At 85, original playboy Hugh Hefner is a real Energizer bunny

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I’m not quite ready to declare Hugh Hefner the new
Betty White, but for an 85-year-old guy who spends most of the day in
his PJs, he’s having an interesting year:

—In
January, the Playboy founder took his struggling company private,
decades after giving up financial control of the empire that now
includes a nearly 60-year-old magazine, Playboy TV and other adult
entertainment properties and a licensing division responsible for seeing
that Playboy gets paid every time its iconic bunny logo gets slapped on
another T-shirt or tchotchke.

—In May, NBC
announced that its fall lineup would include “The Playboy Club,” a drama
set in the 1960s inside the Chicago nightclub that launched a worldwide
chain — one Hefner’s now attempting to revive, with new Playboy clubs
having recently opened in Las Vegas and London. Hefner narrates the
first episode and will be represented in the series, which premieres
Sept. 19, by an actor shown only from the back.

—In
July, Hefner’s sex life — or what might or might not remain of it —
made headlines everywhere from TMZ.com to the Times of India, after his
six-decades-younger bride-to-be, Crystal Harris, who’d jilted him a few
days before their much-hyped wedding, told Howard Stern’s radio
listeners that sex between her and Hef lasted “like two seconds,”
happened only once and that she’d never seen the Playboy mogul naked.

Later,
she’d apologize, saying Stern had rattled her, and the former couple’s
brief war of words on Twitter grabbed still more headlines.

—Hefner,
for whom E!’s “reality” show “The Girls Next Door” has acted like
Viagra on his public image, also helped Lifetime turn its planned
program on his wedding into “Hef’s Runaway Bride,” a July 19 special in
which he got to appear both wistful and philosophical inside the mansion
while Harris — whose interview about what went wrong appears to have
been conducted on the grounds of the same house she’d so recently fled —
came off as the heavy.

Which, if you think about it too long, is only going to make your head hurt.

Ten
days after that bit of theater aired, I found myself strolling the
Playboy Mansion grounds in Los Angeles’ Holmby Hills — talk about words I
never expected to write — trying to figure out why so many have been
intrigued for so long by a place that looks like a cross between a
children’s zoo and the setting for a slightly upscale miniature golf
course.

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

Sure,
the peacocks were lovely, the monkeys a curiosity. But a room packed
with arcade games looked as if it might have been transported from a
summer camp, and a different sort of game room nearby — with a padded
floor, conveniently placed boxes of tissues and a surprising number of
electrical outlets — seemed, well, retro-creepy.

Ducking
inside the infamous grotto, I tried not to touch anything, or breathe
too deeply, reminded by other visitors that the hot tub had been
implicated in a suspected outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in February.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

The
man of the mansion was represented only by a life-size cardboard cutout
at the party, hosted by Playboy TV for visiting TV critics. But then
Tuesday’s said to be Hefner’s game night (we’re apparently talking Uno,
not strip poker) and how could professional couch potatoes hope to
compete with card-playing Playmates?

One person
who was present in the flesh: self-proclaimed supermodel and “reality”
show regular Janice Dickinson, buttonholing reporters to talk up her
participation in Playboy TV’s “Celebrity Sex Tales,” a gig she said she
took because her 17-year-old daughter has her eyes on Harvard.

“It’s
a bunch of women talking to me about my fabulous life,” with the
particularly fabulous bits re-created in animation, said Dickinson,
who’ll be dishing about a past that includes actors Sylvester Stallone,
Jack Nicholson and Liam Neeson. “It’s really interesting, for the
average woman to hear about, the racy stuff that I’ve done in my past,
when I was single, and the men were single.”

The
fifty-something Dickinson said she hadn’t been to Hef’s house since her
early days as a model, but thinks she understands the continuing appeal
of Playboy.

“Girls hopping around with ears and breasts hanging out, with their little cotton tails,” she said.

“Young
girls flirting with old men. You know, when the Playboy Club first
opened back in the (‘60s), it was a big sensation. Hugh Hefner has done
everything to revolutionize sex, you know, sex for housewives … I have
this huge, leather-bound book cover that has every Playmate and the
cover of every centerfold, I bought that for my son when he was 18, I
figured that’d be a nice coffee table book. It represents sex.”

But does Playboy still represent sex?

Online
pornography long ago made the magazine’s nude pictorials seem curiously
quaint, to the point where most of the people still buying it probably
ARE reading it for the articles. In 1972, its circulation peaked at 7.1
million. Last October, it was reported to be 1.5 million.

As
for Hefner, whose airbrushed Playmates promise a fantasy of pore-free
perfection, in embracing “reality” TV, he’s not only made it evident
that being one of his “girlfriends” is at least as much a real job as
being Donald Trump’s “apprentice,” he’s also helped pull back the
curtain on just what’s involved in producing their cookie-cutter look,
from waxing to hair extensions.

Do guys even want to know what it takes to assemble a Playmate? Maybe not.

“When
E! put ‘Girls Next Door’ on the channel, I think they were expecting
that would be a guy show. But it ended up not being so much. I think 70
percent of their viewing audience was women,” said Playboy TV marketing
exec Gary Rosenson during a press conference in January where he talked
about his own channel’s efforts to attract more women. (Why? Maybe
because these days, it takes two incomes to pay the cable bill.)

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Those
efforts include “TV for 2” shows aimed at couples, including “Brooklyn
Kinda Love,” a “reality” show from the producers of HBO’s “Taxicab
Confessions” that followed four New York couples right into their
bedrooms.

Pores and all.

That’s
not the kind of thing, of course, that we’ll be seeing on “The Playboy
Club,” which NBC entertainment president Robert Greenblatt likes to
describe as “an energized soap opera.”

Greenblatt,
who used to run Showtime, may resist comparisons to AMC’s “Mad Men,”
but acknowledged that he probably wouldn’t have been attracted to a show
set in a contemporary Playboy Club.

“I think it’s interesting to go back to the beginning,” he said.

Greenblatt’s take on our pop culture’s continued fascination with Hefner:

“I
just think he’s a maverick and he has, you know, done so many
extraordinary things — landing that magazine when he did, going through
all those First Amendment issues, fighting for diversity in his
companies and at the same time creating fantasy worlds. He’s an
interesting confluence of things that seem to be in opposition. But he’s
brought them together …

“I think the magazine’s
probably the least interesting aspect of the whole empire, because it’s
been around so long. But the reality show on E!, and he’s actually
bringing Playboy clubs back … I don’t know, he just keeps on having
another life, I guess.”

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

And not surprisingly, it’s a life feminist Gloria Steinem still can’t appreciate.

“If
I had made him up, they would hang me from the highest tree,” she said
of Hefner during a recent HBO press conference on a documentary,
“Gloria: In Her Own Words,” that included the iconic feminist’s 1960s
stint as an undercover Playboy Club bunny and the subsequent magazine
piece in which she exposed some of the indignities suffered by the
cotton-tailed waitresses.

Asked why she thought people would still be watching Hefner’s antics on television, she replied:

“People watch train wrecks, too.”

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©2011 the Philadelphia Daily News

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