Before Renee Tenison was featured in PLAYBOY, she didn’t really know anything about it. She had a boyfriend who had a subscription, and instead of feeling some type of way about it, she flipped through the magazines along with him, in awe of the women.
“I would look at it every month and I just thought the women were so beautiful,” she tells MadameNoire. “I just was mesmerized by them.” And then one day, after her boyfriend told her she could be in the magazine, she actually took the steps to make it happen. A few bikini photos later, she was selected to be Playmate of the Month in November 1989. To her shock, a year later, she would be selected as Playmate of the Year. Her life would change, kicking off not only a great relationship with the folks at Hugh Hefner’s iconic mag, but also launching an acting and modeling career. She appeared on sitcoms that were ’90s staples, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, Martin, and The Jamie Foxx Show, as well as a few film roles. It was work she was also able to share with her twin sister, Rosie (they posed together in a 2002 issue), making it a family affair. It was a stepping stone that has allowed Tenison the chance to even kickstart a career in fashion. In addition to that, her Playmate of the Year crowning opened doors for the three other women who received the same honor since, including, most recently, Jordan Emanuel, 2019’s POY.
Being that it’s Women’s History Month, we spoke with the ageless beauty about making history all those years ago, going from a small town in Idaho to the pages of PLAYBOY and how she stays forever young and fine in her 50s.
MadameNoire: Everyone loves a good origin story. What was your exposure to PLAYBOY and how did you end up deciding to enter a contest for the magazine to be initially selected as Playmate of the Month? I read you were 19, 20 at the time.
Renee Tenison: I originally didn’t know anything about PLAYBOY or the magazine. I had no interest in it but my boyfriend had a subscription to PLAYBOY. Then one day he said to me, “You know you could you could be in PLAYBOY magazine.” I went to like a local photographer, we took some bikini shots. I sent them in to Chicago. I didn’t realize they were doing the 35th-anniversary search. I received a phone call from [PLAYBOY photo editor] Michael Ann Sullivan, she said that they had had 14,000 entries and they narrowed it down to 14 and they wanted me to fly to Chicago to test for the playmate.
While it’s one thing to appreciate one’s body and nudity, it’s another to have the confidence to pose nude for a major magazine and be sure that others will like what they see. Can you speak to having that confidence then and now?
I don’t know why I did not have a problem with posing nude. To me, I just looked at it as art. The pictures were so classy and beautiful. I really looked forward to the opportunity to get to shoot with the photographers and everybody was so professional at PLAYBOY. So I guess the confidence just came from knowing you were working with the best. I was flown all over the world, nothing was done cheap, everything was top-notch! I flew to Paris for my Playmate of the Year photo shoot. I shot in a castle in London. They flew me to Cuba. Everything I did with PLAYBOY was top-notch and some the best photos I’ve had in my life.
Looking back more than 30 years later, how does it feel to have a place in history as the first African American Playmate of the Year?
I’m extremely proud of the opportunity to represent PLAYBOY and be the first African-American Playmate of the Year. It changed my life. I think it just opened up the door for African-American women to feel that they were sexy as well and not be afraid of their bodies and to be seen as sexy icons!
Can you speak to what the reception was to you being a Black POY? Did you experience any pushback from either PLAYBOY readers or others by chance? Or was it always good vibes?
I always experienced good vibes from the PLAYBOY readers. I did have one instance where I was doing an autograph signing in New York and I received a death threat from someone who said if I showed up to the appearance they were going to shoot me. They were upset because I was African-American and in Playboy, but I didn’t want to give this person power over me, so I chose to do the appearance. They brought in protection, I did my appearance, it was like success, and I’m still here today!
Speaking on Blackness, I read that you grew up in a very white environment in Idaho and said in 1990 that you and your sister weren’t often approached by guys looking to date you and you thought being Black had something to do with that. You go from that situation to being a playmate and everyone wants you, which I know had to be a mind warp. How was that shift in experience for you?
I did not date a lot in Idaho because of the fact Rosie and I were the only African-American girls in our school. So we never really went to proms or got asked to dances. When I graduated I did get asked out more and when I became a Playmate of the Year it opened up a whole different dating experience for me.
How did your twin sister get involved in posing for the magazine with you? How did your family react to that?
When I first thought about doing PLAYBOY I approached my sister and asked her if she wanted to send some photos in with me. She immediately said, “Absolutely not. You’re on your own. I think it’s going to be a very a bad experience for you.” But I said oh well I’m just gonna go ahead and do it and see how it pans out.
Needless to say, my sister was stunned when I was named the first African-American Playmate of the Year. [Hugh Hefner] did approach us about 15 years later and asked us to do a celebrity pictorial. He said he would fly us anywhere in the world, all we had to do was let them know where. We picked Cuba!
My family was cool with PLAYBOY because they saw all of the positives that came out of it so they had no bad feelings.
You had a very successful career on television and in film. What are you working on now? I know you and Rosie have had your Varga boutiques.
After I did PLAYBOY I modeled for about 20 years and then I decided in my mid-30s that I wanted to have a career change so I went into fashion. It’s my true passion. I went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. I ended up opening up a boutique called Varga. We also have a website called vargastore.com and it’s truly my passion project and I love it! I love dealing with fashion, I love dealing with customers. I’m very proud of our Varga boutiques.
And what’s the trick to looking as good as you do at 52? I know you’ve always been quite fit!
I think looking good, it’s just a state of mind. I always do my makeup in the morning. I also make sure to try to do some sort of cardio every morning. I live in Santa Monica so I go to the beach every day to try and walk at least 10,000 steps in the morning and then if I can, try and catch another 10,000 in the evening.
I make sure to eat well, try and get my eight hours of sleep. But I truly believe aging is just a state of mind. It’s all just how you feel and I feel happy at age 52. I’m probably happier than when I was in my 30s, so age is just a number!