At 80, Hefner Still a Hopping Playboy

Bunny Trail Never Ends for Maverick Publisher


April 7 2006 —  The man who introduced the Playboy bunny is starting to resemble the Energizer bunny. As his 80th birthday approaches, the wheeling-dealing, Viagra-popping Hugh Hefner keeps going … and going … and going.

Don't ask why Hef doesn't retire. His lifestyle remains the best living, breathing commercial Playboy has ever had. The three girls he's dating — Kendra Wilkinson, 20; Holly Madison, 25; and Bridget Marquardt, 31 — are the subject of E!'s top rated reality show, "The Girls Next Door." And, inexplicably, the show is more popular with women than it is with men.

Do the math. The combined age of his trio of girlfriends, whom he'll huddle up with this weekend, still makes them three years his junior. It's the sort of factoid that has made him a figure reviled by some, revered by others. But he certainly has enough fans in the right places.

Even the biggest stars still yearn for an invite to his famed Playboy Mansion. The 31-room Tudor mansion north of Beverly Hills has a sign outside that reads: "Caution, Bunnies at Play."

The young hotshots on HBO's "Entourage," as well as the sophisticated New York City gals of "Sex and the City," and even the curmudgeonly Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," have all been shown partying with Hef, much like any real-life young Hollywood star.

Original Media King's $466 Million Empire

Hef's daughter, Christine, took command of the $466 million empire in 1988, 13 years after he offered her a job in the company, and they remain in control of the voting shares that guide Playboy's interests, as the bunny brand hops down a global money trail with new vigor.

It was with the same gusto in 1953 that a 27-year-old Hefner assembled the first issue of Playboy magazine on his kitchen table in Chicago, having the divine wisdom or dumb luck to gamble $500 on his first cover girl — an unknown Hollywood wannabe named Marilyn Monroe.

Few people believed then that a magazine that featured women in a state of undress had a place on newsstands with mainstream press or that top advertisers would compete for ad space with Playboy centerfolds.

Needless to say, he was right. And long before Howard Stern, Hef could rightly claim to be a king of all media, launching TV shows, a string of nightclubs, and a thriving Web site, all advocating the Playboy lifestyle.

Now, the man who launched America's sexual revolution prepares for life as an octogenarian with another big bash at the Playboy Mansion. Amid final preparations, he took some time out to talk with to reflect upon his singular life and career.

Buck Wolf: What's the best part about turning 80 … and the worst?

Hugh Hefner: Well, it's a celebration. The last two years have really been the best part of my life. The great downside is mortality. But mortality is something we all share.

BW: The last time we spoke, you were proclaiming Viagra as the new wonder drug. You told me, quote, "It's a good deal more than an impotence drug. It is, I think, the best legal recreational drug out there. It knocks down the walls between expectation and reality." Are you still a happy customer?

HH: Well, yes. Now, the competition has arrived in a couple of variations of the same theme, and you see the advertising has changed, and they recognize it isn't just for old folks. Quite literally, like I said at the time, it's the best legal recreational drug out there!

BW: You have rules about drugs, though. A few days ago, you hosted an event for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that opposes criminal penalties for marijuana use, and guests at the Playboy Mansion were reminded that anyone caught smoking pot would be thrown out. And that's always the policy.

HH: Yes, that's the policy. It's one thing to try to change the way of things. It's another thing to break the law. Always with Playboy, we tried to take the high road. It's the reason we've been able to succeed when others have failed.

BW: What is the biggest change in your conception of the Playboy image then and now?

HH: Well, I've always felt that the response to Playboy is like a Rorschach [inkblot] test, and says a great deal about the individual, as well as changes in society over the years.

When the subject is play and pleasure and sexuality, America remains very schizophrenic. We were founded by Puritans. I think the message today is as mixed as it was in the 1950s. We live in curious times.

When I was growing up — and when Playboy began — good, middle-class, moral people came out of school and got married. That was the only real, viable way of life. Playboy was the first magazine to focus on being single from a male point of view. Now, 50-plus years later, there are many acceptable variations of that theme.

In a certain way, we now live in a Playboy world. But we also live in a time where there's still controversy over nudity on the printed page, not like there is in other parts of the world, but it certainly still exists.

BW: Are you surprised by crackdowns by the Federal Communications Commission in the years following Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance?

HH: I would say there are a lot of things about the current administration that are surprising. That religion and religious values would play such a big part in decision making on matters relating to science, relating to birth control, relating to a great many things, that's surprising.

I think in terms of censorship, it's a very strange time because the technology has taken us to a place where sexual images are everywhere. And at the same time, the federal government is upset and still reacting to Janet Jackson's breasts.

BW: There's a tendency for people to get more conservative as they get older. Is that true for you? Are there things about today's youth and today's sexual mores that shock you?

HH: I wouldn't say things shock me. There are things I approve of and don't approve of. There are certainly excesses. "Freedom and Democracy" is a very dangerous idea. Everybody — as long as they're not hurting somebody — has the right to live their lives by their own terms. I obviously endorse that. It may not be my road to Mecca, but there are many roads to Mecca, many ways to live a perfectly moral, ethical life.

BW: But in any way, can you ever relate to those who grow more conservative and set in their ways as they get older?

HH: Well, not as much as one might expect. I remain essentially the boy that I was, and the young man that I was. I'm more reflective now than I once was, but I stay connected on a daily basis with my youth. That comes out not only in my feelings but the movies I watch on weekends and the music I play. These things all help you understand where you are.

I'm at a very good place emotionally. I used to say I was the luckiest guy on the planet and that's truer today.

BW: You have your share of enemies, but even they wouldn't deny that you're an American icon. There's a Hugh Hefner look, a lifestyle. Was there a moment that you realized that, indeed, you had become just that — an iconic figure?

HH: Obviously, part of it was not an accident. The editor and publisher of a magazine isn't usually viewed as a movie celebrity or a rock star or something iconic. So, part of what happened is the nature of the magazine.

Still, I can point to an exact timeframe. In 1960, I stepped out from behind my desk and started publicly living the life that was reflected in the magazine. And in a space of just a handful of months I bought the first Playboy Mansion in Chicago, I started hosting a TV show "Playboy's Penthouse" … and I opened my first Playboy club. Within a matter of a year, I was more than famous.

The truly remarkable thing is that half a century later, the magazine, the company and my life are now more celebrated than any time previously, certainly than 10 or 15 years ago. Playboy products and fashion are expanding globally.

And now, the brand is embraced by a great number of women. That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. The television show on E!, "The Girls Next Door," is more popular with women than men.

BW: Playboy has diversified. But does it bother you that some segment of your under-30 crowd is not that aware of the magazine? They think of Playboy as cable TV programming, or a Web site, or a mansion where really cool celebrities hang out.

HH: Actually, just the opposite is true. The fact that Playboy expanded into other forms is everything I hoped for. It's no longer limited to a magazine, and that, of course, didn't happen by accident.

With the success of the magazine, instead of expanding into other magazines, we expanded into different extensions of the brand. We were the first magazine to use TV, the first to use a Web site. These are all variations of the brand, and it keeps the brand relevant.

BW: Over the years, Playboy has been famous for landing some of the best, in-depth interviews with newsmakers and celebrities, from Fidel Castro to Marlon Brando, people who wouldn't often speak to traditional media, would talk to your magazine. Playboy was where Jimmy Carter admitted to committing "adultery" in his heart. Do you think today's politicians and celebrities are less likely to talk about their lives?

HH: If you are saying that celebrities are less open and candid, I disagree. When I was growing up Hollywood celebrities had a mystique, a public image that was crafted and proclaimed by the studios. The reality behind that public image could have been consistent or inconsistent with the truth. It didn't matter.

These days, celebrities — along with everybody else — are more willing to admit they have children out of wedlock, or that they're gay, or that they may have been abused by a parent. In that sense, we live in a much more open society, and that's a good thing. The more hurtful things occur in the dark.

BW: One of the great Hugh Hefner legends is that when it's time for him to go, he's found the perfect final resting place — a tomb right next to Marilyn Monroe's at L.A.'s Westwood Memorial Park. Is that still the plan?

HH: I've got the crypt, and I'll be there one day. It just seems fitting somehow.

BW: But in the meantime, you've got three young girlfriends. Their collective age only adds up to 77, and after a series of parties this weekend, you'll be spending your time as a foursome. Any advice on how to handle three girlfriends at once?

HH: Keep your heart open. Hey, I realize my life is a unique one, but it works for me, and there are many ways to lead an honest, decent life. I've actually had it both ways. I was married twice. I was faithful. I'm much happier now.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.