What if you liked Playboy so much, you set out to review every issue on YouTube? How long would it take? And what would you discover? Early on in the pandemic, Mark Thomas, a 38-year-old Brit who works in property management, launched Playboy Review, a YouTube channel dedicated to his reviewing every issue of the legendary magazine launched by Hugh Hefner. Almost 300 videos and nearly 2 million views later, he’s well down the rabbit hole. According to Thomas, Playboy is “underrated” and “overlooked,” and there’s more we can learn from it than one might think. Here, he reveals the impetus behind his project, why Playboy’s history matters, and how long he thinks it’ll take him to review all those Playboys.
[Warning: Clicking on links in this article could lead you to NSFW content]
Susannah Breslin: How did you come up with the idea for Playboy Review?
Mark Thomas: At the beginning of the lockdown in June 2020, we were all sent home from work. Our company owner had explained that until further notice I would be the only person in my department working from home. The first few days of that lockdown were quite odd, as I wasn’t sure how things were going play out. Like most people, I didn’t know whether it was going to be a temporary working solution or whether this was the future. After around five days of being at home, I realized that my day-to-day work wasn’t going to be as busy, and I began thinking about the things that I had been wanting to do but didn’t have the time to do in a really focused way. On the first day of the lockdown I remember saying to my wife that whatever happened in the coming months, it was a chance to do things that we had been putting off, and there was a slight fear that we may have to evolve very quickly into another income stream. I began looking at older projects, including a brand of collectibles called PocketHeads that I had designed and manufactured under license from Lucasfilm.
While going through that project, I began thinking about my mindset in 2010, when I was in the early stages of making those products. Looking at entrepreneurs and their attitude towards business development, I read that Hugh Hefner had started Playboy from home with a loan from his family after quitting Esquire due to being denied a pay raise. At this time I, of course, knew who Hugh Hefner was, and I knew Playboy, but I didn’t really understand what he and the magazine were about. I was more interested in how he had built his empire. That led me to reading further into Hefner; perhaps there was a piece of advice that may help me. I started with his biography and other books published by Playboy. I began to see hints that this wasn’t a “porno” magazine in the conventional sense. It was presented as a guide to the “good life.” As I went down the Playboy rabbit hole, I began to be introduced to concepts, ideas, artists, musicians, cartoons, pinup style art, and writers that I had never heard of—people who went on to do really amazing things in their careers after they were featured in Playboy. From the first issue, there’s also a strong set of ideals around equality and freedom that’s incredibly appealing.
I looked online to see whether anyone had reviewed Playboy magazines. I was expecting to see dozens of results. I thought a celebrity or some other commentator would have at least dived into some of the important issues. I couldn’t find anything, so I began thinking about doing it myself. At this point I didn’t have a YouTube channel, but I did have a webcam, a microphone, a reproduction issue of the first issue of Playboy, and plenty of time for the next few months. I labelled the project #playboyreview, and I began working through the issues.
Breslin: In your first video, you describe Playboy as “underrated” and “overlooked,” and you opine that we can “learn a lot from it.” Can you talk about that?
Thomas: One thing I find really odd in today’s world is that if you mention Playboy or Hefner, you probably won’t be taken seriously. There’s a stigma attached to the magazine and its creator, which I believe comes from the puritanical movements that tried for decades to bring the magazine and Hefner down. Some of the reputation damage was actually self-harm, as Playboy tried to compete with the 70s pornography boom. The odd thing is that people in today’s world are exposed to more sexual imagery and pornography than ever before, and they don’t really mind it. They are accustomed to Pornhub, OnlyFans, and near nudity on Instagram. They’ll happily watch amateur pornstars on TikTok doing provocative things to lead people into finding their more explicit paid for content. But mention Playboy, and they suddenly become a Victorian. Yes, Playboy became pornographic, and I say became because from the 50s into the late 60s I would classify the content as more erotic than pornographic. The 50s issues in particular carried more of a romantic eroticism, in my opinion. People today also believe that they are progressive, but they don’t understand everything they are enjoying and talking about today was actually confronted in Playboy, and for a long time Playboy did it very well.
Playboy was about freedom: the freedom to publish content that others may not like, the freedom to interview people that society doesn’t like, and the freedom to say things that other people don’t want to hear. It was a magazine for equality; it was a magazine for environmentalism and spirituality. It took on government corruption and censorship. (The U.S. Postal Service refused to deliver the magazine at one point, and Hefner had to sue them and won). It was self critical, hosting regular debates with people from all political spectrums competing to voice their ideals. It even featured feminists like Germaine Greer who were given time to criticize Playboy. In my opinion, Playboy has many of the things that we’re beginning to lose, in particular the ability to think critically and to even consider alternate opinions. Real social progressivism and sexual freedom. The idea that adults should be free to make choices, and most of all the idea that ever encroaching government control isn’t the solution to our problems. I believe we actually need a new Playboy, and over the last few months I’ve been working on my own magazine, called TEN NINE, which takes the classic Playboy concept and adapts it to confront the world we now live in.
Breslin: How many Playboy Review videos have you done so far?
Thomas: As of January 2023, I’m just recording video #271, which is a review of the July 1976 issue. The early videos were longer than they are today, mainly because of people’s attention spans. I generally summarize features in the magazine in the hope that people will see something that they like and venture into their own Playboy rabbit hole. I record my videos at midnight, when the house is quiet, and it takes around 90 minutes to record, slightly edit, and then render the videos for YouTube. I always include important items from the contents in the video description, and I use the same template for each thumbnail with just a change of cover and magazine number. Some thumbnails have to be blurred, as YouTube will give me a strike for any nudity. I have only one strike [from YouTube] from when I forgot to censor a small area of breast that was featured in a New Year’s issue cover.
Breslin: How popular is your project?
Thomas: I have 6,300 subscribers. In the last 90 days, my subscriber count doubled due to what I think was the YouTube algorithm picking up on a celebrity name that appeared in one of my titles, bringing in tens of thousands of more viewers. On average, I get around 3,000 views a day, but in the last 90 days there was a peak period where I was getting 100,000 views a day. These aren’t massive numbers for YouTube, but I am finding that there is an increasing interest in the magazine. The people who comment and message me directly are incredibly friendly. I have a great audience with no trolling. That may be because 70% of my current audience is over 55, and generally they are visiting to reminisce about their days reading Playboy.
Breslin: Has there been any push back from YouTube regarding the fact that the videos feature the contents of the magazine, which features nude women?
Thomas: When I started Playboy Review, I was actually expecting it to be taken down. I thought I was going to have a monumental task of censoring each page of nudity in every video, which I don’t think would have been feasible. I was committed to showing every page, as even the adverts show the evolution of the magazine. The videos are all 18+ rated, which means you need to be logged into YouTube to view them. I’ve never been contacted by YouTube in relation to the content, so I’m assuming some lovely person at YouTube watched the video and considered it to be a genuine pursuit of documenting rather than just a show of explicit material.
Breslin: Is Playboy aware of Playboy Review?
Thomas: I’m not sure if Playboy is aware of my channel. I have always feared receiving a takedown notice or some other letter telling me to stop what I’m doing. If anyone from Playboy does read this, I hope they understand that I really appreciate the magazine and its history. In my videos I regularly mention the Playboy archive, which can be accessed by subscription, as I don’t want to take anything away from the company itself. I believe Playboy has just launched a show on Audible with the famous Playboy interviews. I’ve had several people contact me who have relatives that were Playmates, many of them checking in to tell me that the [Playmates] are alive and well. I’ve had interesting people message me privately with stories, some letting me know that they worked in the mansion with Hef but never disclosing too much as Hef had looked after them very well and they felt a loyalty to keep certain things private. I recently had an ex-publisher contact me as they were contemplating trying to buy the Playboy brand as a whole so that they could re-launch the magazine.
Breslin: What do you think of Playboy no longer publishing a print magazine?
Thomas: I was really disappointed when Playboy announced that it was changing to a digital quarterly magazine. This was announced at the start of the pandemic, and it felt like the end of an era. They must have thought it was going to be impossible to coordinate guests and resources for publication. I had always hoped that either a member of the Hefner family, like [Hefner’s sons] Marston or Cooper, was going to step up into the role of bringing it back. Christie Hefner had some success when she took over Hef’s role, but it was short lived. I think Playboy will now continue down the licensing path, particularly in the Middle East and Asia where the Bunny logo actually seems to carry some prestige, whereas in the Western markets it died long ago, apart from in some small collaborations with Supreme and other brands. For me there’s still something really nice about having a physical magazine or book. I only read with physical copies, and I haven’t touched my Kindle for a few years. I believe there’s still a market for print magazines, but it requires a different kind of model to work, and I have ideas on how to do it. At the moment I’m working on my own magazine, which I can only really describe as a throwback to the 50s and early 60s magazines. I want to create something with an air of freedom and excitement for the future. I want to honor the great artworks that appeared in Playboy, and I want to capture that “girl next door” feeling. I like the idea of bringing back the romantic imagery that featured in early Playboy. There won’t be any pornography in TEN NINE because I don’t think I can complete with modern pornography, and I don’t think I really want to.
Breslin: What’s your favorite issue of Playboy?
Thomas: I would struggle to choose a favorite issue. There are some that I go back to regularly, particularly those with great covers, but I particularly like the issues that feature artworks from Jack Cole and Edmond Kiraz. Unfortunately, Cole committed suicide at a young age, so we only get cartoons from him until the early 60s. There are also a few issues with great sci-fi writers, like Arthur C. Clarke, and the philosopher Alan Watts makes an appearance on a few occasions. In terms of covers, I like the playfulness of the 1950s covers. For some reason I really like July 1970 and November 1967. There are some truly iconic issues through the years and quite a few from the 1980s, which I’m looking forward to reviewing. One issue that I always keep on hand is the special tribute issue to Hugh Hefner. It has great imagery from the peak Playboy years with written tributes from Bill Maher, Jesse Jackson, Larry King, Cindy Crawford, Kim Basinger, and Art Paul, the genius art editor who served for decades, among others.
Breslin: Have you monetized your project?
Thomas: As my videos are 18+, they are not monetizable. From the outset I made an early promise to my first viewers not to feature adverts on my videos, but I couldn’t guarantee that YouTube wouldn’t run them anyway. I like the idea of somebody sitting down uninterrupted without distraction to see the contents of the magazines. I think that’s why I like physical print so much more, because you can take yourself away from the screen and actually sit down and enjoy it. When you read a physical book or magazine, I think you take the time to actually get comfortable to do it. I have a small subscription option on my channel with a couple of people donating monthly. It’s not much, but people like to say thanks with a little tip. I would love to monetize it in some other way, but at present I’m just enjoying the process and working on my own magazine, which I hope will evolve into something profitable.
Breslin: When do you expect to finish Playboy Review?
Thomas: I am expecting it to take around five to six years to review every magazine up until the point they stopped printing. I have ideas for other videos focusing on particular sections of content—I want to deep dive on particular articles, Playmates, stories and events—so it’s likely that even when every magazine has been reviewed, I will be producing more content around Playboy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.