A factor that might help feminists here is Hefner’s own image. Susan Gunelius, author of Building Brand Value the Playboy Way, points out that Hefner has always been “the ultimate brand champion. He lived the lifestyle, he was the physical embodiment of Playboy, and people bought into the lifestyle because they aspired to be him. He was the brand promise.”
But does anyone really aspire to be Hefner now? In that Marketing article, the second piece of advice for reviving the Playboy brand was to sever ties with its founder, because: “these days he comes across as quite sleazy, and certainly no longer personifies glamour and sophistication”. This is inarguably true. Over the past three decades, both the Playboy brand and Hefner himself have trekked down the path of sexism, their image becoming progressively more pornographic and tacky.
Where Playboy was once solely associated with softcore pornography and affluence, it now has associations with hardcore pornography and cheap accessories. Playboy Enterprises owns Spice Digital Networks, a set of channels that show films such as Hijack my Hole, Asian Sex Tramp, Giant Juggs [sic] 3 and My Wife’s a Slut. At the same time, controversially, Playboy-branded products have been marketed heavily to young women and children – WH Smith carried a line of Playboy stationery until 2009. In Asia, rabbit products are shelved alongside Hello Kitty and Paul Frank merchandise, and sell well; Playboy Enterprises expects to take $20m (£12m) in the region by the end of this year. Gunelius says: “Women buy Playboy products because they think the bunny’s cute, just like the Hello Kitty logo is cute. A lot of the women’s merchandise is pink, sparkly, sexy. It’s very simple, and a large audience likes that.”
That pink, glittery girlishness also defines the “reality” show, The Girls of the Playboy Mansion, which started in 2005 and ran for six series, providing a sanitised look at life for Hefner’s many girlfriends. In the book Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion, Izabella St James gives a much franker account of her time as one of Hefner’s seven girlfriends between 2002 and 2004. “Hef employs an elaborate system of procurement to keep the pipeline filled with willing nubile women,” she explains. On becoming one of his “official” girlfriends, and moving into the mansion, she was given a 9pm nightly curfew, barred from having bottles of alcohol in her room, and started receiving a $1,000 weekly allowance. St James disliked the process of picking up the allowance, because Hefner would use this moment to “bring up whatever he wasn’t happy with in the relationship . . . Most of the complaints were regarding lack of harmony in the group, or lack of sexual participation, or that we didn’t watch movies with him.”
The story St James tells bounces from hilarious to revolting and back again; on reading her book it suddenly doesn’t seem at all surprising that the bug that causes legionnaires’ disease was found in the mansion’s hot tub in April 2011. She writes of bedrooms filled with mismatched furniture, old, stained mattresses and used sheets, and says Hefner “liked our rooms to look like little girls’ rooms, [with] white carpet and pink walls”. A photograph shows a large Care Bear on her bed, and there are cuddly toys all over the house. Also: excrement. One of the other women had dogs that weren’t housebroken and “many a late night or early morning we stepped in her dog’s pee, or worse, poop,” writes St James. “When we used to go to see Hef on Friday morning to get our allowances, we always had to wait a few minutes as he walked around to pick up the poops . . . Archie the house dog would regularly relieve himself on the hallway curtains, adding the scent of urine to the general scent of decay.”
There was the whiff of baby oil too. St James writes that Hefner would sluice himself with this before having sex, and many of the women blamed their yeast infections on the oil. Sex sessions would start with Hefner taking Viagra, and then lying there “like a dead fish”, writes St James, while women gathered around, climbing on and off in turn, and occasionally shouting: “Oh daddy.” “I never saw Hef use condoms. Period,” she writes. After he had sex with each girl, “he wiped himself off with a wet bath towel.”
According to this BBC article, the Playboy Club is keen to play down the porn link:
Lucy Sharp, spokeswoman for London Clubs International, which has bought the Playboy Club brand for London, said the club was predominantly a casino.
“The club in the 60s is not the club that it is today. We are in 2011, times have progressed the brand has moved forward,” she said.
“The Bunnies are trained croupiers. They are in no respect related to any strip clubs or lap dancing joints.
“Our Bunnies are croupiers or they are valets, they just happen to be wearing the iconic Bunny costume. We are not a gentlemen’s club, we welcome male and female members.”