On Friday night I turned up at Playboy’s 50th birthday wearing a dress. A conventional choice, you might think, but I’d previously been to their parties in a bikini or a Bunny costume. I’d worked there as a Bunny when the club re-opened in 2011 (to both fanfare and fracas) after several decades on ice. Despite the break, Friday’s party was to mark the July ’66 opening of the original club on Park Lane.
Going as a guest was like getting a foot massage, after running the Marathon des Sables. I could eat canapes when they came round, rather than scavenging among the leftovers in the staffroom later. I could go to the loo by just lifting my dress, instead of struggling to unzip a stiffly structured basque then dragging down two pairs of industrial-strength support tights.
All the girls looked stunning that night — their costumes were made from prints of the British and American flags. Part of me had a pang of nostalgia, but it was like seeing swans and being in awe of their beauty while knowing the damage their wings can do. As well as the boning in the basque, there were the Bunny ears, which had made my first few weeks at Playboy feel like my head was locked in an industrial vice.
As a child I was enamoured with glamorous women and as a teenager I was fascinated to meet former Playboy Bunnies. At 18 I’d trained as a croupier and worked in private members clubs in Mayfair, dealing games like blackjack and roulette alongside original Bunnies who’d continued to work in casinos when Playboy closed in 1981. I knew that if Playboy re-launched in London I wanted to work there.
My casting was like a cross between The X Factor and an audition to be a Butlins Redcoat. Divided into groups, we created song and routines then performed them in front of a panel. After various hoops had been jumped through a list of names were called out and asked to step into another room. Only when the door shut behind the last one were the rest told they’d be going home. They would not be Bunnies. We would.
A few days after Playboy’s 50th party, I sat in on a casting for new Bunnies. It’s almost five years to the day since I attended my own, and the format is the same. It begins with each wannabe introducing herself before announcing three facts, one of which is a lie. Armed with red cards, the rest of the room raises hands at the fact they find suspicious. As good-natured as the group is, this becomes an Olympic event in cattiness. ‘I’m a make-up artist’ RED CARD, ‘I’m Miss England’ RED CARD, ‘I’ve appeared in Playboy’ RED CARD.
I talk to the girls over lunch. One tells me she stands on men’s faces for £200 an hour. Why does she want to be a Bunny? ‘I can’t stand on men’s faces forever.’ The two main Bunny roles are waitresses and croupiers. Most of the girls at the casting want waitress roles. Several have backgrounds in musical theatre (one has had a West End run), another is a beauty therapist. How would being a waitress at Playboy be different to doing that job elsewhere? ‘It’s more glamorous,’ they tell me. ‘It’s all about performing!’
When I worked at the club a number of girls felt disillusioned, saying it had been sold to them as a modelling job. I asked Austin Graham, who joined as venue director of Playboy after I left, if he thinks the girls at the casting have realistic expectations. He told me: ‘We will make sure we’re clear on what the role expects,’ adding, ‘I’d never want to trick somebody into doing a job that wasn’t what they wanted to do.’
I believe him, but Playboy’s success in branding itself as iconic and glamorous means no one can imagine Bunnies getting their hands dirty. I took a friend to the 50th party who’d never been to Playboy before. As Bunny waitresses picked up our hot-dog wrappers and collected our empty glasses, he said: ‘I thought there’d be someone else to do that stuff.’
I suspect that for some of the new Bunnies it will be just as much of a shock.
Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist living in London. She can be found tweeting here