Will new Pirelli calendar be seen as embracing diversity or trivialising issues?

LONDON - On a muggy afternoon in May, in a heavily guarded studio in London, RuPaul, actor, drag queen and TV personality, was holding court inside a padded box.

Nearby, actor Djimon Hounsou stood shirtless.

Hours earlier, actress Whoopi Goldberg had mugged for the cameras.

Later, rapper Sean Combs and supermodel Naomi Campbell marched in, wielding axes.

"We are the royal beheaders," Combs said. "That's how it will feel when people see these pictures. In a positive way, obviously."

Welcome to the 2018 Pirelli calendar, the latest in a transformation from upmarket nudie collectible to cultural barometer. This time around, the calendar has taken the form of a reimagining of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, with an all-black celebrity cast.

What are they beheading? Old stereotypes and assumptions.

For Combs, the calendar comes at a time when there needs to be what he called "an unapologetic expression of black pride".

For decades, the Pirelli calendar was a soft-core ode to beautiful women.

A year and a half ago, for the 2016 edition, the focus took a sharp turn to pride.

It started applauding accomplishments, featuring such figures as writer Fran Lebowitz, investment manager Mellody Hobson and tennis champion Serena Williams.

Then, for the 2017 version, fully clothed and makeup-free actresses including Helen Mirren, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore were shot in black and white.

But will the 2018 calendar be seen as a commitment to diversity and social change?

Or will it draw accusations of corporate exploitation?

In April, there was widespread backlash to Pepsi's protest-themed advertisement featuring model Kendall Jenner, with protests that it trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement.