50 years of the bunny girl: Hugh Hefner on life with a controversial pop icon

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It's now 50 years since the first Playboy Bunnies donned their tails, waggled their ears and performed the strange contortion known as the Bunny Dip to serve drinks to their suit-and-tie-wearing customers. When the original Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, the ideal customer was "somebody with money and taste", as Hugh Hefner, the brand's now 84-year-old founder, tells me raspingly from his LA mansion. And he got such beaux sabreurs in droves to the Chicago, New York, London and myriad other Playboy establishments that were to follow. The Bunnies and what he calls their "clean, healthy, girl-next-door beauty" were, of course, the come-on – and, according to Hefner, the most crucial decision he made was to add collars and cuffs to their uniform: "Before that," he declares, "it looked like a bathing suit; they gave it elegance."

Maybe: though perhaps more pertinent is Victor Lownes' observation that "the costumes took girls with even average figures and made them look like they had amazing figures." It was Lownes – originally Hefner's promotional director and later the man who ran the London club – who'd argued that having waitresses in Baby Doll nightdresses was impractical; and Lownes whose girlfriend's seamstress mother had run up a prototype costume. But it was Hefner who made another important suggestion: that the leg be cut extra-high, the result being, says Barbara Haigh, now proprietor of The Grapes in Limehouse but in 1971 the fresh-faced Liverpool-born Bunny Barbara, "a masterpiece of engineering. It pushed you up, it nipped you in, and it exaggerated your waist. And because of the high cut, it made your legs look like they went up to your armpits..." She chuckles: "But I was lucky 'cause I had huge tits and very long legs."

There you have it, in one sentence: the Bunny's allure and, in the eyes of many feminists, infamy, as represented by the objectification and exploitation of the female form. "Load of bollocks," says Barbara Haigh. "It was the other way round: we were exploiting them." Marilyn Cole, ex-Bunny and Playboy's only British Playmate of the Year, agrees: "Women had the power, actually, at the core of Playboy." Sentiments shared, to an overwhelming degree, by the many American Bunnies (including Lauren Hutton and Debbie Harry) whose reminiscences appear in Kathryn Leigh Scott's captivating book, The Bunny Years, which is being reissued to coincide with the anniversary celebrations Playboy is planning around the world.

Hefner, as you might expect, says that, "Within the feminist movement was an anti-sexual element which I felt was unfortunate. Because I always felt that feminism, properly understood, was a part of the sexual revolution. So for a part of the movement to start having problems with sexuality I thought was counter-revolutionary and stupid." Certainly, the Bunnies in Scott's book speak frequently of the high wages and sense of empowerment the job gave them. But "empowerment", I tell Hefner, was also a word much used by lap dancers I once interviewed... "Ha ha ha!" he cackles. "Well, I can't speak for lap dancers. But becoming a Bunny made you a celebrity. And strippers and lap dancers certainly don't enjoy the same prestige."

It'll be interesting to see what prestige will attach to the girls who will, says Hefner, be working "in that iconic costume" in the new clubs he says are opening soon in Mexico, Macau, London and Miami. But I thought he'd conceded that the clubs were passé as long ago as 1986? "What I said was they were a part of their time," he replies. "I don't think I said they were passé. I meant that they'd enjoyed a 25-year run, and their day was done. But that was in the Eighties – a very conservative decade. What I could not have imagined was that with the passage of time there would be a post-feminist time, and a whole revolutionary return of all things Playboy."

Well, in the words of another Sixties sex icon, he would say that, wouldn't he?

To many people of my generation (born in 1948), there always seemed something a little silly about Playboy, its Bunnies and its earnest, self-proclaimed sophistication. It all felt very Fifties – and it was indeed in 1953 that Hefner launched Playboy magazine. But before his mag came along, he tells me, "things related to sex were related to sin, and dirtiness, and kinkiness. We were the guys who gave sex a good name". Importantly, Hefner insists, it was also a "lifestyle magazine", as assiduous in selling the right way to mix a martini as it was in promoting the sexual revolution. So it was that in 1959 the magazine ran a feature on a Chicago club called the Gaslight; this, says Scott, "featured ... showgirl waitresses dressed in provocative corsets and fishnet tights". The piece elicited more than 3,000 letters from readers asking how to join the Gaslight.

There was clearly an appetite for such a club. Hefner set out to satisfy it. The waitresses – or rather, Bunnies – were crucial. Hefner's brother, Keith, wrote the Bunny Manual, outlining the Bunny Dip (the idea of which was to obviate the risk of the Bunnies' bosoms escaping their costume), the Bunny Stance ("a Bunny should stand in a slightly exaggerated model's stance – legs together, back arched, hips tucked well under"), the Merit and Demerit schedule for good/bad behaviour, the precise order in which to call in the customers' drinks to the barman: "Scotch, gin, vodka, rum, Canadian, Irish, bourbon, rye," Barbara Haigh reels off, nearly 40 years on. There was too, says Haigh, "Low Lift and High Lift – that's carrying your tray. You were surgically attached to your tray. You were rarely allowed to put it down – usually only when you were carrying a wine cradle." This precision appealed to Marilyn Cole, who became, and still is, Mrs Victor Lownes. "I liken it to being in the army," she says, a West Country twang still to be heard in her voice. "The discipline, the rules, the clubs round the world. 'Cincinnati '74,' a girl'll say to me, and I'll say, 'London, '71'. It was like postings abroad. And I love uniforms, so I felt protected by it."

Cole was earning £12 a week at the Co-op Fuel Office in Portsmouth when she came to London for her interview with Lindy Hoare, the Bunny Mother. (Bunny Mothers were, says Hefner, like a "sorority mother" – someone you could go to if you had "problems".) When Cole entered the club's Park Lane premises, she knew at once she'd come upon a world undreamt of in Portsmouth: "The Reception Bunnies – gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! The thick carpet! The glossy blonde hair! The glossy lipstick! It was this glamorous, glamorous place." Ingrid Seward, who now edits Majesty magazine but then worked for Lownes, remembers interviewing some aspirant Bunnies: "Obviously they had to be pretty, but they also had to do a maths test – half of them were going to become croupiers." Hefner takes a similarly sober line: "It took more than being simply attractive to be a Bunny. They needed to have character and be intelligent too." Lownes – well, Lownes says, "I don't think we were looking for..." He chuckles: "I don't think it made any difference if they were intelligent or not. Mind you, some of them were very smart indeed."

Which was what so annoyed many New York Bunnies when Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Bunny to write a famous piece about their working life. In New York, would-be Bunnies had to take a test consisting of 61 short-answer questions relating to the training they'd received; in London, charmingly, a neophyte Bunny was given a "Bunny Angel" to show them the ropes. Steinem mocked the bafflement on the faces of the girls with whom she took the test: "When the club says a Bunny is chosen for 1) Beauty, 2) Personality, and 3) Ability," she wrote, "the order must be significant." Many of Scott's ex-Bunnies still smart at the piece, though many say they later grew to admire Steinem's message of equality, liberation and the shattering of the glass ceiling. Certainly, they've done well: Scott's book features ex-Bunny real-estate moguls, classical music DJs, founders of advertising firms, film editors, CEOs of New York Stock Exchange-listed firms, therapists and more. Smart is the word – including the smartness displayed by London's Bunny Pamela, who used always to beat John Cleese, a regular guest of Lownes, at chess; she had, she says, been school chess captain. (A note on these Bunny Barbaras and Bunny Pamelas: girls wore a rosette on their costume with just a first name – Laurence de Mello, for instance, worked as Bunny Honey: "It made me laugh. But the name had to stay.")

The job was, Cole tells me, "bloody hard work". That, says Lownes, is not something "pretty girls are always intrigued by" – one reason, he believes, why there was a "high turnover" in Bunnies. He thinks 18 months was an average stint, though for Haigh it was seven years before "I hung up my ears". Another factor was the concept of "Bunny Image" – effectively a device for firing girls. "In some cases," recalls Hefner, "I think we were a little heavy-handed. There was a tendency to keep them young and have a certain turnover. Like college, a new freshman class would arrive." Bunnies didn't take this, and various pay-related issues, lying down. They were unionised – and in New York, they went on strike: Tony Bennett refused to cross the picket line. There were other downsides – certain well-known "creepy" regulars being high on the list.

But mostly, says Cole, "it was bloody good fun". She notes that, "If you wanted to be a Bunny, you had to have something of the exhibitionist in you" – you certainly got looked at. And the money was good – $200-£300 a week in New York in 1961, when Bloomingdales paid Scott $1.40 an hour to work in the Customer Service Department, and equally as good in the UK. "You always had enough in your bag," says Cole, "to go next door to Trader Vic's for a drink, or to fly off to Spain for the weekend. You could certainly save money and get a mortgage. But lots of us were just spending it – and that was fine too." Mind you, the company had a pension scheme, from which Haigh's now getting money; and it used to give girls tuition grants for further education. More immediately, they got free membership to "every club in town" and Haigh has happy memories of "piling down the clubs for a boogie and a drink". The Candy Box, in Kingly Street, was a favourite: "It was licensed to 7am, I think, and it was the club for club people. I mean, you used to get a lot of pimps, pushers and prostitutes down there, but we steered clear of that."

Prostitution was what some parents thought their daughters had, effectively, gone into, and it was an easy assumption to make: scantily clad young things flitting round the darkened, drink-laden rooms of night-time capitals. To combat this, there was a stern "no dating" rule, of both customers and fellow employees – though in the US, Scott notes, VIP members could ask for dates, while in London "UK1" (as Lownes was known) also had that privilege. But did the girls date? "Of course we did," says Haigh. "We weren't supposed to, and at first it was pretty strict. But we had these meetings, because things were getting more and more liberated, and I remember Victor saying, 'I won't stand in the way of true romance'. But what he didn't want was a girl going out with a different bloke every night, or slipping it on the other side, you know?"

There was, too, a "look but don't touch rule", though Scott's book recounts some unpleasant groping incidents. But, says Haigh, "we had the upper hand. Anybody tried to get fresh, we'd put them in their place. Just depended how it was meant, really; I mean, playing with your tail – I suppose it was almost compulsory. But if it went further..."

All in all, says Haigh, "we had a ball". She remembers fondly the velvet costumes with the gold or silver trim worn by the Reception Bunnies; the royal blue with silver trim for the VIP Bunnies; the washable satin costumes for the girls who "worked the floor". For Hefner, the black costume is the "most iconic"; Lownes and Cole still laugh about the Scottish Bunnies who wore costumes made of their family tartan. Haigh holds reunions for ex-Bunnies, and hundreds have come; for her 60th birthday last year, she went off with six ex-Bunny chums to stay in a lovely B&B in northern Italy, owned by another ex-Bunny. And she's just trained some cocktail waitresses for a new bar "to serve the same way we did – not quite with a full-blown Bunny Dip, but still dipping rather than bending. You see: everybody wants to be a Bunny." She laughs. "Oh, I loved it," she says. "I'd still be there if I could."

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