Most giants of an industry who are in their 80s have long been enjoying the benefits of a juicy retirement package. Not Hugh Hefner.
For the last 55 years, the lanky Chicago native has run his Playboy empire that has included clubs, fashion lines, television shows, videos, an Internet presence and loads of other merchandising. The men’s magazine is the cornerstone of his business.
Very few industry giants, except maybe Walt Disney, have become as closely associated with an entertainment empire as Hefner.
“It is an interesting frame of reference,” Hefner says during a telephone interview from the Los Angeles Playboy mansion. “Disney is somebody who inspired me when I was a kid growing up. I wanted to be a cartoonist initially. He was certainly an inspiration for me. Beyond that, it is a compliment obviously because what Disney accomplished was extraordinary.”
With Hefner manning the helm with a Captain Ahab intensity, Playboy survived despite repeated battles with those outraged by the nude photos in the magazine and a slew of competitors.
Hefner’s cache shows no signs of slowing down. He will turn 83 in April and he has a popular TV show called “The Girls Next Door” on the E! cable channel. The show is about his personal life and it is a worldwide sensation. Besides the cable series, he appeared in a dozen TV and film projects last year. And a new biography by Steven Watts, “Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream” has come out.
Hefner’s life as an icon of sophistication started in 1953 when he used his furniture as collateral against a bank loan to start Playboy magazine. The magazine launched exactly 25 years after Disney created Mickey Mouse. And just like Walt Disney, Hefner became the public face for the company. That wasn’t Hefner’s intentions when he started the magazine. He was just trying to keep his magazine going.
Playboy’s circulation numbers grew from the start, but advertisers were wary. Hefner knew he needed to generate a more mainstream perception of the publication. He did that with a syndicated late-night television series called “Playboy’s Penthouse.”
“The conceit of the show was that it was a party in my penthouse apartment. This was the publisher of Playboy. That would demystify the whole Playboy phenomenon,” Hefner says. “In order to do that, I had to host the show even though I knew someone professional could do it better. It proved very successful.”
Suddenly, a guy could have been a contestant on “Beauty and the Geek,” was on his way to being one of the best-known advertising icons in history. The Playboy Bunny logo is as recognizable around the world as much as Mickey Mouse, Nike and Coca Cola.
Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University in New York, says everything Hefner has done has been part of the game plan that has helped link him closely with the magazine empire.
“You have other companies linked to characters but they are usually fictional. Like Ronald McDonald,” Thompson says. “The main reason Hefner has remained so closely connected is that he is still out there promoting himself. I have a group of students who would not know who Hugh Hefner is.”
Those students are too young to know the magazine from its heydays in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Thompson says “The Girls Next Door” helped bring Hefner and the magazine to the attention of a new generation.
He says it is interesting how Hefner has gone from being someone whose work was at one time hidden under mattresses to how he is now the stuff of mainstream pop culture discussions and tributes.
“The Girls Next Door” certainly opened up the magazine to a broader audience. The weekly TV look at Hefner and his three girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson is watched by an audience that is 70 percent female.
Hefner suggests the reason that he became and remains so connected with the magazine is because readers could relate to him. He describes himself as a “Midwestern boy from Nebraska parents.”
“The publication from the beginning was intended to be sophisticated but for every man. It was a publication that suggested there was a way of living your life that was more than simply living in the suburbs, sitting in front of a television set, going bowling with the boys and leaving the wife at home. There was something more romantic, more and more upscale than that,” Hefner says.
Hefner says it is no coincidence the magazine pulled out of an economic slump when his marriage to Kimberly Conrad ended in 1999.
“I found there was a whole generation waiting for me to come out and play. It was kind of like Elvis being off the scene and being resurrected and showing up at a supermarket,” Hefner says. “There is no doubt there is some casual connection between the fact the brand is so hugely popular again in the same time frame as the end of my marriage. That is complemented by the television show.”
He is proud of the cable series. But the magazine remains Hefner’s true love. And he never thought of that love as a sex magazine. He wanted to create a men’s magazine that was about the romantic connection between the sexes. He says the fact that it contained some “subtler nudity” was simply the natural part of the photo package.
His inspiration for doing that photo style came from the Roaring ‘20s, when fashion was skimpy and skin was more visible than in the 1950s.
“The subject of nudity only became forbidden in the 1950s. Before that there was a more European sensibility related to nudity. I just wanted to bring some of that back,” Hefner says. There has always been a retro chic aspect to Playboy. And there certainly is to my life. I wear Armani suits and I put cuffs on them. It is a tip of the hat to a previous, better time.
“Essentially, I am an old soul.”
Hefner has had 55 years to think about what would have happened if his vision had failed. He says he might have gone into the film industry, but more likely, he would have gone another direction in the magazine world.
After more than five decades of being in the spotlight, Hefner says he is most proud of the positive impact he had on the changing social sexual values of his time.
Watts, who became very familiar with Hefner while researching his book, doesn’t want the public aspects of the Hefner’s life to overshadow his contributions.
“He has played a crucial role in shaping American cultural values over the last five decades. Through Playboy, he has been at the forefront of two transformations in American life in the post-World War II era,” Watts says. “First, the advance of the sexual revolution - the loosening of many traditional restraints on sexual expression and behavior - owes a great debt to this publisher and the variety of erotic enticements in his magazine.
“Second, the advance of the consumer revolution, which tied the American way of life to material abundance, owes just as much to Playboy and its attractive portrayals of bachelor pads, sports cars, fashionable clothing, and sophisticated food and drink. In both of these ways, Hefner has helped redefine the meaning of “the good life” in America in the last half of the 20th century.”
Since starting Playboy, Hefner has seen changes in himself, the magazine and the world. Today, the Internet has become a huge part of the business. He’s not certain if the magazine will even exist in printed form in 10 years. If that would happen, Hefner says it would be a “sad day.”
“I cannot imagine when the printed form on paper no longer exists. It is certainly clear the trend is increasingly toward Internet communication. The great problem with that is, by its nature, the reading is not the same. It is sound bites. It is bits and pieces,” Hefner says. “It is why an entire generation is growing up with no real sense of their history. If you don’t know who you were then you really don’t know who you are. I feel a sadness for what young people are losing now.”
Hefner can certainly see his own history. It is as ingrained in the magazine as the Bunny logo and centerfolds. As for all the notoriety that connection has created, Hefner says, “I know I am a lucky cat. And I am grateful for it.”