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From Penthouse to the street

Michelle Olley, deputy editor and female face of the `new-look' Penthouse, has walked out. She reveals all exclusively to Suzi Feay
If anyone could have done it, it should have been Michelle Olley. The mission? To drag old-school porn, kicking and screaming in its white- lace hold-up stockings and naff stilettoes, off the top shelf and into the lives of real men and women. Yet just over two weeks after the relaunch of Penthouse UK (or PH.UK), its deputy editor (and the magazine's friendly, female face) has walked out, with her faith in sexual expression undimmed, but her schemes for changing the porn industry from within shattered.

Not that she didn't give it her best shot. "The media spotlight grew more and more mental," says Olley of the count-down to the launch on 13 August. "I did so much press and radio. We had a C4 documentary crew in with us all the time; I was making confidential calls with a camera in my face. It was like some bizarre Robert Altman film."

Having been, in her own tongue-in-cheek term, "porno-scum" for four months, she resigned, by fax, at 4am after the glittering launch party at the Cafe de Paris. "So you could say I've gone from the penthouse to the street," she sighs.

Olley, now 31, is the last woman you can imagine cowering under the pink velvet cosh of evil porn barons. She worked for over seven years on the fetish magazine Skin Two, beginning as a green student on work experience and ending up a veteran of the soundbite. If you've ever watched a TV programme about, say, the Spanner case, you'll almost certainly have seen her, glammed up in latex, giving an impassioned, articulate defence.

Her expertise and media savvy stood her former employers at Penthouse in good stead, as she acknowledges with a tinge of cynicism: "When it comes to explaining the reasons for a new Nineties porn mag, it's great having a woman doing it for you. Especially if she knows what she's talking about, rather than just reiterating the press release 10 times.

"Sex is my politics," she goes on passionately. "It's how I deal with inequality in the world. You can't solve everything, but I felt I could do something about sex-workers, the way we treat women in that industry. It's why I took the job in the first place, to get a bit more respect for women on the top shelf. The first thing a guy picks up when he's 14, 15, is a porn mag. If it's full of these horrible things about women, all these awful pictures, they're going to grow up thinking the wrong thing, aren't they?

"I wanted to see a magazine where men and women were trying to get on, where women are telling men what they want sexually, and where men can say what they want without being offensive. I still believe that's do- able, but I wasn't able to get that across to the editor."

The idea was to bring in hip stylists and photographers, to ban the cheesy, motel-room settings, and rescue porn from its dreadful Seventies limbo of frosted highlighter and upswept hair. "I kept telling them: credibility! That's how you get beautiful women to take their clothes off. If you haven't got pounds 100,000 to give to Zoe Ball, she's ain't gonna get her clothes off unless you're cool! Get a grip! But they never listened to me."

Olley brought over her own roster of contacts and writers, but soon felt her own credibility was being threatened. "Stylists from The Face and i-D who worked for nothing and gave us loads of contacts were gobsmacked when the magazine came back from printers, because it was all the things they were told it wouldn't be, like printed on crap paper, with dodgy ads. These people are trying to do something new here, they're giving their time and I just felt we were letting them down."

The night before the party, she went out to dinner with Bob Guccione and the Penthouse top brass. "It was like Animal Farm! There's this big old warhorse who's not got a lot to say, and all the little piggies, chuckling away. It was a bit nervewracking, sitting there thinking I was just about to make all these incredibly powerful, millionaire-type people extremely angry."

"Michelle isn't the only woman in porn," comments Penthouse editor Tom Hilditch, "though she may be the loudest. We all miss her," he adds hastily. "But though she may have left, her perspective is still with us. She helped us write our mission statement, and I will be sticking to that. All the same," (he suddenly builds up a head of steam) "I can't run Penthouse as a rag-mag like Skin Two, which is basically just a beautifully produced quarterly fanzine where it's okay to run stories by your friends."

Olley still has several projects in the pipeline. One is her band, Salon Kitty, which comprises "a fat chick, a tranny, a 45-year-old gay guy and an Asian gay guy in stupid outfits running round having a fabulous time"; another is her own glamour fanzine, organised with the help of photographer Ben Westwood, eldest son of Vivienne. "We may start off with 24 pages run off on his mum's photocopier, but we're gonna do it. Ben was about 12 when the punk thing was happening, and Malcolm and Vivienne were collecting all those Sixties tease mags and bondage mags, cutting them up and putting them in the pockets of the shirts at Seditionaries. So in his formative years he was surrounded by all these cute Sixties Betty Page-type images; at the same time there's all these fierce punk rock girls hanging round the shop ...

"It'll be bent and queer and fetish, it'll have pictures of beautiful naked women and it will be free, because we're going to take the money out of the equation. Sex plus money equals exploitation. Having gone through that whole Penthouse experience, I'm very aware of the problems."