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That time Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny

After the feminist hero gets noted as a NYFW inspiration, we revisit the time she swapped marches for Martinis in a stint at the infamous gentleman’s club

At least for this season, Prabal Gurung’s vision of “modern feminism” is high femininity. During his SS17 show on Sunday, Gurung sent models power-flouncing down the runway in floor-length bias-cut silk and off-the-shoulder cashmere. The girl power quotes he embroidered and printed on some of the pieces could double as taglines for the show itself: “They threw things at me then but they were not roses,” “Our backs tell the story no books have the spine to carry.” Celebrating “the complexity of a woman layered far beneath surface beauty,” Gurung identified two muses for his collection: his mother, and Gloria Steinem.  

Clearly, he did his homework. As an emerging voice in feminism and politics, Steinem struggled to be taken seriously because of her beauty. Although it made her a palatable, mainstream-friendly face of feminism – humor instead of hysteria, good hair, better figure, bra decidedly unburnt – it got interviewers calling her a “stunning sex object” and editors refusing to hire her because “We don’t want a pretty girl. We want a writer.” Fed up, she exorcised all traces of glamour from her closet and refused to opine on women’s appearances for about two decades. But before Gloria Steinem became Gloria Steinem, she was a freelance writer who scored the ultimate scoop as an undercover Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club in 1963. Ironically, it was those accursed, patriarchy-approved looks that helped her pass the Bunny try-outs where other journalists had failed, resulting in the most famous exposé of Playboy ever written. Here, we take a look back at the investigative journalism piece that jumpstarted Gloria Steinem’s ascent and its lesser known fallout.


Steinem only spent around two weeks actually working as a Bunny as the penned the piece for Show magazine, but by the end, her feet had permanently grown half a size. Which was better than several sizes, as one doctor cheerfully told her to expect with this kind of work. “They ache like teeth and are so swollen I can’t get sneakers on,” she said after her first night in the required heels. Immobile, the costumes were merely painful, but after five-hour shifts of serving customers, they revealed themselves as torture devices. Bunnies had to wear heels at least three inches high and corsets at least two inches too small everywhere except the bust, which came only with D-cups.

This meant “just about everybody” stuffed to enhance their cleavage – with dry cleaning bags, mutilated Bunny tails (dubbed “puffs of chastity” by Norman Mailer), Kotex halves, gym socks, and money (both paper and coin) being just a taste of the crap they squirreled under their breasts like some grotesque disappearing act. The corsets were so tight a sneeze could literally break the zipper, a phenomenon Steinem witnessed during try-outs. (The ominous response: “Girls with colds usually have to be replaced.”) When the Bunnies finally peeled off the corsets, the stays and zips had reduced their flesh into something that looked suspiciously like roast beef, the only food they served on the menu. “A lot of girls say their legs get numb from the knee up,” one Bunny told Steinem. “I think it presses on a nerve or something.” By the end of her Bunny tenure, Steinem had lost 10 pounds (half in one night). The costume manager celebrated by immediately marking her costume to be tightened another two inches.

“Although it made her a palatable, mainstream-friendly face of feminism – humor instead of hysteria, good hair, better figure, bra decidedly unburnt – Steinem’s looks got interviewers calling her a “stunning sex object” and editors refusing to hire her because “We don’t want a pretty girl. We want a writer.”


Steinem’s piece is remembered for exposing the rampant sexism and casual dehumanisation Bunnies faced, but she also unwittingly revealed how “profoundly tacky” and vastly overrated the Playboy Club was, even for men. Ads for the Club promised Playboy magazine IRL while Hugh Hefner called his monthly essays “the Emancipation Proclamation of the sexual revolution,” but reality didn’t come close for most customers. Bunnies had to go to great lengths to maintain the illusion of availability, fawning over the clientele in ways permitted by a script and pretending they were single even when outside of the club. “Men are very excited about being in the company of Elizabeth Taylor, but they know they can’t paw or proposition her,” intoned the Bunny Manual. “The moment they felt they could become familiar with her, she would not have the aura of glamor that now surrounds her.” Which was really just an exceedingly obnoxious rewording of the rule Bunnies learned to utter reflexively, “Sir, you are not allowed to touch the Bunnies.”

The Playboy Club strictly enforced this with undercover detectives who would offer hundreds of dollars in exchange for sex, immediately firing any Bunny naïve enough to accept. At the same time, every Bunny went through a blood test and internal physical to check for STIs, and “dates” with Number One Keyholders were not only permitted, but expected. The rest of the men had to make do with glorified catcalling, with one customer angrily retorting “What do you think I come here for, roast beef?” when Steinem rejected his advances. Two years after Steinem’s expose, a columnist attended the opening of the San Francisco club and was sorely unamused. “When I left, my libido still registering zero, I noticed a carful of cops parked across the street, keeping a watchful eye on the club. They’d have been better off casing someplace really racy, like the YMCA.”


Hugh Hefner took Steinem’s article pretty well, all things considering. In the long letter he sent her in response, he said he had no problem with the article at all and credited her with persuading him to abolish the Bunnies’ internal physical and blood test. He recalls himself in the 60s as a liberal “hero” who was very supportive of the women’s movement and just wanted to spark a sexual revolution. But then in 1970, his secretary leaked a memo he penned in response to a feminist march on Playboy mansion: "What I'm interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie (sic) trend that feminism has taken...these chicks are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them.” By 1983, he appeared to have lost the battle, describing the relationship between Playboy and the women’s movement as “hurtful.” “Women are the major beneficiaries of getting rid of the hypocritical old notions about sex," he told People that year. "Now some people are acting as if the sexual revolution was a male plot to get laid. One of the unintended by-products of the women's movement is the association of the erotic impulse with wanting to hurt somebody." 


Mutilation, starvation, prostitution, shit pay, and roast beef. A pretty hideous portrait of Bunny life, or so Steinem thought. But after the article came out, she received letters from women asking for advice on becoming Playboy Bunnies. Playboy insisted her article actually “boosted Bunny recruiting.” And when she tried to pitch more serious articles, she discovered to her horror that she had been blacklisted. People only wanted slutty undercover smut and this time, they wanted it kinky – she was bombarded with request after request to pose as a prostitute in order to shatter prostitution’s oh-so-glamorous and unsullied reputation. It got so bad she had to return the advance for a book deal offering to turn her article into a paperback bodice-ripper. Steinem was officially in ex-Bunny limbo. For decades, Playboy continued to capitalise on photos of her two week Bunny stint and today, conservatives still refer to her as a “former Playboy Bunny.” Although she has long since escaped the Bunny ghetto, “It took me a very long time to be glad,” she told Interview. “At first, it was such a gigantic mistake from a career point of view that I really regretted it… Be warned that if you're a woman journalist and you choose an underground job that's related to sex or looks, you may find it hard to shake the very thing you were exposing.”