Bunny Hop

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.

"Bare butt?"

"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."

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Steven Devadanam
Contact: Steven Devadanam