By Bob Liparulo
Suzie Krabacher's body has opened a lot of doors, not all of them to places she ought to have gone.
One such place: Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion, where she lived for a year and then visited frequently after her stint as a Playboy centerfold. Her season there and her journey out of that symbolic heart of hedonism to a Christian life of tireless giving have opened yet another door-this time not for her, but for those who see only the airbrushed bodies of nude models and not the pain that often lies within. Having "been there, done that," she offers a rare glimpse at the insidiousness of pornography from the side of pretend glamour and strained smiles.
So forget the incomprehensible numbers-that pornography is an $8 billion-a-year industry and that 70 percent of all pornographic magazines end up in the hands of minors. Never mind, at least for now, the statistics that link pornography to violent crime and aggression toward women. Krabacher is neither a statistic nor incomprehensible. She is a charming woman, now 37, whose experience resides within her as a complex jumble of mixed emotions.
"The craziness of my time as a Playboy model," she says from her home in Aspen, Colorado, "the attention, the money, the betrayals, the compromises-all of it-led me to a real relationship with Christ. So I can't say I hate having gone through it. Do I wish I could have gotten to where I am today without taking off my clothes? Absolutely."
And where she is today is indeed an admirable place. She spends much of her time in Haiti as founding director of the Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing, which funds orphanages, clinics, schools and hospital wards for needy children there. "I call them my kids," she says. "All 1,658 of them." So dedicated is she to alleviating the staggering poverty, hunger and illness of these Haitian children, she regularly braves blistering swamps, infectious diseases, even machine-gun-toting gangs to deliver aid and lots of TLC. Her efforts have garnered national acclaim, including another magazine spread-this time in People magazine, which called her a hero.
"The media goes, 'Hey, there's a Playboy Bunny doing charity work in Haiti. That's a story!'" she laughs. "The attention brings in contributions and volunteers. I see that as God using my past to make something good."
Speaking of the past causes a subtle change in her normally cheery voice, like the faintest chill that marks the end of summer. A bit of the warmth goes away. It's almost as though she understands the terribleness of it, without having explored it too deeply. And, if that's true, who can blame her? From age four to age eight her maternal grandfather sexually molested her. In addition, her parents were so repressively strict, especially about everything sexual, that when she experienced her first menstruation, she thought she was dying. At 15, she bolted from home, lying about her age to get an apartment and a job.
"I was very down on myself," she remembers. "Money was tight, and I felt like an ugly duckling. I thought nobody liked me, that nobody could like me."
A few years later, a photographer she knew suggested snapping some shots of her in a bathing suit for submission to Playboy. "The photographer had fallen on hard times and begged me to let him take the pictures," she says. "I just couldn't let him down. I guess Hef loved them because the next thing I know I'm flying out to California and being treated like a star. I started thinking of the money and how good it felt to have people tell me I was pretty. I was hooked." It happened that fast. She was 17.
On her way to the Playboy mansion, Krabacher, who had been reared in a churchgoing family and had at least a passing acquaintance with heavenly matters, made a pact with herself. She would use any fame and fortune that came her way to do good. "I was going to be God's best little servant."
Things didn't quite turn out that way.
"There are two types of girls who end up at Playboy," she says. "Ones like me, who are from small towns and quiet backgrounds, as na?ve as can be. Then there are the savvy girls who know exactly what they want and how to get it. Of course, none of the savvy ones ever get more innocent, but the innocent ones sure get awfully savvy. They ask more and more of you. Behavior that you used to think was completely unacceptable suddenly becomes acceptable. I drew a line in the sand, and then found myself constantly erasing it and redrawing it."
In her mind, one of those lines delineated nudity from pornography. "I think most people understand the difference," she says. "It has a lot to do with body language and posing." Despite initial intentions to "keep it clean," a desire to please the people who were being so nice to her prevailed. "I wound up making pornography."
Which made the people even nicer. Limos, clothing, parties, celebrities, wining, dining, dancing, promises of fame, fortune, the moon. "It all goes right to your head. Nobody can be around that kind of attention, that kind of abundance and not be changed by it. I went from feeling like a nobody to feeling like I was better than everybody."
Krabacher is gracious to a fault. She acknowledges that people have seriously wronged her, but she stops short of naming names, of lashing back. In that spirit, her recollection of events at Hef's house becomes suspiciously hazy.
That's not the case for another former Playmate. Testifying in Chicago before the 1986 Commission on Pornography, this young woman, who requested anonymity, said, "(During my time with Playboy) I experienced everything from date rape to physical abuse ."
Krabacher concedes having witnessed such things. "Girls get injured when they live in a world that revolves around superficial beauty," she says. "I think the reason some of them get into lesbianism-and I'd thought about it myself-is that women are safe. When you're a Playboy model, so many men gawk at you and hit on you and lie to you and tell you anything to satisfy their own fantasies, their own lust, you become very distrustful. You become very weary. At first, and really for a while, you're flattered by the attention and the compliments. But then you realize that what they're complimenting is all they see. There is no you. There is only the way you look."
Seeming to follow some invisible script for Playboy models, along with the public appearances, photo shoots, and countless movie and television auditions, Krabacher chalked up a failed marriage. Handling her divorce was Aspen attorney Joe Krabacher, whom she ultimately married in 1988. "He was the first man in my life who cared about all of me, inside and out," she coos. Away from the Playboy lifestyle and having found true love, she recommitted herself to Jesus Christ, and helped bring Joe into the fold.
"For a long time," she says retrospectively, "I recognized the danger to myself, but I didn't think that I'd caused harm to others by being a Playboy model. Slowly, God showed me otherwise." One of the bigger blows was finding her husband with a Playboy magazine. "And it wasn't mine!" she says, only half joking. "It really hurt. All of a sudden, I felt that I was competing for his attention, even his affection.
Washington pastor and author Andrew Lansdown has studied the effects of "casual" pornography on marriages. He points out "A wife whose husband uses pornography finds herself burdened by impossible expectations concerning appearance and performance. She is soon wounded by unfavorable comparisons with ever-young 'models.'"
This anxiety is not ungrounded. In one study, researchers Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant found that people exposed to nonviolent pornography reported diminished satisfaction with their sexual partner's physical appearance, affection, curiosity and sexual performance. They were also inclined to put more importance on sex without emotional involvement.
If Suzie Krabacher - beautiful, not so far removed from that very publication herself - could get the heart knocked out of her that way, how must the average housewife feel upon making a similar discovery? "I know, I know," Krabacher says. "But believe me, I feel the same pain. I know there is always somebody prettier, younger. And you don't want to think that your husband has to go outside of your marriage for satisfaction, even if it's just to a magazine. All kinds of thoughts fill your head: 'Is he thinking of me when we make love, or of someone he saw in a magazine?' It makes me sick to think that I may have contributed to such hurt feelings in other couples' lives by appearing in Playboy. If I did, I pray for forgiveness, and I pray everything worked out for them." She pauses, then adds: "But it doesn't always work out when something like that comes into a marriage."
She also cringes at the idea that maturing boys often get their first coup d'oeil of the female body from pornography. "How can the girls they know compete with that?" she asks. "They can't. Nobody can. Even the women in the magazines can't compete with themselves in perfect pose and perfect lighting and perfect touch-ups. Boys who view these magazines not only develop a sense that women are there merely to satisfy them-because that's all the magazine women are there to do-but their expectations of what a girl should look like is skewed. In a perfect world, young people would learn about sex from their parents and experience it first with their spouses."
It's not a perfect world, however, and Krabacher knows she can't do much about those husbands and boys who mistake magazine nudies for reality. But those good deeds she promised long ago to do, she is doing. To nearly 2,000 children in Haiti, she is not the formerPlayboy model. She is the woman who picks them up and kisses away their tears and makes everything all better. She is "Miss Suzie," and that's just fine with her.
Reprinted with permission by New Man, Nov/Dec 2000. Strang Communications Co.