Playboy Bunny Costume (Bunny Suit) © Playboy Enterprises Inc. thru Ms. Gwen E. Egbert | National Museum of American History
“Take a second and picture Playboy in your head. What are you seeing? Bunny costumes, right? Maybe the ritzy Playboy Mansion? But whatever your personal vision is, I can guarantee we are all thinking about women right now,” narrates Amy Rose Spiegel, the writer and host behind the podcast Power: Hugh Hefner. In the podcast, which was released in the fall of 2021 by Britain’s independent audio producer Somethin’ Else, Spiegel introduces listeners to some of these women. As they paint a picture of Playboy’s long lasting legacy and how Playboy affected the course of their lives, Spiegel tells a much larger story of money, sex, and power. It’s a story about how glamor can cover up inequality and misconduct, and about individuals who found their way—and carved out prestige and status—from being a part of the Playboy brand.
As an editor, author and journalist covering sex, 31-year-old Spiegel could not avoid Hugh Hefner’s legacy. As she says in the podcast, “Its influence is all around us,” not only in the form of magazines and merchandise, but also in nightclubs, in front of cameras, and in personal relationships. I reached Amy Rose Spiegel on the phone while she was eating lunch in her home in Clinton Hill, New York. Birds were chirping through the phone as we discussed what comes into view when Playboy is seen through the lens of the women who were really responsible for its power.
Mette Kierstein [MK]: You begin and end the podcast with Marilyn Monroe. What is it about her that is so central to the story you’re telling?
Amy Rose Spiegel [ARS]: Well, Marilyn Monroe was the reason that Playboy became successful. Hefner bought the rights to photos of her from a calendar company and published them in the very first issue of Playboy in 1954. At the time, her career was ascending, and this made a huge impact on her. But it was also the crux of Hefner’s new success. It set the tone for what this magazine was going to be. It was going to be a magazine that took the cultural cachet, the selling power, the proximity to women—and used it for its own gain.
They never met in real life, but Hefner bought the plot next to Monroe’s in the mausoleum in Los Angeles where she is buried. It’s just . . . almost too neat. Like, if I was writing this story as fiction, I would not include this!
MK: Marilyn Monroe gets caught between being an actual person and embodying a collective fantasy.
ARS: Can you imagine the pressure of that? It’s a pressure that many people who have come up in proximity to this imagery and to this cultural phenomenon are familiar with. But to actually be in it, to me, was just so fascinating. What I really wanted to explore with the people I interviewed for the podcast, is how that felt, how they reflected on it, and how they thought about it.
MK: What drew you to tell this story?
ARS: When it comes to Playboy, there’s a lot out there in terms of the iconography, in terms of Hugh Hefner as an enormous cultural figurehead, and in terms of the magazine’s sexual impact on America and the world. What I found less of were firsthand accounts from the women who were really responsible for shaping Playboy: women who were Hefner’s closest confidants, who worked in the clubs, and interacted with the magazine and the brand in ways that changed the trajectories of their lives. I really wanted to go deeper into that story and hear about that experience.
MK: What were your models?
ARS: A book that I love is Studs Terkel’s Working, a series of interviews with people in all different jobs. Terkel talked to them about what they did all day, and how they felt about what they did all day. I found that so fascinating. I wanted that same feeling, but as a retrospective: Okay. After you’re done doing it, how do you feel about it? What does it mean for you? This was important to me, because I think that sometimes in our cultural moment, there is a desire to draw conclusions about whether cultural products are good or bad, especially when they concern sex. I was not so much interested in trying to draw these conclusions as much as being able to surface the stories of the women themselves, the women who did the work.
MK: What becomes visible when tracing the stories of the women in Hugh Hefner’s life?
ARS: I really hope that people are able to see the immense effort and involvement of the women who were at Playboy—the women who essentially gave Hefner his cultural cache. Playboy wasn’t just Hefner’s vision. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication from people behind the scenes, or not even behind the scenes—in front of the lens some of the time.
MK: When the podcast comes to an end, you thank the women for their sacrifices and their victories. Why was that important to you?
ARS: I know how much I owe these women for creating their own path, one that at the time was not standard. I know that these people were real trailblazers. These were people who were going into the great wild unknown, figuring out for themselves how to build a life. That wasn’t lost on me.
MK: You speak to women of different generations regarding issues of sex and gender, and the public discourse has undergone many changes over the years. How did you manage these generational differences?
ARS: I spent my twenties, during the 2010s, absorbing a lot of cultural messaging about social progress and change. But I also spent a lot of time studying earlier movements and moments. I have a lot of older friends who are women, and I have a lot of older friends who are trans and queer. Perhaps every generation thinks: Oh, the generation that came before us is so conservative. Or: hey don’t know that this progressive thing is actually what was happening to them. I understand that impulse, for sure, but in my experience, it is more illuminating just to have a conversation about those differences, based on the context that those people lived in. I think it’s crucial that we do our best to understand the history of how we got here, but also not forgetting that these people’s stories are their own. There’s not a whole lot of me talking in the interviews either, which is crucial. I just created room for people to take their own story where they wanted to take it.
MK: What surprised you most?
ARS: I loved hearing people talk about the ways that being a Bunny, a Playmate or, otherwise, being involved with the magazine or with Hefner bore out later in their lives. For instance, one of the first interviews that I did was with this fabulous woman named Jaki Nett, who was a Bunny in the Chicago club. She now works with people to strengthen their pelvic floors. She said, “I really got a sense of comfort and a sense of physical understanding around anatomy by working at Playboy.” Those were the kind of details that I lived for.
MK: I remember a detail of how they would put club soda in their shoes…
ARS: Yes, that was also Jaki Nett. That was so, so great. I was really confused when she said it, because she said it offhandedly, explaining what it was like to work at the clubs. She’d say, “Yeah, we were standing there with the club soda in our shoes,” and I had no idea what she meant by that. But apparently, it reduces swelling in your feet, which makes sense. If you were standing in heels for hours, you would need some relief.
MK: Have you tested it?
ARS: Not yet. But I’m sure I’ll have an occasion to do it sometime. But it’s inconvenient to have wet shoes, right?
MK: That’s what I’m thinking . . . aren’t the shoes going to tear from the club soda?
ARS: I think we need to do a follow-up podcast, a whole series just about this!
MK: We just might! What do you think it is about our present moment that still makes the story and the myth of Playboy so compelling?
ARS: Well, doesn’t it seem a little bit improbable? Especially for younger people, it might seem a little improbable that there was this completely singular and groundbreaking way to access porn, and that porn also meant buying a highly stylized lifestyle magazine. And then there’s the reproduction of the brand’s cultural image over and over and over again through time. I didn’t grow up with the magazine—I grew up with bedazzled Playboy thongs. I’m really curious about this thing that was so important in its own right that it creates reproductions even now.
Culturally, I think we also love an iconic, sexy woman—someone who could be typecast as a bombshell, a sexy person, a whore, and somebody to idealize and blame in a very traditional, stereotypical way. I think we’re also in a cultural moment of very much wanting to tell “the real story” about what happened, about sexy women, people like Pamela Anderson, Monica Lewinsky, and Britney Spears. I do feel a little iffy about the big reveal of this retro perspective on porn: Guess what? She was a human being!
MK: Could you say more about what you mean by feeling iffy about it?
ARS: I think right now there is a cultural desire to look back at stories of the women in the eighties , nineties, and 2000s who were vilified by pop culture, tabloid culture, and just by American mass culture. I think there’s this desire right now to get people to realize: Wait, no. She was a person. And it’s like, of course she was! That’s definitely something that I thought about in making this podcast: How can we not make it a big shocker that the women of Playboy are human beings?
MK: It’s interesting that you mentioned Pamela Anderson in that context. That reminds me of the recent TV series about her that was framed as this feminist story, but the backstory is that she didn’t consent to the series being made.
ARS: I don’t think Tommy Lee did, either. So that’s a really interesting case study, right? It’s a study in trying to tell somebody’s story in the name of humanizing them when they’ve asked people not to, or expressed ambivalence toward the project. Honestly, I would love to see any Pam story, just because I think she is so compelling and cool. But I think the parts of her that are so compelling and cool are not necessarily apparent when victimizing her, or going into a project with the idea that someone is first and foremost a victim and then using that as their identity. It is not entirely fair unless someone tells you, “Hey, I want to be portrayed from this vantage.”
MK: In our present cultural moment there appears to be a great interest in understanding “the predator” as a figure, sometimes at the expense of seeing the whole person as a subject to abuse. It seems to me that you challenged such dichotomies. Why is it important to tell stories about sex and power in this way?
ARS: Had I gone into the podcast project from the vantage point of telling women they were victims, I don’t think they would have spoken to me—and rightfully so. I think that it’s key to allow people space, time, and perspective that they choose about their stories, and having that intergenerational conversation together.
But it also would not be good journalism for me to go into this saying, “Hey, this terrible thing happened to you.” It’s just reductive, and it’s not my job to tell someone that a huge swath of their life that encompassed so many experiences is good or bad. It’s just not my place. I also think that’s where the really interesting and the true parts of the story come into play. Because that’s life, especially life that’s supercharged with sex and power differentials, and money, and needing a leg up in the world, and needing to find autonomy. You’re enjoying this glamor, but you’re also freaking out. This podcast, I felt, was a really amplified and supercharged version of life. There’s something about the crucible of Playboy and Hefner that draws out so many things that happen to all of us.
Amy Rose Spiegel is an editor, author, and journalist.
Mette Kierstein is a cultural journalist.