From 'Playboy' Playmate to media mogul

A dozen years ago, after graduating high school in her native Atlanta, Gillian Bonner was faced with an unusual decision: attend Southern Methodist University for a degree in computer engineering or wing off to New York to become a model. She chose the latter, but today — after a career that’s seen her appear in ads for Guess? jeans, start and sell a mail-order PC company, and grace the pages of Playboy‘s ”Women of the Internet” issue as Miss April 1996 — she’s finally hit on a way to combine her two passions. After founding her own multimedia-software company, Black Dragon Productions, the 30-year-old Bonner has cast herself as the gun-toting title character in Riana Rouge, a futuristic CD-ROM adventure game set to debut early next year.

For someone who’s been taking apart and reassembling computers since her teens, Bonner has set goals that, for now, seem fairly modest. ”If I can get one guy to see that you can have brains and beauty, that’s fabulous,” she says. The notoriety from her Playboy spread — which she describes as ”a marketing thing” — has attracted more than 1 million visitors per month to the Black Dragon website (, which leans more toward beauty than brains (Bonner implores visitors to vote for her as Playmate of the Year), and she says she receives about 100 E-mails a day, mostly from men (”Less than 1 percent have been negative or perverted”). Still, she’s completely at ease with her promotional strategy. ”Gillian was very smart at a very young age,” says Michael Guy, her former agent at the Wilhelmina modeling agency. ”She knew what the business could do for her.”

The question is, will all this attention translate into a successful product? Riana Rouge, distributed by Konami of America, cost $1 million to produce — less than blockbusters like Quake, but more than most debut CD-ROMs from start-up companies. Bonner hopes that the game’s unique interface — players control the heroine using an ”emotivator,” which determines the course of action according to whether one chooses to feel seductive, compassionate, afraid, etc. — will broaden its appeal to include women as well as men. And who knows? If she makes it big as a software mogul, maybe SMU will give her an honorary degree.