Never Surrender

01.20.15 8:00 PM ET

Rupert Murdoch’s Last Topless Model: The Sun Axes Page 3

No more topless girls on Page 3 of The Sun? What will Britain do?

LONDON — And so it came to pass, Lissy, 21, from Manchester will enter the history books. Her unadorned appearance in last Friday’s edition of The Sun is expected to make her the final model to bare her breasts on Page 3 of Rupert Murdoch’s biggest selling newspaper.

The daily display of flesh in Britain’s most popular paper has mystified the rest of the world since it was inaugurated in 1970, but it grew into one the most remarkable symbols of the nation’s odd affinity for innuendo, humor and smut.

Decades before Snapchat, sexting and emails marked NSFW, The Sun was bringing pictures of topless women into millions of homes, offices and building sites every day. Murdoch introduced the controversial images within a year of buying the tabloid, which boomed under his uncompromising stewardship, selling almost four million copies a day until the late 1990s. Page 3 girls—including Katie Price, Samantha Fox and Geri Halliwell, who later starred in the Spice Girls—would go on to became British household names.

From its inception to its apparent demise, the photographs have always attracted intense and widespread criticism, but Murdoch ignored the complaints entirely until late last year when the first cracks in his position began to appear. “Brit feminists bang on forever about page 3,” he said. “I think old fashioned but readers seem to disagree.”

Four months later, the models have disappeared. Or rather, their modesty has partially reappeared. A soap actress wearing a bra and panties featured on the third page of the paper on Monday, while Tuesday’s first edition included two actresses in bikinis.

The change was subtle, and the newspaper has refused to publicly address it. Dylan Sharpe, The Sun’s head of PR, Tweeted enigmatically: “Page 3 will be in @TheSunNewspaper tomorrow in the same place it’s always been—between page 2 and page 4.”

Harriet Harman, Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary, said the paper was not going to get away with quietly dropping the exposed models without a huge public response celebrating Murdoch’s climbdown. “It won’t be quiet—we will be making sure it is not quiet,” she said.

The Sun’s apparent policy reversal follows a two-year campaign by No More Page 3, a pressure group that collected more than 200,000 signatures on a petition to end the use of these images. “We’re still in shock; it’s great news,” said the organization’s Sarah Faulkner. “There’s been a societal change, this is very sexist and it’s time to move on.”

Faulkner is hoping that the market proves that there is no longer an appetite for these kind of pictures in a newspaper. “If people want to see topless pictures, there’s a whole internet for that. I can’t think it will lose them an awful lot of sales and I don’t think they’d have done it if they thought it would.”

Tom Latchem, a former editor at one of Murdoch’s tabloids, told The Daily Beast it was clear within the News’s U.K. media empire that Page 3 would be immediately reinstated if sales plummeted.

“This move has been in the offing for a long time. Page 3 is clearly outdated, Murdoch felt it was time to phase it out and has been doing so over the last few months,” said Latchem, who lost his job at the News of the World last time Murdoch bowed to public pressure and closed the Sunday tabloid.

The Sun has recently been alternating between the old-fashioned topless Page 3 shots with picture spreads of celebs in bikinis on pages 2 and 3. “Murdoch was trying not to look like he was handing victory to the No More Page 3 campaign, most of whom do not read The Sun,” Latchem said. “While it is clearly a victory for the campaign, Page 3 is merely going behind a paywall to drive subscribers to The Sun website, so it is not like the feature is going away altogether.”

Indeed, a banner in the paper and the official Twitter account pointed readers to the website where they will be able to see “today’s Page3 girl… flame-haired Lucy.”

It was first suggested that The Sun might consider dropping Page 3 when Rebekah Brooks was appointed as the newspaper’s first female editor in 2003. Instead, her first day in charge featured nude model Rebekah Parmar-Teasdale and the caption: “Rebekah from Wapping.”

She worked to strengthen the brand, adding a News in Briefs element in which the woman in her knickers shared an opinion about the day’s news. For example, in February 2004, Zoe, 22, from London offered her support for the faltering Iraq War: “You don’t need to be an international diplomat to realize the world is better off without Saddam,” she said.

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Six years later, Prince Charles told The Sun he had “roared with laughter” when he discovered that Danni, 23, had offered her support for his controversial views on architecture. She said: “I’m a deconstructivist at heart and Frank Gehry’s design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is a triumph. There’s something about curves we all love.”

Although The Sun refuses to comment, one thing is clear—the newspaper will continue to use images of scantily-clad women to help to sell its newspapers and online subscriptions.  Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP who wore a No More Page 3 t-shirt in Parliament last year, said there was more work to do. “If The Sun is reserving its right to print occasional topless photos as well as girls in bikinis, there’s still a way to go.”

Former glamour model Shelia Hageman, who started stripping at the age of 18, told The Daily Beast it was fine to put the salacious shots online so long as they were kept out of the newspaper. “These images should not be in a daily newspaper that are out for everyone to see—for little girls to see,” she said. “It’s amazing news that this is going the way of the dinosaur.”

Not all of the glamour sorority agreed. Porchia Watson, who will continue to model nude for rival tabloid the Daily Star, said the demise of Page 3 was devastating for those involved. “Can’t believe people are rejoicing people losing their jobs!” she wrote on Twitter. “Any other job and people would feel sorry for them but no, let’s celebrate… just because some bunch of unattractive prudes decided it’s wrong.”

Page 3 veteran Rhian Sugden suggested the move away from glamour modeling in daily newspapers presaged a dystopian future: “It’s only a matter of time before everything we do will be dictated by comfy shoe wearing… No bra wearing… man haters.”