Penthouse Goes Upscale in March, But Can Anyone Beat the Internet?

What’s the difference between a skin magazine with articles for men and a men’s magazine with scantily clad women? Penthouse

What’s the difference between a skin magazine with articles for men and a men’s magazine with scantily clad women? Penthouse is “closer to the act … of actual seduction.”

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“I was the guy at GQ who would bring up the kind of off-color, most graphic and sexually explicit story ideas in a meeting,” said Mark Healy, editor in chief of Penthouse.

Mr. Healy, most recently articles editor at GQ, left the Condé Nast building this past October, taking over the renowned flesh magazine, launched four decades earlier by Bob Guccione.

Despite flying high in the 1970’s and 80’s, Mr. Guccione’s media empire crumbled during the Internet age, resulting in bankruptcy in 2003. Now, Penthouse Media Group, the magazine’s new owners, are shifting aggressively in a more youthful direction.

On Feb. 12, Mr. Healy was seated in his 11th-floor office, a day before the March issue of Penthouse, his first as editor, would arrive on the newsstands. Mr. Healy’s style is clearly more GQ than sleazy smut peddler: The 38-year-old editor was smartly dressed in a pinstripe blue suit, with a bright lime-green tie and round-framed brown glasses.

“When you think about the sex magazines, none of them are run by young men,” said Mr. Healy. Indeed, the genre’s progenitors are getting up there: Hugh Hefner (80), Bob Guccione (76) and Larry Flynt (64).

But Mr. Healy said that he hadn’t expected to join such illustrious (and notorious?) company. He said he hadn’t opened a Penthouse in about 10 years before considering the top job there.

Last year, GQ’s copy chief, who had previously worked at Penthouse and remained in touch with Peter Bloch, vice president of the Penthouse Media Group, had recommended him. (Mr. Bloch had also been friends with Art Cooper, the late GQ editor who hired Mr. Healy, and also edited Penthouse briefly in the 1970’s).

“Anybody can put out a magazine with sexy images, but can you lure a new kind of reader to that publication?” asked Jim Nelson, GQ’s editor in chief. “If anyone can, I think that Mark can.”

“I’ll bet you that they’re trying to skew it as young as possible,” said Tom Hymes, publisher of XBiz magazine, an adult-industry publication. They’re “going for that all-powerful 20’s lifestyle demographic, and trying to make it as hip and sexy, without being too offensive.”

Although he admitted that was partially true, Mr. Healy said he doesn’t want to create another Maxim or Stuff. Most lad magazines, he said, are “sex-obsessed in a more sophomoric way,” while Penthouse has always been “closer to the act, and closer to the feeling, of actual seduction.”

These days, Mr. Healy keeps Fleshbot—Gawker Media’s porn blog—bookmarked, and he is certainly aware that countless photos and videos of naked women can be found with the click of a mouse.

“You can’t compete with the pure content you find on the Internet,” said Mr. Hymes. “So you have to go substance over fluff.”

And that’s what Mr. Healy is trying to do.

“When you looked at a Penthouse pictorial back in the day, they would tell a story,” said Mr. Healy. “It had an arc; it slowly revealed itself. It wasn’t just putting women on display. You also had the sense of being there, that sex is more complicated than ‘There’s this hot girl next-door.’”

In the March issue, Mr. Healy commissioned a 10-page pictorial “based on a Hollywood starlet shot by the paparazzi,” which he considers “NC-17 Us Weekly.”

In addition to the full nude spreads, the new issue includes features that wouldn’t be out of place in other men’s magazines: a profile of ex–Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry, the Lotus sports car, a Q&A with Brit rockers Bloc Party, and a feature on the history of snowboarding.

Slightly more highbrow is an interview with John Currin, a postmodern painter of nudes, in Penthouse’s “Hard News” section.

Although the forthcoming April cover features Dita von Teese, retro-burlesque queen and former girlfriend of Marilyn Manson, Mr. Healy said he is “not interested in chasing celebrities.”

Mr. Healy said that his wife has taken the new job in stride. As for his two young daughters, he said, “I don’t think I’ll be wanting to do this job when they’re 17.”

And Mr. Healy also destroyed a long-running myth about whether the Penthouse Forum letters are real or fake—which he didn’t know before taking over.

Following the interview, the editor produced a stack of handwritten letters detailing the sexual activities (or, more likely, fantasies) of his new readers.

Penthouse Goes Upscale in March, But Can Anyone Beat the Internet?