For anyone who’s seen the recent cover of treats! magazine, an image of the Instagram star known as The Fat Jew superimposed onto the magnified abdomen of a tanned bikini model, hearing the publication’s founder Steve Shaw describe his target audience may come as something of a shock.
“I do treats! for women, really,” he tells InsideHook. “Women love looking at naked girls, if it’s done right.”
Founded in 2011, treats! quickly connected with readers of all genders. It was promptly named one of the “Hottest Launches of the Year” by Media Industry Newsletter — the first magazine featuring nudity ever to receive that accolade. “They described it as ‘erotic content,’ but I don’t describe treats! as erotic at all,” notes Shaw, who got his start shooting for lad mags like Maxim and FHM.
He could have fooled us.
Readers of treats! will detect an undeniable trace of 1970s-era Playboy in its aesthetic, but Shaw insists his cheesecake is aimed at a more refined palate. Showcasing the taste-conscious work of photographers like David Bellemere and models like Emily Ratajkowski (pre-“Blurred Lines”), treats! has all the sheen of a high-toned fashion magazine, just a lot fewer clothes.
InsideHook recently caught up with Shaw to learn what possessed him to launch a sexy print publication at a time when nudity is ubiquitous online and magazines are on life-support, his approach to creating a relaxed atmosphere on the set, how he discovered the then-unknown Ratajkowski, and whether he’s the next Hugh Hefner.
When did you realize that treats! was a success?
The first issue. As soon as the distributor sent it out to newsstands, we had a bunch of them calling us directly saying, “We need more of these magazines. We’ve sold out in a day.” There’s a very popular fine-art bookstore on Sunset Boulevard called Book Soup. The woman who runs the store called me and said, “treats! is the best-selling magazine we’ve had in this history of this bookstore, and we cannot keep it in stock.”
The cover was of two naked girls kind of covering each other, and it’s still my favorite. I like to find these natural-looking girls that are beautiful and smart. It’s not some five-foot bimbo with big, fake boobs.
Cover photo by Tony Duran
When did you first develop an interest in nude photography?
My first expensive photography book was by David Bailey. He did a photo book about his wife called Trouble and Strife, and I just thought it was so amazing. He definitely has been a huge influence along with Helmut Newton.
You don’t see a lot of photography like that anymore. Everything is so disposable these days with Instagram and new social media. There are so many images out there, and people who get a lot of likes or followers on Instagram think they’re photographers. And good quality print is disappearing and becoming rarer. It’s so expensive to produce a magazine like treats!. It’s like a fine-art photography book. The paper stock is amazing: it’s heavyweight paper that’s all matte and uncoated with full pages. We devote 15 to 25 pages to a single photographer. No other magazine does that.
So why did you start a print magazine now, especially one with nudity in it?
Because I was crazy, for one. But also because I was frustrated as a photographer. I had no idea of how to do a magazine—I just saw a lot of magazines that didn’t work and what they were doing wrong. When I shot for Maxim and FHM, these girls’ publicists were forcing them to do the job for exposure. They had to do these sexy pictures where they’re pulling down their bikinis. To put an actress in lingerie or a bikini is so against what they really do. That’s the last thing she wants to do. So treats! was born out of that frustration, really. I wanted to do something that wasn’t commercially driven or gratuitous but was purely artistic and timeless.
I do a lot of personal work, and I had photographed nude girls in a tasteful way before. But unless I printed my own books, there was never an outlet to have people see those images. So with treats!, I wanted to go to fellow photographers and say, “Maybe you’re on a beach somewhere doing a photo shoot for some clothing brand and maybe you’re not that into the brand, but you’ve got this amazing model and this amazing location and amazing hair and makeup. Do your commercial shoot and then spend a couple of hours afterwards and do something for yourself.” And most photographers wanted to shoot nude girls, so I was like, “Go and do that, and I’ll get the pictures and publish them for you.” So it really was for a bit of fun, and I wanted to give photographers this great platform to showcase personal work that would otherwise never be seen.
Got to ask you—how great is it getting to photograph naked girls for a living?
Well it’s not something that I get excited by or that turns me on. I’ve seen a million girls naked. You can’t make a big deal about it, and there needs to be mutual respect for it to work. What excites me is seeing a beautiful image and creating a beautiful image together, but she has to trust you as a photographer.
Cover photos by Ben Watts and Tony Duran
How do you establish that trust? It can’t be easy for these girls to stand there with their tops off.
It is a very vulnerable position to be in, but it can also end up being incredibly empowering for them. It’s like jumping out of a plane. The best shoots are when a girl is like, “Fuck it. I’m gonna take my clothes off, and I don’t care who’s looking!” But sometimes it’s nice to have the vulnerability and then see a girl who’s a little bit shy at first open up and express herself.
If a model respects your work, respects what you do, and you explain the process to her, then it becomes this incredible collaboration. And you usually get the best results when you already have a relationship with the model.
When did Emily Ratajkowski come along?
Oh, that’s quite a story. Emily came to the very first photo shoot that we did for treats! Tony Duran was doing the shoot, and it was called “The Casting.” So Tony said to me, “Steve, I want you to organize a casting at your studio. As people arrive, I want to pick them off, and if I like somebody, I will start photographing them.” So I said, “That sounds fantastic.” He said, “We can have some drinks, we can have some fun, and we can create this little party.” So we had about 50 or 60 models come to the casting, and Emily was one of the girls. She must have been 19 or 20 years old at the time.
So she sat there for about an hour, and no one paid any attention to her. And she had this shitty portfolio. The girl was modeling lingerie for Fredrick’s of Hollywood’s e-commerce website. I mean, the worst stuff. The girl could hardly get a job. She was 5’4” with these huge tits. Tony suggested I send her home, so I went up to her and said, “Look, sorry. You’ve got to go,” and she went, “Oh, okay.” And then for some weird reason I started talking to her, and she was actually a really smart girl. She was telling me about her family and how her father’s an artist and her mum is a teacher. So I said, “You know what? Don’t leave just yet. Do me a favor and go into the changing room and take your clothes off and put a little pair of knickers on.” And she goes, “Oh, okay. No problem.” So she goes in and comes out, and I literally nearly f**king fell over myself. I had never seen a body like that before in my life. So I grabbed her hand and took her over to Tony and said, “You’ve got to shoot this girl.” So he ended up shooting her until 2 o’clock in the morning, and we got the images back, and they were incredible. We ended up putting her in four issues of treats!
When did you finally decide to put her on the cover?
A photographer on Issue 3 was supposed to shoot a cover for us, and something happened, and it fell through so I was panicking. I called Emily up out of the blue, and I said, “Look, I want to do something this afternoon. We don’t have a cover, and I want to do a quick test.” So she came over, and we did this photo shoot, and oh my god! It was unbelievable. I just said, “Let’s shoot you raw, with just the beauty you are.” And that’s when people went crazy over her. We shot so many images, I didn’t know which one to pick. And the issue went nuts. For that cover shoot, I did a 90-second video that’s had over 150 million views.
Then I called her agency and said, “This girl is gonna be a superstar, and you better look after her.” And her agent was an idiot at the time, and she goes, “Oh, I dunno. She’s 5’4”, and she’s got these huge boobs, and we can’t get her a job.” And I said, “This girl is gonna be huge. You have to trust me on this.” And they kind of just told me to f**k off.
What made her stand out so much?
She was unbelievable in front of the camera. She kind of didn’t give a shit. That’s why I really liked her when I first started talking to her, and that’s why we became friends. For such a young girl, she had a point of view. She is a feminist and a very empowered woman. She was very uninhibited and had this strength about her that came across in the photographs. Those are still the best photographs she’s ever had, to this day.
She was still unknown at that point?
Not for long. I got all these emails from people like Kanye West and Adam Levine who wanted to use her in campaigns. Then Robin Thicke called me, because he knew the makeup artist we worked with, and he said, “Steve, we want to use treats! girls for my ‘Blurred Lines’ video,” and then he told me the idea. I said, “You need to use Emily Ratajkowski.” Anyway, that was the biggest song of 2013, and the rest is history. So let me tell you, that girl would never have had the career she has had she kept her clothes on.
Is it exciting for you to see how far she has risen?
Well, Emily has kind of denounced that she had ever been in treats! She never mentions it. It is a little hurtful because I certainly know where she would be, and it wouldn’t be where she is now. There’s no way. People forget where they come from sometimes, but it’s fine. I’m very pleased for her, and she’s smart enough to take it somewhere as well. We had our moment with her, and we’re about to discover a lot of new girls. [Through a spokesperson, Ratajkowski declined to comment.]
What have you got coming up?
I’m working on a calendar right now, a beautiful fine-art calendar called NU MUSES that will debut at Art Basel. I’m using this photographer called David Bellemere to shoot. We’re going to do this model search, and I want to find another twelve Emilys and make them into stars and give them an amazing platform to have a career. The whole process is being filmed for a documentary that’s going to be on a major network in 2017, but I don’t think I’m allowed to say which one yet. So if I can find some girl in Russia who’s picking potatoes and put her in this calendar and make her famous, that would be fantastic.
Photo by David Bellemere
Do you prefer to photograph unknowns?
It depends. We just put The Fat Jewish on the cover. He’s a very relevant guy who’s stirring things up a bit. But if any celebrity wants to be in treats!, it has to be under our rules and our guidelines. I don’t allow any of them to dictate what we do. So I said, “You’re this larger-than-life guy so let’s shrink you down into a little troll and have you integrated into all these girls.” And he said, “I fucking love this. This is brilliant.” Some people like it—some people don’t. It’s not a typical treats! cover, but I always want to cause a bit of a stir.
Cover photo by Tony Kelly
I also saw you have Ireland Baldwin inside. What are some other highlights from Issue 11?
Ireland’s agent is a big fan of treats!, and he also represented Dylan Penn, who we put on the cover a few issues back, and she got great exposure and signed with a modeling agency and got Vogue and various things. And Ireland, I wouldn’t say she’s rebellious, but she’s this cool chick and has her own opinions. The photographer had a relationship with her and wanted to do this shoot with her, and she was like, “F**k it! Let’s go for it!” And I think the images turned out to be really beautiful.
We also put this girl called Sarah McDaniel in the inside, who was shot by Robert Voltaire. She was the girl who was on the first-ever cover of the non-nude issue of Playboy—the most boring photograph I’ve ever seen. We put her on the inside of treats! totally nude, and the pictures are so beautiful. She looks stunning. The comparison is frightening. She looks amazing in the photographs we did, and the cover of Playboy… I just don’t get it. It’s such a shame.
Cover photos by Bryan Bowen Smith and Alvin Nguyen
So you’re ready to be the next Hugh Hefner?
I want to do everything the opposite of Hugh Hefner, let’s put it that way. No one wants to see an old man fucking young girls anymore. It’s embarrassing. That may have worked in the ‘70s, but women are so much more independent and powerful these days, and that has changed. I’m an older guy, and these girls are half my age. I don’t also want to be dating them. People think I literally get laid with a different girl every night, but it’s the very opposite, actually. I’m working so much that I don’t really have time for a relationship unfortunately.
The opportunity must have presented itself….
Look, it happens. I’ve had girlfriends that I’ve met on photo shoots, and we’ve had relationships, but I’d rather work with these girls than date them. That said, there are a lot of photographers I’ve known who became photographers to meet girls.
Dating models I got out of my system when I was a photographer in Sydney, before I came to LA. It was a great few years. I was this young, cool photographer in the fashion world having loads of fun. But I don’t have the energy for it these days. Let me tell you, these beautiful girls are not easy to date. You’ve got everyone wanting to date them, and everyone’s hitting on them. You walk into a room, and everyone’s looking at them. It takes a very secure person to deal with that. And I do get quite often, “Oh, you’re the next Hugh Hefner.” But fuck that! That’d be a pain in the ass.
I’ve heard your parties would make Hef green with envy.
Oh yes, those are quite fun. We do about five or six a year. We have built up a reputation for having some of the best parties in LA. Leonardo DiCaprio came to one of our parties and said, “Where do all these beautiful girls come from? I’ve never seen so many gorgeous girls in my life!” I said, “You’re going to the wrong place, mate.”
Cover photo by Frank Okenfels
Has he come back?
Yeah, he’s been to loads of our parties. He’s a great guy. He’s very respectful, he talks to everybody, he’s a cool dude. So yeah, we have a couple of celebs come.
At the all-white party we did last year at Malibu Rocky Oaks, Sean Penn came in all black. It was fantastic. He was amazing. He said to my friend that brought him, “How the hell did I not know about these parties? This is one of the best parties I’ve ever been to in my life.” And I think he was the last person to leave, actually.
You should come to one.
I thought you'd never ask.