Levi Unzipped: Inside Playgirl's Big Stunt
Since the Palin family nemesis teamed up with Playgirl, mystery has surrounded who was bringing the magazine back from the dead. Jacob Bernstein on the former sex party planner behind the revival, and why he doesn't know or care how big Johnston's "goods" are.
As career moves go, it seemed almost inevitable that Levi Johnston would show the full monty in an adult magazine one day. This, after all, is a guy who got Sarah Palin’s daughter pregnant at the age of 17, then turned on the Palin family when the couple broke up, telling juicy tales to anyone who would listen, including that his ex-future mother-in-law knew he was having sex in her home, and that she referred to her child with Down syndrome as her “retarded baby.”
More surprising was the news that Johnston would be posing for Playgirl, which had actually folded the year before. At the time it closed, the magazine, which was founded in 1973 as a feminist response to Playboy, was seen as a victim of the recession. Beyond that, adult content had long ago moved away from newsstands and video stores and into the home, where it could be viewed instantly on a computer.
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So who exactly was bringing the magazine back from the dead? And why was Johnston the person they were relying on to resuscitate the brand?
As it turns out, Playgirl was only mostly dead. Like many other brands, Playgirl was kept alive online by its owner, Trans Digital Media, a private corporation in New York that owns magazines such as High Society, and provides soft-core content to cable companies like Time Warner and Comcast. A few months ago, TDM began mulling doing special issues and brought in a consultant named Daniel Nardicio. Getting Bristol Palin’s baby daddy to pose in the buff was Nardicio’s first big idea, and it’s a stunt that’s in keeping with Nardicio’s outré tastes.
For more than half a decade, Nardicio, 43, has been a ubiquitous presence on the gay nightlife scene in New York, throwing wild parties in unlikely places like a Chinese restaurant in Alphabet City and a “decrepit loft” on 14th Street and 9th Avenue that he refers to as the Woodshop. “It was so historical, that building,” he says. “It’s where they shot Cruising.” In the summers, Nardicio famously hosts a weekly underwear party in Fire Island’s Cherry Grove. He also rents space out in his share house there, which he advertises on Facebook and Craigslist under the name “Daniel Nardicio’s Home for Wayward Boys.”
Nardicio admits he hasn’t actually seen Johnston naked nor has he asked his representatives about the size of the goods. “I don’t think it’s appropriate,” he says.
Working for Playgirl and wrangling celebrities to pose naked was a major step up from party promoting, he says. “Before, I was throwing sex parties. Now I’m talking to The New York Times. I always knew I was meant for more.”
To hear him tell it, his stint with Playgirl is all part of a major opportunity to reinvent a storied American franchise that he calls “the porn equivalent of Coca-Cola.”
“We’re trying to change the face of Playgirl,” Nardicio says by phone. “The reason I wanted to work with them is that I think of it as a classic American brand that got a little lost. The women working on it weren’t keeping up with the times. They didn’t admit that there were a lot of gay men reading the magazine and gay men don’t want to see guys with flowing long locks looking like they came from the cover of a Danielle Steel novel.”
Though he is heterosexual, Levi Johnston has a considerable gay following. He posed shirtless for GQ, went to the Teen Choice awards with gay icon Kathy Griffin, and did a Skype chat with Bravo’s openly gay programming executive, Andy Cohen, who has jokingly called Johnston “my boyfriend.”
At first, Nardicio hoped the photographer Terry Richardson (who is known for his oversaturated eroticized pictures) might be available to do the Johnston pictorial, but the assignment went to photographer Greg Weiner instead. Nardicio is particularly pleased with the serendipitous pun. “His name is actually Greg Weiner!” he beams. “That’s the funny thing.”
And Nardicio’s already begun scouting locations for Johnston’s shoot at locker rooms and ice hockey rinks, which was leaked to Gawker, earlier this week. Then, on Thursday, The New York Post's Page Six ran an item suggesting the boy from Alaska might be “worried about how his manhood may look” in such an chilly environment.
Nardicio says the story was “total bullshit,” though he admits he hasn’t actually seen Johnston naked nor has he asked his representatives about the size of the goods. “I don’t think it’s appropriate,” he says. “I ask models [for a look], but they’re not famous. When they’re famous, I’m not going to worry about it. We wouldn’t turn away Levi if he had a small penis.” (Another reason Nardicio hasn’t asked for a look-see might be that he and the folks at Playgirl are treading on thin ice, where Johnston’s pictorial is concerned. Nardicio notes that Johnston still hasn’t actually signed the contract, though his agent, Tank Jones, has previously called an appearance in the magazine a “foregone conclusion.”)
Asked how often Playgirl is planning on publishing next year following the Johnston issue, Nardicio professes not to be sure. They’re thinking six times a year, but it could be four, which Nardicio prefers. It’s all pretty informal, down to the fact that the magazine doesn’t even have a top editor. “That’s what’s so great about it,” he says. “It’s a group effort. We’re having fun with it.”
As far as Nardico is concerned, publishing nude photographs of Levi is just a means to an end—the most important thing is knowing who the reader is and tailoring Playgirl’s content accordingly. Or, as he puts it: “We’re not gay, we’re not straight. We’re for anyone who likes cock.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.