Thursday, July 17, 1997 | 11:07 a.m.
From the moment Petra Verkaik first bared her body to the world in the pages of Playboy magazine it was clear that her curvaceous silhouette was going to be a valuable commodity.
And everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of her asset.
Industry executives scrambled to book her, magazine collectors beseeched her to autograph stacks of battered centerfolds they could sell at a profit, adoring fans penned fervent declarations of love and lust, and built shrines to the voluptuous vixen in cyberspace in hopes of gaining some sort of response from the star.
The lovely, demure Verkaik cheerfully obliged them all.
Like the bevy of Playboy bunnies in town last week for the Video Software Dealers' Association (VSDA) convention, Verkaik attended her share of conventions, smiled, posed and doled out autographs, doing her public relations duties for the company that made her famous. In return, her career soared. She had fame! She had fortune! Her cleavage graced newsstands throughout the world! Hundreds of fans ranked her among the top 20 most popular playmates of the year - several times in a row. And this year, readers voted her Model of the Year, a top honor at Playboy. "I thought they'd pick one of the 22-year-olds," says Verkaik, 30. "I'm really flattered."
But instead of plugging Playboy with all the other bunnies at the VSDA this year, Verkaik sat at a separate booth, promoting the latest video from her company, Pin-Up Girls, which she formed in November, 1995. The video, the first in a series to be released during the next few years, Verkaik's third project since starting her own company. "I've kind of broken away from the pack now, being a producer and kind of rocking the boat over there at Playboy," Verkaik says.
The move was unprecedented in Playboy history, according to Verkaik and her boyfriend Anthony Stanley. Although there have been girls who have produced videos for companies other than Playboy, "there haven't been any girls who have gone out themselves and done it," Stanley says.
Adds Verkaik: " I've always kept communication open with Playboy and I value the relationship alot and I still work with them, but what I was telling them was 'I'm not a girl from the 50s or 60s. I'm empowered and I want a piece."'
Fighting words from a woman whose profession has often caused people to view her as a - pardon the expression - bimbo. In fact, Verkaik herself once looked down on girls who posed nude. "I thought all those girls were whores and sluts," she says. "I thought it was just a big orgy and I didn't want anything to do with it."
A Los Angeles native, Verkaik had always dreamed of being an actress. When she was 22 years old, she enrolled in an acting class, which required her to get some professional photos of herself. Having little money she agreed to a photographer's suggestion that they do a trade: he'd do her head shots for free, if she did some modelling - fully clothed - for him. She says she had no idea he had sent them off to Playboy, until he called her to tell her they were interested in shooting her."I was flattered they wanted me to do it," she says, "but I just didn't want to do it." Three months later, however, she gave in, reasoning that it would give her something to brag about when she was an old woman in a convalescence home.
Verkaik appears to have accepted gracefully the notoriety that comes with the territory. "All my fans are really nice," she says. And she is remarkably free from paranoia - perhaps too much so. Of the man who mailed 1700 envelopes voting her Model of the Year, she says somewhat inexplicably: "I don't know if he's a weirdo or not."
Although she generally enjoys hearing from fans, Verkaik did become rather irritated during a period last year when she dyed her hair blonde. "That really turned the volume up ten notches." Verkaik could literally see men flock to her "from far and away" and they would say "the dorkiest things."
Verkaik is no longer blonde, but vamping for the camera on a recent evening in Las Vegas, she still looks very much the part of a Playboy bunny,with her pouty lips, unearthly proportions, and a bustline that seems to defy the laws of gravity. ("I'm all real," she insists.) Underneath the dazzling facade, however, is a woman who has changed dramatically in the past few years. "Before I waited for jobs to come by, for the phone to ring," she says. "Now I create jobs for myself and other girls."
Verkaik's internal transformation started in 1995, when she was a rising star at Playboy. Although she was extremely popular among readers, and got plenty of work shooting beer ads and calendars, she couldn't quite seem to reconcile her bold, sizzling Playmate image with the regular gal she really was. "I was intimidated by this business and by who I as," she remembers. "I grew into this body, but I felt like I didn't deserve all the attention, and I couldn't handle it." Sometimes she'd cringe when she saw which photos were selected to run in a given issue. "I never had any say on which pictures were chosen, and I'd go 'Oh, no... why did they pick that picture? Oh, I hate that."'
Although she had few complaints about her pay at Playboy, she did realize, however dimly, that "there was a lot more money out there than what I was getting." Somehow, it seemed, her life wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
Then one morning, a man on the radio gave voice to her doubts: "Are you getting the respect you deserve?" he asked. "Are you making the kind of money you feel you should? Are you living the lifestyle you want...?"
Verkaik thought it over. "All my answers were 'no."' So she did what any self-respecting southern Californian would do in such a crisis: She signed up for a weekend seminar designed to help her explore her inner feelings and rethink the negative thought patterns that were holding her back. "It was a new perspective on life."
A few months later, Verkaik formed her company and began work on a video and calendar."I'd been on the set all those years, so all I really had to do was do it." Well, actually, that wasn't all. She also had to pay for it.
"I booked girls on a particular date, I got a photographer, a make-up artist, a location, I got a stylist, I got catering, all for particular days, but I didn't have any money. So it was like two days before the shoot, I went to the bank with all my credit cards, maxed 'em out, 'gimme the cash,' and just wrote checks to everybody." The move put her $60,000 in debt, which caused her to do a lot of "freaking out." But she was determined to do whatever it took. "I think you have to have that attitude to make anything fly," she says.
The video was never released, due to contract entanglements which Verkaik hopes will eventually be sorted out. However, the calendar was a success, and gave Verkaik enough credibility to get financing for her second video. "To go out into the business world, it's scary," she says. "But I just think one day I realized I had a lot more power than I was playing. "I wanted a piece of the pie."
Rather than being the pie.