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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Appearing in a book is strange – being an actual character must be stranger

Much as it jolts me to come across a reference to my music in something I'm reading, at least it's not me.

I was happily immersed in the world of a novel the other day, Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone, when suddenly I was jolted back into reality by my own appearance in the book. One of the characters hears someone singing and is told, “‘It’s Leonora. She sings with her window open.’ ‘She’s good – sounds like Tracey Thorn.’ ‘She does, doesn’t she.’”

It was as if I’d walked on stage while still being in the audience. It’s happened to me before, and is always startling, a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. From being the reader, addressed equally and anonymously, you become, even momentarily, a minor character or a representative of something. In this instance it was flattering, but the thing is, you have no control over what the writer uses you to mean.

In David Nicholls’s Starter for Ten, set in the mid-Eighties, the lead character, Brian – a hapless student, failing in both love and University Challenge – hopes that he is about to have sex with a girl. “We stay up for an hour or so, drinking whisky, sitting on the bed next to each other and talking and listening to Tapestry and the new Everything But the Girl album.” Ah, I realised, here I represent the kind of singer people listen to when they’re trying, though possibly failing, to get laid.

Fast-forward a few years, to the mid-Nineties of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, a book constructed from lists of people and things, clothes and music, which apparently indicate the vacuousness of modern life. “I dash into the Paul Smith store on Bond Street, where I purchase a smart-looking navy-gray raincoat. Everything But the Girl’s ‘Missing’ plays over everything” and later, “In the limo heading toward Charing Cross Road Everything But the Girl’s ‘Wrong’ plays while I’m studying the small white envelope . . .” Here I’m being used to represent the way bands become briefly ubiquitous: our songs are a soundtrack to the sleazy glamour of the novel.

These mentions are all fine; it’s only the music that features, not me. Spotting yourself as an actual character in someone’s novel must be more shocking: one of the perils of, for instance, being married to a novelist. I think of Claire Bloom and Philip Roth. First she wrote a memoir about how ghastly it was being married to him, then he wrote a novel about how ghastly it was to be married to someone very like her. Books as revenge: that’s very different indeed.

Few people who had ever met Morrissey emerged from his memoir unscathed (me included), but particularly Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. He was hung, drawn and quartered in the book, yet seems to have maintained a dignified silence. But it’s hard knowing how to deal with real people in memoirs. In mine, I chose not to name one character, a boy who broke my 18-year-old heart. Feverish speculation among old friends, all of whom guessed wrong, proved how much attention they’d been paying to me at the time. I also wrote about my teenage band, the Marine Girls, and then sent the chapter to the other members for approval. Which led to a fresh outbreak of hostilities and not-speaking, 25 years after we’d broken up. Don’t you just love bands?

Worrying about any of this would stop anyone ever writing anything. Luckily it didn’t deter John Niven, whose scabrous music-biz novel, Kill Your Friends, mixes larger-than-life monsters such as the fictional A&R man Steven Stelfox with real people: and not just celebs (Goldie, the Spice Girls), but record company executives (Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, Rob Stringer) known best to those of us in the biz, and presumably thrilled to have made it into a book. John confirmed to me recently: “In the end I got more grief from people I left out of the book than those I put in. Such is the ego of the music industry. I heard of one executive who bought about 30 copies and would sign them for bands, saying, ‘This was based on me.’ You create the Devil and people are lining up to say, ‘Yep. I’m that guy.’”

In other words, as I suspected, there’s only one thing worse than being written about. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred