Her exposé of worker exploitation led to threats and a lawsuit.
The seamstress zipped America’s future top feminist into her Playboy Bunny costume?—?it was so tight it hurt?—?and stuffed her bra with a dry-cleaning bag to give her cleavage more va-va-voom. Gloria Steinem was working undercover on the biggest story of her young career.
For the past few months, Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner had published monthly essays he called the “Emancipation Proclamation of the sexual revolution.” Steinem, a 28-year-old reporter and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Smith College, smelled bullshit in his comparison between the porn mag and Lincoln’s liberation of the slaves. She decided to expose “Hef” by infiltrating the public face of his sexy media empire: the Playboy Club.
It’s hard to picture this today, but in 1963, Playboy Clubs were sophisticated attractions in Chicago, New York, Miami and other cities. The Beatles went there, and men on the street gawked through glass-fronted facades at the Bunnies flitting about in their skimpy costumes.
The New York club’s job ad proclaimed, “Attractive young girls can now earn $200-$300 a week,” twice the pay of a waitress. Bunnies “enjoy the glamorous and exciting aura of show business…the Playboy Club is the stage?—?the Bunnies are the stars.” Playboy called it the “top job in the country for a young girl.”
To find out, Steinem crafted a fake identity. “Marie Catherine Ochs” was 24 and worked as a secretary at the foundation Steinem was director of. It worked?—?Steinem was an ex-beauty queen, and the Playboy Club loved her.
Her costume was “two inches smaller than any of my measurements everywhere except the bust…so tight that the zipper caught my skin…The bottom was cut up so high that it left my hip bones exposed as well as a good 5 inches of untanned derriere.” Steinem lost 10 pounds after just a few days’ work. But just as her suit was starting to feel more comfortable, the seamstress cut 2 more inches off each side.
Unlike the high polish of the club’s public areas, the Bunnies’ backstage was cold cement floors and inadequate heating. Bunnies who sneezed tore their costumes: “Girls with colds usually have to be replaced,” the seamstress said.
Bunnies paid for their own false eyelashes, $5 for tights and $2.50 a day to clean their costumes. Then there was the demerit system. Messy hair, nails or makeup cost five demerits each. The one meal of the day was a lousy brown stew, so most Bunnies sneaked food from the buffet. Eating or gum-chewing on duty cost “10 demerits for the first offense, 20 for second and dismissal for the third.”
Lateness cost a demerit a minute. Failing to follow instructions cost 15. At $2.50 each, demerits added up fast.
The club hired undercover detectives to check Bunny costumes for dirtiness. Hefner also told the agency’s “most attractive and personable male representatives” to offer Bunnies up to $200 to go home with them. Any Bunny who accepted was fired. They weren’t supposed to date guests.
Unless those guests were senior members, that is. Bunnies were actively encouraged to date “Number One Keyholders”?—?mostly prominent journalists, but also the Club’s management.
A Bunny who sued the club for misrepresentation and back tips told reporters she’d gotten death threats. When a bunch of Bunnies tried to strike for better pay, the club said they’d simply replace them.
In her two weeks at the club, Steinem lost weight, added half a shoe size?—?permanently?—?from walking in 3-inch heels, and only met one girl who earned the promised $200. Most earned far less.
Hefner’s “sexual revolution” was just good old-fashioned exploitation of women.
A magazine called Show published Steinem’s two–part article in May 1963. For weeks after, a man made “obscene and threatening” phone calls to her. Playboy even sued her for $1 million, after a newspaper quoted her in a piece accusing the club’s owner of Mafia ties. She hadn’t made such allegations and calls it harassment. (The paper settled without mention of Steinem.)
For a time, she was unable to get serious journalistic assignments: “I had now become a Bunny?—?and it didn’t matter why.”
Of course, Steinem went on to become an author and feminist icon. Kirstie Alley even played her in the 1985 film adaptation “A Bunny’s Tale.” But Playboy never forgot. It continually republished her Bunny pics, as well as a 1984 “nip-slip” it got its hands on.
At least other Bunnies appreciated Steinem’s work and contacted her over the years. Two said they’d complained about sexual exploitation or tried to unionize?—?and were told they’d have acid thrown in their faces.
Steinem also deserves credit for pioneering gonzo journalism a full 3 years before Hunter S. Thompson?—?who is credited with inventing it?—?went undercover with the Hell’s Angels. And today, journalism schools teach Steinem’s article as a textbook example of undercover reporting.