In an interview in 1967, Hugh Hefner, 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 a place where affluent men could go to be served by young women dressed in rabbit ears, fluffy tails and the rib-tight basques that were rumored 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 behavior 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.”
The Playboy clubs fizzed for a moment — the opening of the London club in 1966 attracted Julie Christie, Rudolf Nureyev, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen. Four more clubs opened in the UK, four in Japan, and many more in US cities. But by the early 1980s the model was faltering. The British clubs lost their gambling licenses, 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. As offensive as The Black and White Minstrel Show, as embarrassing as The Benny Hill Show, and just as certain to be consigned to the past.
Today, another Playboy club opens 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 Cancun and Macau. On contacting the London club I initially received an enthusiastic invitation, which was then swiftly, suddenly reneged. I was told the Guardian had been too negative about Playboy in the past, and that 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.)