“My blood runs cold
My memory has just been sold
My angel is the centerfold” — J. Geils Band, “Centerfold”
Step into any dive in Northeast Philly and you’re likely to hear this 1981 single from an otherwise forgettable band on the jukebox. Odds are, you won’t give it much thought.
However, as I walk inside Reedy’s Tavern in East Torresdale, the song is playing in the background and the familiar tune slices through me like a knife through warm butter.
Like most folks inside the dimly lit taproom last Saturday afternoon, I’m here to see Val Keil, who at the moment is better known as Playboy’s Miss August 2013. Less than three months ago, Keil was pouring beers and mixing drinks for the Reedy’s regulars; now, a long table is set up against a far wall, with stacks of Playboys strewn about for her to sign.
After about 20 minutes of waiting, the front door opens, and in walks Keil in a black tank top, skin-tight blue jeans and seductive black boots. A silver Playboy logo pendant hangs around her neck.
“Sorry I’m late!” she exclaims when she notices me, flashing a smile that looks slightly more radiant than I remember.
It’s easy to forgive Keil, 22, who is soaking up every second of the spotlight now shined brightly upon her. It wasn’t long ago that my path and that of the Torresdale resident-turned-Playboy centerfold intersected at Torresdale-Frankford Country Club. In the summer of 2011, I was waiting tables, and she was driving the cart that delivered food and drinks to golfers out on the course. It was one of three relatively anonymous serving jobs (also at XFINITY! Live) she held before Hugh Hefner took a liking to photos of herself that she sent to the magazine.
It’s hard to measure Keil’s success story since it’s all happened so suddenly, but it is safe to say going from the Northeast to the Playboy Mansion shatters the barometer for unlikely fantasies that somehow come true.
“I’ve always worked around men, men who have told me that I’m pretty,” she says in a tone without a hint of conceit. “I never modeled before, and initially my dad, brother and boyfriend at the time were against me posing with my clothes off. But eventually, I just decided to go for it.”
Our chat lasts only about 10 or 15 minutes. Keil’s back home for an incredibly brief spell, mostly to thank people for their support and to say goodbye to friends. A Tuesday redeye back to her new life in Hollywood will be permanent. Until then, she’s got dozens of magazines and headshots to autograph, pictures to pose for with new fans and old friends alike and countless hugs to dish out.
Keil graduated from MaST Charter in 2009, and readily admitted she wasn’t much of a student. She stayed local, dreaming of a better life, though at the time she didn’t know what that meant for her. On a whim in 2011, she sent some amateur photos in to Playboy.com. After waiting for “the longest time,” she heard back from the magazine, which requested additional photographs taken by a professional photographer.
She tabbed local picture taker Joey Del Palazzo. It was a smart choice.
“Within two hours of submitting the new pictures, somebody from Playboy called and told me that Hef liked them and wanted me to come to California for a ‘Playmate test,’” she said. “At that point, I told myself that if I was going to do this, then it’s going to be Playmate or bust.”
With the encouragement of friends and a now unconditionally supportive family (namely dad and brother, both named Ken, and mom Maureen McGowan), Keil went for it. She flew to Los Angeles in May, was picked up by a limo at LAX and whisked to a photoshoot, where a bunch of Playboy representatives were there to cater to her every need. She had her pick from a litany of outfits and jewelry to try on, so the cameras could capture her best looks.
“Everything was for me,” she recalled excitedly. “I couldn’t believe it.”
‘A CLASSY GIRL’
A sign outside Reedy’s advertised Keil’s Saturday homecoming party, and by about 2:30, a steady line has formed inside. Keil greets familiar faces with a smile and hug, and asks strangers for their names so she can personalize every signing. For most of these people, it will be the last time they see her for awhile. Keil wants to run with this opportunity and milk it for all it’s worth. Modeling, acting and a line of boots in her name are all future possibilities, she hopes.
“She was always a classy girl,” said bar owner John Reedy. “All of this, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.”
A bar patron who identified himself as Mike recalled late nights inside Reedy’s, with Keil agonizing over her Playboy decision.
“I’d be in here late at night, just me and her, and she would say ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’” he said. “I told her it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she had to. She’s a beautiful girl, but it’s her personality that makes her twice as beautiful. Look at all these people who came back to see her. And she hasn’t forgotten them or where she came from.”
Keil acknowledged how drastically her life has changed. She’s swapped Reedy’s and the country club for the Playboy Mansion, Malibu homes with breathtaking views of the Pacific and being flown to Las Vegas for personal appearances. She often eats dinner at the same table as Hefner and has mingled with KISS frontman Gene Simmons.
But like most people from this part of town, she knows the Northeast has a way of sinking its claws into you to the point that no matter how high her Playmate stock rises, these streets lined with red brick rowhouses will always feel like home.
“It has changed me, but not in the ways you might think,” she said. “Have I made new friends? Sure I have. But I’ll never forget the people here.”
HUSTLING FOR TIPS
When I knew her from our days of hustling for tips at the country club, Keil always struck me as kind, genuine and understated. She always was dressed in the country club’s uniform of green polo and khaki shorts, and was pretty without openly flaunting her natural beauty. I noticed her, sure, but as a Playboy subscriber of many years, I never anticipated opening the magazine and seeing my old acquaintance staring back at me in a mix of color and black and white pictorials that are as elegant as they are stunning.
As Keil has found out, life has the ability to change on a dime.
It is weird, a bit unnerving really, to see a former coworker in the buff, and then to see her again with all her clothes on. Before I depart Reedy’s, as the crowd swells to 50 or so people, I reach into my backpack and pull out my own July/August 2013 copy of the magazine. I clutch it in my hands, which are suddenly sweaty as I wait in line. When I get to the front, I nervously stammer some words I can’t remember. I don’t know whether to open it up to the centerfold, or to leave the magazine closed. She takes the publication from me, first signing the cover before asking if I’d like her to sign the inside, too. I eagerly affirm.
Ed: Too bad we can’t work together anymore. Love, Val Keil.
I deposit my new treasure into my backpack and we pose for a photo together. Two years ago, I doubt this moment was on either of our radars. Now, for some strange reason, it almost seems fitting. We’re both going for it, chasing our respective ambitions in our own ways, which makes it impossible to feel any pangs of jealousy for Keil’s meteoric rise to stardom. Unexpected? Yes. But undeserving? No way.
I ask her one more time to reflect on this most unlikely of roller coaster rides and where she thinks she’ll be when the journey comes to a halt.
“I want to get married and have kids eventually,” she said. “But for now, I’m just going to enjoy this and all that comes with it.”
With that, I’m out the door, and like most of those inside Reedy’s Tavern, the angel in the centerfold becomes another memory from the past. ••