The Hefner roadshow, live and unstapled

`The Bunny is Back' was written all over her chest and his face. The chest is Heather Kozar's, Playboy Playmate of the Year. The face is Hugh Hefner's, still leering after all these years.
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The press release announces, with some confidence, that Hugh Hefner will be landing at Heathrow at 1pm on Tuesday, 18 May. It doesn't say "weather permitting" or "give or take an hour", which is just as well, since it doesn't leave the man much time to get to his 4.30 press conference at the Dorchester Hotel. In the wood-panelled, gilt-mirrored Holford Room, pink champagne and afternoon tea are being served to a select media circus, which waits to welcome Hef on his first visit to London in over 25 years.

Flashbulbs and the staccato whirr of advancing film herald the appearance of 1999 Playboy Playmate of the year Heather Kozar, who sweeps by in an airbrushed blur, glowing all over with a strange sunset hue. Hef is lost somewhere in the tight clutch of minders, and only when they sit down do we see that the slight little fellow next to her is none other. He's not in his jim-jams, but there is the famous undershot jaw and the trademark swirly comb-over, no more sparse, it seems, than it was 25 years ago. He's trim, with black-rimmed spectacles and a blue blazer over a deep blue-shirt with a white collar. He exudes the calm, unassuming self-possession of a retired airline pilot.

"It's both a personal and a business trip, and really related to simply kind of celebrating the last 45 years. We're also scouting casino locations. The Bunny is coming back."

The old Playboy Club was right here in Park Lane, just a few doors down. Before the casino lost its gaming licence in the early 1980s, it represented a huge chunk of the company's profits and sparked a decline in Playboy's fortunes that coincided with falling circulation of the magazine and Hefner's 1985 stroke. But now, as Hef says, the Bunny is back. "We have one of the strongest brands in the world with the Bunny, and we are finding new and exciting ways to utilise it."

The resurgence of Playboy Enterprises coincides, coincidentally, with the break-up of Hugh's marriage, a return to bachelorhood, his discovery of Viagra (he carries it with him at all times, like cyanide) and his new love interest - or rather interests.

"I'm travelling with an entourage of very special friends," Hugh announces, before anyone can ask him. "The young ladies that I'm dating at the present time; Brande, Sandy and Mandy." We know this already, because it's in the press release.

We also know that Mandy and Sandy are identical twins, and that today is their 21st birthday. They're not with us this afternoon because they've gone shopping. "Much of my life reads like bad fiction," says Hugh. "And lucky me."

Hugh M Hefner, according to the "executive biography" we have been handed, was born in Chicago in 1926 to conservative Protestant parents. The 10- page CV details his high school and primary school education, lists his IQ (152), covers his army career and his University days ("Hefner earned his bachelor's degree in two and one-half years"), and recounts the publication of Playboy's first issue in 1953, the building of the first Playboy mansion, the acquisition of the Bunny jet and Hef's campaign to save the Hollywood sign, and makes note of his two marriages and his archive of more than 4,000 feature films. Now there is talk of a feature film about his life, which sounds a bit like bad non-fiction.

The press conference gets a little sidetracked at one point, as journalists ask a series of nosy questions about rumours that Hefner's ex-wife, former playmate Kimberly Conrad, is dating Rod Stewart. Hef is forthright, if not exactly forthcoming. "I want her to be happy," he says. Asked if she is happy, he answers: "No, I don't think she's happy right now." As to why, he says little more than, "I think she has problems with the notion of making a new commitment." Then it's back to happier times, and all the new young folk who are coming to the parties at the Playboy mansion.

"One of the unexpected dividends for me," says Hef, "after coming out of a troubling time at the end of the marriage, was the number of young people, including young celebrities, who were waiting for me to come out and play." Leonardo DiCaprio likes to hang out at the Playboy Mansion, apparently, although why is unclear. Heather says "it's like paradise". Hef says: "It's also a little piece of England in Hollywood."

The fake English stately, he says, is situated in a Los Angeles subdivision called Holmby Hills, on a street called Charing Cross Road, although I am reliably informed that the house is actually in Little Holmby, a less prestigious neighbourhood on the wrong side of Sunset Boulevard, but when you're talking about the Playboy mansion, snobbery seems a bit misplaced. Perhaps the appeal of Hefner's strange, kitschy world is as much a Boy's Own dream as a sexual fantasy. I remember as an adolescent being particularly impressed by his bedroom, because it had a little refrigerator that was always full of Pepsi. Pepsi in bed, I thought. Whenever he feels like it. Somehow you'd think that Leonardo would want more.

Hef has a weird obsession with numbers and little coincidences, none of which seem to mean anything. It was, he says, exactly 40 years ago that he first came to Europe. He notes that 1999 is the Year of the Rabbit. He points out that both he and Heather come from conservative Christian backgrounds, which he describes as a "fascinating parallel". Throughout Hef's answers, Heather smiles and turns her head this way and that, offering up new camera angles, sometimes nodding in agreement with whatever Hef happens to be saying at the time. When he says he thinks drugs should be legalised, she nods as if there were never any doubt in her mind. Maybe there never was.

At one point somebody asks Heather a question. She sounds like a contestant on Just A Minute. There's a bit of deviation, and considerable repetition, but absolutely no hesitation. Her response is confident and immediate: "I found, when I began with Playboy, that the company is such a family, and they build everyone up, and there are so many opportunities, and so many Playmates do achieve their goals, and for me becoming a Playmate of the Year was a goal that I set out after, after I became a Playmate, and I think it's something that is very empowering for me, it's something that has helped me with my sexuality, and being my own person, and I've grown up so much, I've learned so many wonderful things from everybody that is involved with Playboy. Getting myself out there, and meeting people and being in front of the public, it's been a wonderful experience..."

There's more, but you get the idea. I don't know what the question was, but I'm not sure it matters. On the way out of the Holford room Hef is ambushed in a corridor by a large girl dressed as a Playboy Bunny. It is not clear what this publicity stunt is in aid of, since none of us journalists feel able to go down the corridor to where it's happening. The deference is voluntary. We wait politely at one end, and Hef disappears into a lift.

The next day, there is a queue running along the pavement outside Tower Records in Piccadilly. A big sign inside reads: "Tower Record Welcomes Hugh Hefner and Heather Kozar, 1999 Playmate of the Year." Below it is a little table with two empty chairs. A magazine-signing in a record shop is a real post-literate event, and the group of men who queue to have a centrefold sign their centrefolds is, by and large, not a pretty sight.

There is a larger, unofficial queue for people who simply want to watch, and this is causing serious traffic problems back in CD singles. Crowd- control people try to keep everyone moving, and hard-core gawpers like myself are forced to feign a sudden interest in the Sarah Brightman section. The event is scheduled for 12.30, but at 10 minutes to one the two chairs are still empty, and no magazines have been signed. A crowd-control person shouts, "IF YOU ARE NOT IN THE QUEUE I DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOU HERE".

Customers are forced to the fringes of the store, and as flashbulbs start to pop, a rotating, milling queue forms for the only suitable vantage point, which the crowd-control people are busy obscuring with a wall of CD display racks. From where I stood, one could see just a few locks of Heather's blonde hair and a swatch of her powdery peach skin. As for Hef, I couldn't see him at all.

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