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'Stiffed' podcast looks back at a 1970s erotic magazine for women

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

"Stiffed" is a new podcast series that tells the story of the short-lived Viva magazine. It was started in 1973 by Bob Guccione, the publishing magnate behind Penthouse magazine. Viva was one of the first erotica magazines aimed at women and was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Poet Nikki Giovanni and feminist writer Betty Friedan contributed pieces to the magazine, and the current editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, even served as Viva's first fashion editor. So how did a progressive and promising women's magazine fizzle out, and why? Those are the questions at the heart of the "Stiffed" podcast, and its host, Jennifer Romolini, is here to talk more about it. Welcome.

JENNIFER ROMOLINI: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.

MCCAMMON: So it's a pretty wild story. The head of Penthouse magazine partners with feminists to create a progressive erotica magazine for women in the 1970s. I admit, I'd never heard of this before your podcast. First, how did you even find out about Viva magazine and the larger story to be told about it?

ROMOLINI: So I was working in women's magazines in the aughts. I was an editor at several different Conde Nast magazines. And one of them, Lucky magazine - I wrote a column called eBay Obsessed, where I wrote about eBay shopping. And I came across an issue of Viva, and I immediately was struck by it. It's such a cool-looking - it's gorgeously designed. You know, so I bid on it and I won a first issue of it. It was from 1974. And I was just so surprised by it. It looked like nothing I had ever seen. It was like entering a portal into a different world and a different time, and I really wanted to know everything I could about it.

And so I started collecting the issues of the magazine, and once I really got into the story, I was like - how is this going on? There's these full frontal male nudes next to in-depth profiles of people like Maya Angelou along - you know, alongside all of these boundary-pushing, very progressive stories about, you know, abortion and politics and desire and work and ambition. And it's just such a rich story, and I really wanted to get to the bottom of how it came to be.

MCCAMMON: Was there, like, one thing you saw in that first Viva magazine that you got that made your jaw kind of drop and made you go, oh, my gosh, what is this?

ROMOLINI: They had put together a feminist symposium with, you know, the biggest name second-wave feminist at the time. Betty Friedan was featured in it. And you turn the page, and next to it is a feature called Crotch Watching, which was just this horrible, hokey - just, like, almost, like, a parody of a female desire. And I just didn't understand how these two things could exist in one magazine 'cause it was so smart on one side and so sort of clumsy on the other.

MCCAMMON: One of the key figures in the podcast and the Viva enterprise in general is Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine. Tell us about him. Why is he so important to this story?

ROMOLINI: Bob Guccione in 1973 is just off the success of Penthouse magazine, which was one of the most successful magazine launches of all time and still is to this day. And, you know, he was a caricature, in a lot of ways, of '70s masculinity. He was, you know, machismo. He thought only he knew best. He's Italian American. Shirt's unbuttoned to his navel. Gold chain. He's, like, everything you think of, like, a disco man, right? But at the same time, he's super progressive and forward thinking, and he did hire tons of women. Most all of the executives in his company were women at the highest level. He paid them really well. So while he was clumsy and maybe not the best boss in terms of not being very reasonable - we've all had this kind of boss; he's not listening to your opinions, he's not listening to what - you know, what you know - he also did give them opportunities, and even the fact that he launched Viva is, you know - was very progressive for the time.

MCCAMMON: So what did you learn about how that juxtaposition you described a moment ago between, you know, the really serious feminist think pieces and, you know, the Crotch Watch pictures - how did that happen? And how much was Bob Guccione responsible for that sort of, I guess, incongruity within the magazine?

ROMOLINI: Well, the erotica in Viva was always a man's idea of what a woman wanted. He was an artist at heart, and he had wanted to be a classical painter. I mean, he's such a fascinating figure to me. He was not a pure villain, which is what I think makes this story really, really compelling. And he wanted to control all of the art in his magazines. So all of the erotica in Viva is through a male lens. So the women were just often, like - I don't like looking at this. I don't know any woman who likes looking at this, you know? But at the same time, you know, they said, you know, Bob would call you honey, but he'd make you editor-in-chief.

MCCAMMON: You mention - you interviewed several of these women - and they're mostly in their 70s now - who were involved in the creation of Viva. What was it like to talk with them after all these years?

ROMOLINI: So a lot of my work has been about women and work and ambition and, you know, professional desire. And what I really found - what was so interesting is talking to women in their 70s and 80s - some of the women were in their 80s - what do we remember about our careers? And for them, you know, they remembered the collaboration. They remembered their big successes. They didn't remember the bad stuff so much, you know? I think fulfilling their professional desires was more what this magazine was about than anything about sexual desire, even though that's how people remember it.

MCCAMMON: You know, you mentioned that some of them were uncomfortable talking about their own sexuality, at least at the time that they were working on Viva, and that made creating an erotica magazine challenging, at times. What was the source of their discomfort? Like, was it the society around them or was it something else?

ROMOLINI: I think that the sexual revolution of the '70s - I think we think about it as much more liberating for women than it actually was. You know, there was all this pressure to get hip and get sexy. You know, there was a term that The New York Times coined at the time - porno chic. And there was all these sexual freedoms, but there weren't many sexual protections. And I think that women were just sort of put into this world without really knowing how to navigate it. And there was nobody really telling them how to navigate it.

And I also think there's still a lot of shame around sexuality, you know? I would interview women for this podcast, and they would tell me stories about - you know, let's say their love lives at the time or how they felt about sex. And then at the end of the interview, they'd say, oh, God, could we cut that, please? Oh, God, I don't want my kids to hear that. You know, we still live in a society that's very oppressed today, and it was even then. I think the sexual revolution was a very confusing time for women, and it wasn't very revolutionary for women. It might have been for men, but it was not for women.

MCCAMMON: And of course, you're still releasing episodes. What else can we expect?

ROMOLINI: What's coming out soon is our Anna Wintour episode because Anna Wintour - fun fact - was a fashion editor at Viva. This was where Anna Wintour really got her start, was Viva magazine. And not many people know that. And it was very interesting to sort of track down the photographers who had worked with her, to talk to the editors who had worked with her, you know, just having this icon, this fashion icon and looking at where her beginnings were - I sort of loved that, too.

MCCAMMON: That's Jennifer Romolini. Her podcast "Stiffed" is out now. Jennifer, thanks so much for joining us.

ROMOLINI: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.