clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

From Penthouse to the White House and Back Again

How the women in charge of America’s most controversial, louche, and straight-up bizarre adult magazine are embracing and reckoning with its legacy, and seeking a different kind of feminism

Penthouse magazine with an American flag on the cover Ringer illustration

The call sheet for Leigh Raven’s Penthouse photo shoot had come with this warning: “We are shooting at an old junkyard, and the bathroom situation is NOT the finest.” But when the small crew and the talent arrived at Cadillac King in the desert town of Llano, California, they learned from the guy living on the property that the one toilet actually broke months ago and there were no plans to fix it. “Fuck, I already have to pee,” said Mish Barber-Way, the magazine’s executive editor. “Whatever. I mean, there’s lots of hiding places.”

The late April shoot was for the magazine’s upcoming Punks and Outlaws issue. Barber-Way’s concept was to reimagine one of her favorite things that Penthouse had ever run — a pictorial from June 1996 that featured Janine Lindemulder, photographed by porn veteran Earl Miller. The shoot featuring Lindemulder—a Penthouse favorite and Vivid Video contract girl who would later appear on the cover of Blink-182’s album Enema of the State—was truly strange.

“She’s in a junkyard and it’s, like, road warrior, trash monster girl,” said Barber-Way. “I think she’s actually peeing in one shot, which I don’t wanna redo. Our CEO has a thing with piss. If I put any piss pictures in, she’ll have a spaz. And she trusts me. I don’t wanna break that trust with a pee shot.”

In Cheap Monday jeans and a Germs tattoo peeking out from her black V-neck top, Barber-Way walked among the rows of hundreds of rusting Cadillacs and the occasional Joshua tree, looking for places to stage the re-creations. A forklift was located; so was a spigot and a back seat where Raven could hose herself off for the final setup of the day. Barber-Way then conferred with photographer Suss Oldmen (a pseudonym) over a copy of the 22-year-old issue.

“There’s not a lot cute or pretty faces,” Barber-Way said.

“It’s also quite vagina-based,” Oldmen replied.

“We are pretty pro vagina.”

“She’s got inventive ways to show off her vagina,” Oldmen marveled.

Barber-Way, 32, took over Penthouse’s top editorial position in the fall of 2017, promoted after a short stint as its senior editor. Before joining the staff, she had worked for 10 years as a freelance writer, authoring an advice column for the Vancouver Courier about sex and relationships, interviewing people like rapper Danny Brown and adult impresario Larry Flynt, and exploring topics like anal weed lube and pro-anorexia websites. Publicly, Barber-Way is better known for her job as the lead singer of White Lung, a band that emerged from Vancouver’s DIY punk scene. A critically acclaimed force, they interrogate society’s failures through Barber-Way’s full-throated screams and croons. While Barber-Way has mostly been able to keep the demands of her two careers from colliding, last September she took on the executive editor job just as White Lung was about to head off for tour. “I completed my first issue on the road, doing conference calls in sound check, writing while we were driving,” she said.

Mish Barber-Way of White Lung performs
Mish Barber-Way of White Lung performs at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in 2017
Suzi Pratt/WireImage

During her time in charge, Barber-Way has tried to evoke some of the spirit of Penthouse’s groundbreaking run from the late 1960s through the 1980s. Yes, that’s meant more models with natural bodies and more pubic hair than what’s usually seen in porn in 2018, but she’s also tried to bring back the unexpected approaches upon which the magazine was built.

Founded in London in 1965 by Bob Guccione — at the time a failed painter from Bergenfield, New Jersey — Penthouse cultivated a reputation as the moodier, more louche option to the perkiness of Playboy. Guccione often shot the monthly Penthouse Pet pictorials himself (originally out of financial necessity), and in 1969, as the company established itself in the United States, the softcore magazine began running images featuring full-frontal female nudity, which Hugh Hefner vowed Playboy would never do. Hefner changed his mind shortly thereafter as Penthouse’s sales figures began to catch up to Playboy’s. Soon Penthouse began showing even more direct images of vaginas than Playboy ever would. Barber-Way later clarified Penthouse’s current stance on the subject with the explanation, “Playboy won’t show vagina or ‘pink’ and Hustler shows everything. We sit in the middle.”

In subsequent years, Guccione pushed the magazine to be more risqué. It almost exclusively used adult film stars and strippers as models, made pictorials of (what some might call performative) lesbian sex a staple, depicted scenes of BDSM, and even ventured into hardcore and more taboo fetishes during the second half of the 1990s as the fortunes of the company floundered. The photo story concepts could also be elaborate and bizarre, such as a 1989 girl-on-girl shoot that featured model Julietta in clown makeup, or one from 1978’s Science and the Future issue in which a pair of female aliens in flesh-colored skullcaps and colorful plumes of hair had their way with a male astronaut.

Barber-Way said Leigh Raven’s shoot will be a landmark for the adult industry, the first time any of the big three magazines has featured a heavily tattooed centerfold. In fact, most adult publications (including Penthouse) usually airbrush out tattoos on models, despite their pervasiveness on anyone under the age of 35. Raven is inked over most of her body, including a giant, flowering tribute to her wife, fellow adult performer Nikki Hearts, underneath the stubble of her shaved head. She also has nipple piercings and a surgically altered forked tongue.

Some might interpret the pictorial as an attempt to push Penthouse in the direction of the alt-porn popularized by Burning Angel, the Brooklyn-born production company started by director and performer Joanna Angel, which operates in the aesthetics of the punk and emo communities. But Barber-Way considered Raven’s shoot an appeal in the opposite direction, a move aimed toward the longtime subscribers of the magazine in their 50s who live between the coasts. “So many of our readers are in the Midwest or in the South. They’re dudes that love this kind of shit. They don’t wanna always see some girl in a pretty bed,” said Barber-Way. “It just gets a little boring when it’s just the same thing over and over.”

When Raven was finished with her makeup, Barber-Way stepped into the changing room they’d set up inside what had once been the junkyard’s office but now looked more like the lair of a family of surly coyotes. After helping style an outfit out of chain mail and a pair of minuscule denim cutoffs, Barber-Way tried to strap a knife onto Raven’s left thigh, which had the word “BORN” tattooed in massive cursive letters across the back of it. “FREE” was tattooed on the right. The first setup called for Raven to climb onto the roof of one of the dilapidated cars. Barber-Way hovered nearby nervously. “I’m on liability duty,” she said.

“I’m not fragile,” Raven replied with a smile. “If you told me to walk on glass, I probably would.”

Soon Raven was swinging the spiked ball and chain of a morning star over her head, the clear blue sky open above her.

The crew worked fast and efficiently through the day. As they moved the lighting rigs and reapplied sunscreen, a videographer filmed Raven performing strip teases and answering innocuous questions about her personal style. This is 2018, after all, and every publication craves extra digital content.

A common theme in articles about being on adult entertainment sets is how mundane they are. How in the end, it’s a job, and not a particularly erotic one. And it did feel incongruous, and a little ridiculous, to watch the vegetarian makeup artist talk to the production assistant about whether the nearby Mexican restaurant cooks their beans with lard, all while she stood a few feet from a naked, spread-eagle model, ready to spritz more water around Raven’s crotch.

“Is the cooter wet enough?” the makeup artist asked once her lunch order was in.

“No, you probably need to spray the cooter,” Barber-Way called back.

Soon Raven was lying in the dirt, with nothing except for a length of metal chains wrapped around her body. Oldmen was in the dirt, too, offering encouragement and firing off shots from his DSLR. The rest of the crew set up a canopy tent and organized a circle of camping chairs around a folding table so everyone could eat in the shade once the tostada salads arrived.

“I feel like a warrior princess,” said Raven.

“You are,” Barber-Way replied. “You are a warrior, garbage, junk princess.”

Penthouse is headquartered in a beige building in an industrial section of Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley, near an antenna company and a kitchen appliance outlet store. There’s no signage outside and the only indication you’re in the right place is the rubber doormat emblazoned with the company’s logo — a minimalist illustration of a skeleton key. Penthouse’s offices were in New York for nearly 50 years, but its true hub was Guccione’s mansion on the Upper East Side, where he held editorial meetings and maintained his own studio and office. It was among the largest single-family homes in the city, and Guccione decorated it in an extravagant Roman style with massive sculptures and ornate antiques. There was an indoor swimming pool lined with mosaics and the walls were covered with paintings by masters like Botticelli, Picasso, and Degas. In Rolling Stone and New York profiles about Guccione toward the end of his life, he is depicted as a man depleted by cancer and bad financial decisions, confined to his lair, but even at the height of his power, he rarely wanted to leave his house.

While Hugh Hefner was perpetually in his pajamas, eventually sinking into his image as America’s horny grandpa (before a darker picture emerged), Guccione’s standard look had much more bravado — a silk shirt unbuttoned to his stomach, his sunbed-tanned chest draped in gold necklaces. He made hundreds of millions of dollars with his publishing company, the generically named General Media. It expanded to include Penthouse offshoots Forum and Variations, the science magazines Omni and Longevity, over a dozen specialty titles, and Spin, the music magazine created by his son, Bob Guccione Jr. That particular partnership lasted until a disagreement between the two forced Guccione Jr. to find new investors and resulted in an 18-year estrangement that ended shortly before the elder Guccione’s death. Four of Guccione’s five children experienced similar estrangements.

Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione with three dogs
Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione
Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In addition to porn’s move toward the web, multiple bad choices and investments caused Guccione to lose his considerable fortune. Most famously there was his self-financed X-rated epic, Caligula (of which star Helen Mirren said, “It was an irresistible mix of art and genitals”), but more damaging were endeavors like his failed attempts to open a casino in Atlantic City and the millions he spent funding an international team of scientists in San Diego that was developing a fusion reactor. Deeply in debt around the turn of the century, Guccione lost his art collection, then Penthouse, then his New York City mansion. General Media declared bankruptcy in 2003. Guccione died at the age of 79 in 2010 from throat cancer in Plano, Texas, the hometown of his fourth wife, April Warren.

There are three black-and-white portraits of Guccione in the lobby of Penthouse’s San Fernando Valley offices. Barber-Way comes in only three days a week. She usually works from the house she recently bought with her husband, Austin Barber of the metal band Saviours. The home is over an hour away in the remote forest town of Pine Mountain Club, and she’s leaned into its cabin vibe by filling it with the taxidermied animals and country farm antiques she’s collected over the years.

When I visited Penthouse, the magazine was a week away from releasing the May-June issue featuring Stormy Daniels, but copies had already started showing up on eBay. It was by far the highest-profile story that Penthouse had been involved with in years that didn’t have to do with the company’s finances. Daniels was the Penthouse Pet of the Month for February 2007, but now it was proclaiming her the Pet of the Century after her role in the payoff and corruption scandal revolving around President Donald Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen. “I gave her the standard model rate. She didn’t ask for any more money. She didn’t want that,” said Barber-Way. Daniels also requested a replacement Penthouse Pet key necklace, the gift each centerfold gets, since hers had broken. Barber-Way got her two — one for everyday wear and another for when she’s dancing at strip clubs.

Stormy Daniels on the May-June 2018 cover of Penthouse
Stormy Daniels on the May-June 2018 cover of Penthouse

Along with a new 12-page photo shoot, the issue featured a 6,500-word profile of Daniels that tried to offer a more nuanced portrait of the adult performer than what she’d been reduced to by battling political factions — hero to the left, whore to the right. The piece detailed her tumultuous relationship with her mother, her rise in the porn world, and how she was managing the media storm swirling around her. “We spent two days with her,” said Barber-Way. “She gave The New York Times 10 minutes.” It was actually 12, and they were over the phone.

The cover of the issue — featuring Daniels topless and partially covered by an American flag — debuted during her appearance on The View, but the subsequent coverage of the article mainly revolved around the brief section in which Daniels talks about having sex with Trump after a celebrity golf tournament in 2006, implying he wasn’t particularly well endowed and he wasn’t particularly good in bed. In the period between when the issue was sent to the printers and when it hit newsstands, Daniels filed a defamation suit against Trump and much more about Cohen’s shady, and possibly criminal, dealings emerged.

In 2004, private equity investor Marc Bell bought Penthouse at a bankruptcy auction, and it eventually became part of the FriendFinder Network, the online dating and adult entertainment company. Penthouse declared bankruptcy again in 2013, and it was bought by Kelly Holland in 2016. Holland had been overseeing the company’s broadcast division, which produces original adult content and includes 10 different linear TV channels that are available in more than 100 countries. The company’s licensing agreements include a network of strip clubs around the world in which Pets feature dance to make more money.

Holland started her career as a political filmmaker, making documentaries in the 1980s on subjects like the American health care crisis and the wars in Central America. Then an Australian broadcast company asked her to cover the adult industry. Looking back at this time, Holland recalled, “The women I met in this business in 1992, ’93, really articulated, perhaps without knowing what they were articulating, a very simple sensibility, which was, ‘My body, my rules.’ Not my dad’s, not my husband’s, not the boyfriend’s, the priest’s, the mullah’s, or the rabbi’s. My rules. And if you don’t like it, those are your issues to deal with, not mine, and I’m not going to allow you to put that on me.’ I loved that. I loved the militancy of that. I loved how disruptive to 4,000 years of culture that is.” She went on to direct and produce hundreds of adult films, many under the name Toni English.

Holland maintains that the problems that Penthouse contends with now are the same ones that magazines like Men’s Health and Vanity Fair are dealing with. There were even erroneous reports in January 2016 that the print edition would fold and Penthouse would become digital only. Holland said that, most critically, there are now far fewer places for people to buy magazines, which has pushed more content into the less lucrative online environment. (Despite current publishing trends, Penthouse still keeps its non-adult material from the magazine behind a paywall.) There are even fewer places to buy Penthouse after major convenience stores like 7-Eleven stopped carrying it in the 1980s following pressure from religious groups, while military base exchanges removed it in 2013.

Once Holland took over as CEO, she closed Penthouse magazine’s offices in New York, moved the operations to Southern California, and reduced the staff of about 25 people (some of whom had been with Penthouse for decades) to a core of three in-house employees who are supplemented by outside contributors. Holland said that it was a difficult decision, but with these changes the magazine is now able to break even or be mildly profitable every month. However, her company, Penthouse Global Media, filed for bankruptcy protection in January.

While publishing anything in 2018 can sometimes feel like a losing game, shuttering the magazine, or at least the print version, currently is not an option for Penthouse. “The magazine is what started it and it works as an advertisement for the brand,” said Barber-Way. “All the money we make is in licensing and broadcast—that’s where it all comes in. The magazine still exists as an advertisement for the brand that you have to sustain so that other things still have that cachet.”

Along with the relatively different types of models Barber-Way has been eager to feature, the writing has also seen a return to the antiestablishment, fringe-exploring leanings that Guccione cultivated. Recent issues have featured articles on a doctor who uses ketamine to treat his patients’ depression and the impact of science fiction writing on libertarian politics, while Barber-Way interviewed controversial feminist thinker Camille Paglia for the January-February issue. Leah McSweeney, the forthright owner of the streetwear brand Married to the Mob, gives readers relationship advice, and Alan Dershowitz, the prominent lawyer who regularly appears on Fox News and was a friend of Guccione, is contributing pieces again.

“We started out in a particular direction when I bought the company, and it sort of listed off to the side and it was getting a little bit too clever and too niche. It was a little too Silver Lake,” said Holland of the tenure of Raphie Aronowitz, the executive editor who preceded Barber-Way. “It was like an inside joke that only 25 people got. That’s getting too far out in front of the cultural pocket. Mish understands that there’s L.A. and New York and everything in the middle is Kansas, and you still have to be respectful of Kansas.”

Barber-Way said she was around 10 years old the first time she saw pornography. As she walked in the woods near her family’s home in North Vancouver, she and a friend found a magazine that someone had left in the leaves. “I remember being fascinated by it, and also feeling weird about it, and then also wondering why it was in the middle of the forest,” she said. As a teen she loved the vintage adult mags she collected or got from her ex-boyfriend. Because so much of what she went on to write about revolved around sex and the adult industry, most of Barber-Way’s friends and family were not surprised when she became an editor at the magazine. “I had my little pinky toe dipped, so it made sense that I just am now totally swimming in the deep end,” she said. Even her grandmother was amused by the decision, since Penthouse was Barber-Way’s grandfather’s favorite of the big three.

She did say that some people’s discomfort with her job pops up in unexpected ways. The night before we talked, she conducted a Q&A with Melissa Broder at Skylight Books in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood to celebrate the release of the author’s first novel, The Pisces. Broder is known for writing frankly about sex in both her fiction and nonfiction, and even chose an explicit portion of her book to read to the crowd, but when the store employee introduced Barber-Way she omitted her job at Penthouse as she listed her credits.

As a teen learning about punk and feminism, she read Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, whose antipornography stance accompanied the adult film industry’s boom in the 1970s. But Barber-Way said she was always skeptical of their opinions and today is openly disdainful. “Back then, of course your only image of porn was Linda Lovelace and her pimp-ass husband-manager who forced her into doing bestiality films to earn more money,” said Barber-Way, citing an industry rumor. “Yes, I understand, it was bad back then, but this is 2018. Porn is not the same now. Women dominate this industry. Men are simply workhorses who have to inject their penises with all sorts of brutal boner drugs just so they can complete a scene. Their cock is just there; no one gives a shit about them.”

From Penthouse’s earliest days, Guccione hired women in leadership positions and filled the masthead with female employees. “In 1974, you either went to Ms. magazine or you went to Penthouse, because there was no other place that was hiring women in advertising/sales, and it was a great career for women in those days,” said Nancy LeWinter, who would become the publisher of Esquire, in an interview clip featured in the 2013 documentary Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story. During Penthouse and General Media’s most lucrative run, the company’s business decisions were guided by publisher Kathy Keeton, Guccione’s longtime partner and eventual third wife, who died in 1997.

According to Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure, a book about the adult entertainment industry, Penthouse’s current female-led masthead isn’t particularly unique. “Historically, adult content and the industry that creates it has been far more diverse (and gender inclusive) than it’s been given credit for—especially relative to mainstream Hollywood, for instance,” she wrote in an email. Tibbals said people are taking note of its greater gender balance now only because its history has remained unexamined for so long.

While Guccione may have been willing to hire women, he wasn’t always sensitive in how he treated them. In Patricia Bosworth’s 2005 profile of him for Vanity Fair, she recalled her own stint working for him as the executive editor of Viva, General Media’s short-lived adult magazine for women. Bosworth detailed the times Guccione wanted to make her the madam of a Viva brothel in Nevada (only as figurehead, he promised) and tried to get her to hire an alleged rapist as an advice columnist. Describing an incident when she fired a creepy sex fantasies columnist, only to have Guccione rehire him as a Penthouse special assistant, Bosworth wrote, “When I complained to Bob that he’d usurped my authority, he corrected me: ‘No, baby. I’m the authority.’”

There are additional challenges facing the new ownership group and its employees. Holland and Barber-Way both said that a major reason the adult industry is losing money is the phenomenon of cam girls—performers who use increasingly accessible technology to interact with customers independently and charge them directly. Penthouse has tried to absorb some of the cam girls’ popularity by featuring a different one each issue in a pictorial section called Cyber Cuties in partnership with the website Alex De La Flor, January 2018’s Penthouse Pet, even came from the cam world and had no prior experience in adult films or exotic dancing before her shoot.

Whether performers should stay in the cam world or align themselves with established institutions like Penthouse recalls the old arguments about whether indie musicians should sign to major labels for the greater exposure and opportunities or remain underground to maintain control of their careers and keep a larger share of the profits. The Montreal-based ManyVids has established itself as a popular clip site for cam performers, serving as a portal to the profiles of hundreds of MV Stars who sell videos, photos, used panties, “cock ratings,” and whatever else their customers may want to buy from them. ManyVids calls itself a supporter of the #MeToo movement and a believer in ethical pornography, positioning itself as a progressive voice in the adult industry. Bella French, a former cam girl who recently revealed herself to be the cofounder and CEO of ManyVids, says that women in positions of power in the adult industry should seek to end some of its long-held practices.

“I hope to see a day where all adult-producing companies ask porn stars to do specific sexual acts because that’s what they love to do, not because that’s what will make a producer happy,” she said. “The secret to this change is really simple: Content creators have all the power—they simply need to start exercising it. Porn stars and cam boys and girls make the adult industry—the adult industry does not make them.”

Scarlett Sage, June 2018’s Penthouse Pet, framed being featured in the magazine as a sign of professional validation, an earned achievement. “Every girl wants to have a good reputation in the business. Every girl comes in wanting to be a part of Penthouse. It’s every girl’s dream,” she said. “To be one out of 12 [Pets] each year feels amazing to me. It means I’m doing my best in this business.”

Beyond the name recognition, Barber-Way said that what Penthouse promises is a safe environment for performers. The company has established multiple systems to protect the models, including ensuring that when they come to the office for a test shoot, there’s always a woman in the room with them. Even though porn has become increasingly mainstream and regulated in recent years, troubling elements persist. Just a month and a half before Leigh Raven did her Penthouse shoot, she uploaded a lengthy video to YouTube in which she detailed being sexually assaulted by performer Rico Strong, who she said ignored the guidelines she laid out before they started filming a scene. She also filed a police report afterward and underwent a medical examination. “There’s a lot of seedy shit going on, so you wanna be with reputable companies that care,” said Barber-Way.

When I interviewed Barber-Way at Penthouse’s offices, we’d been talking for more than an hour when the discussion turned to whether anyone from the feminist punk community had confronted her about working for the magazine. She said that she didn’t agree with a lot of what was happening in the feminist movement. Later, I asked her to clarify what she meant by that. It had been a long day and she had a long drive home to the mountains ahead of her and she wasn’t happy with the answer she’d given me, so she asked that I email the question to her later. I asked what feminism means to her now and in her response, she wrote back:

I’m a liberal, but I guess by today’s standards I would be considered a libertarian. I’m an equity feminist. I believe in personal responsibility and freedom. Mind your own business. I do not want the government to dictate any of the choices a person makes regarding their bodies, their religious beliefs, their sexual preferences or love lives. Today, having these kinds of beliefs somehow makes you unfeminist. I’m not sure why it’s unfeminist to be an independent thinker who wants the freedom to live her life as she sees fit. I’m still trying to figure out why that makes me a bad feminist.

I asked her what she meant by a “bad feminist” and whether she’d been called that specifically or if she just felt that her ideas didn’t line up with the modern feminist movement. Minutes later she replied, “I feel like my ideas don’t line up with current trends. Why are feminists so unhappy during a time when women are supposed to be the freest and most liberated we have been in the history of Western civilization? Do you know why? I have a lot of theories, but who knows if I’m right. We are in cultural chaos right now. It’s all going to implode pretty soon.”

I also used our email exchange to ask her about something that had been bothering me since I’d started reporting the story: having to refer to many of the women who appear in Penthouse as “Pets.” “I understand how the term ‘pet’ may imply subservience, but Penthouse Pets have always been strong, powerful, sexy women. It’s all how you look at it,” Barber-Way replied. “The assumption that women in the adult industry are stupid and servile because they make erotic entertainment for a living and relish in the title ‘Penthouse Pet’ is ridiculous. As Camille Paglia once wrote, ‘The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.’ Penthouse magazine is a place of female worship. Pussy is God.”

This piece was updated with new information on July 6, 2018.

The Press Box

Pat McAfee’s ESPN Deal, the Kevin Harlan Playoff Experience, and This Week in 2024

The Town

Netflix Crashes TV’s Ad Party

Higher Learning

The Color of Change Controversy and Conservatism at CNN

View all stories in Media