It’s the tail end of the lunch rush at Uptown Kingston’s Outdated Café. Danielle Leder is digging into an omelet and plotting domination of the softcore pornography industry.
“I want to become the standard,” says the 29-year-old fashion model turned magazine publisher. “I want to take down Playboy.”
It’s a bold statement from a woman who just barely saved her life’s work, Jacques magazine, from oblivion in the wake of an ugly divorce. But Leder isn’t the timid type. If she was, she probably wouldn’t be staking her future on the revival of a genre — the glossy sex magazine — that has been on the wane since the Internet came along to take awkward interactions with store clerks and chance encounters with friends and relatives out of the porn-access equation.
Nor would she pin her hopes on that revival emanating not from a Manhattan office suite or Williamsburg loft, but from a laptop in a corner table of a café and antique shop on Wall Street in Kingston. But, since arriving in here in 2012, that’s exactly what Leder has done — following a path from Brooklyn at once well-worn and improbable that points to a surge in the region’s creative economy.
Jacques was conceived in a Williamsburg apartment back in 2009 as Leder was recovering from a difficult pregnancy. The idea was to create a radically different alternative to mainstream magazines like Playboy or Maxim. The photos would be shot on actual film with no retouching allowed. Some of the models fit neatly into modern media definition of female beauty, others came with curves reminiscent of an earlier era of smut. Editorial content would be eclectic, encompassing everything from an examination of the sexuality of surrealist painter Salvador Dali to photo essays on the civil war in the Congo to confessions of a one-time prostitute. Working with then husband Jonathan Leder — a photographer — Leder managed to put out seven issues, building momentum and a subscriber base with each one. Jacques’ modern take on the retro-nudie magazine got attention from The New York Times and other media outlets. Then, in 2011, the wheels came off of Jacques and Leder’s life.
Betrayal, hiatus, rebirth
As she recounts in Issue 8 (“The Betrayal Issue”) her husband took off to Florida with the cover model from Issue 7. He took with him, she said, all of the subscriber money and used it to make a slasher film. She was left alone, living in Woodstock now with two children, no job and no means to shoot, print and distribute another issue of Jacques. By then, though, Leder said the magazine had taken on a life of its own.
“People wouldn’t let it go,” said Leder of the two-year hiatus between “The Voyeur Issue” and “The Betrayal Issue.” “Every day I would get another e-mail from somebody asking, ‘How do I subscribe?’”
And so she assembled a new team, including fashion photographer Ben Ritter, and produced “Betrayal” — the first in a planned three-issue set. In the issue, Leder laid bare the dissolution of her marriage and the near-demise of the magazine. The photo features include marital betrayal archetypes like “The Mistress” and “The Killer,” as well as Leder’s debut in the pages of Jacques, playing “The Wife.” Leder also appears posed provocatively with the very same cover model who ran off with her then-husband, beside an exchange of correspondence between the women seeking and (sort of) offering forgiveness.
By then, Leder had moved into a historic home in Uptown Kingston where, she said, she finds all the creative resources she needs to keep Jacques going. On a late-winter afternoon she sits in Outdated with fashion editor Chloe Pecorino after a busy few days spent shooting what will become “The Revenge Issue.”
“It was always me, always,” she says emphatically of her, and her ex’s, role in Jacques. “He just stood there hiding behind the camera.”
In the next breath, though, she’ll tell you how “Betrayal” and “Revenge” represent a rebirth for Jacques as something that’s hers and hers alone. She dumped her ex’s favorite feature — “Peach Fuzz,” she says with a bit of a shudder — that highlighted 18- to 21-year-old models and brought a new sensibility forged during tough times to the work.
“I wanted to hit the reset button and go back to when I founded Jacques,” said Leder. “This was something I started to showcase women the way they really are and yet I was married to someone who likes to objectify women.”
As for her own role in the industry, Leder has no qualms: She sees sex as both powerful and empowering. Sex, she says, has been a powerful force in her life since she was a girl and discovered that her dad had taped over her copy of Mary Poppins with ’80s porn. (“I was always a very sexual human being and I took a lot of shit for it from my family and friends,” she says.) It wasn’t until she started working as a stripper in Tampa club, she said, she learned that white-hot sexuality could be a positive force instead of a drawback, a source of shame or a path to destruction.
“There’s two kinds of feminists, the fight-fire-with-fire kind, and the kind who think women engaged in [her] kind of activity must’ve been abused by Daddy and are totally fucked up,” said Leder. “I actually had a woman in Woodstock once call me a predator. Bullshit.”
Reviving Jacques, Leder admits, took some compromising. For “Betrayal” she had to abandon the magazine’s full-size glossy format for a more economical 8 1/2 inch-by-5 1/2 inch booklet format and cut back on distribution by focusing on a small number of high-end retailers. (Locally, Jacques can be found at Half Moon Books on North Front Street.) But the next phase of the magazine’s evolution also brought some new opportunities. Now, there’s a board of directors and a major investor. Advertising remains scarce (the only ads come from controversy-courting clothier American Apparel and Kingston’s own Stockade Tavern) but Leder said Jacques had a dedicated subscriber base and strong newsstand sales.
It’s also a homegrown Hudson Valley creation. Leder said she first became acquainted with the area on weekend trips from the city. When she founded Jacques, she said she was drawn to the “visual goldmine” of Kingston and the surrounding area. Besides scenery, she said, Kingston had also provided a network of supportive and creative people who could help her carry out her vision. For “Revenge,” she worked with Uptown Kingston hairstylists Le Shag; negatives were developed at the Center for Photography at Woodstock and processed at Artcraft in Kingston Plaza. The props were all bought — or the case of a “ceremonial dagger” for “Revenge” — borrowed locally.
“For people working for themselves this is great place to be because we’re all in the same boat, so why not help each other,” said Leder. “And there are tons of people up here who are at the top of what they do.”