Whenever Playboy photographer David Chan hits town on one of his nude-talent hunts, the battle lines shape up like this: Occupying the moral high ground are feminist protesters who accuse Chan of being a salacious slutterbug and corrupter of young women. Down below, panting at the barricades, are hordes of envious men who regard Chan’s as the ultimate dream job. And in the middle of it all Chan goes quietly about his business, talking daughters out of their clothes. But don’t get the wrong idea. “The Hefner life-style,” says Chan the bland, “is not for me. I am too conservative. I love beautiful women, but I am monogamous.”
A 52-year-old bachelor, Chan says he never takes his work home with him, a policy that has kept him out of harm’s way during the 20 years he has traveled the country finding and photographing candidates for Playboy’s “The Women of…” pictorials. Chan has focused on secretaries, women in military service, farm women and even clerks at 7-Eleven stores after the chain banned Playboy from its shelves. But Chan is best known—or most reviled—for uncovering All-American coeds in such features as “Women of the Top Ten Party Colleges,” “Women of the Southwest Conference” and “Women of the Ivy League.” Audacious, yes, but not the kind of exposures likely to win Chan a Pulitzer for photojournalism. Still, it’s a living. And according to Chan’s editors at Playboy, nobody does it better. “The reason it all works,” says ex-Playboy exec Dan Sheridan, “is that David is so sincere. He’s utterly guileless. He can take a kid from Ithaca, N.Y., who’s nervous, has reservations about taking off her clothes, and he’s so innocent, so pure, that very soon he makes her feel good. She also feels safe.”
Which is more than Chan can say about some of the receptions he’s experienced. During a 1980 location shoot at Baylor University, an anonymous male called at 2 a.m. to warn Chan to get out of town by sunup or else. Chan stuck around anyway, and the feature ran as scheduled. In 1978, the Harvard Crimson said that a Chan ad announcing an open call for coeds was “simply too offensive” to accept. Chan says he welcomes such controversy: “It helps. Tells people we’re in town.”
And once the word is out, it’s as if Chan were the Pied Peeper. “We never have hardship,” says Chan, who admits to a Chinese accent that sometimes makes listeners take articles, and some other parts of speech, on faith. “No problem recruiting. Women, young and old, love to be in Playboy magazine. Playboy is magic word,” contends Chan, very much a company loyalist. “If they pose in other magazines, they would be ‘little slut.’ But Playboy is tops.” An attorney who revealed herself to Chan last year agreed. “I would only do it in Playboy,” she said. “Other magazines are a little repulsive.” Chan believes women are willing to pose because “for them it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. They would do it for nothing. They almost never ask if there is any money involved.”
In fact Chan’s amateur nudes earn $750, a bare minimum compared with centerfold models, who make $15,000 as Playmates of the Month. Women who pose semi-nude make $350, and $150 goes to allergic-to-cheesecake beauties who stay fully clothed.
Only a fraction of the hundreds of women Chan interviews each year make the cash cut. During seven days he spent in Washington, D.C., for a pictorial to be published next November, 600 women were given five-minute interviews and Polaroid sessions. Although most of the women keep their clothes on during the initial meeting, Chan will occasionally ask a knockout candidate to disrobe partly. Of the two dozen finalists chosen after Chan and Playboy editors sift through the Polaroids, fewer than 15 will appear in the magazine.
For the final photos, Chan returns to each location with a trunk-load of equipment. Once on-location lighting problems are solved—”Lighting can make or kill” a picture, he says—Chan warms up his subjects. “Some girls are so nervous—they’ve never done this before, never been seen nude except by their boyfriend or girlfriends—they come out in blotches over their chest. So I shoot a lot of Polaroids first, and when they see them, they are encouraged.” Chan’s camera-side manner works, says Yvette Brocco, 19, who tried out at the Washington shoot. An interior design student, Brocco says Chan “made me feel very comfortable because he kept joking and making me laugh.”
The son of third-generation Chinese immigrants, Chan grew up in Vancouver, B.C. “I have such Chinese accent,” he says, “but I’ve never been to China. At home we all speak Chinese. My mother doesn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t start until I went to school at 5.”
It was then that he began to focus on his future. “Since 5 or 6,” he says, “I wanted to work for LIFE magazine.” A year after graduating from high school in 1957, he moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., for three years to study at the Brooks Institute of Photography. In 1960 he moved to L.A. and worked as a free-lancer until one job for Playboy led to another and, in 1966, a move to Chicago headquarters. “I still work for Hefner,” he says, “because I think he is very honest.”
But haven’t 24 years in sexual fantasyland warped the way he looks at women? No, says Chan. “I don’t worship big boobs. Smiling eyes are most important. It’s the face that sells me. Good body, yes. But always I look at eyes first.”
When not on the road eyeing beautiful women, Chan keeps house, alone, in a modest condo overlooking Lake Michigan. “No relationship,” he says, “not right now. Most of my romances last five or six years. I am away on the job so much, in the beginning my girlfriends are a little jealous. But after they see the way I am and the way I work, they understand.”
They might, but Chan’s family back in Vancouver does not. “They say it’s time to settle down, marry and have kids. But I have my priority. I love my job.”
—Written by Steve Dougherty, reported by Barbara Kleban Mills