I Was a Playboy Bunny

views updated

I Was a Playboy Bunny


By: Gloria Steinem

Date: 1963

Source: Steinem, Gloria, "I Was a Playboy Bunny," from Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, by Gloria Steinem. New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1983.

About the Author: This essay by Gloria Steinem was first published in Show magazine in 1963.


Gloria Steinem (1934–) is an influential feminist writer most famous for founding Ms. Magazine in 1972. She grew up in the American Midwest and earned a B.A. from Smith College in 1956, where she became a journalist. In the early 1960s, she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny at one of the chain of nightclubs owned by Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner (1926–). The clubs were nightclubs featuring drinks, live musical entertainment, and a staff of attractive young women called Playboy Bunnies who wore black bodysuits, puffy white tails, white collar and cuffs, and clip-on satin bunny ears. The clubs were not open to the general public but to paying members known as "keyholders;" The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, and the last U.S. club closed in 1988. The last international Playboy Club closed in 1991.

Steinem became a Bunny when she was 28 and held the job for three weeks. Her article about the realities of life in the Playboy realm were published in Show magazine in 1963. The piece gained much attention, and after its appearance Steinem was able to launch a career as a freelance journalist. She eventually became one of the best-known figures in American feminism.


I Was a Playboy Bunny


I was fitted for false eyelashes today at Larry Mathews's, a twenty-four-hour-a-day beauty salon in a West Side hotel. As a makeup expert feathered the eyelashes with a manicure scissors, she pointed out a girl who had just been fired from the club "because she wouldn't go out with a Number One keyholder." I said I thought we were forbidden to go out with customers. "You can go out with them if they've got Number One keys,' the makeup girl explained. "They're for club management and reporters and big shots like that." I explained that being fired for not going seemed like a very different thing. "Well," she said thoughtfully, "I guess it was the way she said it. She told him to go screw himself."

I paid the bill. $8.14 for the eyelashes and a cake of rouge, even after the 25-percent Bunny discount. I had refused to invest in darker lipstick even though "girls get fired for looking pale." I wondered how much the Bunny beauty concession was worth to Mr. Mathews. Had beauty salons sent in sealed bids for this lucrative business?

I am home now, and I have measured the lashes. Maybe I don't have to worry so much about being recognized in the club. They are three quarters of an inch long at their shortest point.


I've spent an informative Sunday with the Bunny bible, or the Playboy Club Bunny Manual, as it is officially called. From introduction ("You are holding the top job in the country for a young girl) to appendix ("Sidecar: Rim glass with lime and frost with sugar"), it is a model of clarity.

Some dozen supplements accompany the bible. Altogether, they give a vivid picture of a Bunny's function. For instance:

… You … are the only direct contact most of the readers will ever have with Playboy personnel…. We depend on our Bunnies to express the personality of the magazine.

… Bunnies will be expected to contribute a fair share of personal appearances as part of their regular duties for the Club.

… Bunnies are reminded that there are many pleasing means they can employ to stimulate the club's liquor volume, thereby increasing their earnings significantly…. The key to selling more drinks is Customer Contact … they will respond particularly to your efforts to be friendly…. You should make it seem that [the customer's] opinions are very important….

The Incentive System is a method devised to reward those table Bunnies who put forth an extra effort…. The Bunny whose [drink] average per person is highest will be the winner…. Prize money … will likewise be deter-mined by over-all drink income.

There is a problem in being "friendly" and "pampering" the customer while refusing to go out with him or even give him your last name. The manual makes it abundantly clear that Bunnies must never go out with anyone met in the club—customer or employee—and adds that a detective agency called Willmark Service Systems, Inc., has been employed to make sure that they don't. ("Of course, you can never tell when you are being checked out by a Willmark Service representative.") The explanation written for the Bunnies is simple: Men are very excited about being in the company of Elizabeth Taylor, but they know they can't paw or proposition her. "The moment they felt they could become familiar with her, she would not have the aura of glamour that now surrounds her. The same must be true of our Bunnies." In an accompanying letter from Hugh Hefner to Willmark, the explanation is still simpler: "Our licenses are laid on the line any time any of our employees in any way engages, aids, or abets traffic in prostitution…." Willmark is therefore instructed to "Use your most attractive and personable male representatives to proposition the Bunnies, and even offer … as high as $200 on this, 'right now,' for a promise of meeting you outside the Club later." Willmark representatives are told to ask a barman or other male employee "if any of the girls are available on a cash basis for a friendly evening…. Tell him you will pay the girls well or will pay him for the girls." If the employee does act "as a procurer," Willmark is to notify the club immediately. "We naturally do not tolerate any merchandising of the Bunnies," writes Mr. Hefner, "and are most anxious to know if any such thing is occurring."

If the idea of being merchandised isn't enough to unnerve a prospective Bunny, there are other directives that may. Willmark representatives are to check girls for heels that are too low, runs in their hose, jewelry, underwear that shows, crooked or unmatched ears, dirty costumes, absence of name tags, and "tails in good order." Further: "When a show is on, check to see if the Bunnies are reacting to the performers. When a comic is on, they are supposed to laugh." Big Brother Willmark is watching you.

In fact, Bunnies must always appear gay and cheerful. ("… Think about something happy or funny … your most important commodity is personality") in spite of all worries, including the demerit system. Messy hair, bad nails, and bad makeup cost five demerits each. So does calling the room director by his first name, failing to keep a makeup appointment, or eating food in the Bunny Room. Chewing gum or eating while on duty is ten demerits for the first offense, twenty for the second, and dismissal for the third. A three-time loser for "failure to report for work without replacement" is not only dismissed but blacklisted from all other Playboy Clubs. Showing up late for work or after a break costs a demerit a minute, failure to follow a room director's instructions costs fifteen. "The dollar value of demerits," notes the Bunny bible, "shall be determined by the general manager of each club."

Once the system is mastered, there are still instructions for specific jobs. Door Bunnies greet customers and check their keys. Camera Bunnies must operate Polaroids. Cigarette Bunnies explain why a pack of cigarettes can't be bought without a Playboy lighter; hatcheck Bunnies learn the checking system; gift-shop Bunnies sell Playboy products; mobile-gift-shop Bunnies carry Playboy products around in baskets, and table Bunnies memorize thirteen pages of drinks.

There's more to Bunnyhood than stuffing bosoms.

Note: Section 523 says: "Employees may enter and enjoy the facilities of the club as bona fide guests of 1 [Number One] keyholders." Are these the big shots my makeup expert had in mind?


At 11:00 A.M. I went to see the Playboy doctor ("Failure to keep doctor's appointment, twenty demerits") at his office in a nearby hotel. The nurse gave me a medical-history form to fill out. "Do you know this includes an internal physical? I've been trying to get Miss Shay to warn the girls." I said I knew, but that I didn't understand why it was required. "It's for your own good," she said, and led me into a narrow examining room containing a medicine chest, a scale, and a gynecological table. I put on a hospital robe and waited. It seemed I had spent a good deal of time lately either taking off clothes, waiting, or both.

The nurse came back with the doctor, a stout, sixtyish man with the pink and white skin of a baby. "So you're going to be a Bunny," he said heartily. "Just came back from Miami myself. Beautiful club down there. Beautiful Bunnies." I started to ask him if he had the coast-to-coast franchise, but he interrupted to ask how I liked Bunnyhood.

"Well, it's livelier than being a secretary," I said, and he told me to sit on the edge of the table. As he pounded my back and listened to me breathe, the thought crossed my mind that every Bunny in the New York club had rested on the same spot. "This is the part all the girls hate," said the doctor, and took blood from my arm for a Wassermann test. I told him that testing for venereal disease seemed a little ominous. "Don't be silly," he said,"all the employees have to do it. You'll know everyone in the club is clean." I said that their being clean didn't really affect me and that I objected to being put through these tests. Silence. He asked me to stand to "see if your legs are straight." "Okay," I said, "I have to have a Wassermann. But what about an internal examination? Is that required of waitresses in New York State?"

"What do you care?" he said. "It's free, and it's for everybody's good."

"How?" I asked.

"Look," he said impatiently, "we usually find that girls who object to it strenuously have some reason …" He paused significantly. I paused, too. I could either go through with it or I could march out in protest. But in protest of what?

Back in the reception room, the nurse gave me a note to show Miss Shay that I had, according to preliminary tests at least, passed. As I put on my coat, she phoned a laboratory to pick up "a blood sample and smear." I asked why those tests and no urine sample? Wasn't that the most common laboratory test of all? "It's for your own protection," she said firmly, "and anyway, the club pays."

Down in the lobby, I stopped in a telephone booth to call the board of health. I asked if a Wassermann test was required of waitresses in New York City? "No." Then what kind of physical examination was required? "None at all," they said.


Steinem exposed the Playboy entertainment empire, which proclaimed itself part of the "sexual revolution," encouraging people to enjoy unmarried sex happily, freely, and without guilt, as part of a sexual-industrial complex in which women were expected to manage their appearance and behavior to please men for purely economic reasons. The Playboy Clubs presented sexually amplified but generally unavailable young women to male customers in a way that would stimulate sexual desire without satisfying it: The explicit goal was to sell more drinks, the highest-profit item in any nightclub or bar.

Steinem went after the inside story on the Playboy Club because the behaviors demanded of a Playboy Bunny—smiling, dressing to emphasize one's sexual attractiveness, and reacting to male opinions as if they were "very important,"—were exaggerations of behaviors that feminists like Steineim had identified as standard for young women in American society. Dating manuals, for example, urged young women to smile, be agreeable, avoid offering strongly held opinions, and give male companions the impression that their views were important, just as the Playboy Club Bunny Manual did. The Playboy Club was, then, an employment setting where normal female behaviors were exaggerated, professionalized, packaged in Playboy mystique, and marketed to club customers as a product. Steinem's article illustrated some of the detailed quality-management efforts that went into the manufacture of that product.

Steinem's exposé is "feminist" journalism because it does not expose explicitly illegal workplace abuses such as rape, overwork, dangerous conditions, or the like, but brought to light other forms of exploitation and control inflicted on many women every day.

The primary form of labor performed by Steinem during her few weeks as a Playboy Bunny has been identified by feminist sociologists as "emotional labor," defined in 1983 by the inventor of the term, Arlie Russell Hochschild, as "the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display." Emotional labor may be performed for free, as when a worried or depressed family member pretends to be cheerful while guests are in the house, or for money, as when stewards and stewardesses, nurses, servers, salespeople, and others in service jobs must pretend to be welcoming, happy, concerned, fascinated, or the like.

Both men and women must perform emotional labor in various jobs, but a number of female-specific jobs exist in which women's sexuality is an integral part of the emotional performance. Apart from prostitution, in which employees (mostly women) must pretend to be sexually interested in and gratified by paying customers, a large number of waitressing positions, such as those held by the Playboy Bunnies, require sexualized emotional work. The burger-and-steak restaurant chain Hooters, for example, with over 350 locations in the U.S. today, employs a system similar to the now-defunct Playboy Bunny clubs. Hooters employs only attractive young women, called "Hooter Girls," as servers to give male customers the impression of encountering the "All-American Cheerleader, Surfer, Girl Next Door" (quoting the Hooters Employee Handbook). Hooter Girls, like the Playboy Bunnies, are required to provide sexualized emotional labor: Servers must sign a statement affirming their awareness that "my job duties require that I interact with and entertain the customers" and that "the Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and the work environment is one in which joking and sexual innuendo based on female sex appeal is commonplace."



CBS News. CBS Sunday Morning. "No Slowdown for Gloria Steineim" 〈http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/01/22/sunday/printable1227391.shtml〉 (accessed March 27, 2006).

The Smoking Gun. "Acknowldgement—Hooters Girl" 〈http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0915051hooters8.html〉 (accessed March 27, 2006).