Gloria Steinem Got Her Start As An Undercover Playboy Bunny
In 1963, Gloria Steinem's expose "A Bunny's Tale," was published in Show magazine. The article lifted the curtain on one of the most legendary nightlife establishments of the 20th century -- the Playboy Club. Written in the form of diary entries, the multi-part article details the ho-hum drudgery of a table-waiting job that will be familiar to anyone who's ever worked minimum wage in a goofy outfit, to the body horror and nickel-and-diming perpetrated against the young women who saw the Playboy Club as an opportunity at good money and an entree into the world of modeling. Steinem's expose didn't bring down Playboy and it didn't turn her into an overnight sensation, but it did help bring about necessary changes in an exploitative industry.
Gloria Steinem led the charge for feminism
Before Gloria Steinem was the answer to a question on Jeopardy (I'll take feminism for $200, Alex), she was a young journalist attempting to write about female rights in the early 20th century. Even though she wrote for Help! magazine in 1960, her first "serious assignment" was for Esquire. Initially meant to be an article on contraception, her final piece explored the ways in which women are forced to choose between marriage and a career, a precursor to the women's movement that displayed a canny understanding of gender politics and the kind of writing that people want to see. To follow that up she decided to go undercover at the Playboy Club in New York City.
The Playboy Club was as close as many readers got to the magazine
To be clear, the Playboy Club was not Playboy magazine. The clubs were owned by Hugh Hefner's company but they were staffed with waitresses who applied for jobs like everyone else, not centerfolds in the magazine. The Club was a way for regular people to feel like they were a part of the lifestyle depicted in the magazine, Hefner, and everything that his mid-century sexual revolution promised. Steinem felt that Hefner's version of the sexual revolution was bunk, that it was a one-sided, barely veiled version of misogyny, and she wanted to go to the heart of his enterprise to show off everything that was wrong with the company.
Steinem went undercover as a server at the Playboy Bunny Club in New York City under the name Marie Catherine Ochs, a 24 year old with a painstakingly created backstory. Steinem quickly found that it didn't matter who she was or where she previously worked, as long as she had the right look. In order to get the job Steinem goes through the full job interview, which she's disappointed to learn is just showing up and putting on a costume after filling out some paperwork, and then she's put through the wringer of training, the worst part about any service job whether you're dressed in a skin tight bunny outfit or not.
In her early days of working as a Bunny, Steinem is gleefully surprised at the odd occurrences that happen inside the New York City Playboy club. Zippers break with barely a sneeze, the women amplify their already large busts by stuffing plastic dry-cleaning bags into their cups, and there's a Cold War between the original Chicago Bunnies and the new girls from the Big Apple.
To get into "character" as a Bunny, Steinem has to purchase two pairs of three inch heels and have them dyed to match her costumes, and study something called the "Bunny Bible," a workbook that teaches her the ins and outs of being a the perfect waitress at the Playboy Club.
Steinem discovered that being a Bunny wasn't all it was cracked up to be
Working as a Bunny at the Playboy Club wasn't like working in a mine or anything, for the most part it sounds like any other waitressing or bartending gig, just with a constrictive outfit and an empty space in your wallet where your tips should be. However, Steinem discovered a few dark parts of working for the club that no one should have to go through in order to have a job.
Before spending one moment on the floor, prospective Bunnies are sent to the Playboy Club's doctor for a thorough examination. Steinem writes that not only is it a basic check up, but her blood was drawn to test for venereal diseases and she had to undergo a gynecological examination "for everybody's good." That's not unnecessary to get a job as a waitress, it's straight up invasive.
Steinem also found that a vague form of prostitution was occurring at the Bunny clubs, although it was more oblique than what we normally think of as the normal sex worker/client relationship. She writes that detectives from the Willmark agency (who were hired by Playboy, which forbade Bunny-member extracurriculars) routinely stopped by to ask the bartenders if any of the Bunnies were available to meet outside the club for as much $200 a night. The detectives also made note of any heels that were shorter than three inches or Bunnies who were working with runs in their tights, but it was the low key prostitution that they were really concerned with. However, if the Bunnies were asked out after hours with the inner-circle members who were considered #1 Keyholders, they were encouraged to meet with them.
Steinem had to wait for success following "A Bunny's Tale"
When Steinem's Show expose was released it chipped away at the liberal facade of Hugh Hefner's Playboy enterprise. Hefner may have been breaking racial barriers in his magazine and with the performers at his club, and even funding rape crisis centers through his work, but the club that bore his brand name was also taking 50% of the first $30 in tips from every Bunny every night, 25% from tips that added up to $60, and 5% on tips after that.
After two weeks on the job, Steinem reported that her feet swelled so much in her high heels that they'd permanently grown half a size, and on top of that she was making terrible tips and eating nothing in order to maintain her Bunny weight. Hefner wrote to Steinem saying that he appreciated the honesty in her article and that it inspired him to get rid of the internal physical and blood testing required for Bunnies.
Meanwhile, Steinem's career took a downturn.
Steinem was essentially blacklisted as a journalist for a few years. She says that every one of her pitches were turned down, and the only things offered to her were more articles about her going undercover, although publishers wanted things to be seedier and darker. She told Interview:
It took me a very long time to be glad. 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.
The two part series, "A Bunny's Tale," may have hurt Steinem's career after it was published, but a decade later she created Ms. magazine in order to give female journalists a voice in the male-dominated industry. Of course, she also had to deal with being referred to as "former Playboy Bunny" by everyone intent on taking her down a peg or discounting her writing, but she's taken it in stride on her way to becoming one of the foremost voices in second wave feminism.