In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re taking a look back at our history of Playmates of Asian descent. Playboy’s August 1964 issue introduced our very first Asian-American centerfold, Club Bunny turned Playmate, China Lee. With so few represented in American media over the years, we asked a handful of Asian Playmates if their heritage played a role in their Playboy appearances, what their families’ responses were like and how it feels to be Asian-American in 2017.
April 1976 Playmate, 4th Generation Chinese-French/3rd Generation Hawaiian
Being Eurasian and at the beginning of my modeling career in Hawai'i, I thought Playboy would open doors, as there weren’t many ethnic models. I was hoping it would give me the opportunity to do editorial ads and not just Polynesian-type advertising.
I was discovered by Polly Peluso who was the director of Playboy’s modeling agency at the time. She basically said I was a shoe-in because of my ethnicity. I told her I wasn’t interested in being a Playmate but she said it was a wonderful opportunity. I called my parents and my mother said, “Just remember your relatives on the West Coast!“ They hadn’t seen me but once during the summer when I was 18; before that, I was eight when we left S.F. and moved to O'ahu. My dad’s advice? "Well, if you do it, ten years from now you might regret it and if you don’t do it, you might regret it. Hell, just do it and make sure it’s in good taste!” I remember my father reading Playboy when I was kid. That’s why I used just my first and middle name: to spare my mother any embarrassment, though her side of the family eventually found out. No one died of a heart attack.
I think I’ve gotten a thicker skin when it comes to not being the “all-American”-looking woman as I’ve gotten older. Having been raised in Hawai'i, I was rather sheltered from any prejudice since it’s such a melting pot. I’ve been living in southern California for over 35 years now.
November 1988 Playmate, 1st Generation Filipino-American
I was working in modeling, commercials and television before I was submitted for Playboy. I am certainly proud to have been accepted because I view myself as a pioneer in the Asian-American community. So it was extremely significant.
The reactions from my friends and immediate family were overwhelmingly positive. I didn’t expect such a response. Of course, one or two Titas disapproved, but they didn’t grow up in America. My whole family is higher educated. I am so proud of my Mama and Pop to have immigrated to the States as they did in the ‘60s; otherwise, my life would have been very different. But whatever we are, we are all of the human race.
I am very proud to advocate all things American, especially as an Asian-American. Today it seems there is a lot more diversity everywhere: in media, pop culture, and the work force. I would have loved to have had these opportunities years ago, but I’m also proud of contributing to paving the way – and would hope I’m credited for doing that.
JODI ANN PATERSON
2000 Playmate of the Year, 1st Generation Indonesian-American
I genuinely feel that if I was white, black or purple it wouldn’t make a difference. I put less thought into the fact that I’m Asian-American than just being a human being. I was inspired to become a Playmate after seeing Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra, who’d both appeared in Playboy, hosting TV shows. I got my degree in communications and was the evening anchor for my campus news station and wanted to get into entertainment broadcasting, so I thought it would be a great stepping stone.
When I posed for the magazine, my mom was shocked! But anyone who knew me around that time would have been shocked, having come from pageants and what not. Dad trusted whatever I did. His attitude was very much: “You’ve always been a good kid and done what we’ve asked. I’m not excited, but I trust your choice.” Whether they agreed or not, it was my own choice and that’s what matters.
June 2004 Playmate, Japanese
My ethnicity was irrelevant when it came to becoming a Playmate, and my family was surprised and very proud at the same time.
I just feel like an individual and not particularly Asian. Maybe it’s because I moved to America in 2004. No one ever treated me any different because I’m Asian. Then again, maybe I’m blind to it because I’m from Japan and feel strong and confident about my identity. I think it’s often harder for Asian people who are born and raised in America.
November 2008 Playmate, 2nd Generation Korean-American
I was aware there were very few Asian-Americans who had posed in Playboy, so when the opportunity to become a Playmate was offered to me, I admit I was intrigued (and complimented). I was also a risk-taker back then and I knew it was too interesting of an experience to pass up. But I did feel a constant battle in reconciling two very different cultural identities at the time. Yes, ethnically I was Asian, but culturally, I was as American as they come. Looking back now, I have zero regrets because the experience helped me understand that there really is no singular Asian-American experience and to fully accept my own individual path.
My parents didn’t know I posed for Playboy until they read about it in the Korea Times weekly paper. I think I was naive to how huge and far-reaching Playboy was. I was also a bit of a lost soul at the time and probably rebelling against Korean cultural norms and filial piety. Fortunately, my family had my back and didn’t judge me for it; I think they were just worried.
I think Asian-Americans as a whole were more of an invisible and voiceless minority in the '80s and '90s because we were so focused on assimilating, and many of us were just trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between two very different cultures within the same household. But the growth and diversification of Asian-Americans have been pretty remarkable over the years and now more than ever, we have a voice and a presence that demands to be heard and seen. We’re defying sticky pervasive stereotypes. I also think its critical to both remember and defend the progress we’ve made as a group, and to stand alongside our LGBTQ, black, Muslim, and Hispanic neighbors now, whose communities are being inherently threatened with someone as powerfully polarizing as Trump in office.
June 2011 Playmate, 2nd Generation Chinese-American
My Asian descent was absolutely significant, as I knew there weren’t too many Asian-American Playmates. But we Asian-Americans aren’t your stereotypical Playmates. Its always good to be different.
My family was super-supportive from day one! Being an Asian-American today I think has its pros and cons. I just want to say that I am proud to be one! More than ever should a “minority” be proud of who they are and their culture.
April 2013 Playmate, 2nd Generation Indian-American
For the most part, it was irrelevant. I’m actually mixed with a few different things, Asian from India being one of them. I was more worried about my family’s religious beliefs which really have nothing to do with our diverse family background.
My late grandfather was Indian and he was actually born in the Philippines. Here in America, he married my grandmother who has a Caucasian background and she grew up in Peru. So part of me is second generation from India and I was born in California.
Some were excited for me; some were not. Some family members have also never even mentioned it! To be honest, I hadn’t told many people about it and when I did, I had already shot my centerfold. If I were doing it all over again, I would have talked to everyone in my family to show them respect – which could’ve also changed my decision. At the end of the day, I come from an extremely blended family. I feel like everyone in my family still treats me the same and loves me the same.
Obviously, I can’t speak on behalf of all Asian-Americans. However, I do feel like being “exotic” in America has become more celebrated over the years. I used to be self-conscious about my mixed appearance but now, I love it and embrace it! People are really curious and always ask me, “What are you?” That used to bother me, but now I feel fortunate to be able to connect with many different ethnicities and cultures.