A Short History of a Long Legacy

Why is PLAYBOY in South Africa? Why is it anywhere? For the pictures of beautiful women, you might be thinking. You’d be right, but mostly wrong.

If the recent Secrecy Bill debacle, for that’s what it is, has taught our rainbow nation anything, it is that we like to have the option to choose. We like to sow our own seeds, and we most certainly know what is good for us. And should anyone mess around with our choices, should anyone push us down, would we have the gall and the nerve to not only voice our displeasure, but to do what we want and be that which we wish, in spite? Why is PLAYBOY in South Africa? Why indeed.

No one knows that freedom is a point somewhere in the middle of that slippery slope between chains and debauchery better than Hugh Hefner. Perhaps he did not know the somewhat darker end of the scale when he released the first issue of PLAYBOY magazine to a frustrated and unsuspecting public in 1953. Yet, since then, those puppet-master-wannabes of Photoshop, those who wear the mask of hypocritical conservative humility over their own myopic ego, have continuously reminded him of it. And for five decades, the PLAYBOY enterprise has been balancing on this morality seesaw.

It is rare that an idea is allowed to incubate as long as PLAYBOY has. It is rarer still that a successful company revolves around a single idea to begin with. But, the “boy and a dream” adage would not be able to find a more apt example than that of Hugh Hefner and his “Play” idea. To distance himself from the blue-collar, post-World War II, white-picket-fence, oven-baked, sexually-repressed America, he dreamed of parties, of style, of handsome men and beautiful women, of freely available ideas; most of all, though, he dreamt of having a choice. He was not being wicked. He was just being a man.

The idea Hefner had to publish a magazine needed to be symbolised, needed a logo that could instantly be traced to the idealised social space Hefner envisioned. Just prior to the publication of the first issue of PLAYBOY (and in less then half an hour), Art Director Arthur Paul designed the rabbit head logo. The rabbit was chosen, part in jest, part in an attempt to differentiate the magazine from Esquire and The New Yorker, and part as a sign of the sexually liberal magazine. “I designed the logo to depict the lighter side of life; the rabbit being, to many people, the playboy of the animal world due to its extraordinary ability to reproduce itself. The bow tie symbolises PLAYBOY’s editorial slant toward the urban male sophisticate,” says the creator of the modest yet inimitable company logo.

Paul surely would have given the rabbit head logo a tad longer than half an hour of his time had he known how important the little critter would become. What was originally used as a signature to mark the end of an article (go ahead… you can look) would go on to become the symbol of one of the biggest publishing empires of the 20th Century. The PLAYBOY mascot was such a success that before it was even popular in the public sphere, a letter delivered to the Chicago head offices needed nothing more than the rabbit head design drawn on the envelope.

The rabbit motif, as we all know now, did not end with the rabbit head design. When Hugh Hefner launched PLAYBOY’S Penthouse in 1959, a television program Hef hosted himself, the PLAYBOY Bunny was born. Initially models who may or may not have featured in the magazine were costumed with the Bunny Suit: a custom-fitted corset, men’s cuffs, a bowtie and a fluffy bunny tail. The bunny costume would become a hit; to this day it remains synonymous with the brand. Yet it was not until Hefner’s finest spit in the eye of conservatism that the PLAYBOY Bunny became an even larger part of the PLAYBOY legacy: The PLAYBOY Club.

As it became apparent that Hefner was not the only one who desired to break away from the restraints of a conservative, Cold War America and PLAYBOY magazine was becoming a runaway success, Hefner realised that he needed a physical space for his idea to be made tangible. He launched the PLAYBOY Club in February 1960; a space where people’s curiosity could be sated, or increased. There was little smoke and mirrors. People only had to look at PLAYBOY’S Penthouse if they wanted to know what was going in the real world of PLAYBOY.

Yet, even though Hefner invited people into his life, invited them into his dream, via magazine, airwaves and the club, hecklers still heckled and suspicious eyes with dropped lids were still fixed on him. For someone who lived under almost no pretense and dedicated his entire life to letting people in, it appeared to some that he sure ought to have a lot to hide. And it was the same old, boring criticism: all those nude women with their provocative gaze, and just what were those women dressed as bunnies doing in those clubs? Journalist Gloria Steinem would go undercover as a Bunny to find out, which resulted in a book, a Kirsty Alley movie and the conclusion that the PLAYBOY Bunnies were exploited.

“I think every woman’s secret desire is to try on a Bunny suit, but they’re just not liberated enough,” was Candy Humphries D’Amato, a former Bunny turned real estate broker, retort to the criticism. “Yes, liberated. It wasn’t the Bunnies who were being exploited, you know, not with our salaries. I worked as a bank teller before I became a Bunny, and I’ll tell you what exploitation is. Exploitation is working for $250 a month.”

It is true that the Bunnies had to follow certain guidelines when they worked at the clubs. The PLAYBOY Bunny guidelines are still readily available. There were Door Bunnies, Cigarette Bunnies, Floor Bunnies, and later even Jet Bunnies, who served on the Big Bunny jet, PLAYBOY’S private plane. There were also a number of poses or manoeuvres the Bunnies had to do within the clubs. The most famous move was the “Bunny Dip” which the Bunny did when serving a patron. She would have to lean back, tucking one leg behind the other as she served a drink, thereby ensuring that the notoriously fitted corset she was wearing would stay in place. When she was not serving cocktails, the Bunny had to do the “Bunny Perch” by sitting on the back of a chair or sofa, or do the “Bunny Stance” when standing aside or greeting clients. To ensure all regulations were followed, the Bunnies had to report to the Bunny Mother, usually an experienced Bunny who had a complete knowledge of the Bunny handbook.

However, the women were never objectified, and they were never allowed to touch patrons. The false perceptions, such as those of Steinem, rose from a culture accustomed to the notion of objectifi cation. They expected Hefner’s clubs to be scandalous, debauched and immoral because if they weren’t, his critics would have had to come to terms with their own self-regulation and suppression. But the Bunny prevailed, even after the PLAYBOY Clubs closed their doors in the late 1980s at a time when excess was king and the public fi nally understood what it was that Hefner was talking about. The clubs were no longer needed. But the PLAYBOY Bunnies were too signifi cant to disappear. Their legacy continued, the costume was, and remains to this day, one of the most recognisable ensembles in the world.

In fact the Bunny has become such a success that it has even caused some confusion within the PLAYBOY ranks. Over the decades some Bunnies would go on to become PLAYBOY Playmates, but a Playmate was never the same as Bunny. Playmates were chosen to feature in the magazine, but were never required to don the Bunny costume. Hefner’s vision, when the fi rst Playmate of the Month was featured in the second edition of the magazine in January 1954, was not that of just a nude pictorial. It had to be a nude pictorial of the “girl next door.” Today that term is used loosely, often to describe a certain, wholesome look, but in the 1950s, to see the girl next door nude would have been scandalous.

So it fit with Hefner’s idea of making sexuality and sexiness an everyday thing, which was free of taboo. Mostly though, it was fun. And it needs to be. The underlying message of PLAYBOY has always been fun. Why else would Hefner build a grown-men-Never- Neverland at his mansion in California, with slippy-slides, birds of paradise and game rooms? What Hefner has been doing for almost 60 years, PLAYBOY South Africa has been doing for one. Bunnies, Playmates, and the rabbit symbol all represent a culture of sexiness, sophistication and fun. But ultimately, it has adopted the PLAYBOY ideal of giving its readers the space and option to be themselves.

by Luka Vracar
Published in Playboy South Africa April 2012