LOS ANGELES -- Playboy magazine's first black playmate of the year, whose 'coming out' party will be a luncheon Thursday at Hugh Hefner's mansion, couldn't get a date until her senior year in high school.
'If I ever felt any discrimination (growing up), that was it: No one would ask me out,' Renee Tenison, 21, said in an interview.
Tenison and her twin sister, Rosie, grew up in Melba, Idaho, population 300, to racially mixed parents and were the only black kids in town.
'Actually, we really didn't know we were black, or we didn't notice. It wasn't like we were treated any differently except we were never asked out on any dates, and I'm sure being black had a lot to do with that,' she said.
While she was in high school, her family moved to the nearby town of Nampa, where 'people were a lot more open' and she had her first date.
'It was in my senior year,' she said. 'When we went to Nampa people thought we were neat because they had never seen us before. We were twins. We were different. We were exotic.'
Tenison is the latest in a series of women named playmate of the year as much for the social or political statement they make as for their looks, although Playboy denies the link.
The naming of Kathy Shower in 1986 was apparently aimed at the maturing baby boom generation. Shower was 33 at the time and had two children.
In 1987, a year of anti-pornography activism among Southern Christians that prompted the Southland Corp. to pull Playboy from the shelves of its 7-Eleven stores, the magazine named a North Carolina woman, Donna Edmundson, as playmate of the year.
And in 1988 the magazine named India Allen, who claimed American Indian heritage.
The cycle was broken in 1989 with the selection of Kimberley Conrad as playmate of the year. Conrad weeks later married Playboy patriarch Hugh Hefner and this year gave birth to a son.
Playboy spokesman Bill Farley said Tenison's race was 'a factor' in her selection, 'but ultimately it is a business decision. We're not out to make a political statement,' he said.
Tenison, who lives with her fiance in Boise, dropped out of Boise State University when she was selected as the November 1989 playmate of the month. But she said she plans to return to school to study fashion design or, with her newly gained notoriety, acting.
'I would like to be a role model for black women,' she said. 'Coming from a small town and everything, if I can do it anyone can do it. I took the initiative and sent the (audition) pictures in to Playboy.'
Her message to black women, she said, is 'you can do anything you want to do in life -- If I can make it out of Melba, Idaho.'
Tenison, whose father is black and mother is white, identifies 'with the black side because people see me as black.
'I grew up 'as white' and my best friends are all white,' Tenison said, 'but I can talk with someone who is black and relate to what they are talking about.'
Tenison said her decision to pose nude in a men's magazine prompted supportive letters from around the world -- 'a lot of them from black guys who appreciate seeing a black woman in Playboy' -- but created some tension with her twin sister.
Rosie, she said, did not want to send in an audition photo and later felt left out when she saw the attention her sister was getting.
'I've always been more outgoing, and she's always been kind of shy,' Renee Tenison said, 'although pysically it's really hard to tell us apart.
'Now she wishes she would have sent her picture in ..., but i'm sure something will come her way with the twin aspect.' She noted that Playboy is considering featuring them both in a future edition.
'We're a lot closer now than when it came out. There was a lot of tension the, but we talked it through.'
Tenison is engaged and plans to marry 'in two years.' She and her fiance, she said, plan to continue living in Idaho.
'I really don't like L.A. enough to move out here,' she said. 'It's a lot faster than where I'm from. I'm not used to it, so I think I'd much rather live in Idaho and maybe come up and work and go back and come up and work and go back.'
'I would like to do some acting, but I would want to wait until I felt I had something to offer because I haven't had much schooling in it,' she said. 'I don't want to go knocking on the acting door and expect someone to give me a shot until I feel comfortable as an actress. That means going to school.'