October 2019

Vox

by Richard Cooke and Russell Jackson

Tasteful sexuality

An oral history of the Warwick & Joanne Capper ‘Penthouse’ shoot

Like the 1960s, the 1990s were a break-out period for sexuality in pop culture. Basic Instinct, topless Calvin Klein ads and widespread video pornography resulted in what the writer David Friend called a triumph of the libido. Madonna’s ultra-controversial coffee-table book Sex, published in 1992, helped usher in the changes. But while the Queen of Pop’s glossy photos in retrospect look only suggestive, the Australian equivalent still startles today.

The August 1993 edition of Australian Penthouse was possibly a world first, and may yet be a world last. Its centrefold is an authorised, professionally produced selection of celebrity pornography, capturing the marital intimacies of a couple at the apex of their fame. They are Warwick Capper, freshly retired from a storied VFL/AFL football career, and his then wife, Joanne Capper. The Cappers are posed together in a series of sensual and sometimes shocking tableaux not readily forgotten.

Long rumoured to be the best-selling single magazine issue in Australian publishing history, the Capper Penthouse is a unique cultural object and piece of Australiana. Its story has never been told before, and it begins with an unlikely emotion: envy.

 

Warwick Capper: Back then it was a lot more risky. But I thought, why not? I was done with the football, and I thought, I don’t have anything else… A bit of sex appeal – why not?

Max Markson (publicist and celebrity manager): I’d say it’s the only one. I don’t think there’s ever been a men’s magazine where they’ve had a famous guy and a woman do a spread. When Ita [Buttrose] was running it, Cleo used to have the male centrefold, but at no stage with Playboy, Penthouse, Zoo or Maxim later had they ever had a man involved in a naked spread.

Antonella Gambotto-Burke (journalist and Capper profiler for Mode magazine): The thing that struck people about it was that these were two people with a public profile, people with options, if you will. Hence the level of incredulity. Why on earth would you choose to do such a thing? But they saw it differently. To Warwick and Joanne, it was a Vanity Fair cover.

Bambi Daul (photographer): It’s one of the most sacred centrefolds I ever shot – and I shot thousands of centrefolds.

 

Warwick Capper, possessing an astonishing vertical leap, sure hands and an idiosyncratic but effective goal-kicking style, became a superstar of VFL football in the 1980s. He was renowned as much for his bottle-blond mullet and skin-tight shorts as his athletic gifts. Plucked from the Melbourne suburb of Oakleigh – where, as a 15-year-old, he’d met his future wife Joanne at a school dance – Capper spent his early years at the Sydney Swans also working on a Marrickville Council garbage truck.

 

Capper: They did say I was the David Beckham of Australia. Pre-Beckham.

Markson: From a sports perspective, he’s one of only 28 AFL footballers in the last 110 years to kick 100 goals in a season. Did you know that? Because if you didn’t and Warwick was here, he’d tell you.

Capper: What is it about me that makes people excited? I dunno, mate. It’s a good question. Want to ask the girlfriend about that? She’s right here on the couch… Nah, she won’t answer that.

 

Capper kicked 103 goals in 1987 for the glamorous Geoffrey Edelsten–era Sydney Swans team. But when the next year he switched to the upstart Brisbane Bears, marrying Joanne in the process, the move was a failure. With indignant players kicking the ball past their rockstar teammate, Capper’s career nosedived; by the age of 28 his time on professional football fields was all but over.

His marriage faltered as well. The couple separated, and in 1992, a cash-strapped Joanne posed for Australian Penthouse magazine. Her new man, a singer-songwriter, was “pretty ideal”, she told the magazine. “He’s loving and caring, not possessive, and he’s fun to be with. He shows concern for my interests and our sex life is good.” When a jealous Warwick confronted the new beau, the resulting fracas led to police charges. (Warwick later claimed he roundhouse-kicked the man out of a window.) But the Cappers reunited, and had an idea: combining their separate pictorial profiles into a joint enterprise.

One of the key instigators was one of the magazine’s photographers, Bambi Daul. Herself a former “Penthouse Pet”, Daul now works as an energy healer.

 

Daul: So, Warwick and Joanne had a split and she did Penthouse. Well, then Warwick, because they’d broken up – he’s very competitive – he wanted to do the same. So, I shot him for Australian Women’s Forum, which was the [local] version of Playgirl. I really enjoyed it.

Capper: Shooting for Women’s Forum was easier because it was just me.

Daul: I still have the poster of it … Then about maybe six months after that, he and Joanne got back together. And they decided they wanted to do a centrefold together for Penthouse.

Capper: I knew the Penthouse photographer, and it was pretty good money back then, so I ended up doing that three times.

Graem Sims (one-time Penthouse and Inside Sport staffer): He appeared several times. Joanne was definitely in a couple of times. They were in and out of the office quite a bit. That was very much the heyday for Warwick.

Capper: She [Daul] was, like, friends with the family. And she said, “You know what? Maybe you should do it.” And I said, “That wouldn’t be a bad idea. Just to do something tasteful with the wife. As long as it’s not too rude. Not too raunchy.”

 

The centrefold was a coup for the magazine.

 

Sims: Penthouse was on a bit of a decline. The rise of the moral majority and their dedicated letter­writing campaigns really hacked Penthouse’s advertising base back in the early ’90s. They [the magazine] had sort of had their day.

Capper: I just wanted to do something different. She [Joanne] was a good-looking bird and I thought, why not. Get some easy money, pay the house off, and happy days. Sell some magazines. And it did that. And they were pretty tasteful, to look back on.

 

Graham Bicknell, a writer for the magazine, visited the Capper household to conduct the accompanying interview. “When Joanne had opened the front door Warwick was just around the corner playing his pinball machine,” he wrote. “He swung around to shake hands and say g’day while maintaining contact with the left flipper.”

 

Bicknell: There was also a table tennis table in there, and he and I had a couple of games. I recall that.

 

The shoot took four days. Daul, who was three months’ pregnant, shot unassisted, meaning only she and her subjects were present. She also did the hair and make-up.

 

Capper: Bambi helped with the mood. We’d had a few champagnes, so we were half-cut. It was good fun, to get a bit sexual. It was happy days. It was good. I don’t mind meself. I’ve got a lot of mirrors.

 

The simulated sexual posing – as instructed by editorial – quickly became un-simulated.

 

Daul: You know, there was no one else around. They had no neighbours. So I don’t think they ever shut the curtains. It was just open and fresh, and beautiful. Really lovely.

Capper: We actually ended up having sex on that day. I had an erection, too, so I had to put it somewhere. It was pretty tasteful over eight pages. It was pretty good, yeah. Just one more thing in the résumé, mate.

Daul: And I was shooting them in their bedroom and Warwick was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing while I was shooting. He was in some place he shouldn’t have been. And I knew something occurred.

Capper: I think I conceived me son on that shoot. That was pretty interesting.

Daul: I’m psychic, and I knew the second she was pregnant. I did. Yep. And she goes, “No, I’m not pregnant.” … And I said, “Joanne, you just got pregnant. In nine months’ time.”

 

Once the shoot was completed, the Cappers were given a high level of control over the end result. “The break-up of Australia’s own Ken and Barbie was the most public and bitter marital split in living memory,” the accompanying story read. “But having separately bared their souls to Penthouse over the last year, the Cappers are back… in bed and in love.”

 

Daul: They actually helped us pick [the images], which we never, ever let anyone do. Warwick was quite aware of his photographic good aspects and his not-so-good aspects, and his best angles.

Sims: Every state had a different censorship category, so seven or eight different editions of Penthouse were printed, of varying levels of explicitness. The home-delivered edition was the most graphic – what in the industry was referred to as “cock in”. Queensland editions were “not allowed to simulate any love-making”.

 

Joanne was defiant in the accompanying article: “Bugger the people. There’s so much hatred in the world and these shots are warm, loving and caring. They’re not sinful, they’re sensual, warm shots. They show love and there’s so much violence and so many horrible people in the world.”

While the most explicit version was mailed to subscribers, the newsstand issue was a massive best-seller. The exact sales figures have been lost to time, but the relevant quarterly audit period shows a monthly average of 119,008, on par with the magazine’s 1980s supremacy. It would never reach such peaks again.

 

Capper: I think it was the number-one selling magazine. Number one. That sold the most magazines in history, did you know that? They made about $3.8 million out of that, or maybe $5 million, in 1993.

Sims: I think, in the Penthouse realm, the mother-and-daughter shoot was the most famous sell-out, but that was back in about ’84 or ’85.

Daul: It was one of the best-selling issues we had. There was another one – Fairlie Arrow, who fabricated her own kidnapping to sell her music. That sold really well, as well.

 

Many of the magazine’s readers, presented with two tanned bodies and two blonde mullets, at first glance thought the shoot was girl-on-girl.

 

Capper: People used to make a funny joke and say, “Which one was Warwick?” Because we had the same hair. It’s a bit like Conan the Barbarian, with the big hair and the gold shorts, and the spandex and the big banana.

Daul: Warwick has got beautiful skin and beautiful features, and thick, beautiful hair. So he is very similar to a female centrefold.

Markson: The two of them looked alike with the long, blonde hair, so that was fascinating as a choice by the editor at the time.

Daul: I lit it really nicely and they have beautiful skin and I really liked making them look similar. To be honest, they look like brother and sister in the photo shoot.

 

Amid the reaction, a high-end fashion magazine, Mode, sent a writer to capture the Cappers. Antonella Gambotto-Burke, one of Australia’s best profile journalists asked for the assignment. The resulting story, “The Blonde Leading the Blonde” became one of her most memorable.

 

Gambotto-Burke: How did I end up in Warwick Capper’s kitchen discussing his pornographic exploits? I read an insignificant newspaper article about him – it may have been a mention in the gossip pages, I can’t recall – and was suddenly struck by the conviction that I would forever be sorry if I did not interview this man, whom I otherwise knew nothing about.

 

Gambotto-Burke called them “the southern hemisphere’s most improbably famous couple”. Joanne was by then eight months pregnant, and welcomed her to their Coolangatta home, where the writer was “surprised by her loveliness”. Together, Warwick and Joanne, with their $65,000 driveway, “artistically” shot pictorial and wineless wine cellar (Warwick preferred beer) were “the Great Australian Love Story”.

 

Gambotto-Burke: Warwick struck me as immediate in his desires, unfiltered, urgent … which has its appeal. There may also have been an element of ADHD, I don’t know. He certainly enjoyed his body and his life; he didn’t need justifications. Again, I didn’t think their frankness about sexuality was that interesting. I still don’t. It was their frankness, period, that was jaw-dropping. They were so fantastically open.

 

The Cappers made sure Gambotto-Burke saw their multiple pictorials.

 

Gambotto-Burke: Warwick was voluble, enthusiastic, wild, mad, emotional, straightforward, carnal, intense, passionate, ambitious, unintelligent and hysterically funny, if not always intentionally. I loved his spirit if not his avidity, which I found disconcerting … It was so shocking – I’m laughing here – but not because of the sexuality. The whole thing was shocking – the frankness, the spa bath, the chocolate-covered nuts (or raisins, or whatever they were). They were so artless. I felt as if I’d entered another universe.

 

“The Blonde leading the Blonde” was reprinted several times, and its descriptive passages – one of which described Joanne’s pubic hair as “white as the froth on a pint of Castlemaine” – became legend. Warwick Capper was said to be displeased.

 

Gambotto-Burke: You mentioned discord between us – there was no real discord.

Capper: She’s come over for the day, to my place, and she was sort of nice to me face, and then she wrote a bad article. So I gave her a serve. I remember that one.

Gambotto-Burke: I bumped into Warwick at the airport luggage carousel one evening – I had just flown back from an interview, and didn’t have enough money for the trolley. I asked if he could lend me two dollars, and he did. He then turned around and said something along the lines of, “That piece you wrote about us – someone said it was nasty.” To which I honestly replied – and I paraphrase – “It wasn’t nasty at all; it was the truth. I liked you both very much.” And I did. I did not agree with their interior design and nor did I share their interests, but I loved their warmth and their passion for each other.

Capper: I gave her a serve in the media too. Because what she said was all bullshit. She just churned it around. Saying we’re two ditzy blondes, we’re two airheads. But that’s the way with interviews – you have to take the good with the bad. There’s always a couple of wankers.

 

The profile cemented the Cappers as an iconic romance in Australian folklore, and they became a comedy staple for The Late Show, Eric Bana and, later, Richard Marsland.

 

Capper: There were millions of [pieces] of fan mail after.

Daul: I got banned from [model agency] Chadwick’s, and the number-one modelling agencies in Sydney. They didn’t let me in for a few months after I did Warwick.

Capper: It’s good being a good footballer, but it’s also good to do everything else too. It’s nice to be remembered as a bit of an entertainer. A bit of sex appeal… the whole package. That’s what people love; that’s what the fans love.

 

Sadly, the love captured in the centrefold was not eternal: the couple would eventually split again, this time permanently.

 

Gambotto-Burke: Warwick and Joanne had a beautiful connection, which I think I captured in the piece. People focus on the lines that make them laugh – the pubic hair like beer froth, and so on – but the reason the piece continues to resonate is because it is about a love story. Paradoxically, their relationship was more profound than many relationships I have known between far more intelligent and educated people. They really loved each other.

 

Since finishing as a footballer, Warwick has enjoyed brief careers as a model, pop singer, politician, male escort, amateur boxer, stand-up comic, radio host and Gold Coast meter maid. He returned to pornography in 2009 with a celebrity sex tape, but the film didn’t have the same cultural impact as his centrefolds.

 

Markson: Warwick complains to me, because we were on Celebrity Apprentice in 2011 and I had him fired in the first episode.

Capper: Is there anything I regret? Nah. I just do what I feel like doing. I’d just like to be remembered as a nice, fun-loving guy who got the best out of himself. The first marketable footballer in VFL/AFL football. To get the best out of yourself. Not be shy. Have a crack.

 

Joanne and their son, Indiana, have sought a life away from the spotlight.

Warwick still thinks about the shoot occasionally.

 

Capper: How would I sum it up? Tasteful sexuality.

 

Warwick Capper is available for comedy nights and club fundraisers.

Richard Cooke and Russell Jackson

Richard Cooke is The Monthly’s contributing editor. Russell Jackon is a writer and publisher from Melbourne.

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