It now appears that Ms. Lohan, said to be nearly broke, did strip down to her birthday suit, hardly a big deal, since lots of us have already seen most of it before. Last year Ms. Lohan posed topless for German GQ, and in 2008 she appeared draped only in some diaphanous scarves for a New York magazine spread that attempted to recreate Bert Stern’s famous “Last Sitting” of Marilyn Monroe. Just a little fossicking on the Internet — better done at home than at work, by the way — will turn up dozens of additional shots of her in various stages of dishabille. The same is true, of course, for Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears. Getting naked is practically part of the job description. It was a sex tape that started Ms. Kardashian’s celebrity career before she became even more famous for getting married on a TV special and then filing for divorce last week after just 72 days.
If you were a boy growing up in the late ’50s or early ’60s, the Playboy centerfold pages were a breath-catching revelation: they were the first — and for years, most likely the only — glimpse you were apt to get of an actual naked female. Now we live in an age when nothing is left to the imagination, when teenagers text one another with naked photos of themselves, and when staggering amounts of pornography are available free on the Web. By Internet standards, and even by the standards of the other X-rated men’s magazines — a dwindling and increasingly unprofitable business these days — the Playboy photo spreads are practically chaste. So why on earth would anyone think some glossy magazine photos of Lindsay Lohan, about whom we already know far too much — her D.U.I.’s and failed rehabs, her shoplifting, her electronic ankle bracelet, her stumbling around in nightclubs, etc. — were worth a million bucks?
The answer is precisely all that tabloid baggage she drags with her, and the spectacular way she has managed to derail her career, even outdoing Britney Spears in this regard. Her history certifies her as genuinely scandalous, rather than merely naughty, and brings a measure of real-life messiness to pages otherwise devoted to pneumatic, girl-next-door types who seemed to have accidentally shed their clothing on the way back from the library or from doing chores on the farm.
In the ’90s Playboy twice featured Shannen Doherty, a star on “Beverly Hills, 90210,” for pretty much the same reason: she was the Lindsay Lohan of her era, a hard partier who could reliably be counted on to get sloppy and belligerent in clubs. Another famous centerfold with trashy, real-world credentials was Jessica Hahn, who was invited into Playboy after confessing to an affair with the televangelist Jim Bakker.
But the amount of notoriety borne by Ms. Lohan goes way beyond anything imaginable back then, before the Internet had fully flexed itself, and verges on the tragic. She is, we need to remember, a very talented young actress — or she used to be. She’s in the news every day not for that, nor even just because she’s such good copy, but because we apparently need every now and then to turn a celebrity into a freak, the way we did with Ms. Spears.
The point of our fixation on celebrities these days is mostly to erase the gap between the celebs and us mere mortals: by telling us about their spats, their weight problems, their wardrobe malfunctions, the tabloids let us imagine that they’re regular folks. Back in the heyday of the studio system, when the point was the unknowableness — the starriness — of the stars, they handled things differently, and Ms. Lohan would have been kept on a much tighter leash.
MS. LOHAN began her public career as someone who was spunky and adorable, but at some point she became the other kind of celebrity: not the ones we envy and pretend to intimacy with, but the ones we cringe from even as we remain avid for the latest dirt, which causes the paparazzi to hound them more relentlessly. We need these people to feel superior to — and maybe sorry for — and to remind us that the whole system is a little creepy and that celebrityhood exacts a toll most of us would be unwilling to pay.
The people who are calling Ms. Lohan’s shoot the ruination of her career have got it wrong. Ruination would have been if she had accepted a reported million-dollar offer from a company called FleshLight, which wanted to manufacture sex toys from a mold taken of her lower anatomy. You could argue that Playboy is actually a step in the right direction — toward what passes for class and decorum these days — and that she will now join the likes of Drew Barrymore, Kim Basinger, Joan Collins, Margaux Hemingway, Margot Kidder, Charlize Theron and Katarina Witt, all of whom posed for Playboy without any damage to their reputations whatsoever.
And there’s a chance the pictures could actually be good, even if, according to the latest Lohan gossip, Playboy was initially dissatisfied and wanted to re-shoot. Those photos in New York were eerily effective because there is something Marilyn-like about Lindsay Lohan; beautiful, gifted and a needy, immature basket case. In the original photos, taken just weeks before her death, Monroe is blowsy and tousled, probably a little drunk; Ms. Lohan looked frightened, aged beyond her years and full of yearning for who knows what. Another chance maybe, or her vanished youth.
For a million dollars it shouldn’t be too hard to capture some of that expression again on film, and if, after reading the articles, you want to go back and look at the rest of her — well, that’s what skin magazines used to be for. The Playboy retouchers may even succeed in restoring her not to innocence, exactly, but to something like what she was before we started learning way too much about her.
charles mc grath for the new york times
photography by terry richardson