At 17, most girls are filling out college applications. I was nervously chewing my fingernails at an audition to become a Bunny at the New York Playboy Club.
I had become the first emancipated minor in Suffolk County at age 16. How that happened is a story unto itself, but why I became emancipated was exactly why I was now auditioning to be a bunny. It took years of therapy to define and process the hell from which I had run away more times than I can count. Every time I was returned until, finally, the game was over. No one came to get me. I had never been more relieved, or more frightened. Now, woefully unprepared to make my way in the world—I was emancipated. And after a year of surviving in NYC on my own, here I was, nervously waiting to be called to audition.
After sleeping behind a shopping center heating vent when I could not find an unlocked car, I finally accepted an offer to crash at Mark’s cockroach-ridden Manhattan basement apartment in exchange for being his girlfriend. I got a job in a department store for minimum wage, then about $2.10 an hour. For the first time in my life, I felt safe.
One day, shortly after moving in with Mark, he came back to the apartment particularly excited.
“Yo! You home? Do your hair—now! Lemme see your nails … yo, you bitin’ your nails again?” He shook his head disgustedly.
I hated when I couldn’t please him. A deep sense of shame overtook me when he disapproved of me.
“What?” I asked, more frightened than curious.
“Yo, we’re gettin’ you dolled up. You got an audition at the Playboy Club. Starts at three. You better be ready.”
In his hand he held a torn-out ad announcing the auditions, which I took from him.
“Oh, you can’t be serious, Mark!” This was disastrous news.
“Not only am I serious, you are wastin’ time. Let’s go!”
He tossed me into the shower. Mark was not hesitant to use force when he wanted something.
My protests were failing to sway him whatsoever. I remember thinking that I just had to get out of this bad idea of his or risk the humiliation of a lifetime. It wasn’t that I cared about the rejection I would go through; that I could see coming easily.
It was that I couldn’t bear to lose status in his eyes, since he seemed to love me and finally gave me the sense that someone needed me. How could I possibly let him down by failing some ridiculous audition for girls that would all look like movie stars? I was panicked.
I remember crying, finally out of excuses about why I couldn’t go to the audition.
“Yo! You purposely tryin’ to piss me off, or what? You got a lot to do to get lookin’ good—let’s GO!” he stormed.
I wailed louder and louder that I didn’t have what it took, and that if he really cared about me, he wouldn’t make me “compete” on the basis of my looks, since the other girls were sure to be much more beautiful than me, and how could he even think of something this cruel?
Aggravated, he snapped at me, “You got nice big tits and nice legs and a nice face. They’re gonna love you, you hear me? You wanna make some good money for a change, or you wanna wait around for some other bullshit job where you make nothing, like now? Let’s go, now!”
Through tears and the mounting terror of what the afternoon had in store for me, I styled my hair into its best Farrah Fawcett hairdo and applied way too much makeup. I didn’t have a one-piece swimsuit (the required audition outfit), so I wore a burgundy Danskin bodysuit that I had shoplifted because it helped me remember that one day I wanted to become a ballerina. As soon as I could stabilize my life, I wanted to be a ballerina. Maybe then I would take some ballet lessons.
On the way out the door to the audition, I grabbed a bagel laying on the kitchen counter, but Mark grabbed it away from me. “Lil, we need your stomach to look, you know, in, not out like pregnant. You eat afterward.”
He wasn’t one for poetic language, but he managed to get us uptown to the Playboy Club by 2:30.
A big sign on the street level directed us to the sixth floor of the Playboy Club, where I was handed a clipboard with a form to fill out and told to sign in. As I looked around and saw a few hundred beautiful girls, I was overcome with nausea and ran into the bathroom where I puked my guts up. I stayed tucked in the bathroom stall, trying to calm down, listening to the nervous talk of the other girls retouching their makeup at the mirror. I reasoned I could maroon myself in here until the Club was closed—Mark could never come retrieve me from inside a ladies’ bathroom.
After a half hour, I calmed down enough to come out, more terrified of Mark hitting me than I was of any humiliation in an audition. As I exited the restroom, I spotted him, pacing, looking for me, furious, his rage at my long disappearance contained only by the threat of the crowds who might witness him losing his temper. “I don’t feel well,” I mumbled in the hopes he’d leave me alone.
At that point, I dissociated completely, leaning up against the wall, withholding myself from the sea of much-lovelier-than-me girls, actresses, and models who flitted about me like pretty winged creatures in the strange dream I was having.
Finally, we girls were grouped together in clusters of ten and then called in by groups through another doorway. My group, Group F, did not have one girl a day over age 22. I so wanted to go home and crawl under the bed forever. All I could do in that atmosphere thick with fear, competition, adrenaline, and my own self-loathing was to stay completely dissociated.
Mark was finally ordered to wait outside. Shortly after that, my group of 10 was called in. One by one, we marched into the large theater of a room, past an entire panel of judges, including a glamorous, older woman of maybe 35 or 40 with long, false eyelashes and I Dream of Jeannie hair.
The men didn’t rattle me a bit, since they all looked alert and amused, like happy Labrador retrievers, but the glamourpuss female judge made me want to head right back to the latrine. She had the smug, unhappy face of a woman in search of some impossible perfection.
My stomach hurt. I told myself, It’s almost over now—just get through this, and Mark will leave you alone about it. Tonight I’ll be home again, watching TV.
Just the image of that helped me come out of my frozen zone and place one foot in front of the other, ever so delicately, of course, when my name was called. The instruction given was to slowly walk down the 30-foot runway toward the panel of judges, stop short of them on the X marked on the floor with tape, and wait to be addressed. Oh, Jesus. Answering questions posed by the judges on top of having to be looked over?
A friendly girl, who had introduced herself earlier to me as Natifah, got called first, and it was then that I realized some girls were just born for this kind of thing. As she took her first step, another creature altogether took over the Ohio-born sweetheart—she was positively swaggering toward the judges, swinging her hips and smiling the broadest, whitest smile I’d ever seen. Once she arrived in front of them, she did a little curtsy and giggled with her tiny hands covering her face, and every single one of the men was a goner. The woman judge even cracked the minutest of smiles at Natifah’s adorable demeanor.
Something competitive in me took over, and I thought, “I can do that. I know I’ll be rejected anyway, but I might as well push myself to make this fun! And Mark can’t watch and criticize me. So here goes. They like cute? I’ll give them something better than cute.”
When my name was called, I took command of the endless stretch of runway, locking my sexiest gaze on the men and completely blocking out the woman judge lest my knees buckle. When they asked me to do a full, nice-and-slow revolution in front of them, I pushed away the urge to tip over from embarrassment and instead pretended I was Ginger, the movie star from Gilligan’s Island. As the judges looked me over, I remember thinking in that moment that my life had become so completely bizarre: a panel of total strangers taking their time to decide my entire future based on my butt. Wow.
They asked me about ten different questions, with the most difficult being, “Why do you think you can represent The Playboy Club?” and “What do you see yourself doing in the next ten years of your life?” Are they serious? The next ten years? How about the next week? Eat every day, continue to have a place to sleep, and hope not to get sick because I have no health insurance.
After that, everything else would be just cake!
To the first question, I answered by embodying what I thought was the Playboy mystique: “I can represent Playboy with my charm, my sweetness, the fact that I speak three languages, and—and, and my eagerness to please,” coyly averting my eyes downward, awaiting their giant beam of approval which would maybe change this crappy life I was having. Please. Pick me.
“Thank you very much, Lili,” one of the judges finally said, and I was pointed out of the room to join the others who’d already had their turn. When the last one had finished, we were told to wait until an announcement would be made.
Starving and exhausted, I was ready to bolt but knew Mark wouldn’t allow me to leave until the verdict was in. For another hour and a half I sat in the slowly filling room of auditioned girls, finally warming up to Natifah and a few of the others. We grumbled about the lack of any drinks or snacks and made small talk to help the time pass.
Finally, one of the male judges appeared at the door with a clipboard and said, “From Group D, will the following girls please stay behind, and the rest, please exit—here,” he pointed to a stairwell door. He read a few names and continued down the list until he got to our group. “Group F, will Natifah and Lili please stay behind?”
What did he say? That had to be an error. There were girls auditioning with legs so long they came up to my chin! There were even a few so stunning I found it hard to breathe around them. Where were they? I spun around in my chair and spotted Mark peering in through one of the little glass panels of a faraway door. Mark must have heard; he emphatically gave me a huge thumbs-up sign.
No way! This could not just have happened! When the auditorium cleared out, there were 12 of us left. Twelve! Out of about 300! When I looked around at our group I realized that some of the stunners I saw earlier hadn’t been selected, which I mentioned to Natifah, and she replied, “Those girls might not have been smart enough on their feet, or kind enough … or maybe the Club already has their quota of ‘that kind’ of look … who knows? Who cares?! Main thing is, we are here!” and she kept kissing me on the cheek and jumping up and down.
I was too dazed and sure they’d recall me once they realized they’d made an error. I was just so happy that Natifah, my new best friend, had made the cut. She held my hand under the table, squeezing the circulation right out of it as the judges began an orientation on what was happening next. I felt an instant kinship with the other 11 girls in this new, strange Sisterhood of the Chosen Pretties. We were told to report here Monday morning and not to worry about how we looked or what we wore; we were going to be coached on the “Playboy look” and mannerisms in our two-week training session beginning Monday.
Oh, what had I gotten myself into with this job? Everyone knew the stories of the wild sex parties at the Mansion—wasn’t the New York club just the East Coast branch of that party? I would bet on it, but my other prospects were no better. At least here there might be a chance at advancement of some kind. Was living in a roach-infested room any kind of career track to success? Forget success, I just needed some new options for survival.
Natifah and I exchanged phone numbers once the half-hour orientation ended, and I personally thanked the judges one by one. I was still in shock, so sure they’d take me aside and say, “You know, on second thought, we need to reconsider our decision.”
This insecurity was a function of the instant comparisons I couldn’t help but make when I first entered the holding area. It seemed that for every girl whose body was much leaner or curvier than mine, another one had just a so-so body but an incredible face. I had never thought of myself as either exceptionally pretty nor as possessing a wondrous figure. My waist was never slender enough, but my legs were definitely shapely, and my breasts were a natural 36C since puberty, what, six years ago?
The comparisons between myself and all the other girls in the room stayed with me throughout the weekend, as Mark called all his friends and bragged about his girl’s “big success.” I admit I was proud, too, but I felt too guilty to really enjoy it, as though the other, more beautiful girls had gotten ripped off by my being chosen over them.
Monday morning rolled around, and we 12 began our training sessions given by two Senior Training Bunnies, overseen by the glamourpuss who turned out to be the Playboy’s version of a Den Mother. However, she was to be called the Bunny Mother. Her strict control inspired fear from all of us newcomers, and she wasn’t exactly a warm, fuzzy type.
In the following two weeks, we were taught the rules of working for the Playboy empire, and boy, were there rules! All employees, both front of the house (Bunnies) and back of the house (everyone else) had to join the union and pay weekly dues for representation by a shop steward. I was fairly incredulous at learning we had to join the union; we were here to work, yes, but to have all that fun that people like my boyfriend’s buddies were imagining would go on here, right? Wouldn’t the union just be a damper for all the wild parties in which we’d undoubtedly be invited to “play” after hours?
And what was all this business about the Bunnies not being allowed within 500 feet of the Playboy Club unless we were on our way into work or walking away from work? Walk fast, because if you were seen lingering, that was grounds for termination. What? Why? Being the youngest Bunny, I interjected with, “Like what?” The other girls snickered, but the General Manager was stern in his response:
“Like fraternizing with a man, like being inebriated, like behaving in a way inconsistent with what Playboy deems acceptable behavior—behavior that might tarnish the Playboy Club’s reputation as a respectable club.”
“Well, what about on our days off, like, say we’re walking from Bloomingdale’s to the Plaza? The straightest line between them is on 59th Street … are you saying we …”
He interrupted me tersely. “You are only allowed within 500 feet of the Club when you are coming into work or when you are quickly leaving the building. Any other times you are not allowed within 500 feet of the building. I think that makes it fairly easy to understand.”
I remember thinking, What is this, like, the Mafia? What, like they own the sidewalks of New York? All these rules were starting to irritate me.
And worse, what were all these injunctions warning us never to date a customer, ever? That if we were caught giving our phone number to a customer, we would be immediately terminated?
Why the heck did they think I wanted to work here, for the right to sling cocktails in high heels? I could do that at the Gaslight Club just a few blocks south of here. But then, the Playboy Club had such exalted status that if you were one of the chosen few lucky enough to work there, they could ask you to lie down in Fifth Avenue traffic and you would feel privileged to do so.
It seemed to me the whole point of this job was exactly the entree it would provide for us Bunnies—the cache to date the celebrities the Club was famous for entertaining, to give us access to rich, powerful men who were members.
The General Manager was just saying that, right? To keep up appearances, right? With a wink that I just did not quite see him deliver?
In the following two weeks of training, we new hires were taught “the Bunny Dip,” which was something between a curtsy and a half-bending at the knees, enabling us to pick up or place anything onto a customer’s table without bending over the customer. For two weeks we learned and practiced Bunny Dips. I wondered if ballerinas did anything like a Bunny Dip.
We were warned to groom ourselves the way Playboy required, or we wouldn’t pass the Bunny Mother’s inspection before beginning any shift, and we would get sent home. That led to demerits, and a few of those would get you fired. Even with the union protecting us, we still had to abide by a long list of Club regulations.
We had to step on the scale whenever we were asked to, and we were required to be within a certain weight limit at those weigh-ins. We were always to have freshly painted fingernails and regulation-sized high heels matching our Bunny outfits (which were kept under lock and key in a little room with two seamstresses guarding them with their lives). We were always to have our hair styled in a Bunny Mother–approved way (read: sexy bedroom hair). We were not free to change our hairstyles or hair color at our own whim, and had to get clearance for any major changes in our grooming and/or appearance.