My time as a Playboy bunny
WThe Amorist magazine this year (strapline: for devotees of love and passion), the late Alexander Chancellor said: “Remember Playboy! Make sure you have a strong interview in every issue!” I protested. My magazine wasn’t the same sort of beast at all: it was an intelligent, romantic publication, aimed at women and couples. But I knew what Chancellor meant. There will always be people who feel they can’t read erotic articles or fiction unless they’ve stumbled across them by mistake.
Hugh Hefner pretty much invented the concept of “permission to read”. He allowed millions of male readers to say to themselves, “I’ve only picked up this mag, stuffed full of naked women, because it’s got a fascinating interview with Malcolm X and a great short story by Gabriel Garcia Márquez!” The formula worked for years.
We may mock the concept of anyone longing to be a playboy now – conjuring up, as it does, Austin Powers in a silk dressing-gown and Y-fronts – but when Hefner launched Playboy in 1953 he was absolutely on trend. The austerity years that followed the Second World War and understandable retreat to homely, moral values were gradually superseded by a thirst for glamour and seduction. Hefner’s own background was testament to this evolution. He described his parents as “Puritan Prohibitionists” and made it his mission to espouse what they eschewed. It’s instructive to note 1953 was also the year Ian Fleming The newspaper advert said “Trainee Bunny Croupiers Required – Turn up at Park Lane with a bikini”. I’d heard about Hugh Hefner and his famous Playboy mansion surrounded by the beautiful girls. Having packed in my French and Spanish degree in the first term, this could be my shot to leave suburbia for a much more glamorous scene.
A week later, I and about 100 other hopefuls were walking in our bikinis in front of a panel in Park Lane. Then we were set a introduced 007 – the ultimate smooth seducer – in Casino Royale. It also saw the release of Howard Hawks’s musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Marilyn Monroe, the cover star of Hefner’s first issue.
Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra, whose career had stalled after his mid-1940s’ success, saw his star rise again with an Oscar for his role in From Here to Eternity (featuring one of the most bunny IQ maths test. By February, I was off to Stocks for training. Stocks was Victor Lownes’s house in Tring in Hertfordshire. Victor was the boss of Playboy UK and the bunny training school was held there – a gorgeous country mansion with stables and horses, tennis courts plus the obligatory Jacuzzi.
We learnt to spin the ball and chip up – where we had renowned and steamy clinches in cinema history). Lotharios and pneumatic blondes were suddenly all the rage. These cultural shifts coincided with a perceptible shift in sexual attitudes; 1953 was the year Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female, examining previously taboo topics, such as orgasms, sexual fantasy and same-sex relationships. At the same time, advances in contraception culminated with the Pill being approved for general use in 1960, meaning sex was widely uncoupled from procreation, becoming the ultimate leisure pastime.
Hefner was plugging into the zeitgeist (and in line with Kinsey) when he said of sex: “We should embrace it. If you don’t encourage healthy sexual expression in public you get unhealthy sexual expression in private.” All that was needed to light the touchpaper for sexual revolution was a libertine in the White House and on Nov 8 1960 John FKennedy duly became America’s president.
By the early years of the 1970s, Playboy was selling seven million copies. My old-school father even had a copy on the bar counter of our country pub – nobody batted an eyelid to see it sitting alongside Punch and Country Life. I told a 20-year-old
‘My old-school father even had a copy of Playboy at the bar counter of our country pub’
to make four piles of 20 chips in 20 seconds. We memorised our 17x table to calculate the odds on a split bet. Every evening we relaxed in our own bunny lounge and slept in our bunny bedrooms. At weekends we went home – unless you were asked to stay for Victor’s famous Playboy parties. I never was – perhaps because I was a brunette English Lit student this recently and she couldn’t believe it possible. I had to explain how, in the 1970s, every petrol station had a Pirelli calendar with naked models, while peanuts were sold off a display and, as you pulled the packs off, a picture of a topless woman was revealed.
Meanwhile, Page 3 “stunnas” made The Sun the bestselling red-top in the country and Benny Hill chasing girls was prime-time entertainment. It sometimes seems bizarre to me that most of my childhood was spent watching Barbara Windsor’s bra ping off in Carry On movies. In this context it’s easy to see why Hugh Hefner was viewed as lolling at the aspirational end of the glamour girl phenomenon.
The quality of Playboy contributors and interviewees was a huge factor in allowing readers to feel they were part of a sophisticated cartel of educated, well-heeled pleasure-seekers. If Al Pacino, Mae West, Jimmy Carter, Joseph Heller or Anthony Burgess were on the contents’ page then you couldn’t possibly be a sleaze-bag. Another cunning way in which Hefner sanitised his brand was by playing host to a number of the world’s leading feminist writers. Erica Jong and Betty Friedan featured in interviews and both Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood wrote short stories for the magazine. Hefner also supported progressive social movements, backing the right for women to have legal abortions on demand, LGBT campaigns and the Civil Rights Movement. This was a pretty cool procession of liberal box-ticking and is the reason why men of Alexander Chancellor’s generation still tend to think of Playboy with a certain fondness.
Of course, in the decades that followed, images of an increasingly wizened Hefner, flanked by troops of vast-bosomed, orange playmates or C-list celebs came to overshadow the impact of his more liberal literate crusades. Even so, Playboy’s influence is still embedded throughout Western culture. When Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones goes to a tarts and vicars party, she does so in a classic bunny costume. A friend who runs a posh lingerie chain with mainly female customers recently told me she was considering manufacturing bunny-style corsets and ears, because women adore their vintage, vampy appeal. She cited Kate Moss on the cover of Playboy’s 60th Anniversary edition, dressed in full bunny regalia.
Many of my most honest male friends admit to a sneaking admiration for Hefner. They may not desire to live the Playboy dream themselves, but they respect him for sticking to his vision of licentious excess. Even I must reluctantly confess The Amorist might not exist without Hefner’s pioneering cocktail of literature and naked flesh, although we do not deal in centrefolds and our “icons” are clothed and just as likely to be male as female.
Seeking someone for our launch edition I was lucky enough to encounter Pamela Anderson, who is currently Coco de Mer’s global ambassador. Anderson has been on the cover of Playboy 14 times, more than any other model. She’s also very smart, very feisty and a political activist. I felt if I managed to put out a magazine that included Anderson and such stellar writers as Howard Jacobson, Sarah Hall and Hanif Kureishi, the mix was pretty perfect. I just wish I could claim I came up with that formula. and Victor liked blondes. Each bunny outfit was bespoke and we put them on by tipping forward to position our breasts in the cups (stuffed with tissue in a secret pocket). Ears had to be poised at just the right jaunty angle, black stilettos had minimum five-inch heels. Each night we’d be inspected by Bunny Mother who could reduce bunnies to tears; “I’ve been told I’m too fat,” wailed one. It was hard work – but we had perks – free champagne and entry to all London’s top clubs. A year later I got into Manchester to study history. There, the girls wore dungarees and had been to Greenham common. Being a bunny girl wasn’t seen as acceptable or fun. I later went on to be a newspaper journalist before moving into television where I still work for the documentary show Inside Out. I don’t regret being a bunny girl – that’s me, left, in red – and I have two grown-up boys who I’ve told about it. But today my old outfit appears old-fashioned and tame.