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Selling Miami With Sex And Celebrities Is Nothing New

September 20, 2010 By Bill Cooke in Miami: Travel News  | 7 Comments


Carl Fisher may have been the man who turned a steamy, mosquito infested mangrove into a city, but it was Steve Hannagan who put it on the map.

In the early 1920’s, Fisher was on his way to building Miami Beach and in the process, a fortune. But he was saddled with a problem. Northern newspapers made no distinction between Miami and Miami Beach.

In 1924, during a Christmas visit to Florida, Hannagan met Fisher, who he had once worked for as a press agent in Indianapolis. Fisher’s problem was solved. He wasted no time in hiring the 24 year-old Hannagan to publicize Miami Beach.

Within days, Hannagan had his first story when a millionaire died while playing polo. He sent the story to United Press:


Hannagan’s credo was: Print anything you want about Miami Beach; just make sure you get our name right.

In 1925, Hannagan opened the Miami Beach News Bureau and had hired a staff of writers and photographers. During the winter months the bureau supplied newspapers with a steady stream of stories and pictures from Carl Fisher’s island paradise…all with the Miami Beach dateline.


Steve Hannagan - who some have called the P.T. Barnum of his day - came up with the idea of using subtle sex to sell Miami Beach. As a former newspaperman, he knew the way to get a newspaper editor’s attention was with pictures of pretty girls. Early 20th century newspapers used such pictures to boost circulation.

Hannagan combed Miami Beach high schools for pretty girls. He had them photographed in bathing suits - enjoying Miami Beach’s winter sun and surf - and sent pictures to hundreds of newspapers in the United States.


Soon, northern editors didn’t need a calendar to tell them that the tourist season in Miami Beach had begun. The arrival of the first package of pictures from Hannagan, signaled the start of winter.

By 1927, Miami Beach city fathers were paying Hannagan $20,000 a season to handle advertising and publicity for their new city. A decade later, Hannagan’s success in promoting Miami Beach was noticed by the editors of LIFE magazine.


In November 1936, LIFE ran a six page story titled “Steve Hannagan’s Girls.” The magazine described him as “the man, who year in and year out, gets more pictures of [bathing girls] int the paper.”

Hannagan continued churning out girlie pictures until the early 40’s. With the outbreak of WWII, patriotism replaced sexy. A 1942 newspaper story explained, “Instead of lolling on the sand and cavorting in the surf…[Hannagan’s] bathing girls will now enlist their charms in promoting salvage drives and bond campaigns.”

By the end of the war in 1945, Hannagan, who had been a getting a $6,000 a year retainer from Miami Beach for his services, upped his demand to $25,000. The city turned him down and their 20-year partnership was dissolved.

But thanks to Hannagan, Miami Beach was addicted to “cheesecake.” Photographers, paid by the city, continued shooting pretty girl pictures and distributing them worldwide with the help of wire services.

The early 50’s saw a change in strategy. The Beach was looking for a new way to publicize itself. Enter Hank Meyer.

In 1948, Meyer learned that president Harry Truman was about to visit Key West. Meyer sent him four colorful, tropical shirts. Truman was photographed wearing one. Soon, Meyer became the talk of the town and the following year Miami Beach hired him as its publicity director.

In the early 1950’s, television was in its infancy, and Meyer saw its potential in promoting Miami Beach. Meyer persuaded Arthur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason to do their shows from Miami Beach. In winter months, Miami Beach’s sun-splashed scenery was broadcast nationally to chilly, snow-bound viewers. Hank Meyer was at the top of his game.

By 1977, the novelty of promoting Miami Beach on TV had apparently worn thin. In July 1977, the Miami Beach Tourist Development Authority voted down a request for $15,000 to help defray expenses for a series of Jackie Gleason TV specials. Gleason took his TV show across the bay to Miami. One Miami Beach businessman blasted the TDA’s decision. “They better wake-up or this will soon be the world’s largest cemetery with an ocean view,” he said.

While the TDA balked at funding for national TV exposure, they still paid photographers to shoot cheesecake photos. In 1976, one of the TDA’s photographers, Dick Kassan, modestly boasted that he was “world’s most published photographer of women.” The models Kassan shot were cheaper than Gleason. He’d shoot up to a hundred girls a season. They were paid $5 a session and given a dozen black and white prints.

Times were changing. By the late 70’s, wire services and newspaper editors buckled from pressure exerted by the women’s movement which labeled the use of girlie photos as “demeaning.” Kassan’s photos became obsolete.

In 1979, Dade County tourism officials flirted - albeit briefly - with using sex to lure tourists.


They hired an ad agency to come up with a campaign. With the catch phrase “Miami. See it like a native,” the centerpiece of the campaign was a full color poster of a female skin diver wearing a bikini bottom and no top with her back to the camera. It was tame by today’s standards. But when some women’s activists saw the poster, they exploded. “Sexist,” they called it. The county commission caved in and ordered the posters - all 23,000 - impounded. A year later they were shredded. The feminists had won again!

As the 1970’s gave way to to the 1980’s, South Florida’s and Miami Beach’s image as a carefree tourist destination was about to take multiple hits.

The Mariel boatlift, the McDuffie riots, drug wars and over a thousand homicides in Dade County in 1980 and 1981, made a South Florida vacation about as desirable as a weekend in Detroit or South Central L.A.

Miami Beach’s luck was about to change and tourism officials wouldn’t have to spend a dime.

In the early 1980’s, South Beach was collection of crumbling buildings inhabited by drug dealers, petty criminals, poor retirees and refugees.

European fashion and catalog photographers looking for a good place to shoot in the winter, ignored the negative headlines and started migrating towards South Florida; lured by a mild winter climate and “beautiful light.” Models soon followed.

Then in 1983 director Brian DePalma picked South Beach to film a few scenes for the movie “Scarface.” The rest of the film was shot in L.A. But when the movie was finally released, it was all about Miami Beach.


The following year, TV producer Michael Mann filmed the first episodes of a groundbreaking TV show called “Miami Vice.” “Vice” remade the cop show genre. In Mann’s show, detectives wore designer Italian threads and drove foreign sports cars and got into three or four shootouts a week….all against a backdrop of pastel colors and the neon lights of South Beach. “Vice” was TV’s first Art Deco cop show. It had nothing to do with reality, but no one was complaining. Miami Beach was sexy again.

And then in 1986, something happened that might have made Steve Hannagan blush.

Miami Herald writer Tracie Cone described the moment: “[On] a sunny day in 1986…Bruce Weber, photographer of the beautiful, climbed to the top of the Breakwater Hotel and snapped a picture that would make Miami Beach fabulous again. It was a Calvin Klein perfume ad. We thumbed Vanity Fair and saw hot, tanned, naked bodies on SoBe.”


It wasn’t long before the world was beating a path to Miami Beach. Fashion magazine editors and art directors decreed that “The Deco Look” was in. It didn’t take long for others to follow.


Suddenly, SoBe was packed with models, photographers, photographers’ assistants, art directors and designers…all with money to spend.


Real estate speculators bought up once-decrepit deco hotels and transformed them into chic restaurants, trendy night clubs, modeling agencies. So much film was being shot that some film labs were open 24/7 just to keep up with the workload.

And then there was the sex. A giddy French journalist told a reporter, “For the French people South Beach is a dream. Sun! And the beach! And sex! But beautiful sex! I see wonderful girls! As wonderful as in Paris!”

In February 1992, Madonna decided to put out book focusing on her sexual fantasies with title of “SEX.” She and photographer Steven Meisel chose locations in Miami Beach as backdrops. She barely caused a ripple as she posed nude and semi-nude at dozens of locations during the two week photo shoot. But a few lucky paparazzi managed to catch the pop star in the buff and those pictures were flashed around the world. More publicity.


After the photo shoot, Madonna decided to put down roots here, buying a $4 million plus home on the edge of Coconut Grove. The impact on South Florida’s image? Madonna comes to Miami to shoot a book on SEX and ends up buying a home here. Do the math.

More celebs followed. Sylvester Stallone bought a bigger house just a stone’s throw from Madonna’s place. Italian designer Gianni Versace bought a hotel on Ocean Drive and transformed it into a home.

In 1997, things turned ugly when Versace was murdered in cold blood on the steps of his mansion.

Other celebrities talked about hiring bodyguards, but for the most part they were left alone.

In 1992, South Beach got its own magazine. Jerry Powers, a 46 year-old former hippie, founded Ocean Drive magazine from an office above the News Cafe on - where else? - Ocean Drive.


Ocean Drive was meant to be “all about celebrities, fashion, and Miami,” Powers told New Times last year. Thanks to Ocean Drive magazine “South Beach was again becoming cool again,” said New Times.

But in a town crawling with celebrities, Powers had no use for paparazzi-style photos.

He gently persuaded A-listers to pose for the cover of his magazine.

In 1997, Powers told the Palm Beach Post, “This market has been really good about leaving people alone. Could a real paparazzi photographer make a living here? Probably not.”

But three years later, Powers would be proven wrong.

A spate of new celebrity magazines joined People Magazine and the National Enquirer at the supermarket checkout counter. The start-ups and re-vamped magazines included OK, US Weekly, Star and In Touch. And they all needed pictures to fill their pages. At about the same time, the first affordable digital cameras became available. Everybody was a photographer, lured by the prospect of a big paparazzi payday.


Soon, the paparazzi outnumbered fashion photographers on South Beach.

Celebrities to flocked to Miami Beach because, says Tara Solomon, owner of the public relations firm Tara Ink, “There are no rules here, and the rules we do have are being re-invented.”

And in a town where you could once count the number of paparazzi on one hand, suddenly there were hordes of shooters prowling South Beach’s celebrity haunts. Pictures of stars lounging on the beach by day and drunkenly staggering out of So Be’s clubs at night were flashed around the world…all with a Miami Beach dateline.

Somewhere, Steve Hannagan was smiling!

And eighty-five years after Hannagan sent out his first package of girlie photos, tourists are still drawn by sun, surf and sex to Miami Beach.

Says Solomon, who admits to wearing strapless cocktail dresses to board meetings and six-inch platforms for poolside barbecues, “What may have been a marketer’s contrived set-up decades ago to generate PR is now the real thing: There’s a 24-7 mentality of the sexier, the better.”


Steve Hannagan died in Kenya in 1953.

Last July, a statue of early Miami pioneer Julia Tuttle was finally unveiled in downtown Miami….more than 110 years after her death.

Perhaps, that lack of urgency explains why there are no streets or statues in Miami Beach dedicated to Steve Hannagan.

But maybe we’ll get around to it one of these days!

Related Categories: Miami: Travel News,

About the Author: Bill Cooke is a professional photojournalist and life-long Miami resident. He also runs the wildly popular Random Pixels blog, covering local and national issues.

See more articles by Bill Cooke.

See more articles by Bill Cooke

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7 Comments on

"Selling Miami With Sex And Celebrities Is Nothing New"

rk says:

Very interesting article, thanks. Perhaps it might be better titled “Selling Miami Beach with…”

Posted on 09/20/2010 at 9:34 AM

Robert says:

“SEE IT LIKE A NATIVE” still works for me… Good article on local history.

Posted on 09/20/2010 at 3:30 PM

Scott says:

Superb article, Bill.  The history is fascinating by itself, but you tell it so well.  I never knew the story behind Madonna’s SEX book.  Great journalism.

Posted on 09/21/2010 at 10:10 AM

bill says:

Scott: Here’s another story on Madonna!

Posted on 09/21/2010 at 12:38 PM

bill says:

I guess I should have added the link! :(

Posted on 09/21/2010 at 12:40 PM

Jess says:

I enjoyed reading this great article and learning how Miami Beach got her (well deserved!) reputation. The photos changing through the years were really interesting too. Nice shot you got of LiLo!

You said at the beginning that in the 1920s they were trying to get people to understand the difference between Miami and Miami Beach. Nearly 100 years on, they are still trying! People will always just say Miami when they think of South Beach.

Posted on 09/22/2010 at 8:56 AM

bill says:

Thanks Jess

Yes, people will continue to mix up Miami and Miami Beach.

But perhaps Steve Hannagan would have smiled a few months ago when LeBron James said he was going to play basketball on South Beach! Works both ways!

Posted on 09/22/2010 at 9:01 AM

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