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Back in 1963, Gloria Steinem tumbled down the rabbit hole to expose Playboy. She succeeded and the world gave an ugly snapshot of life under Hef.
Let us salute one of the first steps of feminist icon/demigod/personal hero of mine, Gloria Steinem. For that, we must wind the clock back to a nameless evening in 1963, one in which America’s one-day meta-feminist attempted to navigate her Bunny costume, which proved to be a trial of two extremes: it was impossibly tight, and the chest area required stuffing, as it came in two sizes, 34 & 36D; which, for the gentlemen reading is akin to solely buying XXXL & XXXXL condoms.
It required substantial filling.
During the months prior, Hugh Hefner had published a series of pieces entitled the “Emancipation Proclamation of the sexual revolution.” Steinem, a then 28-year-old reporter took umbrage with the comparison that Hef made between the skin magazine and Lincoln’s liberation of the slaves, amongst other things.
Goosed into action, she decided to infiltrate the symmetrical public face of his media empire: the Playboy Club.
You see, back the middle ’60s (and seemingly the classier time of American culture, lol), Playboy Clubs were sophisticated attractions on both coasts of the continent. The Beatles went there, as did great artists such as Peter Sellers, Michelangelo Antonioni and Woody Allen, who gawped alongside the non-glitterati who gawked, at the Bunnies flitting about in their skimpy costumes. It was all good in the hood.
Except, looking back, of course it fucking wasn’t.
The job ad had proclaimed, “Attractive young girls can now earn $200-$300 a week,” which figured to be far superior than the above-board equivalent of the same job, waitressing. Bunnies could, the advert continued, “enjoy the glamorous and exciting aura of show business…the Playboy Club is the stage – the Bunnies are the stars.” Playboy called it the “top job in the country for a young girl.”
To dig deeper, Steinem crafted a nom de plume. She would pose as “Marie Catherine Ochs”. Herself an ex-beauty queen, Steinem’s ruse was successful; the Playboy Club loved her.
Gloria recalled that her costume was: “two inches smaller than any of my measurements everywhere except the bust…so tight that the zipper caught my skin…The bottom was cut up so high that it left my hip bones exposed as well as a good five inches of untanned derriere.” Steinem apparently lost five kilograms after just a few days’ work. But just as her suit was starting to feel more comfortable, the resident seamstress cut more material off each side, and the uncomfortable circle span back to zero.
In her two weeks at the club, Steinem only met one girl who earned the promised $200. Hefner also told the agency’s “most attractive and personable male representatives” to offer Bunnies up to $200 to go home with them. Any Bunny who accepted was fired.
Unlike gaudy excess that was the Playboy Club’s general area, the Bunnies’ backstage was bordered by cold cement floors and inadequate heating. Bunnies who sneezed tore their costumes: “Girls with colds usually have to be replaced,” the seamstress apparently said.
Another point of contention was the brutal demerit system. One demerit equalled $2.50 (which is about $20, adjusted for inflation). Messy hair, nails or makeup cost five demerits each. Lateness cost a demerit a minute, failing to follow an instruction from management was a whopping 15. The one meal of the day was a lousy brown stew, so most Bunnies sneaked food from the buffet. Eating or gum-chewing on duty cost “10 demerits for the first offence, 20 for second and dismissal for the third.”
The management-enabled fun continued from there, as Playboy hired undercover detectives to check Bunny costumes for dirtiness. Hefner also told the agency’s “most attractive and personable male representatives” to offer Bunnies up to $200 to go home with them. Any Bunny who accepted was fired.
Protection from management too, according to Steinem, was lacking. One Bunny who sued the club for misrepresentation and back tips told reporters she’d received death threats. When a bunch of Bunnies tried to strike for better pay, the club said they’d simply replace them.
In her two weeks at the club, Steinem lost weight, added half a shoe size – permanently – from walking in three-inch heels, and only met one girl who earned the promised $200. Most earned far less.
Also on The Big Smoke
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- Women’s economic empowerment: Why liberating women liberates the world
Allow me to halt the narrative here for a mo. While I realise that we should look back on the past knowing how far we’ve come, and if we ingest anything, it should be with a heavy digestif of saline, but lord, Christ, Buddha and atheist-Jesus; what the fuck? As far as Hef’s “revolution” goes, I’d say it was closer to Pol Pot’s “year zero” than the honourable Bolshevik version.
Steinem’s work was published as a two-part article in May, 1963. (You can read part 1 and part 2 here, respectively). Playboy even attempted sued her for $1 million, and as a result of her pioneering work, she was unable to get journalistic assignments to match her obvious talent. In the words of Gloria: “I had now become a Bunny – and it didn’t matter why.”
While Steinem continued her upward trajectory to becoming the icon she is today, grudges were held long over in The Grotto, as Playboy continually republished her Bunny pics, as well as a “nip-slip” from 1984.
…stay classy, gents.