In 1955, a 21-year-old Charlaine Karalus showed up at Playboy’s Chicago offices in hopes of a job. “I had hoped to get on the ground floor with this magazine and grow with them,” she recently said in her American Playboy interview. Soon the Wheaton, Illinois native became the magazine’s subscription manager, and it wasn’t long before the beautiful blonde with a gentle gaze was offered a more loaded role: that of Playboy Playmate. Until Karalus came along, in the two years since its inception, Playboy had strictly featured professional pin-ups, models and actresses. She agreed to be the July 1955 Playmate but not without trepidation: “Posing for the centerfold was a big step for me to take. The pictures are very modest by today’s standards, but back then they weren’t,” she remarked in retrospect.
Janet Pilgrim, a name Hefner selected for Karalus for its “puritanical connotations,” was born – and so was the first girl-next-door Playmate. Whether she knew it at the time or not, Pilgrim symbolized the ultimate rebellious wink to the public and she came to represent much of what Playboy would stand for in the days and decades to come. As Hef explained in her pictorial’s accompanying copy, “We suppose it’s natural to think of pulchritudinous Playmates as existing in a world apart. Actually, potential Playmates are all around you: the new secretary at your office, the doe-eyed beauty who sat opposite you at lunch yesterday, the girl who sells you shirts and ties at your favorite store. We found Miss July in our own circulation department.”
Nice, innocent-looking girls can be fully realized sexual beings, too! This simple revelation would go on to permanently shape the selection of Playmates and moreover, the way we look at sex and yes, women. Suddenly, the lines between unreachable sexual phantasms and daily life’s seemingly mundane encounters were blurred. Sex appeal was almost omnipresent.
Like most bold moves, Hef’s casting choice was met with skepticism. Art Paul, the magazine’s art director at the time, later admitted, “I really thought it was too close to home, that she would be embarrassed. Naturally, it turned out to be another of Hef’s strokes of genius.” Indeed, the quintessential girl next door became an instant celebrity, winning Playmate of the Month status twice more, in December 1955 and October 1956.
Refusing jobs from outside agencies, Karalus continued working for Playboy, her name remaining on the masthead as head of the reader’s services department for ten years. Eventually, she got married and settled in Connecticut where she raised two children. At the age of 46, she went to college to become a nurse, working with the elderly and those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. “I just loved those old people,” she reflected. “The rewards I got from that, the hugs and kisses, were incredible.” Of her children’s opinion of her trailblazing past, she said, “I know they’re very proud that their mother is Janet Pilgrim. Having been in the centerfold three times isn’t likely to happen again.”
So it is with a heavy heart that the Playboy family has come to learn that Karalus passed away on May 1st. Our deepest condolences go out to her family.