A Brief Look At Playboy's History Of Diversity & Inclusivity

Photo: RICH SCHMITT/AFP/Getty Images.
The king is dead. Hugh Hefner, who reigned over a his own kingdom of human bunnies and the media empire known as Playboy, has died at the age of 91. He died at his home, the infamous Playboy mansion that was sold some time last year, under the condition that he could still live there as long as he wished. It’s not surprising that Hefner would make such a request when the mansion, his own personal palace, has become synonymous with the sexy brand he created more than half a century ago. Hefner’s legacy — one of hedonism, luxe robes, and famously nude women — is deeply entrenched in the American history and pop culture. We can credit him for everything from the iconic pairing of bunny ears and bowties to this gif of Kris Jenner being really reassuring. But while we remember his role as a purveyor of soft porn, it’s also worth exploring how he made sure that world was inclusive and diverse.
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Dozens of women of color have been bestowed with the prestigious title of Playmate as documented in the monthly Playboy magazine. However, with over 600 Playmates in the history of Playboy, women of color definitely still represent a minority among Hefner’s chosen few. And I can think of a lot of reasons for it. Racist standards of beauty are among them, but so are respectability standards that make it much riskier for women of color to proudly put it all on display for the world to see. Nevertheless, Playboy’s first Black cover girl, Darine Stern graced the cover in 1971 with a huge afro during a time where Black power was very much still a fringe movement.
Since then a number of notable Black actresses, models, singers, and rappers have graced Playboy's cover — Mariah Carey, Naomi Campbell, Tinashe, and even Azealia Banks among them. And that’s not the only way Hefner and his brand has co-mingled with hip-hop. One of my favorite episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the one where Hilary Banks (Karyn Parsons) is approached to pose for a fictional weather girl edition of the magazine. Hefner appearing next to a then-rapper Will Smith and DJ Jazzy on the sitcom was just one example of how the icon is revered by the community. You can imagine how his lifestyle — one with wealth and sex constantly within in reach — synced up some of the more popular moors of contemporary hip-hop. Today, in the wake of his death, he is being mourned by everyone from Questlove to Diddy.
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But in the spirit of giving credit where it is due, Hefner’s biggest contribution on behalf of people of color was not his ability to inspire rappers to want a selfie with him. In the 1960s, when the racial landscape of the country was even more strained than it is now, Hefner made room for the controversial opinions of Black thinkers like Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali, launching the career of famed Roots writer Alex Haley. The longest press interview that Martin Luther King Jr. granted to any publication was the one he gave to Haley at Playboy. Malcolm X was another prominent figure in Haley’s interview series.
We can debate all day about whether Hefner did or did not objectify women; if he perpetuated the male gaze or helped it evolve; whether he empowered women to embrace their sexuality or capitalized off it. I think the truth lies in the grey areas of each of these binaries. And that’s also how he will be memorialized, as a man preoccupied with pleasures of both the flesh and his conscience.
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