Of the many milestones we’ll celebrate this Women’s History Month, here’s one we admittedly found a bit surprising: in the 59 years Playboy magazine has crowned a “Playmate of the Year,” only four have been black women.
The fourth? Playboy Bunny Jordan Emanuel, who is the first black woman (and only the second woman) to make the leap from working in the newly revived Playboy Club (Emanuel in the New York City location), to becoming a “Playmate of the Month” (December 2018), to the coveted Playmate of the Year.
“We are excited to share that Jordan Emanuel has been named our 2019 ‘Playmate of the Year,’ said Playboy in an Instagram post. “Jordan embodies everything we value at Playboy: she advocates for equality and sexual freedom, she speaks out on what she believes in, and she’s committed to lifting up the voices of others.”
Emanuel, a model also crowned Miss Black America New York 2018, follows in some rarified footprints—in the 65 years of the Playboy empire’s existence, there have only been 31 black Playmates of the Month, beginning with the groundbreaking appearance of former Bunny Jennifer Jackson in 1965.
“It was something,” Jackson told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017, “to show the white community that there are some beautiful black women, black people, which was disregarded, we weren’t considered at all. We weren’t a part of Madison Avenue or Hollywood, who set the beauty standards. All you saw in the movies [at the time] was black maids.”
Jackson’s appearance was a game-changer, but it would take until 1971 for Playboy to debut a cover solely featuring a black woman. Though the magazine included black Playmate Jean Bell on a group cover in January 1970, model Darine Stern’s October 1971 solo cover is one of the most iconic in Playboy’s history (in fact, you can still get it on a T-shirt)—as well as a major first for the magazine. Ironically, Stern was never a Playmate.
But “Playmate of the Year” was a title not bestowed upon a black woman until nearly 20 years later. Reneé Tenison ushered Playboy into a new era with her 1990 honor—and proving that black don’t crack, was one of several Playmates to recreate her cover in 2017.
It’s been 29 years since Tenison made her breakthrough, and yet in the decades since, by all appearances, only three other black-identified women have been Playmate of the Year. Tanzanian-Swedish model Ida Ljungqvist took the title in 2009, becoming the 50th Playmate of the Year and first African-born woman to do so.
And who could forget America’s Next Top Model runner-up Eugena Washington, who in 2016 became the first woman granted the title in the magazine’s short-lived post-nude era?
The arrival of Emanuel on the scene coincides with a post-Me Too and Time’s Up era in which not only are we further examining the ways women interact with men, the male gaze, and our own bodies, but also our own agency in making those decisions. Tellingly, Emanuel’s platform is women’s empowerment; she is co-founder of New York City-based nonprofit Women with Voices, “that provides a platform of support, guidance and resources for all women,” according to its Instagram page.
Emanuel’s honor garnered a $10,000 donation from Playboy to her registered 501 (c)(3) foundation. The newly minted Playmate of the Year, who graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in broadcast journalism, wrote her own editorial for the magazine, in which she referenced Playmate predecessor Jackson and talked about the biases black women face—even from each other.
Playboy featured the first black Playmate in March 1965, before the Voting Rights Act bestowed the right to vote on all Americans across our nation. This iconic brand, which displays the most beautifully liberated women, was letting America and the world know that black women were among that group. But America as a whole had yet to even acknowledge black people as equals. So for me to reach this accomplishment now—when, according to a 2018 NPR piece, black women are among the least desirable to date; when people continue to behave as if we are good enough to sleep with but not to go out with; that we are side chicks and not wives; that we are fetishes and not humans with feelings; that our melanin makes us less attractive—is an honor I will forever hold close to my heart, not just for myself but for all the other black girls who are left to question their beauty. ...
But my intelligence was called into question when Playboy revealed that I was the December 2018 Playmate and I was told by another woman that I was less intelligent because I had used my body to make money. I was taken aback. It was a response I wasn’t anticipating, as I didn’t see the correlation between nudity and education.
And for those who question whether a Playmate can be a role model, Emanuel directly addresses the naysayers, revealing struggles with anxiety and depression which led her to found Women with Voices, and affirming her right to self-define and represent herself as she sees fit.
“‘How is being nude empowering? How can little girls look up to you?’ My answer: I empower myself and others by using Women With Voices, Playboy and any other outlet to encourage people to unite, learn and follow what they know is true to their heart, because I am a woman with a voice,” Emanuel writes. “I am a woman who is proud of her body, her sexuality, her mind, her capacity for compassion.”
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)