It would be hard to argue that any single piece of once-beloved pop culture from the last decade has aged worse in the era of #MeToo than Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines.”
In the instantly iconic music video, Thicke cavorts with a revolving roster of naked women, repeating lyrics that, at the time, made some queasy, but today seem downright objectionable: “I hate these blurred lines/I know you want it/I hate them lines/I know you want it.”
It was more than a little on-the-nose, then, to see Thicke perform the song to an ecstatic crowd at Wednesday night’s opening party for the revived Playboy Club New York—a concept of yore that, with its scantily-clad bunnies dipping down to deliver cocktails to their guests, can also seem a bit out of place in 2018.
The club, which officially opens today, is the only one of its kind in the U.S. (there is a Playboy Club in London). Along with a public restaurant, as well as a space for ticketed live performances and DJs called the Black Box, the club has four members-only lounges and an exclusive, three-tiered subterranean speakeasy called the Rabbit Hole.
Depending on your membership tier—of which there are four, ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 a year—members receive perks such as complimentary stays at the adjacent Cachet Boutique Hotel, chauffeur service to and from the Playboy Club, tickets to Playboy’s infamous Midsummer Night’s Dream party and gambling tokens for Playboy Club London.
Like Soho House, they’ll also launch a members-only app, which people can use to book tables and pre-order drinks. And, lest I forget, every member gets a symbolic golden key (in the old days, members were referred to as “keyholders”).
The original Playboy Club opened in Chicago, in 1960, as a kind of physical home within which the fantasies propagated in the magazine came to life.
At this point, the associations are ingrained in the cultural consciousness: 'Mad Men' in suits; brimming martini glasses; tendrils of cigarette smoke; and, most of all, beautiful woman in skimpy bunny bodysuits, paragons of sex and sophistication.
“My concern with the clubs was, since we were dealing with dreams and fantasies, how could you re-create that in a club atmosphere?” Hugh Hefner is quoted as saying, in Bruce Handy’s oral history of the Playboy Clubs for Vanity Fair. “And whatever we did, would the keyholders be disappointed? What we discovered was exactly the opposite. Because it was Playboy, they brought the fantasy with them.”
In its heyday, from the ‘60s through the mid-‘80s, Playboy operated a total of 33 clubs, both in the U.S. and abroad. The New York outpost closed in 1986, and by the end of the decade, all of the original clubs had shuttered as well. In 2006, Playboy licensed their name to a club in Las Vegas, at the Palms Casino Resort. It closed in 2012.
The new club, located in Midtown, is the first to open under the stewardship of Playboy CEO Ben Kohn and Cooper Hefner, the 27-year-old son of Hugh Hefner who serves as chief creative officer.
Their recent existential crisis is similar to those facing other legacy print publications; its circulation has dropped dramatically from its peak in the mid-‘70s, as it transitions from “a media business to a brand-management company.” But its identity crisis is unique: where does Playboy fit into a world of, on the one hand, Instagram models and internet pornography, and, on the other, #MeToo and calls to the topple the patriarchy?
It’s hard to say. The magazine stopped publishing fully nude women in 2016, only to renege a year later. At the same time, the younger Hefner has made admirable attempts to make Playboy relevant, again.
In the spring of 2017, they published an essay about nudity and equality by Cooper Hefner’s then-fiancé, Scarlett Byrne, alongside her pictorial, entitled, referentially, “The Feminist Mystique.” Later that year, Playboy featured its first-ever transgender playmate, Ines Rau. It also nixed its tagline “Entertainment for men,” replacing it with the more inclusive “Entertainment for all.”
In some ways, Playboy’s central contradiction—between its questionably sexist raison d’être and its ostensibly progressive values—is nothing new.
Hugh Hefner famously championed women’s rights (and gay and civil rights), while objectifying women in the pages of his magazine.
But that was a different time, and the company flourished despite (or because of) these blind spots. Today, his heir faces a different challenge: how to stay “woke” without diminishing the essential, if possibly antiquated, charm for which Playboy is famous.
It’s a challenge that may be playing out in real-time at the new Playboy Club.
“We’ll certainly want to break any perception that it’s a men’s club,” Richie Notar, a Studio 54 alum who serves as the club’s creative director, says. “It’s not like that at all.”
The goal, Notar explains, is to tap into the sophistication the clubs once represented, while ushering it into the future. Thus, there persists the mansion-esque décor, replete with dark red wallpaper, eye-catching chandeliers, gold trim, and black banquettes, alongside a cosmopolitan menu that includes sashimi and “olive-fed” wagyu beef from Japan (the old clubs more or less served roast beef).
Photographs from Hefner’s personal archive appear on numerous TVs. Works of literature—think: Gore Vidal—line the shelves in one of four members-only lounges.
Nearby, a one-of-a-kind French Angel Fish from Brazil swims around a gilded bunny head-shaped reef in a custom-made, 600-gallon aquarium.
All the while, the emblematic Playboy bunnies, sporting a shiny new Roberto Cavalli attachment, perform the same moves documented in Gloria Steinem’s classic 1963 exposé for Show magazine, like “the bunny dip (a back-leaning way of placing drinks on low tables without falling out of our costumes)” and the “bunny stance (a model’s pose with one one hip jutted out).”
“I think all of the Playboy bunnies are really excited and know that it’s a celebrated, iconic outfit,” a spokesperson for the club, told me. “When I was sitting in on the fittings, they were like, ‘I feel like Wonder Woman.’ They feel sexy. They feel very confident.”
Though Notar and New York-based Merchant Hospitality are running the show, Playboy still handles everything bunny-related, from the hiring process to the intensive training. Like the old days, they even have a full-time seamstress on staff.
“They’re extremely heavy-handed,” Notar said, regarding Bunny protocol. “There’s a certain decorum, and that hasn’t changed.”
Some feminists, both then and now, would say that donning the bunny suit is a form of exploitation; others would say it’s empowering. What’s clear from Steinem’s piece is that, for the girls themselves, it was mostly about the money, during a time when it was even harder for women to earn a living equal to men than it is now.
According to a similar exposé in the Independent, wherein writer Emily Shugerman infiltrated a Bunny audition for the new club, that’s still pretty much the case.
“It’s just like any other waitressing job in New York, just in a bodysuit,” one Bunny tells Shugerman. “And you get paid triple.”
Notar is quick to refute the notion that the Bunnies are in any way untoward.
“Check out someone’s phone and tell me that you think that’s not more provocative,” he says. “Don’t take a shot at Playboy. You want to see nudity? That’s the last place you’re probably going to look.”
Indeed, the Bunnies are less risqué than the kind of shot girls you’re likely to see at any Vegas nightclub. And in a world over-saturated with pictures of scantily-clad women, whether it be on Instagram or the internet or HBO, the presence of servers in sexy bodysuits—which was rather subtle, at least last night—is decidedly tame, almost irrelevant.
Notar likens them to “an art piece,” and I kind of have to agree: they are less sex symbols than symbols of sex, titillating not for who they actually are but the world they represent. Naturally, people will be drawn to or repelled by the club on similar grounds—on the basis of the idea of the Playboy Club rather than the club itself.
Last night, the crowd skewed a bit middle-aged-white-male (I mistook several men for Michael Douglas), though it was relatively age-agnostic.
In the lounge, the music—a fun mix of mostly oldies—was blasting, the vibe chummy yet casual, more Mad Men than Eyes Wide Shut; surreptitiously hitting one’s Juul while scrolling through Instagram appeared to have replaced smoking Lucky Strikes while stirring one’s martini.
When Thicke came out to perform in the clubbier Black Box, he reminded me of an MC at a rich kid’s bar mitzvah reception, at the point in the night when all the tweens are dancing and the parents have decided to let loose.
The women at the club were just as, if not more, inclined to pose for photos with the Bunnies, who were friendly but not inordinately so.
Whether the club itself—and the lifestyle it implies—will appeal to younger, more luxury-averse consumers, remains to be seen.
Urban clubs such as the Wing and Soho House are becoming increasingly popular amongst millennials, yet their draw has more to do with careerism than leisure—perfect for a generation who, with iPhones, Slack and the gig economy, entered the workforce without a physical distinction between work and play. On the contrary, country clubs are seemingly less attractive, due to illogical fees, old-fashioned rules and an emphasis on golf.
The Playboy Club would like to land closer to the Soho House end of the spectrum.
“I envision an up-and-coming artist in his twenties from downtown sitting next to a tech-y billionaire and exchanging ideas,” Notar said.
He also envisions a comeback for the kind of glamor associated with his halcyon days at Studio 54.
“I’m kind of done sitting on a reclaimed barn door where they don’t take reservations. Sometimes in New York City, you want to dress up a bit. You want to feel like you’ve gone out. You come here and it’s ‘bring your game.’ Bring your game.”