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Hugh Hefner's Deeply Troubling View Of Women Is Part of His Legacy

The Playboy founder's progressive achievements don't negate his awful treatment of women.
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In 1963, Gloria Steinem created a fake identity to apply for a job as a "bunny" at a Playboy Club in New York so she could write about the experience in Show magazine. The ad she answered sought "pretty" women between the ages of 21 and 24, and asked them to show up to "special interviews" with a swimsuit or leotard. When she arrived, she filled out an application consisting of little more than body measurements and contact information.

The next day, she went to a callback, where she was nervous about remembering the details of her fake Bunny identity. Not to worry though, because the Bunny Mother tells her, "We don't like our girls to have any background." Steinem then put on a bunny costume, the "wardrobe mistress" stuffed her bust with a dry-cleaning bag, and she had Polaroids taken. She was offered the job.


50 years later, many writers have gone on to report on their own Playboy auditions. How much have things changed? In 2013, Salon writer Lauren Grodstein shared the story of her 1995 Playboy audition. The magazine recruited women at Columbia University for a "Girls of the Ivy League" issue, and asked aspiring models to also show up with a leotard to wear to pose for Polaroids.

Randi Newton's article in The Gloss describes attending a casting call with a friend in 2012 (the writer herself was past the 28-year-old age cutoff). After submitting photos via email, the friend was summoned to the W Hotel in Times Square, New York City for an in-person audition that consisted of being interviewed on camera wearing nothing but stilettos.

In former The Girls Next Door star and Hefner ex Holly Madison's bombshell 2015 book Down the Rabbit Hole, about what really went on in the Playboy mansion, she described her first audition for Playboy in 1999 to become "Millennium Playmate"—she was photographed in a bikini, and then topless, by a man on a bus.

This is Hugh Hefner's legacy. In his 91 years on this planet, he accomplished a lot: He established one of the most successful media empires and one of the most recognizable brands of the past 50 years. In what was a groundbreaking move in 1991, he featured transgender model Caroline "Tula" Cossey in her own pictorial in Playboy. An advocate for gay rights, he was a vocal proponent of marriage equality. In 1959, in the midst of the civil rights movement, he put on the Playboy Jazz Festival, which showcased black performers, and contributed some of its profits to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

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But the sadness of death and the good things a man does should not negate or subdue the many other troubling parts of his legacy. They do not delete from history that his life's work was exploiting and objectifying women, pouring them into his one-size-fits-all "Bunny" mold of the female physical ideal, erasing their backgrounds—who they are as people—in the process. Hefner's death and progressive philosophies do not mean that we should ignore or forget his many regressive ones—or about the many allegations that he was disturbingly manipulative and emotionally abusive to many women who spent time in the Playboy mansion in recent years. He was a man who, in 2010 (!), told the Daily News, "The notion that Playboy turns women into sex objects is ridiculous. Women are sex objects. If women weren't sex objects, there wouldn't be another generation. It's the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go 'round. That's why women wear lipstick and short skirts."

The Girls Next Door was a turning point for the Playboy brand, which had already lost much of its luster when the show premiered on E! in August 2005. The series was an instant hit, growing its audience from 800,000 viewers to 2.2 million for the fifth season finale, while Hefner's then-live-in girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson were the starring cast members. I remember binge-watching the show, riveted by the grotesque nature of their group romance with Hefner. I couldn't fathom who would be OK sharing one 80-year-old boyfriend, who looked at and flirted with naked women for a living, with two other women. I also felt surprised to like the women on the show. Sure, they were living in a man's world where women were encouraged to fling off their clothes at parties, look a certain "Playboy" way, and wile away their time in their bedrooms, working out, or begging Hefner for a nude photo spread in the magazine. It was perverse. But they were also normal girls pulling themselves up by the bootstraps life had given them.

They described how grim their lives were before becoming girlfriends. Wilkinson, who became a girlfriend when she was 18 and Hefner was 78, said she accepted the offer because, "I was living in the smallest apartment with the ugliest shit and I was praying for anything to get me out of there." Madison writes in her book about not having enough money to afford the bikini she needed for her first Playboy audition on that bus and maxing out three credit cards to pay for a $7,000 breast augmentation she couldn't afford as a college student, "contributing to money troubles that would end up haunting me in the years to come." Watching the show, you got sucked into the stars' stories, and were able to somewhat forget about the bizarre sexual aspects of this life.

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As it turned out, what was going on may have been more sordid than many viewers could have imagined, according to allegations in Madison's book. In it, she described how it was generally understood that women who lived in the mansion were expected to participate in bizarre, drug-fueled group sex rituals with Hefner after going out to nightclubs with him (the first time Madison went out clubbing with Hefner, she writes, he offered her a Quaalude, which he reportedly called a "thigh opener"). The women all changed into the same pink pajamas before surrounding Hefner on a bed, where they'd take turns pleasuring him and pretend to make out with each other and enjoy the experience, "but no one really was," Madison writes. Except, presumably, Hef.

The bedtime routine is just one of Madison's many mansion horror stories. She describes how Hefner would create infighting among the girlfriends by randomly favoring one over the other. She writes about going to the salon and coming back with red lipstick, which Hefner hated. "You look old, hard, and cheap," he reportedly told her. Madison also claimed he made them adhere to a 9 p.m. curfew—unless they were going out with him—and cried and told them to move out if they objected. He allegedly gave girlfriends $1,000 a week for clothes (ones he would approve of, of course) and an unlimited tab at the beauty salons. Plastic surgery—mostly boob jobs, nose jobs, and lipo—was offered gratis.

According to Madison, she, Marquardt, and Wilkinson didn't get paid for the first season of Girls Next Door and received $25,000 to split among the three of them for their Playboy spread when the going rate was that each should have gotten at least that amount. (In response to the book, Hefner accused Madison of "rewriting history.")

As stunning as Madison's book is, Steinem's 54-year-old articles are perhaps equally so. She describes having to go to the doctor as part of her Playboy Bunny onboarding. The visit included testing for venereal diseases and a pelvic exam performed by a doctor she supposes is around 60 who tells her how "beautiful" the bunnies in the Miami Playboy Club he just visited were. When Steinem protests the "internal exam," the doctor replies, "We usually find that girls who object to it strenuously have some reason…" Of course, there was no reason for anyone to have a doctor's exam or pelvic exam to become a waitress, whether she was wearing a bunny costume or not.

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Many are remembering Hefner fondly after his death for his activism and progressive attitude toward social justice issues. While that is part of his complicated legacy, what he also leaves behind is a history of using women for his own profit, promoting to icon status a female ideal that is purely and purposefully a physical one and nothing more, and an alleged history of abuse of the women who dared to enter into a living arrangement with him.

When you really dig into his life, it's easy to understand why Hefner wanted women to be bunnies. They're silent, inhuman, and charming. The won't intellectually challenge you. They're nice to look at. They might even submit to your cuddles.

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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.