The Man Behind the Brand: A Vintage Interview with Bob Guccione Sr.

Article by Team Penthouse

This past July, what can only be described as an extraordinary media event occurred. It pushed the Olympics, together with the momentous news of Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination—the historic selection of the first woman vice-presidential candidate—off the front page of just about every newspaper in America. And radio and television news were dominated for more than a week by the ever-changing complexion of the same media event.

The event, reduced to its basics, was the forced resignation of Miss Vanessa Williams as Miss America of 1984. “I am not a person who gives up,” said the titleholder, giving up her crown for what was described as the “higher interests” of the Miss America Pageant.

But there was much more at work here than this ringing concession to the public relations requirements of a basically commercial beauty contest. One year before winning the pageant (and having become the first black woman to do so), Miss Williams had not only posed nude for a Mount Kisco, New York, photographer, but repeated the event in even more bizarre style one month later for yet another photographer. (Those latter pictures are the subject of this month’s all-new Vanessa pictorial.) The first set of pictures, which included sexually explicit lesbian poses, appeared in Penthouse’s September 1984 15th Anniversary Issue, coincidentally the last month of Miss Williams’s reign as Miss America.

The discovery that Penthouse magazine was about to publish the controversial portfolio led to pressure by the pageant on Williams to resign. And that resignation immediately set off a chain of national and international morality debates that seemed to divide a good portion of the world’s population into two factions: those who agreed with the Penthouse decision to publish the pictures, and those who did not. Indeed, the controversy rages to this day, in terms of furious and still-expanding arguments that involve a whole range of philosophical questions: Was it right for the Miss America Pageant officials to pressure Williams to resign? Was Penthouse right to publish the pictures? Was there really anything wrong with Williams posing nude? Who was exploiting whom? (And to further complicate matters, questions of convoluted, racially inspired conspiracy scenarios were raised, not so much to explain the sequence of events but to milk the story for all it was worth.)

Interestingly, the central figure in this controversy is not Vanessa Williams, but the man who secured the pictures and later made the decision to publish them, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. From his New York headquarters, Guccione has watched the national debate somewhat bemusedly—an attitude occasioned by a good deal of sanctimonious claptrap from many of the characters involved. For example, Miss America Pageant director Albert A. Marks, Jr., Guccione’s severest critic, reached new heights of oratorical self-righteousness when he described the Williams pictures this way: ”As a man, a father, a grandfather, as a human being, I have never seen anything like these photographs …. I can’t even show them to my wife.” (And Venus Ramey, Miss America of 1944, pronounced Miss Williams a “slut.”)

Guccione, of course, is no stranger to controversy. Ever since he began publishing Penthouse in England in 1965—and four years later brought it into the United States, not to mention its eight subsequent foreign editions—the magazine has probably become the most controversial publication of our time. Its reputation is composed of equal parts of no-holds-barred investigative reporting and writing and controversial political cartoons, along with its famous ground­breaking photography, a reputation that often alternately enrages or stirs a worldwide audience of every possible color and stripe. Whatever the reaction, very few people are indifferent to Penthouse. (The magazine’s September issue sold a record 6,000,000 copies, and became the all-time hottest item in publishing history. Copies were being sold for $30 each by the third day of sale, and some enterprising entrepreneurs were charging anywhere from two to seven dollars for a brief look at the Williams photo layout.)

This article was originally published in the January 1985 issue of Penthouse magazine. As Bob predicted, very, very few people remember the name Geraldine Ferraro, but a whole lot of people know Vanessa Williams.

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