They're some of Chicago's biggest television news personalities as you've never seen them before: Wearing white T-shirts and camisoles, showing off biceps and bra straps and bare shoulders, sporting sexy smiles and come-hither gazes.
The text accompanying these black-and-white images of Kathy Brock, Mark Suppelsa, Anne State, Anna Davlantes, Tera Williams, Anthony Ponce and Paula Faris lists their personal "obsessions," written in a style that evokes the "turn-ons" and "turnoffs" of Playboy centerfolds. All seven photographs ran in the October issue of Michigan Avenue magazine, under the subhead: "Chicago's small-screen stunners strip down their airtime appearances and reveal their own behind-the-scenes obsessions."
They were shot by photographer Maria Ponce, daughter of "Chicago Tonight" news anchor Phil Ponce (and sister of reporter Anthony Ponce and ex-reporter Dan Ponce), and they're among 30 photos of local broadcasters she'll display in "On TV/Off TV," an exhibit opening Nov. 20 at Packer Schopf Gallery. Also featured in the show will be paintings of some of the same subjects by her mother, artist Ann Ponce.
Reaction to the six-page spread in Michigan Avenue? "I heard people say they thought some of the photos were a little shocking," said Susanna Negovan, editor in chief of the glossy city magazine. "Mark Suppelsa definitely got a lot of people's attention because of his scruffy face. He's a bit of a sex symbol already. So to show him this way, this is even sexier. I think the Anne State photo is very provocative. Her shirt is very tight."
Negovan, who used to write the "Susanna's Night Out" column for the Sun-Times (as Susanna Homan) and is married to Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9 newsman Tom Negovan, knows a thing or two about the lure of media celebrities in this town.
"These are some of the best known faces in the city of Chicago," she said of Maria Ponce's collection. "So to see them in such a visually arresting way is really powerful. I also think that a lot of these people, because they're evening news anchors, are used to hearing people tell them: 'Oh, I'm in bed with you every night!' So here they are, basically stripped down in that way. That's why it was really fun for people."
It also underscores the willingness of these media people (and their approving bosses) to risk whatever journalistic credibility they have in order to ratchet up their Q scores and Nielsen ratings. "As the news audience continues to shrink and everyone is competing for viewers, I see a lot of news anchors putting themselves out there in general," Negovan said. "If you look at some of their Facebook pages and the offhand comments they post about some of their newscasts, you'll see it too."
The fact that there's been no discernible fallout to the photos after a month on the newsstand contrasts starkly with the experience of an earlier Chicago television glamor girl.
In 1985, a 27-year-old rising star named Deborah Norville nearly derailed her career when a sexy, pouty, bare-shouldered image of her, shot by famed photographer Victor Skrebneski, appeared alongside a lust-fantasy profile of her ("Lunch With a Goddess") in Chicago magazine.
Norville's bosses at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 were mortified. They briefly considered bumping her off the anchor desk. Many of her colleagues were embarrassed for her and appalled for their profession. "It revived the whole business of the gorgeous game-show hostess reading the news," former Tribune media critic Steve Daley later recalled.
Of course, NBC's discomfort didn't last long. Sixteen months later, Norville was in New York, anchoring "NBC News at Sunrise" and being groomed to replace Jane Pauley on the "Today" show. She's now in her 15th year as host of "Inside Edition."