We had to wear regulation pantyhose called “support hose” purchased from a medical-supply drugstore. They were made of extra-thick nylon that hugged your skin so tightly it felt like wearing them would cut off all blood flow to your legs and your feet would go numb. Over the top of those, we had to wear a thin, sheer black hose that created the appearance it was all we really had on. But the magic was all in the support hose, which truly covered a multitude of sins: any hint of cellulite would disappear, as would slightly flabby inner thighs and any other imperfection.
That was the first order of dressing: we would start nude, pour ourselves into the sausage casing known as support hose, roll on the black sheer pantyhose, and then wriggle ourselves into the torture corset known as the famous Bunny costume, essentially a patch of fabric just large enough to hold a network of metal “bones,” eye hooks, and a zipper.
Once halfway into it, we would limp over to the seamstresses who would help us engage in a contortionist act worthy of inclusion in Cirque du Soleil. I can still do it in my sleep: you take a little breath, suck your stomach in for all you’re worth, and then grit your teeth and hold your breath while the seamstress stands behind you, yanking up the costume until your crotch burns from the friction, and then she zips you up from the base of your butt to the shoulder blades, cinching in everything until the zipper threatens to pop from the pressure.
The bones of the corset would bite into your flesh, molding you and your organs into the Playboy ideal: waspish waist, achieved by redistributing all the extras known as internal organs, fat, bones, and skin and channeling it all towards the top of the costume where you quick zip it up, and it all spills over and is made to look like “cleavage.” A trompe l’oeil!
Once the seamstresses had you in, which could take a full minute or two, then the “rearrange” would happen. They’d reach their cold hands down into the top of your costume, feel around for where your breasts were hiding and then pull them up until they nestled into the molded cups. Next, the seamstresses would take a pair or two of rolled-up stockings in a ball and use them to pad underneath each of your breasts. If one pair wasn’t enough, they’d just keep stuffing. When you were as “stuffed” as the molded cups could hold, the seamstresses would command you to take another breath in, and they’d close the eye-hook in the back of the Bunny suit. That cinched everything. Scarlett O’Hara had nothing on us!
I am convinced Victoria’s Secret must have borrowed their, um, “secrets” from the early Playboy Club. Anyone who’s been in their stores has witnessed the foam padding of cups in everything, from bathing suits to workout bras to the lacier lingerie-type bras that are growing thicker and more cleverly concealed inside the garments with every new season.
The finishing touch was standing in front of a full-length mirror with a seamstress standing behind you, having a final look and making any adjustments to your breasts so they pillowed up over the top of the very tightly fitting costume while ensuring that your nipples were tucked safely just inside the top edge of the costume. If you could still breathe, you were set to get a fresh tail hooked onto your backside by the seamstress. From there, you’d get your ears perched on your head and a fresh set of Playboy-logo cuffs wrapped onto your wrists.
I hated the corset routine even from the first days of training. I was 17, and it was the 1970s. Cockroaches or corsets? Which would you have chosen? I had auditioned as a 17-year-old and worked my first day inside the Playboy Club weeks later when I turned 18. I didn’t know much.
Although I never broke the rule about not dating the customers, I did accept the flattery, and later, favors bestowed on me by a very senior-ranking executive of the Playboy empire. He would come in from London and invite me out to dinners and parties with him. From there, we’d go dancing at Regine’s with his other favorite Bunny. She and I became fast friends on our jaunts about town with the Important Man, as we called him.
Once a Playmate of a prior year was brought in as a special guest. She had flown in and needed a spot in the Club to stash her beauty tools. The Bunny Mother assigned her the empty locker next to mine. The air in our dressing room was charged with the excitement of meeting one of the real Playmates—in person! Later on, as I watched the Playmate emerge from her shower, sit down next to me, and begin her primping for the evening’s festivities, I was struck by how absolutely human she looked to me.
Was she pretty? Sure she was. But was she in possession of otherworldly perfection? Not even close.
While on break that day, I flipped through the ever-ubiquitous stacks of Playboy magazines in our employee lounge and found the older issue in which she had “starred.” As I studied her photos, I was struck with the magic that computers could generate. In front of me was sprawled virtual perfection, not a flaw in sight, her skin pore-less, tawny, with the texture of velvet. Her eyes were sparkling and bright. Her lips perfectly moist, parted ever so slightly to show off her perfect, non-rejecting smile.
Her body was portrayed in much the same way: all good features were highlighted to the extreme, and the less than perfect were “corrected,” which is to say, rendered invisible.
Today, with even grade-school kids adept at using Photoshop, none of this would be considered revelatory. To me, in 1978, well before home computers existed, I was dropped headfirst into the duplicitous world of visual trickery. I had seen behind the Wizard’s curtain, and I was stunned.
To be sure, the centerfold woman was pretty. But in truth, so was the woman who sold me my New York Times in the morning. So was my aunt, and so was my boyfriend’s sister, for that matter. Jeez, most women were attractive if you could just see them outside of the narrow rules, and yet it seemed that Playboy had extolled some illusory woman as the absolute gold standard for perfection.
Except the centerfolds weren’t perfect, and neither were we, and neither was anyone else. When the other Bunnies would sit around after work at the Blarney Stone having drinks, we were real girls in real bodies that had real problems. We fought with our boyfriends, we had bad breath in the mornings like everyone else, we got frustrated waiting in line at the bank, and we thought John the bartender poured stingy drinks. We were human! Even my boyfriend, once enamored with all things Playboy, was disillusioned once he started hanging out with my new Bunny friends. At first, he was a bit crestfallen that they were all so, well, normal. Then I think he enjoyed the freedom in knowing that.
At the same time, deep resentments were fomenting in me against the men who created and perpetuated all this artificiality. Paradoxically, I judged every woman I passed on the street, using my Playboy-determined metric to decide her place in the female pecking order. It was like a compulsion, something I couldn’t choose not to do, even when it angered me that I so reflexively engaged in it. Inside me was a critic who applied Playboy’s measurements to every woman in the world.
More and more, my circle of friends reflected my ever-shallower values. I chose only the very prettiest Bunnies to socialize with, going to all the places the rich men were who would take notice of us and send us drinks. And I stopped wanting to be out in public with my non-Bunny friends who weren’t particularly attractive. I was getting a thorough training at work in just how much looks mattered if you were female.
Secretly I’d started developing not-so-wonderful feelings for the men who came into the Playmate Bar alone and sat nursing their scotch while allowing themselves to be full-on mesmerized by the larger-than-life illuminated photos of Playmates past.
My nascent anger at the artifice I saw all around me, all of which was being overridden and even celebrated by the men, caused me to unknowingly join in it even more than I could have seen, given that I was too immersed in it all to have had the perspective to question it.
Because I’ve walked those same roads myself and commodified my own sexuality, I understand the Heidi Montags and the Kim Kardashians. Only these gals are entire commodification industries. That young women are making the same mistakes with even more commercialization now makes me very sad.
The second time I worked as the Door Bunny, basically a glorified “greeter,” a large mob of angry women protesters stormed the front of the Club. Literally.
Carrying picket signs with their Women Against Pornography (WAP) logos emblazoned, the protesters would hurl themselves against the glass panels that made up the front of our building, chanting that Playboy was a bunch of male chauvinist pigs exploiting women and they needed to STOP! Over and over again, they’d throw themselves against the building till the glass panels shook, frightening everyone inside.
Terribly alarmed, I phoned upstairs to a manager about the disruption, but no one dared go outside to speak with the WAP, so the protesters would get out their bullhorns and turn up the heat, leading chants about the abuses of pornography and sexism. I still remember their poster of Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine, which showed a naked woman’s torso being fed into a manual meat grinder. Horrifying. Were those pictures actual covers of magazines?
My god, these women were enraged! What was going on here?
Were they just jealous of us because we Bunnies “had it” and they didn’t?
When the Playboy Club would finally call the police, the protesters would have to be dragged off, sometimes handcuffed, and always yelling and kicking. I recall being so upset a few times that I cried as I saw them enact this intense fury I didn’t yet understand, but which terrified me.
They started to show up en masse The WAP protests became a regular event there. Customers were hectored on their way inside and would often have to fight their way in. I started wondering whether these women thought their husbands were inside, if that was why they were so angry. I wouldn’t have wanted my husband to be hanging out in here. Having those kinds of contradictory realizations was difficult to parse, so I shoved them aside, and using inebriants certainly helped.
Because as “liberated” as we Bunnies tried to appear, trying to live up to Hef’s Playboy paradigm of sexy girls helping men feel empowered to live out the full smorgasbord of their sexuality, I did feel sad whenever I saw men come in wearing wedding bands, as bourgeois as that perhaps sounds. Sure, couples often came in for shows, dinner, and drinks. But at least that didn’t feel as much like the men were cheating, lusting after other women while the wife stayed home and put the kids to bed. It was when married men came in alone or in groups of other men that disturbed me. At Christmastime, I received plenty of gifts—including a diamond necklace—from married customers who professed to being my ardent fans.
When couples came in, I wondered why a woman would show up in a men’s club acting like it was normal. I wondered whether they had sold out their wish to be a man’s one and only, all to appear “cool,” nodding consent to the appetites of the male animal.
Of course, intellectually I understood that the Club had good shows, but then, so did plenty of other venues in town that didn’t feature nude panels of centerfolds or service given by half-dressed girls with trussed-up bodies.
My internal criticism of the females our customers brought with them reflected my secret longing for a special kind of man: one who would forbid me from working here, who would tell me he couldn’t share me with another man, not even visually. I wanted him to think me nobler than participating in this fleshfest, so good and true that I was worthy of inspiring his true affection and his fidelity behind it.
I fantasized that such a man existed and would save me from this world of dualities I, with my inchoate 18-year-old consciousness, couldn’t comprehend. Of course, I could never meet that man in the Playboy Club. No, he’d have to come from elsewhere. No man of mine would be in here. I hadn’t yet figured out how to extricate myself from this scene; that would take a lifetime and be a work in progress. It took becoming involved for years with a man who wanted to marry me (but who I found out had a secret porn/sex addiction) that forced me to think through all this critically. But I digress …
If you were wondering what it was really like to work at Playboy given all the General Manager’s rules for us, I’ll tell you. Working there was actually a really good job, as glorified waitressing goes. We were protected by our union, we were guaranteed tips (included on every customer’s bill), and we were allowed to bid our work schedules based on seniority, always a fair rule, I think. We had health insurance. Working there felt corporate, which it was. And there was absolutely no sex going on anywhere in the Club. None. If anything, the environment was antiseptically clean, much more so than most jobs I’ve held.
The intense scrutiny was also underscored right then, in part because Hefner had applied for a gaming license to open a Playboy casino down in Atlantic City and was nervously awaiting all kinds of surprise inspections. Therefore, every employee of his was held to rigorously high standards of conduct. And there were “Shoppers,” spies hired by his office to pose as customers and take note of our behavior in the Club. If anything was “off,” we would be written up. Knowing that spies lurked everywhere just waiting to nab us on an infraction, we were on our best behavior at all times. Sure, we snuck drinks sometimes, but we were ultra-careful about it—that’s how many watchdogs there were protecting the Playboy name and image.
If anything, Hefner’s proposed new TV series will have to fabricate some serious antics to provide a sexual hook. Working at a diner would probably have provided more salacious workplace stories.
After working at Playboy for a few years, my rebellious nature landed me on the wrong side of the Bunny Mother. I got myself into trouble, and it was made clear to me that continuing to work in the New York Club would be difficult going. The only way out of it that I could see was to appeal to the Important Man for help getting myself out of this fix.
After crying to him that I really, really needed my job, he offered me two solutions: either work in the London Playboy Club or consider posing for the magazine. That, he said, would be lucrative and possibly open some doors for me, like modeling contracts and the like.
“You mean, um … nude?”
“Sure,” he said.
When I protested that my waist wasn’t small enough and my … he cut me off with a laugh and a reassurance that they could “fix that” in print.
“But I could never do that! Millions of men would see it and I …”
He seemed rather dismissive of the arguments I was having with myself.
I knew it was a horrible idea, but the prospect of making a lot of money wouldn’t let go of me. That, and the resolution to the impossible situation I had on my hands with trying to keep both my job and get on better terms with the Bunny Mother. Maybe I should pose. It would be fast. Next month, there’d be a new girl, and I’d be all but forgotten. Yes, that might work. Maybe I could manage to pose and hide behind the respectability of Playboy‘s reputation as a “gentleman’s magazine.” It’s not Penthouse, I kept telling myself.
But then visions of my father, a macho Mediterranean man, flashed before my eyes. I could see him walking through the mechanical engineering company he owned, and there on the wall, enshrined between the drafting tools and the hammers, would be an enlarged photograph of his only daughter, nude for all the world to see.
If there were a more terrifying thought in the universe, I don’t think I could imagine it.
Before I could change my mind again, I quickly told the Important Man I couldn’t do it. He simply shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.”
And so with no resolution to my dilemma with the Bunny Mother, I handed in my resignation and walked out of the Playboy Club forever.
Decades later, when the porn addict in my life tried to argue with me that porn stars are not exploited, that many of his favorite stars actually have their own sites, that they’re empowering themselves, I grew very quiet. Instead of arguing with him that no, no, I knew way better than that, I realized then that the smartest thing I ever did was not pose nude. My decision to pose would not have been retractable. It was like the stupid tattoo I got when I was 15, but even that could at least be concealed.
By not posing, I was free to marry a respectable man and have children who would never find out that Mommy posed for a pornographic magazine.
I could go to college and get the jobs I wanted and always hold my head up without fear of being found out.
Playboy gave me one of the best jobs I ever had, and allowed me one of the toughest but ultimately smartest decisions I ever made for myself. For that I am eternally grateful.
When I began working at the Playboy Club, all I wanted to learn was to plié in a burgundy bodysuit and toe shoes. Instead, I learned to Bunny Dip in a corset and heels. My life has had a number of surprising twists, a lot of therapy (mercifully), and an ever-deepening spirituality. I work with the spouses of sex/porn addicts—at www.posarc.com—which is about as full-circle as that 17 year-old could have ever imagined.
—Top photo via svensonsan on Flickr