A Playmate is a female model featured in the centerfold/gatefold of Playboy magazine as Playmate of the Month (PMOTM). The PMOTM's pictorial includes nude photographs and a centerfold poster, along with a pictorial biography and the "Playmate Data Sheet", which lists her birthdate, measurements, turn-ons, and turn-offs. At the end of the year, one of the 12 Playmates of the Month is named Playmate of the Year (PMOTY). Every Playmate of the Month is awarded a prize of US$25,000 and each Playmate of the Year receives an additional prize of US$100,000 plus a car (on a short-term lease) and other discretionary gifts. In addition, Anniversary Playmates are usually chosen to celebrate a milestone year of the magazine. The use of the word "Playmate" in a sexual sense did not originate with Playboy, and was seen at least as early as 1950 in Vue magazine (vol 1, #1).
Playboy encourages potential Playmates to send photos with "girl next door" appeal for consideration; others may submit photos of Playmate candidates, and may be eligible for a finder's fee if their model is selected. In addition, "casting calls" are held regularly in major US cities to offer opportunities for women to test for Playboy. Until just prior to the death of Hugh Hefner, he personally selected each Playmate of the Month and every Playmate of the Year, taking into account an annual readers' poll.
The final Playmate of the Month was published digitally in December 2020. Playboy also ended the Playmate of the Year title in 2020, instead awarding all 2019 Playmates the shared title of Playmates of the Year. All 2020 Playmates were given yearbook superlatives rather than a PMOTY title.
In 2021, Playboy digitally published two quarterly Playmates. No Playmates have been published since Miss Spring 2021, Hailee Lautenbach.
According to Playboy, there is no such thing as a former Playmate because "Once a Playmate, always a Playmate".
Marilyn Monroe, who was featured in the first issue, was the only one to appear as "Sweetheart of the Month". The first model called a Playmate of the Month was Margie Harrison, Miss January 1954, in the second issue of Playboy. Generally a woman may appear only once as a Playmate, but in the early years of the magazine, some models were featured multiple times. Marilyn Waltz (February 1954, April 1954, April 1955 – her first appearance was as Margaret Scott) and Janet Pilgrim (July 1955, December 1955, and October 1956) are tied for the most appearances. Margie Harrison (January 1954, June 1954) and Marguerite Empey (May 1955, February 1956) are the only other women to appear more than once as Playmates.
Under current law in most US jurisdictions, publishing nude pictures of a model younger than 18 would be a felony. However, in the early years of the magazine, laws regarding this were less well established. Several playmates – including Nancy Crawford (April 1959), Donna Michelle (December 1963), Linda Moon (October 1966), Patti Reynolds (September 1965) and Teddi Smith (July 1960) – posed when they were 17. Elizabeth Ann Roberts (January 1958) – whose pictorial was called "Schoolmate Playmate" – posed when she was 16. Hugh Hefner and Roberts' mother were arrested as a result, but the case was subsequently dismissed because Roberts' mother had signed a statement that her daughter was 18 before the photo shoot. In 1977, Ursula Buchfellner posed for the German edition of Playboy when she was 16 and subsequently posed for the American edition (October 1979) when she was 18. Dutch Playmate twins Karin and Mirjam van Breeschooten appeared at age 17 in their country's edition of Playboy in June 1988; at 18, they were Misses September 1989 in the US version.
Some women have become Playmates in their 30s. Dolores Donlon (August 1957) is the oldest Playmate to date, appearing in her shoot at the age of 36.
In the early days of Playboy, there was no official prize for the most popular Playmate at the end of each year. Although February 1954 Playmate Marilyn Waltz gained much popularity, receiving more fan mail than any other Playmate that year, she was not crowned PMOTY. Neither was December 1956 Playmate Lisa Winters, who was named Playmate of the Year but not technically crowned as such (causing some controversy regarding semantics); and, although Joyce Nizzari, Miss December 1958, was named the "most popular" Playmate of 1958, the PMOTY competition was first officially won in 1960 by Miss December 1959, Ellen Stratton. The 2009 PMOY, Ida Ljungqvist, was the 50th PMOTY and the second model of African descent to win the title, the first being Renee Tenison.
A PMOTY makes her appearance the year following her first appearance as PMOTM. This feature is usually published in the June issue, although sometimes it has been published in the May or July issue. Until 2003, each year's Playmate of the Year would routinely appear on the cover of her PMOTY issue, in which her PMOTY pictorial is featured. However, from 2003 to 2005, PMOTYs did not appear on the covers of their PMOTY issues, and 2007 PMOTY Sara Jean Underwood did not either. Instead, celebrities appearing in celebrity pictorials in the PMOTY issues appeared on the covers. The 2010 PMOTY, Hope Dworaczyk, did appear on the cover, and was the first model to be the subject of a three-dimensional Playboy centerfold photograph.
The average age of a Playmate of the Year, 23.5 years, is slightly higher than that of a Playmate of the Month, 22.4 years. In 1964, at the age of 18, Donna Michelle became the youngest PMOY ever. Jo Collins (1965) and Christa Speck (1962) both were 19. Sharon Clark (1971), Karen McDougal (1998) and Ida Ljungqvist (2009) became PMOTY at the age of 27. Only three women became PMOTY in their 30s: Tiffany Fallon (2005) at 31, Kathy Shower (1986) at 33, and Eugena Washington (2016) at 31.
Playmates who attained fame for reasons in addition to their Playboy appearance(s) include (with the date of their appearance):