In an interview in 1967 Hugh Hefner, the founder of the Playboy empire, explained the ways in which women were like rabbits. The bunny “has a sexual meaning”, he said, “because it’s a fresh animal, shy, vivacious, jumping — sexy. First it smells you, then it escapes, then it comes back, and you feel like caressing it, playing with it. A girl resembles a bunny. Joyful, joking.”
This helps explain why Hefner has been dressing women as bunnies since 1960. That was the year he opened the first Playboy club, in Chicago, a venue that built on the success of the magazine he’d started at his kitchen table seven years earlier. While the magazine pushed the pleasures of fine food, drink, cigars and women, the clubs made those promises flesh.
They were places where affluent men could go to be served by young women dressed in rabbit ears, fluffy tails and the rib-tight basques that were rumoured to pop open at the slightest sneeze.
Job advertisements hailed the glamour and prestige of being a Playboy bunny and some women have certainly said they enjoyed the role. But in 1963, when Gloria Steinem went undercover in the New York club for Show magazine, she described a life of swollen feet, drudgery, “demerits” for laddered tights or scruffy tails and a constant low-level thrum of sexual harassment.
It was a world in which members called black women “chocolate bunnies”, female employees were barred from dating customers (but encouraged to go out with Playboy executives) and behaviour was highly circumscribed.
All “bunnies” had to remain within 2.3kg of their hiring weight and there were strict rules about how they should stand, sit and smoke.
In these early days each female employee also had to undergo a “complete” physical — including an internal examination and smear test — before starting work. After Steinem’s article was published, Hefner sent her a letter saying he’d stopped these physicals because, although they were “a good idea”, they could be “misunderstood and turned into something questionable”.
Heather Kozar at the Playboy Mansion after being named 1999 Playmate of the Year. (Reuters)
The Playboy clubs fizzed for a moment — the opening of the London club in 1966 attracted Julie Christie, Rudolf Nureyev, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Four more clubs opened in the United Kingdom, four in Japan and many more in cities in the United States. But by the early 1980s the model was faltering. The British clubs lost their gambling licences and the US clubs were losing money. They looked like relics of another age, a time before feminism, when women could be treated as just another gentleman’s pleasure, like a fine scotch. By the time the last club closed in the early 1990s they seemed a total anachronism.
This Saturday another Playboy club will open its doors in London. It isn’t the first new club in the past decade — the idea was revived with a casino in Las Vegas in 2006 — and other clubs have opened more recently in Cancún and Macau.
On contacting the London club, I initially received an enthusiastic invitation, which was then swiftly, suddenly withdrawn. I was told the Guardian had been too negative about Playboy in the past and they were also wary after a recent “trashing in the Sunday Times magazine, where Mr Hefner underwent a complete character assassination”. (I can only assume they were referring to the brilliantly scabrous interview by Camilla Long, in which Hefner was described as “the Norma Desmond of sex”, who “leaps on any innuendo with demonic hunger” and lives in a kind of “porno Disney” at his Playboy mansion in Los Angeles.)
Suffice to say the London club seems to be staying close to the original 1960s’ model. The website is illustrated with a vulpine photograph of Hefner from that era, surrounded by smiling women in bunny costumes. (A similarly retro image of Hefner graces the website of Playboy Enterprises — the company apparently prefers these old pictures to the current ones.) The club will feature a Cottontail Lounge “where the Bunnies come out to play”, a bar run by Salvatore Calabrese, “the world’s leading cocktail expert”, “Gentlemen’s Tonic”, which “affords the modern man a traditional barbershop”, as well as a sports bar and a smoking terrace. Hefner has said the ideal member is someone “with money and taste”. Lifetime membership costs £15 000.
It’s a change of tack for the Playboy brand after some troubled decades and many believe this return to affluent values and women dressed as rabbits is exactly the right move. A feature in Marketing magazine in 2009 suggested Playboy needed to “reinterpret the original concept behind the brand — glamour and sophistication. There are plenty of males who are drawn to the lifestyle. Make Playboy a brand for playboys.”
This is a directive that Rob Frankel, the branding expert and author of The Revenge of Brand X, supports. Frankel bought shares in Playboy before Hefner took the company private earlier this year and he feels the opening of the clubs is appropriate because “after decades of suppression, masculinity is back. Men have less to apologise for and I think women are breathing a sigh of relief too. They want the guy to come back, they are really disappointed that he’s holding their handbag while they’re trying on clothes.” He describes the clubs as “a sanctuary for masculinity”.
The opening comes at a time when early 1960s’ style is more fashionable than ever. The era was portrayed with a slick, gauzy beauty in Tom Ford’s film, A Single Man, and the TV drama Mad Men has beamed gorgeous images of the period into our homes for four years now. As writer Ariel Levy says, Mad Men‘s central character, Don Draper, embodies the masculine ideal Hefner pioneered in the 1950s.
She describes this ideal in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: “Hefner had a vision for a new kind of masculinity, a new kind of man, one who no longer needed to be the duck-hunting outdoorsman, the virtuous patriarch of the 1940s and 1950s. Instead, he was re-imagined as a suave gent in a V-neck cashmere sweater, mixing drinks, listening to records, and appreciating the ‘finer things in life’, like jazz and beautiful women. He was freed from domesticity.”
Later this year a new TV drama, The Playboy Club, starts in the US. Set in Chicago in 1963, it features a voice over from Hefner in which he describes the club as a place where “everything was perfect, where life was magic, where … fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the door”. One scene shows naked women playing in a pool, while Hefner intones that the men were “watching them as if at SeaWorld, only much, much better”.
Natasha Walter, the author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, suspects that this glamorous, romanticised view of the 1960s “will play strongly into the Playboy club revival” and might undermine female opposition to the venue. “The men obviously have attractive lives on Mad Men,” she says, “but the women, as well, are made to seem highly sexy — they’re getting a lot of sex, dressing very sexily — and you can’t help responding to that as a viewer … It’s something that feminists have to deal with. We have to make the case that, actually, there’s something much sexier about equality.”
Hugh Hefner surrounded by his usual collection of blondes in 2006. (Chris Pizzello, Reuters)
A factor that might help feminists here is Hefner’s own image. Susan Gunelius, the author of Building Brand Value the Playboy Way, points out that Hefner has always been “the ultimate brand champion. He lived the lifestyle, he was the physical embodiment of Playboy and people bought into the lifestyle because they aspired to be him. He was the brand promise.”
But does anyone really aspire to be Hefner now? In that Marketing article the second piece of advice for reviving the Playboy brand was to sever ties with its founder, because “these days he comes across as quite sleazy and certainly no longer personifies glamour and sophistication”. This is inarguably true. In the past three decades both the Playboy brand and Hefner himself have trekked down the path of sexism, their image becoming progressively more pornographic and tacky.
Where Playboy was once solely associated with softcore pornography and affluence, it now has associations with hardcore pornography and cheap accessories. Playboy Enterprises owns Spice Digital Networks, a set of channels that show films such as Hijack my Hole, Asian Sex Tramp, Giant Juggs [sic] 3 and My Wife’s a Slut.
At the same time, controversially, Playboy-branded products have been marketed heavily to young women and children. Retailer WH Smith carried a line of Playboy stationery until 2009. In Asia rabbit products are shelved alongside Hello Kitty and Paul Frank merchandise and sell well. Playboy Enterprises expects to take $20-million in the region by the end of this year.
Gunelius says: “Women buy Playboy products because they think the bunny’s cute, just like the Hello Kitty logo is cute. A lot of the women’s merchandise is pink, sparkly, sexy. It’s very simple and a large audience likes that.”
That pink, glittery girlishness also defines the “reality” show, The Girls of the Playboy Mansion, which started in 2005 and ran for six series, providing a sanitised look at the lives of Hefner’s many girlfriends. In the book Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion, Izabella St James gives a much franker account of her time as one of Hefner’s seven girlfriends between 2002 and 2004.
On becoming one of his “official” girlfriends and moving into the mansion, she was given a 9pm nightly curfew, barred from having bottles of alcohol in her room, and started receiving a $1 000 weekly allowance.
St James disliked the process of picking up the allowance, because Hefner would use this moment to “bring up whatever he wasn’t happy with in the relationship … Most of the complaints were regarding lack of harmony in the group, or lack of sexual participation, or that we didn’t watch movies with him.”
The story St James tells bounces from hilarious to revolting and back again. On reading her book, it suddenly doesn’t seem at all surprising that the bug that causes legionnaires’ disease was found in the mansion’s hot tub this April. She writes of bedrooms filled with mismatched furniture, old, stained mattresses and used sheets, and says Hefner “liked our rooms to look like little girls’ rooms, [with] white carpets and pink walls”. A photograph shows a large Care Bear on her bed and there are cuddly toys all over the house. Also: excrement.
One of the other women had dogs that weren’t housebroken and “many a late night or early morning we stepped in her dog’s pee, or worse, poop,” writes St James. “When we used to go to see Hef on Friday morning to get our allowances, we always had to wait a few minutes as he walked around to pick up the poops … Archie the house dog would regularly relieve himself on the hallway curtains, adding the scent of urine to the general scent of decay.”
There was the whiff of baby oil too. St James writes that Hefner would sluice himself with this before having sex and many of the women blamed their yeast infections on the oil. Sex sessions would start with Hefner taking Viagra and then lying there “like a dead fish”, writes St James, while women gathered around, climbing on and off in turn and occasionally shouting: “Oh daddy!”
Playmates at the new Playboy Club in New York in 1962. (Bettmann, Corbis)
“I never saw Hef use condoms. Period,” she writes. After he had sex with each girl, “he wiped himself off with a wet bath towel”.
Hefner is this year committing himself to one woman, 24-year-old Crystal Harris. The pair are coming to London to celebrate the opening of the club, before getting married at the Playboy mansion later in June. Hefner proposed last Christmas Eve, with a diamond ring inside a music box that was inspired by Harris’s favourite film, The Little Mermaid. He has brushed away their 60-year age gap with the unusual suggestion that “she deserves to be my widow”.
Will there be any chance of the club remaining a Mad Men-style fantasy once the Hefner-Harris circus hits town? Frankel thinks so. And he refers, as proof, to the recent Charlie Sheen controversy – the months when Sheen was rumoured to be having a breakdown amid ever more lurid stories of his experiences with drugs and porn stars.
“I had a lot of people calling me about Charlie Sheen,” says Frankel, “and saying, is it all over for him? And I said: ‘absolutely not’. What you are seeing is a guy who in public everybody pooh-poohs, but in private every guy says: ‘that’s the life I want’. That proves that the void of masculinity exists and it’s the exact same void that Playboy could be filling.”
Does Frankel think there might be any negative response to the re-opening of the Playboy club? “Look,” he says, “you always get somebody whining in the rafters. But I really don’t see any meaningful resistance to this, if it is conducted properly … As a matter of fact I think women will be just as thrilled as men.”
A group of women who are not thrilled are running the “Eff Off Hef” campaign. They protested at the club’s press night in May and will do so again on opening night. As Anna van Heeswijk, one of the organisers, says: “Playboy has established a veneer of respectability over an industry — the porn industry — that is inherently harmful and abusive to women, which makes its profit out of degrading, objectifying and abusing women. It produces hardcore pornography, but even the softer end of its business is harmful. This club is going to make its money out of basically marketing women, sexualising women as animals, as subservient playthings for wealthy men.”
Another of the organisers, Kat Banyard, describes the protest the group has planned, complete with evil bunny masks and “a welcome sign for Hugh Hefner, which says: “Eff Off Hef: Stop Degrading Women”. At their first protest one of the campaigners dressed up as Hefner, in his trademark pyjamas, and proffered a tray of rabbit pooh. “We’re trying to get across the message,” says Banyard, “that Playboy says it serves the finest food, the most beautiful girls, but basically it’s been serving up the same old sexist shit since 1953.”
Here’s hoping they’re successful. But given the pooh parlour Hefner reputedly lives in, rabbit droppings might not deter him at all. —