Editor's note: This story appeared on the cover of Air Force Times on April 16, 2007.
This story was updated April 20, 2015, to reflect the fact that she completed her contract and was discharged as a staff sergeant.
SAN ANTONIO — Something about that swish of dirty blond makes the airman's eyes flicker. Is it her?
She's cruising slow, windows down, through a flat stretch of Lackland Air Force Base. Steering the black pickup with her left hand, the other tapping cell phone digits with a glossy fingernail.
He's roadside. Draped in service-issue physical training gear, walking exhausted.
Under the Texas sun, he squints. Still unsure of it. She rolls nearer, close enough to make out her face, and his mouth gapes into a goofy smile.
Oh, it's her all right.
That Air Force training instructor.
Who got disciplined demoted.
For posing nude in February's Playboy.
When the year began, Michelle Manhart was the brash blonde whose throaty commands could make young trainees cry.
Now she is the married mom whose Playboy dreams shredded a 13-year Air Force career.
To hear Manhart tell it, she expected a dust-up, never a demotion, for the fleshy spread titled "Tough Love." Her critics wonder how she could have been so naïve.
Regardless, Manhart's punishment gave her sudden celebrity, setting off a media blitz, online debates, talk show spats and more.
"Some people say, 'She had her 15 minutes of fame. Now shut up,'" Manhart says. "Some say, 'Girl, take it for all its worth.'"
In days, she'll go to her next high-profile modeling gig, with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Manhart will pose wearing only an American flag for the group's "I'd Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur" national campaign. In coming weeks, her Los Angeles agent will negotiate with reality TV producers and try to secure a World Wrestling Entertainment diva role.
But today, on this clear blue late March afternoon, Manhart is headed to a different sort of photo shoot.
She's no longer an active-duty airman. And that calls for a new military picture ID.
'She's a big deal'
Nowhere does her infamy burn brighter than at Lackland. Yet Manhart walks the base with Playboy written all over her.
Her white cotton Playboy long-sleeve T-shirt fits snug. Her lipstick-pink Playboy bunny pendant jingles when she walks. Her flip-flops glitter. Ask for her ID, out comes the metallic Playboy business card holder Manhart uses as a wallet.
At Lackland, she gets lingering looks. Looks that say, "I know who you are." Looks that Manhart can't always peg to disapproval or embarrassed curiosity.
"When I go on base and people recognize me, they're very apprehensive," she says. "I never know how to approach it."
It's different around San Antonio, where Manhart is the city's newest celebrity. The autograph requests come in gas stations, supermarkets and airport terminals, from men and women alike. She never leaves the house without Magic Markers.
"She's a big deal in San Antonio," says Freddy Hernandez, a local comedian who hosted one of Manhart's recent appearances at a downtown club. "Most people are saying, 'Hey, can you believe what they did to that chick? After she fought overseas, after she fought for our country?'"
What they did to Manhart was issue a letter of reprimand, demote her from staff sergeant to senior airman and, finally, drop her from active duty. She was reassigned to the Iowa National Guard, though Manhart has not lived in Iowa for years.
Fighting for back pay and unpaid leave? Forget it, she says.
"I don't want to deal with this crap anymore," Manhart says. "It's obvious someone is trying to sabotage this."
Back at Lackland, her errand has Manhart in a bureaucratic holding pen, a bare-walled room where military IDs are issued. The ambiance is DMV.
An overhead screen flashes Manhart's number. She approaches the counter. Signs a few forms with her husband. Positions her face before a backdrop.
A shutter clicks. A machine spits out an orange ID card.
The old one read "STAFF SERGEANT."
The new one reads "RELATIONSHIP: SPOUSE."
One little secret
She is feminine, but never dainty. Her backbone is titanium. Talk slick, she'll give it back. She's the girl next door -- who could put you in a headlock.
She's also a talker and something of an open book. But for most of last year, Playboy was her secret.
An amateur model since 13 -- one who later added nudes to her portfolio -- Manhart showed up at Playboy's San Antonio casting call in early 2006. The magazine was curious about her nails-tough job: Breaking down and building up young Air Force recruits as a training instructor.
"The photographers found out Michelle was in the military," Playboy publicist Theresa Hennessey said. "That was very intriguing to them."
They arranged to photograph Manhart in April at a private home in The Dominion, an elite San Antonio hideaway for celebrities and the super rich. Manhart had zero assurance that Playboy would ever run the photos.
So she kept quiet, fearful of giving backbiters easy bait: a mother of two, nearing 30, whose Playboy dreams burnt out before taking off.
"Just me and my husband knew," she says. "I talked to my family before I shot the photos. After that, we never talked about it again. I didn't want to go out and look like an idiot."
In early January, before the magazine hit racks, Playboy gave her the word. Manhart says she quickly told her supervisor. The supervisor told her captain, who told her commander.
"At first, they said, 'Don't worry. You're not in trouble, and you're in our best interest,'" Manhart said. "We just need to notify the correct people."
She said their tone darkened in a matter of hours.
"They told me to pack my desk and turn in my hat."
The Uniform Code of Military Justice doesn't explicitly forbid posing nude.
But that misses the point, according to Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr., the Air Force's deputy judge advocate general. He says the UCMJ wasn't designed to be a "cookbook of prohibited activities."
"There is no possible way to legislate every single thing that will undermine good order and discipline, or discredit the military," Dunlap said.
The military's response to her Playboy nudes came in three waves.
The first charge speaks to failures of military regulation.
The second is a catch-all for service members who discredit the armed forces. It specifically mentions misuse of a uniform.
Next, Manhart was administratively demoted from staff sergeant to senior airman. This measure, Brown says, is most commonly used against airmen who repeatedly fail fitness requirements.
"It's for poor performance over an extended period of time," Brown says. Given Manhart's clean file, he says, "it's really a misuse of the demotion."
Before settling in San Antonio in 2005, Manhart spent four years stationed in Des Moines, Iowa, where she studied pre-law and earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Northern Iowa.
Naturally, she wants out -- of the Air Force, of the National Guard, of the military period. Manhart turned in her second resignation, this one to the Guard.
She was supposed to report April 14 to an office job at Camp Dodge, a rural Iowa joint-service installation. That same day, she planned to confirm a lead Columbia Pictures role portraying a woman pursued by the Mexican mafia.
In recent weeks, Manhart was thinking she might not post at Camp Dodge. "I was hanging by a wire, getting recommendations from my lawyer, not quite sure what I should do," she says. She had been quietly tugging political and media strings in Iowa. Dropping hints to local press. Leaning on politicians, Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Leonard Boswell, for help.
Her honorable discharge -- citing reasons of personal convenience -- was issued 10 days before she was expected on base. Manhart's last official military tie was cut.
"I've finally gotten out from underneath it," Manhart says. "I feel like my life is finally in my own hands."
At a dining table somewhere in San Antonio's never-ending suburbs, Manhart and her children are a 2007 Norman Rockwell portrait.
Aunika, 11, has just walked home from school with her brother, Travis. He's 6.
They are yes, ma'am, no, ma'am kids. They are freckle-faced. They are hunched over the dining room table completing homework, an afternoon ritual that precedes outdoor play.
"Mom, can you give me a signed picture of you?"
"It's for a kid. At school."
No chance. But this is how Playboy is discussed with her children. No secrets, no shame.
"She didn't jump for joy all excited, and she didn't hate the idea," Manhart says. Aunika says she would rather her mom pose with clothes on. "But," the fifth-grader adds, "I like that she followed what she wanted and got it."
'I miss the uniform'
"At the time, I didn't see it as Playboy," Manhart says. "I just thought, 'Wow, this is the best magazine for models.'"
In high school, she was not quite a tomboy, not quite a jock, she says. In an early mark of defiance, Manhart fought for and won a place on Chico's Pleasant Valley High School wrestling team, after first being told she couldn't join.
At 16, Manhart graduated early. She joined a military lineage threaded by her retired Navy father, retired Marine Corps stepfather and retired Army Air Corps grandfather. She enlisted so young that her mother had to sign a release form.
"I was 16 when I signed up, so I didn't know anything. I owe so much to the" Air Force, Manhart says.
"I don't miss the negativity. I miss the family. I miss the uniform," she says. "I don't really miss getting up every day and going to work. But I miss the whole picture. Almost 13 years of my life is there."
The military is still entrenched in Manhart's life. San Antonio, a four-base city, is heavily populated with active-duty and retired service members. So is her neighborhood.
Her fans might not have noticed. Manhart's husband prefers to stand just outside her corona of public attention. He dodges the camera flash. He doesn't do interviews and definitely doesn't do Hollywood.
At a Playboy mansion visit, surrounded by glitz and L.A. high-society, he felt most comfortable around the wait staff. (The exception: Too Short, California rap legend and fellow Oakland native.)
"He hasn't gotten in trouble for anything I've done yet," Manhart says. "He shouldn't. And I don't want him to."
A matter of time
It's ruby-purple dawn over a generic grid of San Antonio-area strip malls and gated neighborhoods. At this early hour, so dark cars still burn headlights, Manhart sweats inside one of the city's priciest one-on-one fitness studios.
Her trainer is the bald and brawny Boyd Myers, three years out of a decade-long Air Force career. Worth roughly $100 per hour, he says.
"Michelle's got weak hips," Myers says. "We've got to work on that."
"Weak hips? Child-bearing hips!" Manhart counters.
This has replaced Manhart's 14-hour stints training Lackland airmen. Keeping her model body fit. Signing and returning Playboys that appear in her post office box.
She fields roughly 200 messages per day on MySpace, the premier online social network and de facto marketing platform.
"In an average day, I spend a lot of time working on my future goals now that I don't have the Air Force as an everyday positive employment, so to speak," she says.
To Manhart, her future is already written. It's not whether her entertainment career takes off. It's when.
"Of course it will," she says. "Why wouldn't it?"
Now Manhart is belly-down on a rubber mat, limp on the training center floor. Myers kneads her calf. He finds a knot and digs in with meaty fingers. Manhart's face crinkles.
Myers, a former staff sergeant, is remembering basic training. He recalls who he was surrounded by. Young men in their late teens and early 20s.
Does Manhart really believe those guys, after peering over her glowing curves in an adult magazine, could cede her the authority that job demands?
Absolutely, she says. But Myers has to wonder.
"It'd be tough," Myers says. Then he clarifies. "Honestly, I'm not sure she would have been treated the same, ever, in any career."
"Look, we all know the Air Force handled this wrong," says Myers, grinning down at his sore client, still prone on the carpet.
"They should have made her a recruiter."