Great Scott

After years of struggling with his sexuality, Playgirl centerfold Scott Merritt is coming all the way out. To his surprise, so is Playgirl

BY Michael Rowe

August 05 2003 12:00 AM ET

Scott Merritt,
Playgirl’s 30th-anniversary centerfold,
is sitting in the bar of Toronto’s Sutton Place Hotel
remembering life on the other side of the closet door.
“It’s taken me a while to get to this
point,” Merritt sighs, “but I’m gay.
It’s time to live truthfully. I’ve
always been gay, and I’m done playing the part of a
straight man in any context at all—in photographs or
in life. The road to this point has been personally
rocky at times, but I’m tired of keeping my
head down. I don’t want to hide anymore,
period.”

Like many
extraordinarily handsome men, especially those you first
meet in magazines, he’s slighter and somehow
more accessible in person. In his photo spread in the
June 2003 issue of the magazine, which famously—and
with no discernable irony—bills itself as
“Entertainment for Women,” he appears as
remote as an alabaster Donatello, posed poolside in the
searing Miami sunlight. Today the
model–turned–events promoter is tanned,
tousle-haired, and unshaven, dressed in faded jeans and an
elegantly shabby sweatshirt. His eyes are the same
vivid blue as in the photographs, but they have a new
warmth and immediacy. Merritt looks exactly the way
you’d want a centerfold to look off duty: hot enough
to inspire fantasy but real enough to make you want to
take him in your arms and kiss him with all the
passion his printed image was crafted to evoke.

Playgirl’s readers must have felt the same.
Merritt was chosen as Playgirl’s
“30th-Anniversary Man,” not by the editors but
by fans picking from hundreds of photographs that
poured in from across America in response to an
announcement by the editors that the magazine was looking
for a one-shot birthday beefcake to represent its 30th
year.

After three
decades of successfully exploiting and marketing the male
form, the magazine was looking for the jewel in its crown.
Merritt had E-mailed his photograph in to
Playgirl, and when he was selected, he was
flown to Miami and photographed. Even by
Playgirl’s standards, the resulting images
were stunning: clean, elegant, classically masculine
but not aggressively sexual. The spread begins with
Merritt dressed in white Jockey shorts then unfolds
until he is nude. His expression is mischievous, almost
elfin. Scott Merritt looks like he could have a mysterious
side.

Contacted in New
York, Playgirl editor in chief Michelle Zipp
acknowledges that Merritt’s coming-out is a surprise.
“I didn’t know he was gay,” she says.
“But I don’t have a problem with a model
being gay or coming out, and I don’t know why anyone
would. It’s about a gorgeous guy, and if
he’s gorgeous, I really don’t care about his
preferences. I just write, generally, to women because most
of our readers are women. It really bothers me when I
get mail that says, ‘That model was gay, and
you lied to us.’ That’s not the case. We
don’t ask,” she adds, laughing.

That attitude
marks a sea change, says Dirk Shafer,
Playgirl’s 1992 Man of the Year, who famously
came out on the cover of The Advocate in 1995
and turned his story into the mockumentary feature Man of
the Year
. “Playgirl, for the longest
time, never admitted that they had a gay readership.
[But] the magazine is very clearly geared toward gay
men. Look at the ads in the back and the kind of men they
choose for their centerfolds.”

Merritt says he
answered all of the queries on the Playgirl
questionnaire honestly, including the ones about his
most memorable moments with women. He had passionately
loved a woman—the mother of his young daughter.

“When they
asked me about fantasies, dreams, experiences, I
didn’t lie,” he explains. “When I
said that my wildest experience was making love for
two days straight, I was talking about my fiancée, the
woman I loved, the mother of my child. I was, and am,
fine with having said that. I didn’t mention my
child in that context, because I wanted to protect her
privacy at that point.”

He pauses,
anticipating the next question. “You may ask how
I’m ‘protecting’ her by
mentioning her in this interview, but this is
something she will eventually read. She’s a very
smart young lady, and when she has questions about all
of this, I will be honest with her. She knows
I’m gay, and she’s known since she was very
young. I’ve never hidden that from her.”

Being honest in
front of Playgirl’s camera was more
difficult. On February 1 of this year, Scott Merritt found
himself poolside in Florida with two female Playgirl
editors, a photographer with a mission, and no wood.
His boyfriend had supplied him with an emergency hit
of Viagra, should he need it, but when he casually mentioned
that to the editors, they urged him not to use it.
“They said it would make my eyelids droop or
something,” Merritt says dryly. The humor of the
situation wasn’t lost on him. Trying not to be
nervous, he gingerly stepped out of his trousers and
put on the official Playgirl underpants.

The photographer
shot some film. “Before lunch, I was thrown into the
pool. They did some shots there, and I froze my nuts off. So
I stood in the shower for 45 minutes trying to warm
up.” In preparation for the shoot, Merritt had
dieted himself down to low-single-digit body fat, and
in 65-degree water, he was chilled. Just then, they
announced that it was time to take the
“hard” shot.

Not knowing
Merritt was gay, the editors offered him a huge stack of
Swank magazines and sent him behind a privacy
screen. Swank is a down-market porn magazine for
heterosexual men with flexible standards of female
beauty. Merritt frantically flipped through the ocean
of rippling female flesh, cheaply photographed and printed,
desperate for one of the few shots of men engaged in sex
with the female models.

He was relieved
to find a few, and he focused on the naked men in the
pictures before facing the camera on the other side of the
curtain. “The photographer was very
professional, which helped,” he says.
“We’d had dinner before the shoot, and
he’d explained all of the shots to me. I
couldn’t be 100% aroused, but we’d do a shot,
then I’d go behind the screen and look at some
images, then come back out. He’d say, ‘Look
sexy; look like you’re enjoying this.’
And we were able to pull the photographs off.”

Not long
afterward, Playgirl faxed him the layout, and
he was impressed. But somewhere along the way Merritt began
to wonder what he was doing. He knew
Playgirl’s readers would think he was
straight, and it bothered him. “On one
hand,” he says, “I didn’t really care,
because I saw it as a modeling job, and I did it well. They
didn’t ask me if I was straight, and I
didn’t lie.” On the other hand, in moments of
introspection, he began to feel as though it was one more in
a long series of masks he had worn since he was a
teenager, framed in half-truths and technicalities.
“I could rationalize all sorts of reasons to
stay in the closet—protecting the feelings of family
members, colleagues, the people around me. But
suddenly it didn’t seem nearly worth the
personal cost.”

Scott Merritt
seems an unlikely candidate for the closet. Young,
personable, unbelievably handsome—what’s to
hide? At the same time, Merritt’s reluctance to
discuss his homosexuality till now reminds us that
even in 2003, gay men and lesbians agonize over how and when
to come out. In Merritt’s case the reasons
stretch back across years.

He was born in an
Ontario farm town. His parents separated when he was 2.
“My earliest memory is that night,” he says.
“I remember phones being ripped off the walls,
slamming doors, grown-ups storming around. It was very
intense. I asked my dad where he was going. I wanted to go
with him.”

In short order
his father remarried, and Scott went to live with his
father and new stepmother. Two half brothers followed in
quick succession. As a young man, his father, a police
officer, had been scouted by the Chicago White Sox,
and he passed that athletic ability along to Scott,
who threw himself into sports as a way of processing the
tensions at home. He showed a particular talent for track
and field, settling into the decathlon as his primary
event.

“In the
world of athletics,” he says, “if
you’re the decathlon champion, you are
considered the greatest. I ate, drank, and breathed
track.” Athletics also channeled another
growing source of stress: a confusing and frightening
attraction to men.

“I loved
the way guys were, they way they looked. I loved it,”
he remembers. “But I also had to protect
myself. I wouldn’t shower when we had gym class
or go anywhere I could physically see a guy’s penis,
because I was afraid of getting turned on, of having an
erection and being picked on for that.” Nor, he
says, did he explore sexually with other boys.
“I explored by viewing magazines,” he says.
“I remember looking at the pictures, and I
realized that I liked the poses the models were doing.
They were sexy; they turned me on. I have a vivid memory of
one particular image—a guy lying on his back,
stretched out, muscles striated. It was in
Playgirl. You could see his penis. Looking at
that picture, I felt something I had never felt
before.”

Playgirl and its men are icons of adolescent
gay dreams. However inevitably we may outgrow the
all-American boys of Playgirl, trading them in for
rougher, more overtly gay imagery, more men than not
remember discovery of the magazine, and what it meant
to them growing up.

Last year, in his
luminous debut novel, The Year of Ice, author
Brian Malloy evoked the Playgirl experience in the
story of Kevin Doyle, a gay teenager growing up in the
late 1970s. Kevin befriends a straight college student
who buys him copies of Playgirl as well as The
Advocate
. But in the end Kevin has room to hide
only one set of magazines.

“Kevin
throws out the Advocates because, he says,
they’re ‘too boring.’He keeps the
Playgirls,” Malloy says sheepishly on the
phone from Minneapolis. “In the mid
’70s, I stole Playgirls,” he adds.
“I never bought them, because I wasn’t
old enough. And I didn’t have the nerve to pay for
them at the cash register.”

Once he got it
home, Malloy remembers, Playgirl was precisely what
he needed. “I got to look at nonthreatening,
clean-cut guys. I think graphic depictions of gay sex
would have been too startling for me when I was in my mid
teens. As an adolescent, your hormones are raging, but
it’s also a very romantic time. When I was a
teen I could imagine that the Playgirl model was my
boyfriend and that he was there just for me, because
he posed alone. It was romantic and erotic at the same
time.”

Scott
Merritt’s teenage Playgirl period ended
badly. When he was 17 his stepmother found the collection of
erotic magazines he had hidden behind the washstand in
the family’s Victorian farmhouse. “My
stepmother didn’t really want to deal with
it,” he says, his face darkening at the memory,
“so she told my father.” His father’s
fury was towering, apoplectic. “I said to myself, Oh,
God, I can’t be gay! How could I ever tell my
father?”

He buried his
secret urges and redoubled his efforts at track and field.
If anyone was curious why the handsome, popular high school
jock seemed sexually frozen when his peers were
stirring to sexual life, he didn’t hear about
it.

At 19, with
tensions near a breaking point, he moved out of the house.
He met a young woman (Merritt requests that her name
not be used, to protect her privacy), and they began
to date. “I wasn’t looking for a
relationship or a girlfriend, [but] I saw this girl in my
class,” he says. “She was a very
intelligent, a very quiet girl. We just kind of hit it
off, and the next thing you know, I ended up having sex with
her.”

The two began a
relationship, moved in together, and eventually got
engaged. “She took a lot of control,” Merritt
says, adding that control was welcome at a time when
his life seemed chaotic. They both applied to college;
then his fiancée discovered that she was pregnant. They
briefly discussed terminating the pregnancy but
decided against it, a decision Merritt says he
hasn’t regretted from the moment he first laid eyes
on his tiny blond daughter and fell irrevocably in
love.

When the woman
returned to school, Merritt took a job as a home-care
worker and looked after their child. “My daughter and
I were exceptionally close during her early
years,” he recalls. “If she fell down,
she would usually run to me for comfort first.”

Although, he
says, he was faithful to his fiancée, his attraction to
men began to resurface. Due to many factors,
“one of them being the natural breakdown of the
relationship,” the relationship ended. She eventually
moved to Los Angeles, taking their daughter with her.

“Right
after [they moved away], I had my first experience as a gay
man,” Merritt says. “I was 25 years old.
I did it once, and I figured, You know? This is right.
It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Yet Merritt
didn’t choose to identify himself as gay. For one
thing, his ex had reacted with fury after he finally
confessed his attraction to men. For another, their
daughter was in a first-rate Catholic day-care
facility, and “her schooling was very important to
us,” he remembers. Somehow the precocious child
had already sensed his situation and had taken to
telling her schoolmates, “My daddy likes
boys.” It seemed quite possible that her place
at school might be threatened.

The
child’s mother vented her fears in no uncertain
terms. “[She] said, ‘Scott, did you ever
stop to think what it’s going to do to your
daughter?’“ he recalls. “‘[Other
kids] may not want to be friends with her because her
father is gay!’”

Reeling with
guilt, Merritt shut down again, spiraling into a period of
hard living and drugs. He began a modeling career that took
him to Hong Kong and Europe. He also began his first
serious relationship with a man. He still
wasn’t entirely out: The two formed an events
promotion company, and to the outside world they were
merely business partners. But good things began to
happen. Merritt was able to tell his father he was gay,
and instead of ending his world, the news ended their
estrangement.

After five years,
Merritt and his partner have separated (he
diplomatically describes it as being “on
hiatus”). But he readily acknowledges that
theirs was the most significant relationship of his
life.

While Merritt was
overhauling his attitudes toward gay life, so was
Playgirl. Although the magazine still presents
itself as completely heterosexual, its tacit
gay-friendliness today has evolved significantly from
its stance just a few years back. According to a gay
former senior-level editor whose tenure at Playgirl spanned
the early ’90s, the magazine was aimed at
women—end of story. “There were gay men
who read it, but the editorial wasn’t tailored to
them,” explains the editor, who asked that his
name not be used. “The concern was Playgirl
models showing up in the gay [erotic magazines] at the
same time. I used to peruse the gay magazines—a real
chore,” he laughs.

Back then, the
editor says, “a model coming out as gay would have
been a problem because the fantasies the magazine was
creating were styled to be women’s fantasies.
There was always the question of erections. ‘Did
women want to look at erections?’ The consensus
of the women on the staff—and I was the only
male—was that they didn’t.”

In the last
decade and a half, Playgirl’s policies
have evolved with the times on models, sets, and, yes,
erections. “The gay readership is about 30%,”
Zipp says definitively. “It’s
‘Entertainment for Women’ because
there’s no other magazine out there that caters
to women in the way we do, but we love our gay readers
as well.”

These days both
gays and straights occasionally accuse Playgirl of
being a “gay magazine,” says Zipp.
“I find it interesting when people make that
observation. I’ve read a lot of the gay
[erotic] magazines and looked at the photos. I don’t
see Playgirl as being similar to them. The
pictorial ‘eye’ is just a little bit
different.”

Judging by the
feedback she receives, sexuality is in the eye of the
beholder. “I get letters from our gay readers that
say things like, ‘I love Playgirl
because it’s not a gay magazine.’ For
them, we provide an ‘insider’
view—enabling them to share in a fantasy that
although these guys are straight, they might be able to
turn them around. Then I have women readers who say things
like, ‘These guys look a little gay because
their chests are shaved,’ to which I reply,
‘So? Do you think he’s sexy or not?’

Amid the
ceaseless debate about Playgirl’s
market, one thing is clear: As far as Zipp is concerned, gay
boys no longer need to worry that Playgirl is
not for them. “The overall mission and the
overall attitude of myself and the staff we have now
is very positive and very accepting,” Zipp says
firmly. “We have something in common, straight
women and gay men. We both like men, and they have to
be good-looking.”

As encouraging as
all this is, most gay teens still have no idea of the
acceptance Playgirl’s creators might feel
for them. The story they expect—the story that Scott
Merritt grew up with—is that everybody in the
world is straight and if you’re honest about
being gay, you’ll be hurt.

“It would
have meant an awful lot to me,” Malloy muses as he
contemplates how an out Playgirl centerfold
would have opened up his world as a teenager.
“I was convinced that it was me alone on the
planet. You hear the insults on the playground, but you
don’t think ‘people like that’
really exist. With teen boys, their rite of passage is
getting their first girlie magazine and talking about it
with their buddies. With gay teens, you don’t
swap the magazine with your friends. You feel so
alone. Knowing the guy I was looking at was also gay
would have ended the isolation and brought him into the
realm of possibility.”

If anybody
understands that, it’s Scott Merritt. “Looking
at the situation now, I realize that by not making
myself identifiably gay in the magazine, I’ve
contributed to that fiction of universal
heterosexuality. I wasn’t being true to myself. By
coming out, here and now, I’m taking control of
my life. Hopefully some of the same young people who
might have seen Playgirl will see this issue of
The Advocate and make the
connection.”

Thanks in part to
Merritt’s action, that connection is likely to
improve. When he began this journey, he had no idea
that Playgirl would treat his speaking out in a
friendly way. Who could have predicted that in coming out,
Scott Merritt would bring Playgirl along with
him?

As the summer
dusk descends on Toronto, Merritt is talking once more
about his ex-fiancée, now living outside Los Angeles
with her new husband and his daughter. They’re
frequently in touch, building a new friendship.
“She’s a caring and loving mother,” he
says. “I have tremendous respect for
her.” He hopes for a renewed relationship with his
daughter in the near future. “She means the
world to me,” he says fervently. “There is no
one in my life that I love more. Being a fully integrated
part of her life is something I dream of.”

For Merritt,
coming out is one step in that process. “Personal
honesty about certain aspects of my life has been a
big issue for me, and lack of it has cost me a great
deal over the years, including time with my daughter
that I’ll never get back. It’s all
interconnected—honesty, dignity, order, pride.
It’s all connected to being out, to being a fully
out, fully integrated gay man.”

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