Sunlight from a large hotel window casts a warm glow on Natalie's lithe, nude body. She slowly crosses her arms over her chest. Facing the window, she leans her head back, letting her chestnut brown hair fall on her bare, tan shoulders, exuding a sense of young-girl innocence.
"Yeah, that's nice," says Kim, standing near the bed. "Ready, Phoebe?" The blond-haired Phoebe emerges from the bathroom wearing a robe and white high heel shoes.
"It's fun being naked," Natalie says to Phoebe. Both girls start to giggle.
"Top off?" Kim asks.
"Yeah," says Phoebe.
"Yeah," she answers.
Phoebe strolls past Kim to where Natalie is standing. She pulls back her hair and removes the robe, revealing a tanned, toned figure. Light glints off her sheet-flat stomach from a belly button piercing. Natalie and Phoebe giggle again as their bodies touch.
The scene is playing out almost like the opening segment of Girls Gone Wild. But there'll be no make-out session and lame pillow fight here. This isn't destined to become jumpy video of moronic, drunk junior-college girls in a Holiday Inn. This is serious photography, and these nubile -- and quite sober -- young ladies attend the prestigious Rice University. They are stripping down for Playboy.
The news is all around town: Playboy's here, auditioning for the "Girls of Conference USA" collegiate edition that comes out next May. Hopefuls must be at least 18 years old and either full- or part-time students at Rice University or the University of Houston. They have to produce two forms of I.D. -- one proving their age, the other certifying their enrollment. Girls who make the cut are paid for their time. (The Playboy folks are very tight-lipped about compensation, saying only that it "varies" and is "in the hundreds.") Playboy photographer Kim Mizuno, who's overseeing the two-week auditions, is expecting a big turnout, as the collegiate issues have been wildly successful for both the magazine and the student models. [Playboy Playmate Kim Holland, who hails from Humble and is a UH graduate, first appeared in a college-girls edition.]
"The college-girl issues are very different from regular issues," says Mizuno. At a regular Playboy cattle call audition in Los Angeles, the majority of women who show up are looking to make modeling a career. But at the college auditions, "For most of the girls who come out, it's a one-time deal," he says. "They're not going to Rice or UH to become Playboy models." These girls are fresh-faced amateurs, most of whom don't know how to pose correctly or smile without looking frozen. But a few simple instructions, and they suddenly transform into every college guy's dream.
Eighteen-year-old Natalie and 19-year-old Phoebe (who both prefer not to use their real names) are happy to shatter the notion that Rice girls are homely. (A recent survey on CollegeProwler.com gave the girls at Rice a C-plus.) The pair, who are roommates at Rice, arrived here not an hour ago at the Governor's Suite at the Renaissance Hotel looking for "some lady named Kim" to photograph them. Linda Kenney, who handles the wardrobe, hair and makeup, sat them on a cushy couch underneath a large white Playboy banner and handed them a questionnaire. As Natalie and Phoebe filled out the form, which asks for such details as bust size, waist size and hobbies, they met Kim Mizuno, who's actually a stocky, friendly guy. Then Mizuno explained the options: Girls can pose clothed, with implied nudity, topless or nude.
The shoot goes fast: Natalie and Phoebe change into robes, undress and then pose in a bedroom of the suite as Mizuno directs them: "Move your butt up. Turn your hips. Relax and smile. Perfect." Natalie and Phoebe are very clear on the difference between implied nudity, which they've chosen, and being topless -- even though they both disrobed for the shots. "I took my clothes off, but I didn't show anything," says Natalie. The girls later get the verdict: Phoebe -- who's never even opened a Playboy, has made the first cut; Natalie hasn't. Phoebe's happy that she received 500 dollars for the shoot; her parents are just happy she's changed her name for her magazine spread.
As the final day of Rice auditions winds down, Evelyn, tall with long, flowing brown hair, strolls in wearing a form-fitting white dress. The 18-year-old Korean American from New Jersey has brought her friend Tara, also from New Jersey. As Evelyn fills out the paperwork, she's asked if her parents know she's here. "No, and they won't either," she says, almost dismissively. "My parents live in this really close-knit Korean community in New Jersey." When it's brought up that Playboy is online and, thus, pretty much anyone can find out about anything, she looks as if the thought has never occurred to her. She thinks for a moment. "Whatever," she says, "I don't really care."
But Tara, the tall brunette who has come with Evelyn, does care, and makes it clear to everyone in the room that she's only here for her friend. "My mom's a prominent figure at Merrill Lynch and so's my dad -- he's a big corporate executive," she says, "and morally, I don't think it would reflect well on my family or how I've been brought up." As she flips uncomfortably through a Playboy mag, she admits that she had signed up to audition but quickly changed her mind. "I'm like, really close to my younger brother," she says, "and God forbid he would ever see this when he grew up or something awful like that. He looks up to me and respects me and I just think that this is kind of degrading."
At this, Evelyn looks up at her. Tara smiles at her friend: "But it's okay, I'm here to support you."
The turnout for Rice was low, but Mizuno's happy with the number of applicants from UH who show up a week later. The suite is filled with girls of African-American and Asian descent. "This is the minority suite!" he jokes to them.
Tall, busty and leggy, Nicole, a 25-year-old African-American student, is easy on the eyes -- and the camera -- with her caramel-colored skin and Halle Berry hairdo. An education major who calls herself "thick," Nicole came here at the prompting of her boyfriend. She prepared by jumping on the Playboy site and practicing the poses described on a how-to page. "Guys are attracted to a variety of girls, and having curves is a good thing now, thanks to Beyonc and Jennifer Lopez, so that would be good to have in Playboy." (Nicole doesn't make the cut.)
And then there's the bubbly Amy, who's here because Mizuno, who thinks she has potential, has called her in for a follow-up shoot. While other girls are here almost on a dare, for Amy this is a dream come true. "I've wanted to be in Playboy since I was five years old and found my dad's magazines," says the tall, blond, blue-eyed UH business major. "I know that seems so clich, but that's how it was. And then when I got older, I'd see Playboy in convenience stores, and I'd be like, 'Wow!'" Rolling her eyes at implied nudity, Amy had no problem baring it all for the audition. Why go nude? "It's Playboy," she says with a "well, duh" expression. "You go big or go home." Originally from San Diego, Amy grew up in Houston telling everyone who'd listen that her dream was to be in Hef's glossy pages. "I've been telling my mom that I was gonna be in it since I was 14," she says. "My sorority even voted me 'Most Likely to Be in Playboy.'" Of course, that was a year ago, and Amy's since left Zeta Tau Alpha. "I think they frown pretty heavily on stuff like this," she says with a laugh. "I hear I'm gonna be 'Form Fiftyd' -- I'm exiled for life."
Not that Amy needs their approval. She's taking 18 hours in business school and works five days a week as a waitress -- or as she says, "an intoxicologist" -- at Pub Fiction. And besides, being a Playmate is all the prestige she needs. "Doing this is basically the 'beautiful award.' It's such a huge thing to be in Playboy. So many girls want to be in it. You're chosen over thousands and thousands of other girls. You have your month and your year, and they're yours forever. And that's my ultimate goal."
It's the day of Amy's big shoot. She's made the final cut, and only a staunch team of editors in Chicago stands between her and Playboy. She's been told by Mizuno and Kenney that she'll be in a sexy schoolgirl outfit, and she (and her boyfriend Casey, an ardent supporter) is thrilled. "I was thinking, 'What if they put me in cowboy chaps or something? I don't think I'm going to be cool with that,'" she says. "I was worried that if they didn't put me in something sexy, I wouldn't be able to portray it in the pictures. But the sexy schoolgirl? All right, I can rock that."
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Her instructions are to show up at the secret shoot location with her schoolbooks and with no makeup on and her hair free of product. "I'm in constant fear that I'll forget to bring something they told me to bring. I'm more nervous than I thought I was going to be. These are the pictures." And now, after coming so close, the thought of not making Playboy is much more real.
"Of course, I'll be disappointed if they cut me," she says. "But it wouldn't kill me. I got to audition and dress up for a photo shoot. And anyway, down the road, my goal is to move to the West Coast after college, maybe work in real estate and have an extremely happy marriage and have beautiful babies."
True, but her goal right now is to land the college shoot and one day don the bunny outfit and hang out with Hefner at the mansion. And if she does, she says with a laugh, "I'll have to thank my dad."