Are Playboy bunnies feminism’s biggest paradox?

If modern feminism is about freedom of expression, then there’s nothing wrong with choosing to be viewed as a sexual object.

Sara, Hana and Aree have pretty different interests. Sara is a trainee psychotherapist who dreams of running a holistic therapy centre, Hana manages her own cupcake business but hopes to move into event planning and Aree recently graduated with a degree in Accounting and Management. But they have one thing in common. Every day, they dress up as sexy bunnies and hop on the bus to work at the Playboy Club on Old Park Lane.

“Everyone thinks we’re strippers,” Hana tells me. “But, realistically, when I come to work I’m covered from my shoulders to my toes so I’m probably wearing more than I would on a night out back home in Belfast.”

It’s not a convincing argument from a woman who’s wearing nothing more than a leotard and a pair of tights (sorry, two pairs of tights; multiple pairs apparently stop your legs wobbling), but it’s easy to understand how Hana’s grown tired of defending her job. Hana works as a valet bunny, which means she serves drinks in the Players’ Bar upstairs. When she’s working, she’s not allowed to sit down, she can’t tell anyone her surname and she’s forbidden from dating members. The same rules apply to Sara and Aree, who work as a VIP host and croupier bunny respectively.

“People know the rules before they come in,” says Sara. “You can look, but you can’t touch. It’s as simple as that.” And if someone did touch? “They’d be asked to leave.”

And quite right too. Sara goes on to explain that every bunny undergoes rigorous self-defense training before taking up a job at the Club; something she seems proud of, but I can’t help but think is unnecessary. These women aren’t war reporters. They’re not working on dangerous territory. They’re serving drinks and dealing cards in a £12,000 a year members’ bar. However rarely they have to use their self-defence skills, and they claim not to have ever needed them, it seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you wear high heels, a leotard and bunny ears and hang around with drunk men, they’re probably going to touch you. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but it does mean you should be aware of the reaction you’re provoking.

Back in the Sixties, when the first Playboy Club was launched in Chicago, Hugh Hefner was, rightly or wrongly, the poster boy of women’s sexual and economic freedom. This is because he employed women at a time when they struggled to get jobs. Nowadays, though, sexual inequality doesn’t exist to the same degree. I’m not undervaluing the work the bunnies do (they have to go though basic Mandarin and Arabic training, and what these girls don’t know about cocktails isn’t worth knowing), but isn’t dressing up as a rabbit for a living a bit, well, degrading?

A Bunny Girl croupier spins the roulette wheel at the London Playboy Club, 20 December 1967. Photograph: Getty Images

The girls have two answers. First, they tell me that 40 per cent of the Club’s members are women. This is basically the same as claiming you’re not racist because you’ve got a black friend. Secondly, they tell me that the Club has a long history of employing its retired bunnies behind the scenes. To understand this, I’m told, I have to hear about the recruitment process.

After filling out an application form online, wannabe bunnies are invited to a recruitment day at the Club. This day has a GCSE Drama vibe. There are team building exercises, group questions and one-on-one interviews. Typically, of every 60 girls who show up to a recruitment day, three are hired. Yes, they’re looking for natural beauty. Yes, they’re looking for past experience. But they’re also looking for something more: longevity.

Take Aree, for example, who dreams of becoming a deal inspector. Trainee croupier bunnies work first at London’s other casinos, where they spend six weeks on roulette training and two on blackjack. They’re given times tables for homework every night. Only after completing the training can they start work at the Playboy Club.

When Aree retires, which she predicts will be within five to ten years, she’ll hang up her bunny ears and apply for a behind-the-scenes job at the Club. Her dreams of becoming a deal inspector will, in all likelihood, be realised.

“A lot of the bunnies who started work here have moved onto into deal inspector or cash desk positions,” explains Sara. “There is room to forge a career out of every area of the Club. Bunny Jess moved into food and beverage management after working as a valet bunny. It is possible, if you want to stay.”

Hana has similar ambitions. “I definitely want to be here in ten years time. I have always wanted to be an event coordinator at the Playboy Mansion. Now I’m here, I just want to keep moving up through the company. That’s just not a prevalent culture in a lot of other companies.”

This, I suppose, is the answer I was looking for. In the Sixties, when women found it difficult to get jobs the Playboy Club employed them. Now that it’s difficult to keep hold of jobs, the Playboy Club offers long-term employment opportunities. A career that places importance on attractiveness is always going to raise eyebrows among feminists. But these girls are pretty, they’re smart and they’ve got more job security than me, so power to them. 

Playboy bunnies in 2011, before the launch of the new Playboy Club in Mayfair. Photograph: Getty Images

Tabatha Leggett is a freelance journalist who has been published in GQ and VICE and on the London Review of Books blog and Buzzfeed.com.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad