It was just past 6 on a chilly evening last September when the Russian Mi8 transport helicopter loomed over the deck of Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise, deep in the Pechora Sea. In seconds, 15 commandos wearing balaclavas and wielding assault rifles tumbled from the chopper and rappelled down to the vessel, a 50-foot icebreaker operated by Greenpeace. “It was a scene out of a Hollywood film, but the director had disappeared,” recalls Ana Paula Maciel, who raced from the observation deck, where she was standing watch, to alert the captain below. “We had been invaded.”
The day before, Greenpeace had made a showy protest of its own, launching a rubber raft “attack” on a drilling platform run by Russian oil major Gazprom, which was preparing to drill within the Arctic Circle and so ruin the planet, the green group feared. This was Moscow’s theatrical reprisal: a special ops smackdown that would see 30 activists arrested, bullied, slapped with criminal charges and locked up nearly incommunicado for the next 100 days in a Russian jail.
But as guerrilla theater goes, Maciel is no pushover. This week, the 32-year-old Brazilian biologist and green warrior answered with a…well, full-frontal counteroffensive. On April 8, the Brazilian edition of Playboy hit the stands with Maciel on the cover. Tall, tallow-haired, freckled and shapely, Maciel stares out from the glossy wearing nothing but her don’t-even-think-about-it stare. “Our Activist in the Wild,” announced the cheeky coverline.
She’s not the girl from Ipanema, but then again, Brazilian Playboy isn’t your typical men’s rag. “We are not just about nude women,” says editor Sergio Xavier. “Playboy is intended to stir up society and to propose new debates. Ana Paula is a perfect example.”
Don’t get him wrong. Brazilian men are fans of naked beauty just like the rest of the male universe, and readily indulge their preferences—often in plain view, as a stroll to the beach or the carnival bleachers will attest. Brazil didn’t invent the bikini, but few cultures have done so much with so little.
TV Globo sponsors an annual contest for the crown of Globeleza, a samba queen who dances during prime-time commercial breaks in nothing but sequins and a splash of body paint. The country also nurtures a paradoxical conservative streak: It revels in “dental floss” swim gear but shuns topless bathing, and more than one in four people recently told surveyors that women who wear revealing clothing are inviting rape.
“We are quite permissive and also shockingly conservative,” says Xavier, who argued that such sensibilities make Brazilian Playboy’s mission all the more challenging. As a result, he says, the magazine is ever on the lookout for more than just your typical serving of cheesecake. “This is not just a magazine to display naked women,” he says. “Playboy responds to the Brazilian demand to see someone they’ve never imagined naked before.”
True, French Playboy famously featured actress Juliette Binoche, and the U.S. edition recently trumpeted the return of supermodel Kate Moss. Yet the Brazilian franchise has taken the brand a step further, making the celebrity Playmate its signature feature.
The already rich and famous are staples in Playboy’s stall. National idols like screen stars Vera Fischer and Lucélia Santos, as well as pop singer Marina Lima, have graced centerfolds. So have sports heartthrobs such as basketball hall-of-famer Hortência Marcari, who led Brazil to an Olympic silver medal before she agreed to shed her jersey. None of these starlets was hurting for cash before signing on with the magazine.
Then there are the exotic prancers, like Rosenery Melo, invited to pose for the magazine after the flare she launched at a World Cup qualifying match apparently struck and badly wounded the Chilean goalkeeper Ricardo Rojas, who fell writhing to the ground. As it happened, Rojas had faked the injury and was suspended from professional soccer, while Melo rocketed briefly to national fame.
Xavier claims that these are not Playboy’s biggest breadwinners. But by wagering on stars over sylphs, the editors reckon they can deepen the publication’s particular footprint in a genre that is bleeding audience to the web and erotica-on-demand.
Still, putting Maciel on the cover seems an even bolder move. Playboy also has a reputation of pursuing its desired targets with bundles of cash and perks. This time the star came to them. Maciel was behind bars in Murmansk when Brazilian fashion photographer André Sanseverino floated the idea by her lawyer. “At first, I thought it was just a rumor. I had no idea of the repercussion my case was having in Brazil.” She gave it little thought.
Maybe it was all that boiled cabbage and borscht, or the mystery meat in the soup that her jailers called quail, but she recognized as pigeon. “I’m a biologist. I know birds,” she says. Over the next days and weeks, the idea grew on her in lockup, where she was facing charges of international piracy and vandalism.
Those charges proved flimsy, and Maciel was never brought to court. As international pressure built around her incarceration, she and her fellow Greenpeace campaigners were finally released. Back home, she met with Sanseverino, who was in touch with the magazine. “André said I was an attractive woman, and I also took care to keep in shape, working out at the gym,” she says.
But would Greenpeace go for that kind of notoriety? “I talked it over with the crew. Everyone backed me,” she says. They told her, “Go ahead and do it. Do it really well and do something good with the money.”
Neither she nor Playboy will say how much she’ll pocket from the photo spread, but Maciel says it will help her kick-start a dream project. “I always wanted to work with animal rescue,” she says, announcing that she plans to use her royalty check to found a wildlife shelter for birds and other endangered Brazilian fauna.
What comes next is still up in the air. “I have invitations to speak in Brazil about environmental sustainability and wildlife preservation,” she says. “I might do that for a while, depending on the fallout from the magazine. People recognize me in the streets now and tell me how much they support what I’m doing.”
Asked if she fears blowback from feminists for indulging macho fantasies, Maciel is adamant. “I’m not worried about false moralism,” she says. “We live in a culture where nudity is accepted. Besides, if Globeleza can dance naked on television, why not me?”