Page 3’s Topless Women
British are often stereotyped as being prudish and stoically reserved in all aspects of intimacy. As such, it may surprise some people to learn that for over four decades, one of the most popular newspapers in the entire country had a large picture of a topless woman on the third page for no other reason than that she was an attractive lady showing off her breasts.
The idea of supplementing a newspaper’s editorial content with pictures of women in various states of undress came about after Rupert Murdoch acquired and relaunched The Sun in 1969. Prior to Murdoch’s acquisition, the paper was a broadsheet aimed at, according to its original founder, the “sophisticated and superior middle class”. When the paper failed, Murdoch bought it for £800,000 (about £11 million today) and re-branded it as “a straightforward, honest newspaper”.
Page 3 is a colloquial term for a feature formerly included in the British tabloid newspaper The Sun. The phrase originates with the publication of a large photograph of a topless, bare-breasted female glamour model which was usually published on the print edition’s third page. The feature first appeared in the newspaper on 17 November 1970 and on the official Page 3 website since June 1999. The terms “Page 3” and “Page Three” are registered trademarks of News UK, parent company of The Sun, although the feature has been imitated in Britain’s other ‘red top’ tabloids and by newspapers internationally.
Page 3 was popular with Sun readers, but it also attracted sustained controversy. Critics argued that Page 3 objectifies and demeans women, while others believe that it should not appear in a generally circulated national newspaper. Some campaigners advocated for legislation to ban Page 3, while others tried to convince newspaper editors to voluntarily drop the feature or modify it so that models no longer appear topless. The No More Page 3 campaign was launched in 2012.
The Irish edition of The Sun dropped topless Page 3 models in August 2013. After several days of non-appearance, an article appeared in stablemate The Times on 19 January 2015 indicating that the UK editions were dropping the feature too. The 22 January 2015 edition, in what became a one-off revival, was the last to include the feature.
The Sun quickly established a foothold in the editorial landscape thanks to the oversight of editor Sir Albert “Larry” Lamb, who adopted the nickname “Larry” in homage to Larry the Lamb of Children’s Hour. Under Lamb’s leadership, the paper began pushing sensationalist headlines and stories- yes, BuzzFeed-esk journalism existed long before the internet.
For example, literally the first headline that November 17, 1969 edition of the paper ever ran under Murdoch’s ownership was “HORSE DOPE SENSATION”. We can only assume they didn’t precede those words with “YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS…” due to space limitations.
Beyond the click-bait-like headlines, Lamb maintained that sex should be a primary component of the paper’s content, reasoning that, next to TV, it was probably the most important aspect of his readers’ lives, so the most likely to sell more papers. Towards this end, Lamb saw to it that a picture of that month’s Penthouse Pet, Ulla Lindstrom, wearing a half unbuttoned blouse was included in that first edition for no particular news-related reason. Elsewhere, they also included a full spread picture of a nude blonde woman lying at the feet of the Rolling Stones.
Whether it was editor Larry Lamb or Murdoch who decided to introduce the Page 3 feature is disputed, but on 17 November 1970, the tabloid celebrated its first anniversary by publishing a photograph of 20-year-old Singapore born model Stephanie Khan in her “birthday suit” (i.e., in the nude). A sub-editor misread her name as Stephanie Rahn, a German surname. Sitting in a field, backlit by the sun, with one of her breasts visible from the side, Khan was photographed by Beverley Goodway, who became The Sun’s principal Page 3 photographer until he retired in 2003. Lamb thought the models featured should be “nice girls” and believed that “big-breasted girls look like tarts”.Intended to be a feature which was “breezy, not sleazy”, Chris Horrie wrote in 1995 that it was planned as comparable to the naturism of Health and Efficiency magazine rather than top-shelf pornography titles.
Over the coming months, the paper continued to periodically feature images of scantily clad women on its third page. In a time before this sort of thing was available to everyone at a click of a button, as you might expect, this greatly increasing readership amongst males. In fact, just one month after Lamb took over The Sun, readership had risen from 850,000 to 1.26 million. After one year, it had grown to two million.
Page 3 was not a strictly daily feature at the beginning of the 1970s. The Sun only gradually began to feature Page 3 models in more overtly topless poses, with their nipples clearly visible. The feature, and the paper’s other sexual content, quickly led to The Sun being banned from some public libraries, the first such decision being taken by a Conservative council in Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire. In this case, the decision was reversed after a series of local stunts organised by the newspaper, and a change in the council’s political orientation in 1971.
The feature is partly credited with the increased circulation that established The Sun as one of the most popular newspapers in the United Kingdom by the mid-1970s. In an effort to compete with The Sun, the Daily Mirror and Daily Star tabloids also began publishing images of topless women, although the Daily Mirror stopped featuring topless models in the 1980s, deeming the photographs demeaning to women.
Despite the questionable nature of some of his paper’s antics, in 1980, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher managed to obtain a knighthood for Larry Lamb for his “services to journalism.” It should probably be noted that in the election of 1979, despite not being “a Conservative newspaper” the paper strongly supported the Conservatives, such as in their feature “A Message to Labour supporters” where they stated, “Vote Tory this time: it’s the only way to stop the rot…” The Conservatives subsequently managed to win a majority in the House of Commons and Thatcher was made Prime Minister. Within a year, Larry Lamb became Sir Larry.
Back to the Page 3 feature- according to Lamb, his intention was to use it to showcase “nice girls”, and that he wanted it to be “breezy, not sleazy”, further quoted as saying that “big-breasted girls look like tarts”, so should not be featured. For anyone unfamiliar with British vernacular, “tart” can be understood to have a similar meaning to the modern definition of the word “slut”. That said, anyone who’s taken a look at the archives for Page 3 girls- can see, this “no big-breasted girls” rule wasn’t followed very closely. Either that or Sir Lamb has very different definitions of what constitutes “big breasted”… (Incidentally, “slut” used to have an entirely more innocent definition just a few hundred years ago, see: Why Women are Sometimes Called “Broads”, “Sluts”, and “Dames”).
In any event, despite the success of his paper, partially because of Page 3, in his later life, Lamb would come to regret introducing the feature at all. He also lamented the blatant sexism in the workplace that was so common in his heyday, once snapping at his journalists,
Cut out nudges, winks and leers. Always have second thoughts on stories about the jockstrap world of men only. Remember, women not only smell better; they work harder and deserve better.
He also gave the female editor of the topless section, Joyce Hopkirk, veto control over what content was published there.
But to the surprise of no-one, the feature has proven to be contentious with the public right from the start. This is something The Sun was grateful for in its early days, as it worked like free advertising when other newspapers would feature articles bashing The Sun for their pictures of topless women.
And, indeed, it’s telling that a paper best known for including topless women on its third page abruptly rose from nearly going out of business to the best selling newspaper the UK for four decades straight after introducing that feature.
To add further controversy to the whole thing, the topless women shown for no other reason than to be eye-candy were occasionally only 16 years old, such as editions featuring Maria Whittaker (in 1985) and Samantha Fox (in 1983).
Though often criticised, the feature had and still has steadfast defenders who argue that sex, nudity and cheeky double entendres are nothing to get worked up about and are even to a certain extent hallmarks of British culture. To be fair, there is truth to this, but opponents note that it’s difficult to ignore that the photo is there for no news related reason, with the contention being that in this context it objectifies women.
Despite this, The Sun has traditionally remained staunchly defensive of their Page 3 exploits and pushed back against every attempt to remove or otherwise censor it, even going as far as publicly labelling female members of parliament “fat and jealous” when certain MPs criticised it in 2004…
When Rebekah Brooks took over as head editor of The Sun in 2003, most thought the Page 3 feature would finally go the way of the dodo, as Brooks had previously argued that it hurt readership numbers in modern times and thus should be removed. But after taking the reins, she changed her tune and began championing it, even writing an editorial explaining why there was nothing wrong with Page 3, including rightly noting that the models featured were, “intelligent, vibrant young women who appear in The Sun out of choice and because they enjoy the job.” (On this note, being featured on The Sun’s Page 3 did indeed help launch many a young woman’s successful career in modeling.)
However, cracks began to emerge as early as 1994, when Rupert Murdoch himself noted that the feature “just would not be accepted” in any other paper that he owned. In a 2014 interview, Murdoch mentioned that the paper might replace the topless photos with more conservative glamour shots of models; he also openly noted in that interview that the feature was “old fashioned”.
Murdoch’s comments were praised by activists for the “No More Page 3” campaign. This was started in 2012 after actress Lucy-Anne Holmes noticed that, despite the successes of British female athletes at the 2012 Olympics, the largest picture of a woman in any paper in Britain was on The Sun’s Page 3. At its peak, the No More Page 3 campaign was reportedly backed by 138 British MPs as well as “the Girl Guides, the Girls’ Brigade, most of the teaching trades unions, the College of Midwives, the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly”. This is in addition to the dozens of universities who refused to stock the paper until the feature was ended.
The Sun made some stylistic changes to Page 3 in the mid-1990s. It became standard to print Page 3 photographs in colour rather than in black and white. Captions to Page 3 photographs, which previously contained sexually suggestive double entendre, were replaced by a simple listing of models’ first names, ages, and hometowns. After polling its readers, The Sun also instituted a policy of only featuring models with natural breasts in 1997. Although The Sun ordinarily features only one Page 3 model in each edition, a pictorial sometimes shows two or more women posed together. A special pictorial in 2009 to celebrate 40 years of Page 3 lined up 15 Page 3 women posed together
In June 1999, The Sun launched its official Page 3 website, Page3.com, which features the tabloid’s daily Page 3 girl in three different poses, including the photograph published in the printed edition. On 1 August 2013, coinciding with the launch of the subscription-based website Sun+, the official Page 3 website became accessible only to Sun+ subscribers.
No More Page 3 was a successful campaign to stop The Sun from including pictures of topless glamour models on its Page 3; it ended when the topless feature was discontinued. The campaign was started by Lucy-Anne Holmes in August 2012; it reached 215,000 signatures by January 2015. The campaign gained widespread support from MPs and organisations but was criticised by Alison Webster, the photographer for Page 3.
The campaign began in August 2012, with a petition asking The Sun’s then editor Dominic Mohan to remove images of topless women from Page 3. The petition accrued 84,000 signatures by March 2013 and by January 2015 the petition had reached 215,000 signatories. In February 2013, the campaign ran a Tweet Murdoch Day, asking supporters to flood The Sun’s proprietor Rupert Murdoch with messages. The campaign also tried to persuade Lego to stop running promotions in The Sun. Lego confirmed in March 2013 that their tie-in would end but denied that the move was due to the campaign.
In August 2013, the editor of the Irish edition of the paper, Paul Clarkson, replaced the photograph of a topless model on Page 3 with a picture of a woman in swimwear. His decision was welcomed by Holmes. Dinsmore said in August 2013 that the Page 3 girl feature would remain in the UK despite campaigners calling for the Irish change to be copied there.
Following a 2013 Huffington Post article, discussing readers’ potential attitudes towards models and Page 3’s association with rape culture, which revealed comments made on the Daily Star’s Page 3 website, the Daily Star removed all comments within a few days and permanently disabled the feature to comment on the page 3 section.
A joint campaign between No More Page 3 and Child Eyes called for the redesigning of supermarket newspaper displays to avoid children being exposed to sexual content on newspaper front pages. Such action had also been a proposal of the Government’s Bailey Review in 2011. In November 2014, UK supermarkets Tesco and Waitrose announced that they would be implementing such a redesign. By January 2015, 30 universities had opted to boycott The Sun newspaper until the Page 3 topless feature was dropped.
The Sun was reported in mid-January 2015 to have dropped the feature from the printed edition of the paper but it returned after less than a week on 22 January. Lucy-Anne Holmes was reported as having tweeted: “So it seems the fight might be back on.” However, the revival turned out to be a one-off and, with the exception of that one day, Page 3 in its previous form has continued to be absent from The Sun.
One of the first controversies about the topless Page 3 feature, occurring almost immediately after its introduction, was when a local council in Sowery Bridge, Yorkshire banned it from the local library because it “contained too much sex”. The Sun capitalised by running a series of searing editorials, with one boldly claiming “we should have been thrown out of better places than this”.