Interview: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Two members of the team, Laremy Legel and Chelsia Hart, recently had a chat with the legendary Hugh Hefner. The occasion? A documentary called Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, which is set to be screened at the Seattle International Film Festival. The topics broached were wide-ranging and included relationships, Tiger Woods, Casablanca, and Marilyn Monroe. Enjoy!

First off, thanks for saving the Hollywood sign!

Hugh Hefner: Well, as you probably know, this is the second time around for us. Back in '78 I was distressed that the Hollywood studios were not taking care of business, not taking care of the sign. So I was happy to be able to do something about it.

What do you make of the latest Marilyn Monroe biopic, the one that hints at a conspiracy around her death?

HH: Well, that's obviously exploitation. It's a way to sell tickets, but it doesn't have much to do with reality.

Do you feel like sexuality ebbs and flows within a culture? And can you ever see it going back to the place it was when you were getting started launching the magazine?

HH: I think it's always possible; life and values do run in cycles. But what would make it very difficult to take society back to a repressive time would be technology. The arrival of the Internet. Television, cable, the Internet, that's knocked the boundaries down. So it's very difficult to censor anything anymore.

This documentary is really honest, and a few of your vocal critics are represented here too.

HH: It was her [Brigitte Berman] film, and she could tell the story the way it should be told.

Was it tough to see vehement criticism of your work?

HH: Well, it depends on who they are. For the more sincere people, I feel sorry for them. Particularly within the women's movement, the anti-sexual or anti-Playboy movement is misguided and unfortunate. Playboy, very clearly, from the outset, has fought against the historical repression of women. The notion that we were anywhere else simply defies the reality.

On the other hand, the notion that Playboy exploited women, because we showed them in beautiful photographs, sexually oriented, strikes me as rather bizarre. It is the beauty of women, and the fact that they are the focus, that they are sex objects in a positive sense, is the reason we have civilization. It's why we have a second generation. It's women who have embraced their own sexuality, it's why women wear makeup, it's why they wear high heels. It's what civilization is all about.

In watching this documentary it becomes clear that you were at the forefront of so many social movements. Civil rights, women's rights, the repeal of disproportionate drug laws, archaic sodomy laws, same sex rights. Do you get enough credit for the work you've done? Or is it overshadowed by your personal life?

HH: No, I've never gotten enough credit! [laughs] I do think the reality is, there is a general recognition of what I've accomplished. But, as I've said many times, my life is like a Rorschach test. People project their own dreams, fantasies, and prejudices onto my life. So people are either fans, or jealous, or disagree. Everybody marches to a different drummer. So if I hadn't courted controversy I wouldn't be here today. That's part of what it was all about, to try and change the hurtful values. I was raised in a truly typical Midwestern home with a lot of repression. My life, and the creation of Playboy, were a response to that repression. I tried to make some difference, and I think I managed to do that.

So you're back to being a one-woman man. How's that going?

HH: Right now, it's pretty super. Remember, I was married for eight years, and went with Kim Conrad for 10 years in a relationship that ended in marriage. I wasn't very happy in that one. Afterward, when they asked me if it was more difficult to get along with three girlfriends, I said it was easier than one wife. But it depends who the woman is. I'm in a single relationship now with Crystal Harris, who is totally devoted, and I'm devoted to her. It's as happy a time in my life as I've ever had. I feel very fortunate.

It would be accurate to say you usually remain friends even after a breakup, right?

HH: I'm friends with almost all of them. I feel saddened when people who have major friendships or marriages wind up on the outs. Because I think you lose a little piece of yourself. I remain good friends with most of the major relationships in my life.

Your television show was interracial long before that had mainstream acceptance. Did you do that to make a point, or because it didn't occur to you that certain people would be disapproving?

HH: I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. I knew we wouldn't get any advertising or distribution in the south for Playboy's Penthouse, and that cost us a great deal of money. But I knew it was the right thing to do.

In the documentary you mention how silly it is that we inhabit a world where sex, not violence, is the bad guy. Do you see that changing?

HH: No. Sadly, no. Not in our culture. In that context America is just as much to blame as a lot of our enemies.

You produced Polanski's MacBeth. As a film lover, why weren't you involved in more Hollywood productions?

HH: We got sidetracked on other things. In the '80s and '90s we started to have economic problems because society became more conservative. So we didn't have the wherewithal for expanding to other areas.

Your top three films of all time?

HH: Without question, number one would be Casablanca. We run it every year on my birthday weekend. For number two and three I'd probably go down my Bogart list, Maltese Falcon and To Have and Have Not.

Your favorite meal?

HH: Probably some fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy. My folks were farm people from Nebraska, so I like home cooking.

I believe Playboy is scheduled to have one of Tiger's mistresses on the cover. What's your take on what should be private versus what should be fair game in a celebrity's life?

HH: Well, if you're in the public eye it's a given. Particularly in a case like Tiger's where his private life wasn't private. In a very real sense it defined who he is.

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