Tuesday, February 13, 2007

My weekend with a Playmate

I spent a delightful part of my weekend talking to Debra Jo Fondren, a Southeast Texas native who was Playboy's 1978 Playmate of the Year. Who better to give a glimpse inside the life of a Playmate ... and the vagaries of post-Playmate life? In the wake of Anna Nicole Smith's death at age 39 last week, she's among a very few who could give us a front-row seat on the landscape of that tragedy.

Debra Jo turned 52 last week, but she's as pretty as ever. She's also wiser, after a brief reign as Playmate of the Year, a 10-year cocaine addiction, a string of jobs and marriages, and all the dreams and disappointments we humans share.

Debra Jo met Anna Nicole only once, at a Playboy Mansion party. It's described in my story for The Beaumont Enterprise today:

It was a New Year’s Eve party at the Playboy Mansion in 1995, just months before Anna Nicole’s billionaire husband J. Howard Marshall would die at age 90.

Anna Nicole wore a flowing evening gown and dripped with diamonds. Barely 27, she was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe in both her appearance and in Playboy’s breathless publicity. She symbolized a reinvigoration of Playboy’s faltering brand, a sudden beauty in a string of fake pearls. She was to be the new face of Playboy. She was a star.

To Debra Jo, who watched her from across the famed Playboy pool, Anna Nicole was the most fascinating and elegant woman at the party – and maybe was having more fun than anyone, as she was clearly loaded.

Suddenly, Anna Nicole dove into the pool — gown, diamonds, buzz and all. As she swam in the aqua-glow of a new year, Fondren saw her chance to meet the sex goddess she had only admired from afar. She dashed into the pool house, grabbed a towel and met Anna Nicole poolside as she emerged from the water.

“Hi, I’m Debra Jo Fondren, and I’m also a Playmate of the Year and I’m from Texas, too,” she said, a little star-struck, as she wrapped the towel around Smith.

“Oh, hi,” Anna Nicole said, still more than a little high. “Will you take me home?”

After that night, Fondren never saw Smith again, but she often thought of her. Debra Jo had survived her own post-Playmate tribulations, and she knew what Smith didn’t until it was too late.

Debra Jo (right) with a sopping Anna Nicole, poolside at the Playboy Mansion in 1995
(Photo courtesy of Debra Jo Fondren)


Jill said...

Interesting view of playmates.

Chancelucky said...

What a great story Ron. I remember Debra Jo Fondren a little too well. Scary to think that 30 years have gone by since and her life took so many tough turns.
Glad to hear that she's well now and has perspective on it all. Interesting contrast to Anna Nicole Smith.
I noted Hugh Hefner's comments post-Smith's death and they were both sad and cluelessly ironic at the same time it was even more tragic.