Marilyn Cole was 21 years old when she became Playboy’s first full-frontal nude centerfold in 1972.
It was a boiling hot set, but the Portsmouth, U.K., native, who was in Chicago where the original Playboy Mansion was located, was selected after making her mark as a Playboy Bunny in London. For the shoot, the model stood against a bookshelf and a fireplace as she held a book in her birthday suit.
Cole recalled that life-changing photograph in a new podcast titled “Power: Hugh Hefner,” which dives into the complicated legacy of the magazine publisher who passed away in 2017 at age 91. Hosted by author Amy Rose Spiegel, it features interviews with several women directly involved with Playboy and former Bunnies, including Holly Madison.
Cole, now 72, spoke to Fox News about going nude for Playboy, what her parents really thought of the daring snap and whether she felt exploited for it.
Fox News: Looking back, what made you want to pose for Playboy?
Marilyn Cole: The money. It was totally about the money. It was about the money being a Bunny. Maybe some of the others had different aspirations, but this was a time when women didn’t earn much money. Many of us didn’t have real careers. It was a way out. And it was lucrative. I was earning like $15 a week. I was paid $5,000 for just one photograph. That was 1972. And I’m still opening fan mail. They’re very polite, respectful letters. They always ask me for my autograph.
Fox News: Where did you get the courage to go full-frontal?
Cole: I thought about it in the sense of, where do you get the courage to do anything much in life? Where do you get the courage to take your clothes off for a man? I know it sounds simplistic. Driving a car sounds simplistic, but I’ve never had the courage to drive a car. I’ve had the courage to take my clothes off. I guess it goes back to the fact that I knew what I was doing. I knew that when I said yes, I would have to take my clothes off. In my mother’s words, “It’s one of those magazines.”
But I didn’t think that I was going to be a centerfold. I was just posing. I didn’t have any props. We didn’t have a hairdresser, makeup artist or stylist. I was just there naked. I already had been topless on the beach, so nudity wasn’t so huge for me. I know Playboy had not gone full-frontal. But when it came to having that courage, it was really about taking that gamble, that risk. And having good instincts. And this was not a sleazy magazine. I wasn’t being set up by some weirdo who’s going to suddenly bring his camera out and ask me to lift my leg or something. It was Playboy, totally legitimate… And I think we were all exhibitionists in the way. You have to be to put on that Bunny outfit and command a room in that costume serving drinks. You wanted to be looked at, or you wouldn’t be doing it.
Fox News: What was your reaction when you saw the pictures for the very first time?
Cole: I had seen a black-and-white test shot and I have to tell you, photographer Alexas Urba was quite sensational. He’s so important to the story.
Fox News: What did your parents think?
Cole: Well, they had mixed feelings. But at the same time, my parents were cool enough and not judgmental. They were always on my side. Even if they disapproved, they would’ve been on my side. This was not a tragedy to have your daughter pose for Playboy. My dad was very proud of that photograph. He took it around to show his mates! He was a very intellectual man and knew about artists, so he felt it was more like a Rubens painting. It’s very classical looking.
Fox News: Your life must have changed overnight after that photo.
Cole: I think my life first changed when I became a Bunny. I was spotted by [Playboy executive] Victor Lownes and he sent me to Chicago. And that’s where I was tested [before the shoot]. By the time the issue came out, I had been working at the London Playboy Club. I started dating Victor and he was very cool. He didn’t ask me out until 10 months after we first met. So my life was already changing. But when the issue came out, it meant more money because I was then chosen to be Playmate of the Year. That meant another $5,000, lots of prizes and more notoriety. Other modeling jobs were offered to me. Good swimwear brands wanted to work with me. I was all over the national press.
Fox News: For years, critics have said that Playboy exploits women. What’s your stance on this?
Cole: It goes back to the money. You know, money means power and independence. I was paid very well… As a Playboy Bunny, we sometimes earned more than some of the men in the room. For me, the Playboy organization showed me respect as a woman. It allowed me to be free in a way that wasn’t common in those days.
Fox News: What surprised you the most about Hugh Hefner after meeting him?
Cole: Well, age comes into it. I was 21 and he would have been 44, 46. He had this boyish manner. I arrived at the mansion from England and naturally, he wanted to show me around. We went through all the quarters and there were photographs everywhere. So I asked him, “What do you do when your mum and dad come here?” I remembered he laughed and said, “Well, I do put some of them away.”
You would have expected him to say he doesn’t. But even then he thought of his parents and wanted to be respectful. I felt he was very easygoing. I didn’t live with him and I never had a deep, meaningful conversation with him. I’m not sure he ever did with women anyway. For him, it was all about having a good time. He lived to entertain people, to please them. I don’t know what would have happened if I had been more serious or demanding.
I don’t think I would have gotten very far, to be honest. I don’t think he was a man who liked confrontation. He was treated like royalty in his own house. And he just wanted to have a good time. I think what ultimately surprised me was seeing this boyish man who managed to create such a successful empire. And Playboy was entirely his vision.
Fox News: What do you hope people will get from your story in the podcast?
Cole: I hope they take it just for what it is. With everything going on in the world concerning the pandemic and politics, I didn’t think anyone would really care that I took my clothes off for a photograph. I’m certainly not diminishing Playboy in any way. But it was all entertainment for me.