Penthouse Retrospective

by Penthouse Staff Originally Published: April, 1993

Vanessa Williams

She was allowed to keep the approximately $10,000 she had earned in personal-appearance fees while holding the title, plus her $25,000 college scholarship.

Meanwhile, news about the upcoming Penthouse nudes knocked Geraldine Ferraro’s vice-presidential nomination and the 23rd Olympiad out of the spotlight. During the period before the magazine hit the stands, Penthouse and Bob Guccione received several hundred bomb and assassination threats. On July 23 the September Penthouse went on sale, and the death threats ceased.

Two days later copies were being sold for $35 apiece, and some intrepid entrepreneurs were charging from two to seven dollars per peek! By the end of the week, no fewer than five million copies had been snapped up – a virtual sellout – prompting Bob Guccione to order a print run of 750,000 more. A bona fide record-breaker, the edition raked in $24 million in newsstand sales. No other single issue of any magazine had ever generated that amount of money.

So why was the story so newsworthy? “The public’s basic distaste for hypocrisy, their love for scandal … for punching holes in the establishment, their hatred of liars, their sanctimony, and their own implacable sense of guilt,” stated Guccione. “The Miss America Pageant is really a commercial enterprise,” he mused. ’A business proficient in the exploitation of women for profit; an organization created to promote business in Atlantic City. All we did was puncture a very pompous balloon.

“I didn’t punish Vanessa Williams, I published her! I did precisely what she wanted me to do – me, or anyone else. I published the pictures she posed for. That’s why she signed a model release, because she wanted to see her pictures published!”

The country was in an uproar for weeks – everyone had an opinion. The mayor of Talladega, Alabama, demanded the keys to his city back. Gillette, American Greetings Corporation, and the Kellogg Company banished Vanessa’s visage from their respective displays, greeting card ads, and cornflakes boxes. A People news poll drew its biggest response in history; more than 8,000 readers wrote in, 61 percent saying Vanessa was rightly stripped of her title. “She is a slut,” spat Venus Ramey, Miss America 1944. Although she had appeared in 1983 on a “Bob Hope Goes to College “ television special, Vanessa was unceremoniously dumped from Hope’s upcoming show at the Carleton Celebrity Dinner Theatre in Bloomington, Minnesota.

But Joseph Papp still wanted Vanessa to audition for the part of Musetta opposite Linda Ronstadt in his Public Theater production of La Boheme. New York Times columnist William Satire chastised the pageant for its hypocrisy, writing, “Miss America lost her virginity when Atlantic City legalized gambling and invited the nation’s suckers to come and play.” A People poll respondent observed that “the Miss America Pageant herds young women about like prize cattle, but when their blue-ribbon cow appears in another fair, they turn her into hamburger.”

Vanessa wasn’t the only player who was vilified. Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and commercial photographer Tom Chiapel were pilloried by much of the public and press as evil incarnate. At the root of the controversy lay the infamous model release.

After first being approached by a couple of go-betweens, Guccione refused to have anything to do with the photos until he was able to deal directly with Chiapel. Then he had the photographer thoroughly investigated. Chiapel signed a sworn statement, and Vanessa’s signature on the model release was verified by two nationally renowned handwriting experts. It wasn’t difficult to obtain signatures for verification; Chiapel, for whom Vanessa had worked, provided numerous signed and canceled checks, plus her signed employment appIication form. “I would never publish a photograph of a girl without a release,” Guccione explained. “Otherwise, they would take me to the cleaners.”

Tom Chiapel was a 34-year-old commercial photographer living in Westchester with his wife and two daughters. An Ansel Adams admirer, he had shot action pictures for sports magazines and commercial work for ad agencies, but he prided himself on his art photography. Self-taught, he developed his own high-contrast lighting techniques to create what he calls “sculptural “ nudes. When the story broke, Chiapel and his family were besieged. One tabloid reporter remarked that his editor threatened to publish pictures of Chiapel’s children if the photographer refused to grant an immediate exclusive.

It isn't difficult to imagine a world in which Vanessa Williams created a successful and diverse career without having artistic nudes of her published against her wishes. But that isn't our world.