Soft Porn, Hardening Hearts: A Magazine’s Private Story

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Can a softcore erotica magazine survive in an age of digital porn? Danielle Leder, co-founder and owner of Jacques Magazine, hopes the answer is yes.


Danielle Leder, co-founder and owner of Jacques Magazine, adjusts the makeup on a model at a video shoot. (Jonathan Tayler / The Brooklyn Ink)

 

The speck bothered Danielle Leder. It had to go.

It was nothing more than a small piece of dead skin, or perhaps a stray bit of dust, but against her model’s bright red lips, the mote could not stay. That was all the more apparent on the screen of the expensive high-definition video camera that Leder had acquired for the video shoot. The small brownish spot stood out amidst the sea of red lipstick and pale white skin.

Her crew of four had tried what they could to get the speck off without having to remove or smudge the model’s makeup. Finally, Leder got up, took her model’s hand and led her to the back of the studio, to the lit mirrors and swivel chairs that served as a dressing room.

“Come on,” said the 25-year-old Leder. “I want to get it right.”

So off came the lipstick, and with it, the offending speck. And back went the model—also named Danielle—onto the array of tarp and sheets that functioned as a backdrop. She wore a sleeveless white turtleneck and white underwear with white socks adorned with lace frills. A bobbed black wig covered her platinum blonde hair. Her lips were immaculate, and her skin untouched. The mark gone, she was ready for her closeup once more. She would spend the next three hours covered in blue paint.

This was the first video shoot for the re-launched Jacques Magazine, and Danielle Leder had to get it right. She had to produce content to show that the magazine still existed. She had to create something that didn’t stray from Jacques’ well-established aesthetic. And she would do it without the magazine’s co-founder and her husband, 38-year-old Jonathan Leder, who at that moment was somewhere near Tampa shooting a movie about a stripper running from a serial killer. He was in Florida while his wife was in New York because they were in the process of separating. Over the course of the year, their marriage had disintegrated, just as the magazine’s momentum had slowed to a crawl.

Jonathan departed New York on October 20. He left behind his wife, his two young children, and Jacques, the softcore erotica magazine that he started with Danielle. Jacques, the analog answer to a world of digital porn, the callback to an era of skin magazines long gone, a small circulation print magazine with one advertiser and dreams of being something far bigger.

“It’s my name, it’s my investment,” Danielle said. “But even though they were my ideas, it’s Jonathan’s work. When people see the next issue, they will know it’s my work.”

***

Two years ago, Danielle Leder almost died. While giving birth to her son, Jack, she hemorrhaged three times and spent three days in intensive care. When she eventually went home, it was up to Jonathan to take care of his wife and newborn son.

“As time went on, he really wasn’t working, nothing substantial,” Danielle said. “I kind of just said, let’s make a magazine. I can’t do anything, I’m here on the couch, let’s just start a magazine.”

It was an idea the two had bounced around before. Both had a magazine background—Jonathan as a photographer, Danielle as a former fashion model for the likes of the French version of Vogue. The two even met on a photo shoot. The timing for their new venture wasn’t ideal with the recession deepening, but the couple didn’t feel as if that were an obstacle.

“After the meltdown, part of the reason we started the magazine was that it was the best time to start something,” Jonathan said. “If you start a magazine when everyone is running for cover, it’s a nice story for people to tell and believe in.”

“We felt the only place we could go is up,” Danielle said.

Despite no experience in design or print journalism, Danielle did the mockup, and after a false start on the name—they wanted to call it Ritz, only to have the Ritz Carlton threaten to sue—they settled on Jacques, the French version of their son’s name.

The size of the operation—just Danielle and Jonathan initially—wasn’t the only thing setting Jacques apart. There was also the content: soft-core nudity. Beyond that, there was also the format. Jonathan shot on film, and the couple styled the magazine on vintage Playboy and the long-departed adult magazines of the 1970s.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of quality magazines out there, period,” Jonathan said. “The plastic wrap stuff is pretty disgusting. The quality of photography is bad. You’ll see some cute girls, for sure, but is it totally Photoshopped? Is it shot with digital cameras and terrible lighting? Today, it’s the lowest common denominator with everything.”

Why start an erotica magazine at a time when porn magazines were rapidly losing money? Both Jonathan and Danielle expressed a desire to showcase an aesthetic they felt was missing from mainstream adult magazines.

“Our girls are much different than what Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler are offering,” Danielle said. “Those girls that they’re showcasing, I could easily hop on my computer and get millions and millions of pictures that are those girls. I would like to think our girls are different. They’re curvy and not airbrushed. I feel like this is filling a gap that does not exist right now.”

The Leders started their magazine in Williamsburg and tried to recruit women in the neighborhood to pose. The inaugural issue was “awful,” in Danielle’s mind, riddled with spelling errors and printing problems. But subsequent releases improved on quality, and the magazine started gaining notice. Major chain bookstores had begun adding Jacques to their newsstands. A deal was struck with PowerHouse Books to put together a calendar for a 2011 release.

Then things began to fall apart.

***

It’s October 19, and Jonathan Leder is in upstate New York, but he’s headed down to Florida the next day to continue work on his movie. For most of the year, the Leders had been cycling between Florida and New York, and Jonathan spent most of that time filming and reworking the script.

“The magazine is kind of nice where it is,” he said. “I’d like to see it do a little bit more and if someone wants to help take it to the next level, I’m cool with that, but personally, I have other projects rather than just pumping out a magazine.”

Those other projects left the magazine neglected. Issue no. 7, which was completed at the end of 2010, was delivered months late to subscribers. The calendar deal fell apart. Work on the eighth issue, which was supposed to take place during the movie filming, stalled as well.

At the same time, the Leders’ marriage began to unravel. They fought frequently on their trips to and from Florida and during the filming, and money became an issue as well.

“If we did not have two kids, I would have quietly packed my bags and left,” Danielle said. “I deserve better than this.”

That October night, things came to a head as Danielle and Jonathan got into another fight over his plans to return to Florida to continue work on the movie. The next day, Jonathan packed his bags and told Danielle he was leaving for Florida.

“I told him, if you go, it won’t be good, because I can’t trust you and we obviously have problems we need to work on,” Danielle said. “He just looked at me and got in the car and left.”

Jonathan hasn’t been back to New York since.

***

Jacques seemed like a venture doomed to failure.

The magazine was not profitable. Jonathan claimed they were breaking even, but that Jacques wasn’t bringing much back in terms of money. Advertising was a major issue; American Apparel was the only company to buy space. The website was rarely updated. Distribution was an issue, Jonathan said, and he was unsure if he wanted the magazine in stores like Barnes & Noble or the now-defunct Borders. “The truth is, those places are really mainstream, and they don’t even sell that well to begin with,” Leder said.

Beyond that, Jacques was attempting to recreate an aesthetic that died years ago in an industry that is collapsing in a medium that is declining. Jacques was trying to sell nudity in a day and age when anyone with a functioning internet connection and a working computer can pull up millions of photos of a naked woman in roughly three seconds at no cost to them, and for that privilege, the magazine charged $9 an issue.

Despite all this, Jonathan believed that the magazine could be a bigger success. He just didn’t know if he was the one who could do it. I think if we had someone working on the magazine full time and really wanted to bust their ass, there’s a huge market for this,” Jonathan said. “The problem is that we’re not magazine publishers. We’ll see what happens when our new editor comes in. He seems really gung ho on taking it to the next level.”

That new editor was a familiar face to the Leders: Noah Wunsch, who had joined the magazine as a writer two years ago and worked his way up to an editor position. He is 22 years old, tall and rail thin, and he believed that there was room in an increasingly digital world for a print magazine with an aesthetic seemingly a generation out of date.

“The magazine is niche, but we don’t have to have a niche clientele,” he said. “This appeals to a broad audience.”

The plans were there in Wunsch’s mind: More advertisers, better distribution, publicity events, a new website, better written content. It would be an attempt to be the early version of Playboy with a more modern spin.

“That’s where we want to be, getting people to say without snickering, ‘I read it for the articles,’” Wunsch said. “It’s not implausible that could happen.”

In October, a couple of days after Wunsch told me about his plans for the magazine, he was no longer editor-at-large for Jacques. The new sole owner, Danielle Leder, had let him go.

***

Jonathan Tayler / The Brooklyn Ink

When Danielle talks about the future of Jacques, her eyes get bright and her voice jumps. This is her magazine, all the way through now. No one will take it from her. Not Jonathan, not Noah, not anyone. Her readers will see that Jacques was not just Jonathan Leder and his film photographs. There are her ideas, expansions and improvements. This is why Danielle and her crew stood in Fast Ashley’s Studios in Williamsburg, everyone clustered into a small space near the front, trying to get the path of blue paint trickling down the model’s arms and back and chest just right.

The first video shoot for the new Jacques started at 10:00 a.m. At 1 p.m., the crew had yet to begin shooting. They were still gathering supplies and setting up the camera acquired specially for the day. Thai food had been ordered and now sat mostly finished on a table toward the back. Everyone had eaten except the model, Danielle, who turned down offers of spring rolls and fried rice.

“When I eat, I get really tired,” she said.

Danielle Leder wouldn’t have it, though.

“Eat for me,” she said. “You can’t be on a shoot and not eat.”

Danielle demurred again.

“It’ll make me happy,” Leder said, and that settled it. The model took a bit of food.

Wearing khaki pants and a plaid shirt, Danielle Leder is, as expected for a former model, tall and thin. She wears round glasses over her green eyes and is frequently on the move. Danielle hopes to have Jacques up and running again by February of 2012, and to do so, she wants to release some short video commercials for the magazine and new website. Today’s video concept is simple: Danielle the model, mostly clothed, will have blue paint poured on her and then writhe around in it. At some point, there will likely be a voiceover. The idea is basic, but the execution is a far cry from the first efforts that the Leders shot for the inaugural issue of Jacques.

“We used to shoot commercials in our apartment,” Danielle said. “We’d put the kids to sleep, push furniture out of the way, get cheap lights and get a model to pose.”

For the next couple of hours, Danielle will give orders, demonstrate multiple poses, fix makeup and hair, change the music playing in the background (going between Michael Jackson and the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing), adjust the camera angle, pour paint on her model, order wardrobe changes (a pair of silver heels in particular), make sure that paint doesn’t get tracked onto the bare floor (something at which she isn’t entirely successful), and about a dozen other things. She will argue a few times with Kyle Walling, a friend from Tampa who is now part of the Jacques staff, about angles and placement and just how much paint to use.

In the past, Jonathan did the shooting for Jacques while Danielle worked behind the scenes, often helping the models with placement and posing, as well as makeup, hair and wardrobe. But she feels that her influence went beyond what she did on set. On Jonathan’s website, filled with photos taken for Jacques and other publications, Danielle clicks through a seemingly endless gallery of women posing half-nude in dark hotel rooms or in the middle of suburban lawns or stretched out in the backseats of retro cars. In every image, Danielle finds a piece of herself.

“That’s my skirt, my garter belt, my bra,” she said, pausing on each photo. “That’s our house, that’s our neighbor’s house. That’s the hotel we liked upstate. I styled this one and did makeup.”

Personal stories abound in the photos. Places they lived and stayed, the strip club at which she worked before modeling, the life she led that became the inspiration for hundreds of images.

“People don’t realize how much of me is in Jonathan Leder,” she said, eyes fixed on the screen, taking in every girl splayed out on a couch or pressed against a window with a vacant look on her face or her underwear bunched around her ankles. And then Danielle returns to the shoot, seating herself in the corner as the second round of paint pouring begins, eyes once again fixed.

***

The porn magazine in the digital age is a dying breed. The soft focus and grainy photos that grace the pages of Jacques have long been replaced in the adult industry by glossy sheets and online photo sets. Even the venerable Playboy has seen its circulation numbers and advertising revenue dwindle.

“That whole genre of magazines has seen its heyday way back in the 1980s,” said Dr. Samir Husni, the director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and an expert on the magazine industry. “It used to be that the number one category from 1986 to the mid-1990s was sex. We had more new sex magazines started in that category than any other.”

These days, companies like Playboy and Penthouse are struggling to compete with the Internet. After all, when you can get the same product for no money and in no time at all, why pay for the paper product? And yet that is precisely why Husni believes that Jacques can make it in the industry.

“When you have a magazine like Jacques, which takes a step backward, they have a better chance of surviving,” he said. “They go after that artistic appeal, which differentiates them from a magazine like Hustler or Penthouse. It gives them that collector’s feel. Nudity is an art, and as long as they stay within the artistic appeal, they will have a future.”

Yet for other reasons, Jacques’ future is unclear. Legal ownership of the magazine is disputed between Danielle and Jonathan, each of whom claims sole possession. There have been threats of lawsuits, but they have so far remained just that.

“There won’t be a Jacques,” Jonathan said. “She can’t continue without me. She never had anything to do with it. She can’t do it. She’s not capable.”

“He can make all his threats,” Danielle said. “He can sue me. They’re empty. I’m moving on with my magazine. Let him cling onto the old as much as he can. Without the magazine, he’s nothing.”

For now, Jacques still exists. Danielle’s plan is to get a new website up and functioning soon, as well as rent an office somewhere in Manhattan. If that can all come together, there’s a chance that Jacques could become something bigger.

“It is up to me now to move forward with this magazine and prove that we are a magazine that is here and we are going to stay,” Danielle said. “To make profit would be great. Is it my main goal? No. It’s a way for me to be creative.”

In Florida, Jonathan Leder also plots his next move. He’s continuing to work on his movie, and is debating whether to start a new magazine with Wunsch, one that continues what Jacques was and maybe even takes it somewhere new. He’ll head to Los Angeles when the movie is done with and try to make that magazine a reality.

“I’m not holding my breath on it becoming the next Playboy in terms of profit,” he said. “It’s just something I love to do.”

Why keep going with Jacques? The profit may be there, but it will take time to realize it. There are personal incentives, beliefs and ideals, but those won’t undo the adult industry’s move into the digital world or make distribution any cheaper or convince people to take a chance on a niche of a niche. It’s not quite a dream; it’s a reality with no easy answers.

“I’m not going to lie,” Danielle said. “If I cannot have this magazine to focus on, I’d be sitting in the corner crying. So I decided I’m going to take a really awful situation and turn it into a good one, take the magazine back and give my subscribers issues that they need. I just hope that they can still be supportive and bear with me on this transition.

“I’m sure most people don’t care,” she added. “They just want to look at naked people.”

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10 Responses to “Soft Porn, Hardening Hearts: A Magazine’s Private Story”

  1. Leon
    January 2, 2012 at 10:55 AM #

    Danielle Leder should continue working on magazine is most promising and excellent project to be completed her.

  2. nicksam2
    January 3, 2012 at 10:51 AM #

    Great story! Very well-done! It is suffused with poignance. One finds oneself rooting for Danielle. Hang in there, sweetheart.

  3. Art Uvaas
    January 3, 2012 at 11:13 AM #

    Let me make it clear that I am neither a proponent or fan
    of this genre. Nevertheless, Dr. Samir Husni of the
    University of Mississippi may have it right if JACQUES can
    maintain an “art house” quality with its ensuing publication.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath though…

    Art Uvaas
    Perris, California

  4. Pat - Inner Beauty PHotography
    January 6, 2012 at 4:36 PM #

    The magazine sounds like a great project if it can find its niche. I hope it works out and flourishes.

  5. crystal
    January 24, 2012 at 4:10 AM #

    i really love jacques magazine. the women are beautiful and real. it’s artsy and vintage and hot. the large scale size of the magazine is perfect. i am glad i subscribed to this when i did. i hope danielle can get the magazine going again and better than ever. looking forward to renewing my subscription and more videos!

    crystal, 22
    california
    female

  6. Kris
    March 23, 2012 at 8:19 PM #

    I was very much looking forward to the magazine. Enough that I bought myself and my boyfriend a subscription. There are many of us that paid for subscriptions and have never received 1. a magazine that we paid for 2. A response to emails asking for refunds. Basically we were ripped off. I’d still love to see the magazine in print, and if they could deliver I’d still buy, but there are so many of us that basically had money stolen from us. I’d love to see that rectified.

  7. Kim
    March 25, 2012 at 2:49 PM #

    Is Johnathan leder and Britaney Nola in a relationship?

  8. jon
    April 19, 2012 at 10:33 PM #

    I subscribed to Jacques in March 09. The first issue I was supposed to get was July. I never got it. I emailed, they apologized. I got number 7 later. Never got 8. Emailed them about that. They were supposed to send it. Did that again. Emailed again, they said they’d refund my money. They’ve said that 3 times. I’ve emailed just about my money 5 times. They don’t respond. Never got my money back.

    A couple months ago no.7 was sent to me again. No note or email why. I don’t live there anymore. Two years after it came out.

    I paid for this magazine because i liked the look, and they were big on using ‘real’ women. I wanted to support that. I’m sorry if they went under but i still deserve my money back. I paid for a product. If it was some huge company i wouldn’t have bought it. I wanted them to succeed.

    The only email i got from Jacques to all subscribers was the notice about no. 7 being late in 09. Nothing since. They don’t bother to apologize or to explain anything. That sucks. Plus, I’m not getting magazines i paid for. If they are printing them, and they are sending them out to book stores, i should get a copy. I’ve already paid.

    Thanks for the two 25 dollar magazines, Jacques.

    I wish this article had mentioned what is currently going on with Jacques with them delivering issues and making up the damage they’ve done to their subscribers. Very well written otherwise.

  9. jon
    April 19, 2012 at 10:39 PM #

    Also, they are out of money?

    Their site says all of their back issues are sold out. I guess they are i high demand. Print more, sell them.

    But i would guess that is a cover and they don’t have the money to front to print more magazines, not that they are out.

    Too bad.

  10. ryan
    September 12, 2012 at 10:03 AM #

    These people sound like a couple of self-absorbed drama queens.

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