S. edition with local content geared to the tastes of Mexican men ages 25 to 45.

"Mexico is becoming a cultural crossroads," said Raul Sayrols, one of two brothers running the company publishing Mexico's Playboy. "You see the changes in movies and theater, on fashion runways, all over the place."

The multinational mix of available women here, Sayrols said, suits Playboy's strategy of expanding the Mexican edition southward next year. Playboy has 19 foreign editions, which account for more than a third of its total circulation of about 5 million. It is largely untested in much of Latin America, although its Brazil edition is very successful.

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