Ah, the 1970s: flared jeans, free love, body hair … and the male centrefold.
It was 1972 and Ita Buttrose was appointed to edit a new magazine for women. Kerry Packer had missed out on the rights to Cosmopolitan and, ever competitive, wanted to stiff his rival immediately. They called the new mag Cleo (short for Cleopatra) and decided to copy American Cosmo, which had recently run a naked centrefold of Bert Reynolds.
But making that happen was no easy task.
“I’d have lots of men jokingly tell me they’d love to be a centrefold, but when push came to shove they’d pull out,” Ita said.
The Cleo team became so desperate that one day a fashion editor in a taxi saw a “good sort” on the street, asked the driver to stop and grabbed the guy to ask if he’d pose nude. “He nearly fainted. No one was safe.”
Actor Jack Thompson eventually agreed, but still things didn’t run to plan. The crew set up at the beach, but Jack didn’t turn up: he was at home, asleep, with a roaring hangover.
Then, finally, a breakthrough. As they all had coffee next to an art shop while Jack got himself together, they saw a Titian painting. Jack was posed as Venus in the classic Venus of Urbino painting. “The women of Australia loved it,” Ita said.
But soon, there were problems. Ita had to front the Queensland Literature Board of Review, then staffed by some very serious, very middle-aged people, and explain the centrefold’s extraordinary inclusion.
“They put a gold brick in front of his hand, despite the fact he had his hand over his business”.
(Here, the brick is black ….)
Ita thought the nude was a one-off, but Kerry Packer had other ideas. He walked into Cleo’s story conference: “Who’s the centrefold next month? You have to keep it.”
It was even harder to get a second bloke to pose, and Ita fielded refusal after refusal. “I asked Mike Willesee once. He blushed, went bright red.”
Eventually, though, Aussie men adapted and the nudes became a groundbreaking – if somewhat infamous – institution.
Click through the gallery below for more of CLEO’s centrefolds. Post continues after gallery.
“It was the symbol of popular feminism and women of Australia adored it,” Ita says. “They pinned it up on walls, on lockers, everywhere.”
But the shots could never be done today, Ita believes.
“Frankly, it was a nicer time,” she said. “We didn’t have the endless outrage that we have now … it was a fun thing.
“We had men dancing in the nuddie, an actor in a river. We went to to a lot of trouble to be artistic, creative but always fun”.
The centrefolds were influential, and made careers. Jack Thompson told Ita being Mate of the Month changed his life.
“Before, he was given rugged, he-man roles. After, he was given a romantic lead and a far greater range. He was seen, and cast, in a different light”.
Ita’s favourite centrefold was an entire band, nude, with instruments strategically placed. But she almost scored an entire football team after speaking at a West Wollongong club. She offered them $500 – a lot of money then.
“They were happy and they were keen. We were having a drink, talking out how we’d use towels to cover them. I went home.
“But all hell broke hell in Wollongong. The wives were cranky, and a bloke was nearly sacked … so that one never happened.”
ACP was a conservative company. Ita and her female staff were not allowed to wear pants or boots to work – Sir Frank thought them unfeminine. When Katrina Lee wore hot pants one day, he very nearly had a fit.
But Cleo broke the mold with articles on sex, rape, lust, sex toys and pleasure. It was a product of its time – but a delicate balance.
“Women were changing, and middle class women were embracing liberation, but you had to know how far you could go, what was acceptable. What we did at the time broke new ground. We were feminine feminists – we enjoyed men, we wanted kids. We were strong about our beliefs passionate about education and girls”.
The centrefold lasted until 1985, when then-editor (now Today presenter) Lisa Wilkinson decided it was past its time. The last nude poser was Mel Gibson.
The centrefold went the way of body hair and big moustaches.
But their role in publishing, popular feminism and breaking down barriers lives on.