Hugh Hefner: The oldest swinger in town

No one lived larger than the legendary 'Playboy' publisher. And now, at nearly 80, he's still holding back the years with three girlfriends, a lot of Viagra and a new reality TV series. Lucy Broadbent meets him
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The Independent Online

Hugh Hefner treads purposefully down the grand staircase inside the Playboy mansion. His eyes twinkle at the sight of his three girlfriends, whose ages, even when combined, still don't match his own. He kisses each of them, and they coo and giggle in the way that Hollywood blondes do.

It's hard to know if this is the way they always are, because there is a reality-TV camera following them. But it's clear that all that sex has been good for Hefner. He's a little hard of hearing these days, and his teeth look as if they might not be his own, but the boyish enthusiasm and charisma shine out.

Considering that this is the man who was once branded a threat to American public order and morality, he cuts an inoffensive villain. In his trademark silk pyjama-bottoms and maroon smoking jacket, he looks homely. Not the revolutionary type at all.

Next year, the publishing magnate will be 80. It's a birthday that represents something of a victory for him - not just because he has lived that long, but because he's still around to have the last laugh. Fifty-three years ago, Hef, as he likes to be called, published a magazine in which Marilyn Monroe posed naked. Looking back from an age where Big Brother contestants have sex on camera, it's hard to imagine a time when two bare breasts could provoke such a stir.

But the first issue of Playboy bore no date because Hef was not sure there would be a second. In 1952, no one even mentioned the word "sex". Playboy was deeply radical, and is often cited as a fomenter of the libertarian revolution. Today, it is the world's best-selling monthly men's magazine - reason enough for Hef to laugh at his critics.

But that's not the only cause for mirth - the magazine provides only a fraction of the annual revenue of Playboy Enterprises, which includes TV networks, stores, clothing lines and video games. And Hef has never been hotter: a major biographical film is in pre-production under the guidance of Brian Grazer, the Oscar-winning producer of A Beautiful Mind (it is not yet known who will play Hef); and Hef's unusual living arrangements - he's down to three girlfriends after living with seven for several years - have also become the subject of a reality-TV series now being aired in Britain.

"To have this final chapter is incredible," he says, settling himself on a sofa in the library after leaving the girls. "I consider myself the luckiest cat on the planet to be approaching my 80th birthday and living this way. One could easily have imagined that the high point of my life would have been the 1960s or 1970s, but to have it now, I could not have imagined."

He flashes a smile. As a woman, one wonders how much one should really like Hef - he is the one, after all, who persuaded men that it was more fun to play the field than commit to a woman. But he's a softer character than his porn-publishing rivals Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler, and Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse. Like both of them, he's spent a lifetime chasing women, and been labelled everything from a chauvinist to a misogynist. But somehow, he comes across as less the dirty old man and more the convivial party die-hard.

Partying is, of course, the essence of the magazine, and what Hef still lives for. The parties at his mock Tudor mansion in Beverly Hills have been legendary since Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr romped with girls in the grotto at the bottom of the garden. Today, preparations are being made for another party. And to be a party animal at nearly 80 is probably something to be proud of.

But it's the impact of his magazine that Hef regards as his greatest achievement. "I'm proud that I played some significant part in changing the social sexual values of my time," he says. "Twenty years ago, Playboy was perceived as a chauvinist publication. Today, the rabbit symbol has been embraced by women as a form of their own personal sexual empowerment.

"That has been one of the great blessings for me, because I have always felt that the sexual revolution was not just for the guys. The major beneficiaries were women, because historically it was women who had to live this unreal life in which they were expected to be the keepers of the moral traditions. The guy could pretty much do what he wanted to do, and women couldn't. And it came with a whole notion of good girls and bad girls and original sin. All that religious heritage is very hurtful. So I think sexual liberation goes hand in hand with female emancipation."

Hef is still pushing the parameters of the permissible. After a lifetime as the ultimate playboy, his curtain call is a plural living arrangement with a steady rotation of blondes. It began seven years ago, after his marriage to Kimberley Conrad, a former Playboy model and the mother of his two sons, broke down. At that time, he also discovered Viagra.

"I met a young lady named Brandy," he explains. "And a month later, a pair of twins called Sandy and Mandy. So I wound up dating Sandy, Mandy and Brandy. Now that's bad fiction, but it worked. And it set the pattern. In between then and now, the number would be five, six and at one point, seven girlfriends. There have probably been about 30 girls." There is silence as he considers. "Yes, probably about 30."

He is realistic about how an octogenarian can still be attractive to twentysomething girls. "I don't think it's a big mystery about what the girls see in me. It's all to do with celebrity. I recognise that not many guys could get away with it. Also, as you can see, it's a good life here."

Hef's three girlfriends have been with him for the last two or three years. Holly Madison, 25, is his "No 1 girlfriend", while Bridget Marquard, 31, and Kendra Wilkinson, 20, describe themselves as the icing on the cake. All of them receive a weekly allowance of $1,000 [£578].

Do they all have sex with Hef? "Absolutely," he says with a laugh. And are they in love with him? "I think my relationship with Holly is the best I've ever been in. Put it this way: I've been married twice and I wasn't happy in either of those marriages. If there is such a thing as a soulmate, that's how I would describe Holly. I expect to spend the rest of my life with her."

He doesn't say whether the other two girlfriends will be around for ever too, though one suspects that love didn't blossom with them in the same way. Technically, he can't marry Holly because he has never divorced Kimberley, who, adding a further twist to the ménage à quatre, lives in the house next door with their two sons Marston, 15, and Conrad, 14. Hefner also has two older children, Christie, 54, and David 50, from his first, 10-year marriage to his college sweetheart Mildred Williams. Christie is now the chairman of the Playboy empire and, like all his children, is loyally supportive of her father.

"I worked very, very hard to make marriage to Kimberley work," Hef says. "For eight and a half years I was faithful to her. We went to counselling and did all the things we could to try and save the marriage. We get on wonderfully now. We only had problems when we were married. Ever heard that before?" Hefner laughs again. "I'm still married to her because of the children."

Hef, a descendant of the Puritans who arrived in America on the Mayflower, was raised in Chicago during the Depression. His mother was a farmer's daughter and his father an accountant. "Repression and puritan roots run deep," he explains. "My folks were incapable of showing affection. There was no hugging and kissing in the home."

He believes his current love of blondes stems from his childhood. "As a boy, I loved going to the movies, with Jean Harlow, Alice Faye and the Busby Berkeley dancers. A lot of them were platinum blondes. Clearly my girlfriends look, to some extent, like the girls I was in love with on the silver screen."

Hef was writing his own magazines from the age of 12. There were penny newspapers, comic books and student newspapers. Playboy may have been the first girlie magazine for respectable men, but Hef says that it was always more than porn. Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and John Updike wrote adroit articles, and there were high-profile interviews with Martin Luther King, John Lennon and Frank Sinatra.

With the magazine's success, Hef became a cultural icon. There were some quieter years along the way, while he was married, and in 1985, when he suffered a stroke. But that didn't hold the party animal back for long. "Breaking down boundaries is a what my life has been all about," he says. "Now, of course, it's related to age. Older guys shouldn't be dating younger girls, apparently. I don't happen to think that way. But there has always been criticism about my life. I'm used to it."

Life with the blondes must keep him young, and the only cosmetic surgery he's had was to remove the turkey wobble in his neck. "I feel much younger in my heart than I ever did 20 years ago," he says.He intends to spend the next 20 as he is now. There will be a celebration for his 80th, next April. And when the party's really over, he has a burial site in Westwood cemetery, right next to the blonde who helped make it happen: Marilyn Monroe.

The oldest swinger in town gets up to leave, almost sprightly. Does he mind being called that? "I don't mind it," he laughs. "It's like being asked how do you like growing older? It's great considering the alternative."

'The Girls of the Playboy Mansion' is on E! channel on Sundays at 10pm

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