Gloria Steinem’s name is synonymous with feminism. On top of being a political activist, she helped create New York and Ms. magazines and is the co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Free to Be Foundation, Women’s Media Center and Women's Action Alliance. Steinem has long been an outspoken voice for women, with famous quotes like, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off,” which was also the title of her 2019 book.
But early in her career, she did the antithesis of what any feminist would do: She stripped down and became a Playboy Bunny.
However, in true Steinem style, it was all in the name of strong journalism with an essential message. She went undercover for Show magazine to expose what it was really like to work at New York City’s famed Playboy Club at 5 East 59th Street. (The original closed in 1986, and a relaunch only lasted from 2018 to 2019).
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What she discovered was a world of stuffed bosoms, low pay and (extremely) high heels, which she documented in a two-part diary-format story that ran in Show’s May 1963 and June 1963 issues, as a story called “A Bunny’s Tale.”
Steinem adopted a fake identity for the story
Responding to an ad looking for girls who were “pretty and personable, between 21 and 24,” she headed to the gaudy venue during an open application session, with the required “swimsuit or leotard” in hand.
Taking on the name of Marie Catherine Ochs, Steinem created a new identity, shedding years off her actual age, and creating a resume filled with waitressing in London and working as a dancer-hostess in Paris. “She shares my apartment, my phone and my measurements,” Steinem wrote in the story. “Though younger than I by four years, Marie celebrates the same birthday and went to the same high school and college. But she wasn’t a slave to academics — not Marie.”
The objectification started the moment she walked into the building when a guard beckoned her with, “Here bunny, bunny, bunny,” and the job interviewer insisting — more than once — that she “take off her coat.”
She was scolded for her age and forced to stuff her costume for extra cleavage
Steinem documented every step of the shallow scrutiny she was put through during the application process, which started with her being told that her fake age of 24 was “awfully old” (she was actually 28 at the time).
Throughout the rounds, she was surrounded by girls “wearing nothing but bikini-style panties” and “lavender satin high heels,” forced to wait hours and have Polaroids taken. Eventually, she made it into a bright satin blue Bunny costume. “It was so tight that the zipper caught my skin as she fastened the back,” Steinem wrote. “She told me to inhale as she zipped again, this time without mishap and stood back to look at me critically. The bottom was cut up so high that it left my hip bone exposed as well as a good five inches of my untanned derriere.”
And that wasn’t it. “The boning in the waist would have made Scarlett O’Hara blanch, and the entire construction tended to push all available flesh up to the bosom.”
While she settled into the newfound curves of her body, the wardrobe mistress stuffed plastic dry cleaning bags into the top of the costume for extra cleavage. Eventually, she learned that other popular items used to stuff included: Kleenex, foam rubber, lamb’s wool, gym socks, silk scarves, Kotex halves and, of course, cut-up Bunny tails.
Apparently, Steinem fit the bunny mold and no actual interviews were needed. She fit the look and was hired. “Hippety-hop, I’m a Bunny!” she quipped.
Steinem had to go through 'Bunny Training'
While some formalities were still being worked out (like being able to produce a copy of a birth certificate and social security number card belonging to “Marie” — which she was able to successfully stall), she had to undergo a medical exam that included an “internal physical.” When she inquired why, she was told, “It’s free and it’s for everybody’s good.”
“It seemed I had spent a good deal of time lately either taking off clothes, waiting or both,” she said of her appointment, which had to be with the Playboy-sanctioned doctor. She also had to get a chest X-ray at the Department of Health.
With the physical checked off, she entered Bunny Training, which included make-up guidance as well as Bunny Bible study, Bunny Mother Lecture, Bunny Father Lecture, Bunny School, floor training and a written test (which she purposefully botched to make it look more authentic and still scored the highest in her class).
She was able to access some of the biggest secrets of the Playboy world
Fully strapped into her Bunny gear, Steinem was able to infiltrate the inner world in a way no one had ever seen. She quickly learned that behind the joyful appearance (“Bunnies must always appear gay and cheerful”) was a system of fear with constant threats of being docked demerits and being exposed by secret shoppers of sorts. A Bunny's pay was also nowhere near the promised $200 to $300 a week, which would be about $1,700 to $2,600 today.
The financial cost of being a Bunny was shocking from the start. They were responsible for buying their own heels, which had to be at least three inches, had to pay $2.50 a day (about $21 today, adjusted for inflation) for their costume’s upkeep and $5 a pair for nylons that had to be disposed of as soon as they had a run in them.
The only reason they were paid $50 a week (about $430) was because of New York City’s minimum wage laws at the time — and much of their tips were taken away. “The Club takes 50 percent of the first $30 worth of those that are charged, 25 percent of amounts up to $60 and 5 percent after that,” for drink orders. “We may keep all cash tips that are given to us in case, but if we indicate any preference for cash tips, we will be fired,” she wrote in her article for Show. And certain roles, like working hat check, didn’t get tips at all.
As a result of those rules, money was often stolen from personal lockers and busboys would make arrangements with Bunnies to snag and split extra cash.
Steinem was able to stay undercover for a month
The low pay heightened the humiliation of being gawked at by men who would offer their hotel room keys or cash in the midst of their alcohol-fueled outings. But no matter what happened, the Bunnies had to stick to the strictly scripted lines and moves. There was the Bunny Stance, “a model’s pose with one hip jutted out,” and the Bunny Dip, a “back-leaning way of placing drinks on low tables without falling out of our costumes.” (“I felt like an idiot,” she wrote when she put the Dip into action.)
Steinem also had to spend countless hours trapped in the uncomfortable uniform. “My feet were still so swollen from the night before that I could barely get my regulation three-inch heels on, and I had gauze wrapped around my middle where the costume had dug in,” she wrote. Even in her brief employment, she went to a chiropodist who worked on “all the Copa girls,” who told her, “In a job like that, your feet are bound to get a few sizes bigger.”
While Steinem constantly feared getting caught for not having proper documentation — or for being spotted by people she knew — she survived about a month as a Bunny undetected.
Her two-part story was so well received that it was seen as a part of a revolution — both as a first-person account by a journalist, as well as a commentary for how Hugh Hefner’s empire looked from the bottom up. The story was adapted into a TV movie in 1985, with Kirstie Alley in the title role, and Steinem herself has republished the piece under the name, “I Was a Playboy Bunny.”