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Originally published Jan. 15, 2000

Playboy magazine has always promoted its nude models as "the girl next door." But this month's centerfold really is.

Suzanne Stokes, 20, was born in Naples and spent her teen-age years stomping around Everglades City, Naples and Marco Island. She attended Everglades City School and Barron Collier High School in Naples before dropping out in the 11th grade to pursue an acting and modeling career.

The February issue of Playboy shows a stark-naked Stokes arching her back on the seat of an airboat and straddling a concrete alligator - all with a come-hither look in her hazel-green eyes. The magazine hit bookstores Jan. 10.

There are some clothed shots, as well, including Stokes piloting an airboat and holding a live alligator across her shoulders. The photos were shot in a Sarasota mansion and at Stokes' family alligator farm and airboat tour company in Everglades City.

"We used to feed little baby alligators in a bathtub when I was little, but I'd never handled an adult alligator before the photo shoot," Stokes said in her soft voice during a phone interview. "I was a little nervous holding him, but he was OK. He was a good guy."

The same can't be said for the concrete alligator at the Sarasota mansion. "Yeah, that wasn't very comfortable," she said. "He was hard, and he was sharp."

Stokes lives with her personal trainer boyfriend in Deerfield Beach and spends her days acting in commercials, modeling and going to auditions.

The article accompanying her pictorial focuses more on her growing up on Chokoloskee Island, near Everglades City. Stokes discusses partying on the beach and in the woods, lying naked in the sun, modeling for the Naples Daily News and - to her mother's horror - having sex on the beach.

"I really didn't want to read about that," said mom Lynn Stokes of Chokoloskee.

Still, Stokes' parents say they're OK with their daughter's decision. "She's still my baby girl," said Lynn, whose family owns Jungle Erv's Airboat Tours. "But she's also an adult making adult decisions. We're very proud of her.

(Page 2 of 3)

"I don't know if she had to pose nude to help her career or not ... She asked for my advice, though, and I told her it was really her choice."

So far, Stoke's mom hasn't heard much talk from other people in her community. But word-of-mouth is spreading.

"We've had a lot of people asking about it," said Rhonda Noble, a clerk at the Everglades City Circle K. "Our copies don't come in until Friday (yesterday), but everybody's talking.

"I don't think it's because they all want to see her naked, though. It's just because she's a local girl. They just want to see if it's really her."

Stokes' rise to Playmate of the Month wasn't a long, drawn-out ordeal. It all started when she walked onto a bus.

Playboy was conducting a search for its Playmate of the Millennium, and it had dispatched a "Millennium Bus" to audition women in cities across the country. The bus hit Miami in December 1998.

Won Hawaiian Tropic competition

Stokes, who won Hawaiian Tropic's national swimsuit competition last year, wanted to get into Playboy to boost her acting career. She's been in several commercials so far - including spots for a Ford dealership in Orlando - and she even had 12 lines in an episode of TV's "Mortal Kombat."

Playboy's search team took one look at Stokes 105-pound, 35-23-33 frame - and yes, Stokes says, they are real - and they knew they wanted her in the magazine.

"Everybody was like, `Wow,' " said Playboy spokesman Rob Hilburger. "She made an instant impact.

"She has a fresh, contemporary look. She's very sexy in front of the camera, and she wasn't shy. And she has a great personality. That's what we liked about her."

Playboy ended up using twins for its January 2000 centerfold. However, they liked Stokes enough to use her another month.

They eventually flew Stokes to Playboy headquarters in Chicago, and Hugh Hefner gave her his final seal of approval. "He was really cool," Stokes said of "Hef." "He's like a teen-ager still. He's so much fun, and he dances around and everything."

In March, a photo team came down and took hundreds of shots of Stokes in Sarasota and Everglades City. The photo sessions took almost a week - and they weren't as glamorous as they might seem. Stokes spent most of her time waiting in a robe while photographers tested the lighting and stylists fiddled with the set and her hair.

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Stokes was nervous at first, but she warmed to the role once the cameras started clicking.

"I'm used to posing in bathing suits, so this wasn't so bad," she said. "And the people make you feel really comfortable. They're friendly and there aren't many people in the room when they shoot."

Stokes said she's pleased with the photos. She can't tell if they airbrushed or not, though. "I'm sure they did ... somewhere."

As for publicity from the photos, Stokes said people are already coming up to her and congratulating her. She's been signing autographs and doing promotions at various bookstores and nightclubs for more than a week.

Hollywood bound?

Where the pictorial will lead, Stokes doesn't know. She'd like to move to Hollywood some day and pursue her acting career more aggressively. "I love acting," she said. "I love being able to play all these different parts and to express myself."

`Done tastefully'

Stokes knows some people might view what she did as trashy and degrading, but she's unapologetic.

"I feel fine with it," she said. "I think it was done tastefully. It doesn't bother me that other men might be looking at my picture. I mean, I model swimsuits all the time.

"Besides, we're all born nude, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Sexuality is a part of who you are, and it's not something to be ashamed of."

Playboy has a circulation of 3.15 million in the United States alone, and it reaches 16 other countries, as well. That means lots of eyes will be looking at Stokes and reading about Southwest Florida.

So is this good publicity? The Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce thinks it might be.

"I don't think it's going to hurt anything," said Claudia Davenport, a clerk with the chamber. "And if people think everybody down here looks like her, it might even help."

- Charles Runnells can be reached at 335-0385.

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