Hefner created the magazine industry as we know it, says Wordfest CEO Shelley Youngblut

Wordfest CEO Shelley Youngblut talks about the prominent role that Hugh Hefner played in shaping the magazine industry, at a time when magazines ruled the media landscape.

Underneath the smoking jacket, Hugh Hefner was a true American innovator

Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, pictured here in the 1970s, promoted a culture that was diverse and inclusive, says Wordfest CEO Shelley Youngblut. ((TIFF))

Hugh Hefner was a true American original, says a Calgary media expert whose own career was hugely influenced by the iconic publisher, who died Wednesday at the age of 91.

Shelley Youngblut, the CEO of WordFest, spoke to David Gray on The Calgary Eyeopener Thursday about the outsized influence Hefner played in creating Playboy Magazine.

"He invented the magazine world," she said. "He was that iconic editor-in-chief. He was the first to understand the power of brand."

The iconic bunny

"Everybody says now that Nike, Coke and the Playboy rabbit are the most powerful, symbolic brands in the eyes of people all over the world. He had a jet called the Big Bunny. He had a mansion. He had the Playboy clubs. He had television and Playboy After Dark. And he put out a magazine that, at one point, seven million people read."

Wordfest CEO Shelley Youngblut says the late Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday, was a huge influence in the creation of Calgary's Swerve Magazine, of which she was the founding editor. (Wordfest)

A defining influence

Youngblut acknowledged there was a darker side to the Playboy founder's editorial content — but that it had a defining influence on her as a young girl, growing up in Calgary, nevertheless.

"I have to admit here: I'm a woman, there's tremendous sexism and misogyny in them, but for whatever reason, when I was 10 years old, and they were left in the bathroom by my father, they just expanded my world," she said.

"They never bothered me, which probably shows how innocent or oblivious I was as a woman .

"I just felt like, oh my god, there's this rich, amazing, fun, delightful, magical, slightly scary but kind of cool world that I wanted to be a part of — and it was all encapsulated in the magazine format."

The Playboy logo is seen at a party in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2007. Playboy, founded by Hugh Hefner, was one of the first brands to really understand and exploit the power of a brand, says Calgary media expert Shelley Youngblut. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

The death of the magazine industry

Youngblut said that in the 1970s, Playboy set a cultural agenda that was diverse, inclusive, eclectic and fascinating.

"[They put forward] this idea that it was this world where athletes and actors and intellectuals and comedians could all be together in a jazz club.

"There's something to me that's so romantic about that period in the '70s and [that's during a period when] the magazine is sort of the defining medium of that time," she said.

Forty years later, Hef is gone, and so are the glory days of the magazine industry.

"The thing that's so sad for me, in addition to Hef's death … is that this medium he created and pioneered and was so special is so diminished.

"I mean, the magazine  industry is dead. And its great innovator has died along with it now."

Influenced creation of Swerve

Youngblut, who worked for various magazines in the 1990s, including ESPN: The Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Entertainment Weekly and Western Living, says that Playboy played a huge role in her ideas about Swerve magazine, which she was the founding editor of when it launched in November 2004.

"One of the great delights of my teen years was that he always embedded the shape of a Playboy Bunny in every single Playboy cover and you were supposed to go and try to find the rabbit … and it was always just so playful.

"I had this idea that never really came to pass, that I wanted the cover of Swerve, every issue, just to have that sense of delight and playfulness and that there would be something meaningful in it. That it just wouldn't be an image with type stuck on it."

She added that Playboy frequently ran incredibly long features, or interviews that could run to 10,000 words — unheard of lengths today — which also inspired her commitment to Swerve readers.

"We ran a 14-page cover story," she said. "He just gave me the bravado to believe that readers cared about quality. That they would come along this fabulous ride with you.

"So yeah, Hugh Hefner inspired Swerve magazine."

A loyal and dedicated boss

Hef's later years were dominated by images of him escorting an entourage of young, blond bunnies. But beyond that, Youngblut says, judging from what she's read about him, Hefner was a pretty good guy to work for.

"A lot of his employees were female, and a lot of them were with him 30, 40, 50, 60 years," she said. "He was a loyal man.

"An innovator," she said. "[And] an incredibly generous ring leader."

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener