The attic. The basement. The shelf way up in Dad’s tool closet. Such are the dark and forbidden spaces where many of us found our first copies of Playboy, gaping in youthful amazement at our incredible luck. Jeffrey Jenest, now 54, will never forget his first time. He tells the story as if he hopes you won’t, either.
So travel with us now back to 1963, to the respectablemiddle-class Boston suburb of Franklin, Massachusetts. Eleven-year-old Jenest—then an overweight, nervous brainiac with glasses—had won a Saturday-night babysitting job, for the Farrells, who live down the street. “I was pretty proud of myself when I got the kids to go to sleep,” Jenest recalls. But then, suddenly, a new challenge presented itself: boredom. “The only answer was to start snooping through their house,” Jenest adds, with the deep, mischievous laugh that often accompanies his tales of his landmark career in adult entertainment. “I went through the kitchen, the living room, even the bedroom dresser,” Jenest says. “Nothing interesting. So I just gave up and sat back on the couch. And then I saw it, under the television, right by the TV Guide, the latest copy of Playboy. I thought, ‘Wow, Mr. Farrell—I’m shocked!’” Jenest’s own father, a quiet chemical consultant, kept nothing similar in their family’s house (at least nothing that Jeff could ever find). “We did have what they called ‘adult novels’ at home back then, risqué paperbacks like Valley of the Dolls. None that showed any skin.” But as young Jeff stood in the Farrells’ den, his hands quivering on the gatefold image of a buxom, broad-hipped blonde with her hand draped across her lap, he was more aware of what he wasn’t feeling. “I was only 11,” he says. “But I knew from what my friends had told me the magazine was like for them. I wasn’t aroused. But I was a voracious reader, and I was like, ‘Oh, cool, here’s a neat story by Kurt Vonnegut.’”
So when a gay, 36-year-old Jeffrey Jenest, with a Harvard MBA and video marketing expertise, interviewed at Playboy in 1988, he could truly tell the screening committee, I really am that person who reads Playboy mostly for the articles.
These days, Jeffrey Jenest, positive since the early ‘80s, before HIV was even called HIV, is far out of the tool closet. Jenest is now an executive vice president of Playboy Entertainment, which is the most profitable division under the Playboy Enterprises umbrella, accounting for 60 percent of the company’s $338 million overall net revenue. He is also Playboy’s first openly HIV-positive executive. The financial analyst helps ensure that the division—which, among other tasks, sources and produces broadcast content, including the glossier, more romantic erotica found on Playboy TV as well as the triple-X, hard-core entertainment on Playboy’s Spice Network—gets the most bang for its buck. With Jenest’s help, Playboy Entertainment grew by an estimated 8 percent last year.
In the spirit of Playboy magazine’s signature Playmate data sheet, which records Centerfolds’ physical and emotional particulars, POZ can report that Jenest stands a sturdy 6 feet, 4 inches and weighs in at a buff 215 pounds, with 17-inch biceps that precede him into grueling budget negotiations. Jenest’s turn-ons: “Intelligence, risk-takers, teamwork—and my husband of 17 years, Bob Colangelo,” who is also openly HIV positive and works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Jenest’s turnoffs? “Laziness, shallowness, foolishness, people with preconceptions.”
Jenest’s very career with Playboy would scramble most folks’ preconceptions. Especially preconceptions of Playboy’s corporate culture and of those who conceive and execute its supremely heterosexual product. And then there’s the matter of his HIV status, working as he does with the sometimes condom-lax Spice Network. In many ways and in many homes, Playboy’s Spice Network has now replaced the magazine as the forbidden product kept in the basement. Its cable channels and on-demand product are available in 72 countries; they were notably affected by the adult entertainment industry’s voluntary two-month shutdown and safety review in 2004 after two performers tested positive for HIV.
The industry responded with an aggressive condom initiative, but, Jenest says, “the public hated seeing condoms on performers in straight product, and producers were hit in the pocketbook.” The Adult Industry Medical (AIM) Health Care Foundation modified its, well, position, and now performers in heterosexual productions participate in industry-wide self-policing, which requires they be tested once a month and carry a card to document their HIV status. So viewers of Playboy Entertainment products may sometimes see performers having condomless vaginal and anal sex—but Playboy mandates that all performers it airs participate in AIM’s program.
“Of course, as an HIV-positive person I do care about HIV safety in the industry,” says Jenest. But does his HIV status confer a certain obligation to combat sexual risk-taking in Playboy’s products? “I am not interested in using my position to proselytize to people on what they should or should not watch or do. That’s not my place; that’s not anyone’s place. The industry has the self-policing, and it’s working. I’d much rather use my leverage from this job to help raise money for groups of people at even greater risk, like sex workers or meth users—and I’d like to focus on making appropriate decisions in my own sexual life. There are many ways of minimizing risk through appropriate judgment, and the straight porn industry is no different.” Jenest, who says that his “experience as a consumer of gay adult entertainment” has informed some of his work at Playboy, has cultivated a very public presence as an AIDS activist. Having served as chairman of the board of AIDS Project Los Angeles (he now cochairs its Ambassador Council), Jenest is a founding board member of the Entertainment AIDS Alliance, which organizes industry fund-raisers.
Some could argue that Jenest’sactivism is merely an attempt to deflect criticism from his presence in an industry that may seem to promote the sort of sexual activity that spreads HIV. But Playboy has an indisputable tradition of pushing AIDS education. The magazine has long published sharp, accurate, nonjudgmental information about AIDS in its Playboy Forum and Playboy Advisor sections. The first of these pieces appeared as far back as 1983, when HIV was known to many as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID).
The magazine was among the first mainstream media outlets to uncouple transmission risk from sexual orientation— and to suggest that the sexual freedom the company champions implies sexual responsibility, for oneself and one’s partner. It is this commitment to “sexual freedom,” and its rabid defense of First Amendment issues, that has long united both gay and straight employees in Playboy’s 700-person workplace—and, logically, paved the runway for Jeff Jenest’s rapid ascent in the company.
Through its Playboy Foundation, the company has given more than $30 million to AIDS causes since 1983. The company’s chief executive officer, Christie M. Hefner, daughter of its legendary founder and current editor in chief of Playboy, Hugh Hefner, personally raised $25 million to build Chicago’s CORE Center, the first freestanding, specialized outpatient facility for people living with AIDS in the Midwest.
Many of Playboy’s other grants have helped HIV-positive women in America and, now, in Rwanda and other locales where sectarian violence and rape spread HIV. “This has become a disease of women here and abroad,” says Christie Hefner. Of course, Playboy’s critics contend that the magazine objectifies women as sexual objects—as passive, love-’em-and-leave-’em receptacles—making them more susceptible to HIV. This perception may have been magnified in 1994, when Playboy Playmate Rebekka Armstrong, Miss September 1986, who had talked openly about her adventures in bisexuality, disclosed that she was HIV positive. She countered the notion of women as helpless victims when she became an activist and Playboy safer-sex ambassador.
“We are all about taking care of yourself and taking responsibility for yourself,” Ms. Hefner says. “We are about beauty and romance, not sexual objectification. Our pictures and images are among the most beautiful out there and do not imply that those who view them have a free pass to be irresponsible. Also, I find it very interesting that certain women on the left who might say Playboy objectifies women might not have the same issue if women were [portrayed the same way] in, say, a lesbian magazine or with men in a gay adult publication. Are straight men the only ones who can’t enjoy themselves?”
Jeffrey Jenest lives in the predominantly gay Los Angeles enclave of West Hollywood, which has had an HIV-positive mayor. “It’s a very freeing place to be,” says Jenest, a fixture with his husband, Bob, around town and at the occasional gay leather street fair. “We try to interact with a variety of crowds,” Jenest says. “We drift in and out of subcultures. We sometimes like the leather crowd because it’s social—not because we want to beat each other up or anything.” (Jenest says the two don’t use condoms in their relationship and calls himself “a bit politically incorrect” about sometimes supporting barebacking among men who are positive.) Even though Colangelo has tended to have the weaker immune system over the course of their long relationship, Jenest has had far more health scares, including three bouts with HPV-related rectal cancer and stomach parasites.
“But I feel great now,” he says, having just had a successful screening for any additional cancer outbreaks. “I have been lucky—I grew up in a supportive family environment, supportive of my sexuality and my [living with] HIV. It was my family, in fact, who helped me out myself to them.” That happened after Jenest, who was engaged to be married, broke off the relationship—and after he had realized he was indeed gay and began “living a gay social life.” During a brief visit home to Massachusetts in 1981, his parents came into his room and sat on his bed. “We think that you’re gay,” Jenest’s father said, “and we want you to tell us, so we can start sharing in your life.” It was this sexual openness that propelled him to take a better interest in his own body and physical health, even as he was shivering and retching from hepatitis. He was officially diagnosed with HIV in 1986.
At his first Playboy interview—the opportunity, he says, “fell into my lap”; he never actively sought a career in adult entertainment—he made it clear he was gay and that gay tolerance was crucial for him. “I never thought it would be like some beer-drenched frathouse here, and it isn’t,” he says. He did not, however, disclose that he was HIV positive.
“Playboy has long had a history of supporting gay rights and gay employees,” says Carol Devine, the company’s head of human resources, who worked with Jenest to update its policy on gay rights and create a policy on HIV. “Actually, Hef hates the word tolerance,” Devine adds quickly. “Because tolerance implies that there’s a problem, that there’s something that needs to be tolerated or endured.”
When Jenest’s CD4 cells first started dropping—they’re up to a robust 800 now—he began to worry that he might one day become unable to work. So in 1992, he decided he had no choice but to fly to Playboy’s corporate headquarters in Chicago and disclose his status to Christie Hefner. “It was quite a flight,” Jenest remembers. “I was actually relieved. Here was my final coming-out. I’d come out as a gay man, a coupled gay man, a coupled gay man at work—and now the last secret was going to be done with.”
But what would she say? He took her out to dinner, pulled his chair up close to the table, and said, “Christie, I have HIV.” Remembering the exchange, Hefner says, “I looked at him and paused for a second. It’s hard to recall quite what I said, because I was overcome for him. But I tried to be encouraging.” Jenest chimes in. “I remember exactly what she said. She took my hand and said, ‘We’re going to beat this. I have confidence in you.’ That may seem schmaltzy, but you have to remember that back then, before the era of protease inhibitors, people weren’t expected to live. My own mother, for instance, despite all her love and support, never told me she was sure I would live. She thought death was inevitable.”
And then, darting back out onto the Chicago streets, his last burden lifted, what did Jenest do? “I went out and had a great time.” If only Mr. Farrell could see him now.