“I'm 86 years old, Playboy magazine is approaching its 60th birthday…that it should still be relevant, that it should still be hot—that we should be doing this interview—is beyond belief…very satisfying,” says Hugh Hefner, dressed in his usual silk pajamas, sipping from a bottle of Playboy branded water and seated beneath a large bust of one of his greatest loves, Barbi Benton, her ceramic breasts glinting in the mid-afternoon sunlight. “When I began publishing in ‘53, most of the post-war men's magazines were outdoor adventure books, and I was not interested in hunting and fishing,” he says. “So I created an urban, urbane lifestyle magazine, in which the romantic connection between the sexes was the centerpiece. And that's still the case. The concept of Playboy has really not changed at all.”
White haired and just a tad hard of hearing, Hef (his preferred nickname since adolescence) has a lot to reminisce about. Like how he launched Playboy magazine in December 1953, using his apartment furniture as loan collateral so he could publish the now-famous calendar nudes of Marilyn Monroe, at a time when newsstand nudity was unheard of and when Monroe’s star was on the rise. Or how he weathered the slings and arrows of feminist attack, while being an ardent supporter of women’s rights (the Playboy Foundation was the amicus curiae, the friend of court, in Roe v Wade, helping fund the pro-choice campaign). How he published some of the best American literary fiction and nonfiction of the past 50 years—the words of Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Ian Fleming, and Vladmir Nabokov have appeared on the pages of Playboy, and more than 30 Playboy stories have been adapted for film, including Born on the 4th of July, The Fly, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Born on the Fourth of July, Fahrenheit 451, All the President’s Men, Roots, In the Valley of Elah, and The Hurt Locker. And of course, there were the parties—those Gatsby-esque bacchanals at Playboy Mansion West in the 1970s, when the magazine’s circulation was peaking at 7 million per month; when he was operating 23 Playboy Clubs with 900,000 members worldwide; when things like online publishing, reality television, the economic meltdown of 2008 (Playboy’s value dropped from $1 billion to $84 million between 2000 and 2009 and was subsequently put up for sale) were unforeseeable specks on a distant horizon.
Today, Hefner is in a phase of intense forward motion, actively steering Playboy Enterprises into a new phase of its existence—back to being family-owned and operated, and LA-based. When we meet, he’s a few weeks away from unveiling Playboy’s brand new headquarters in Beverly Hills, having closed his offices in Chicago and New York. This year he oversaw a $122.5 million buy-back of Playboy Enterprises with the help of Rizvi Traverse Management LLC., placing him—not Wall Street or shareholders—firmly back in charge of the bunny again. “Once the company went public, we had to worry about the bottom line every year,” says Hefner. “And prior to that, I didn't worry about the bottom line, I worried about the vision. Now I can worry about the vision again.”
So, what is that vision? “The company is basically moving towards becoming a branding company, because our marks are so iconic,” says Dick Rosenzweig, VP of Playboy Enterprises, Executive Vice President of Playboy since 1988, and with Hef since the late 1950s. Brand licensing remains Playboy's highest-margin business, he says. “We have been very strong in licensing all over the world, more so really internationally than domestically. Internationally, these countries look to America as the leader in contemporary and hip society. To them, the Playboy name and the bunny represent something that they want to emulate, whether it’s a rabbit head on a shirt or on a volleyball or a nightclub.” In China, where the magazine and its website are banned, Playboy’s licensing business is booming. In 2003, the Far Eastern Economic Review named Playboy the most popular brand in China and there are about 650 outlets licensed to carry Playboy merchandise, including a high-end Playboy clothing line comprising men’s suits and formal attire. (Hef doesn’t wear Playboy clothes. “I wear pajamas,” he says).
Reality TV has also helped take Playboy to an entirely new demographic—young women. ““When reality TV first became popular everybody and his uncle wanted to do one at the Mansion and I was not interested,” says Hefner. “It was after the fourth or fifth year that a friend, Kevin Burns, who had done a couple documentaries for A&E on me, came with a notion of, instead of focusing on me, focusing on the girlfriends, and that turned out to be an inspired idea.” Six season of Girls Next Door on E! and various spinoffs later, and Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends are arguably as well-known as Hef himself, especially among the shows’ viewers.
Playboy is still running clubs (casinos were a Playboy’s major source of income in the 1970s), with the focus on quality rather than quantity—Playboy is just ending a relationship with the Palms in Las Vegas and will “probably” have another club in the city. There is a Playboy casino in Macau, one soon to open in Cologne, Germany, and a casino club in London which opened about a year ago in the back of the Four Seasons hotel. “That’s where we want to go in terms of live entertainment - very hip and on the scene,” says Rosenzweig. And the magazine, which has around 34 foreign editions, is especially thriving in Eastern Europe, where it is seen as a bastion of the “American contemporary hipness” coveted by the rest of the world. “The magazine is really at the base of everything that we do,” says Rosenzweig. And while it may not have anywhere close to the circulation it once enjoyed (around 1.5 million in the US in 2011), as a brand ambassador, “the magazine brings a lot to the party.”
Now that he has control of the brand again, Hefner has been swift to get rid of aspects of the company that gatecrashed that party, like porn. “Licensing has permitted us to get out of the part of the business that has never been my favorite,” says Hefner, referring to softcore porn channels on cable TV and websites operated by Playboy from 2001 until this year. After going private again, he sold the adult portion of their company (once thought to comprise about 60% of the entre business) to a German-Canadian company called Manwin, so that Playboy Enterprises could focus on mainstream entertainment. “Porn is something we never really wanted to get into, but Wall Street encouraged us to. They thought there was so much money in it,” says Rosenszweig.
The relocation of Playboy to LA, finally executed this year, has been on the cards for years. Hollywood has been Hefner’s home and community since the 1970s—he purchased the Holmby Hills estate now known as Playboy Mansion West in 1971, and moved there permanently in 1975, doing so in order to more closely supervise Playboy Enterprises' interests in television and film production, but also because Hollywood has always been something of a spiritual home for him, as evidenced by his extra-curricular passion projects. Hefner championed the reconstruction of the Hollywood sign in 1980 (was honored by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his efforts), for instance, and again in 2010, when he donated $1million toward saving the landmark. Hefner has financed the restoration of more than a dozen classic black and white films, including 1945’s The Big Sleep, and funded historical documentaries on silver screen sirens Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth, Marion Davies, Louise Brooks and cinematic icons. “Films had a major influence on my life growing up, so it’s my way of paying back what I felt I got out of the movies,” says Hefner. “It’s the same thing with the Hollywood sign…I helped save it because it had meaning for me.” So what does Hollywood mean to Hugh Hefner, the elder son of conservative Protestant parents, Glenn and Grace Hefner, and a direct descendent of distinguished Massachusetts Puritan patriarchs William Bradford and John Winthrop? “Dreams, of course,” he laughs. “Dreams.”
Published Thursday June 7, 2012
Read the interview at Variety.com here