Forty years after the famous Park Lane club closed its doors for the last time, former bunnies tell Kate Thompson how, contrary to the louche image, its strict code of conduct and work ethic were the making of them.
Few images go to the heart of the Swinging 60s London scene like that of a beautiful young woman in a high-cut corset with cantilevered bosom and a pair of bunny ears.
For critics, it is the ultimate symbol of a sexist society. The girls were victims, they say, drawn to the club by the bright lights and famous punters, then exploited and dumped when they lost their looks. The women (now in their 60s and 70s) who worked there in the first decades of the club’s life, however, tell a different story. They say it gave them levels of pay, respect and training that were unprecedented at the time. So what’s life after being a Playboy Bunny really like?
‘I took the skills I honed as a bunny into my work helping troubled kids’
Mari Martin, 71, from North London
After leaving my convent school, I moved from rural Sussex to London in 1969 to attend the respectable Queen’s Secretarial College in South Kensington. Once I had finished my year’s course, I began working as a secretary. Then a girlfriend told me about this amazing job she had working as a bunny girl. She had transformed into this incredible glamourpuss and I thought to myself: ‘Ooh, I’d like that.’ So off I went for an interview, aged 23, and got the job.
My father worked with the United Nations and I knew he wouldn’t approve of my new career – it wasn’t what ‘nice girls’ did – so I kept ‘Lara’ (the name I picked when I worked as a bunny because my favourite film at the time was Dr Zhivago) a secret from him.
The training was rigorous. I had to pass a police check and take a maths test. We were inspected top-to-toe to make sure we were perfect before we hit the floor; we were part of the Playboy brand, after all.
Because I scored 100 per cent in my maths test they trained me to be a croupier. We were tested weekly and if you weren’t fast or accurate enough you were ousted. ‘Bunny mothers’ gave advice and maintained discipline, issuing ‘demerits’ (ie, fines) for misdemeanours ranging from sloppy service to bad posture. One of them once said to me: ‘You may have been the prettiest girl in your village but here you are just one of many.’
I worked hard to prove myself, starting on the night shifts. I saw it as a performance. From the moment I put on my red satin costume and stepped on to the casino floor, I was ‘on’! It was the place to be. My highlight was dealing blackjack to Arthur Ashe the night before he won Wimbledon.
Playboy deliberately didn’t want its bunny girls to be sexually provocative. We were to be approachable, wholesome, the girl next door. I loved the cross-section of society there. I worked alongside a vicar’s daughter and a girl who used to sell knickers on a market stall. There was wonderful camaraderie; it wasn’t that far removed from my convent school!
The country wasn’t as diverse back then. As a woman from a Sri Lankan background, I knew I was being given a good opportunity to progress. Playboy was ahead of the times in terms of equality. I was sent on a management training course and learnt so many skills, not least in customer service.
Those skills stood me in good stead when Playboy London closed and I had to go out into the world. By now I was dating the man who would become my husband, Tony, who also worked in the Playboy casino.
I had a wide variety of jobs after that, had my daughter, now aged 37, and son, who is 30. I even went to university aged 50 to do a degree in film and women’s studies: I took in my costume to show the hardened feminists. I said that I chose to do it and it empowered me.
It wasn’t until I began to work with young offenders in 2003, aged 52, that I really started to use those skills that I had honed at Playboy. In the club I regularly had to defuse situations, for example when a client was losing a lot of money. It taught me how to show empathy and understand human behaviour.
When I worked as the restorative justice coordinator for one of the London boroughs I used the same techniques, trying to help troubled kids to understand the impact of their crimes on their victims.
I helped set up a pioneering scheme where the young perpetrators of criminal actions were brought together with their victims – and I even made a film about it, called Time to Talk, Time to Listen, which won a Youth Justice Board award in 2005.
I retired in 2015 when I was 65, proud of what I’d achieved. Would I have led such a rich and varied life if I’d stayed working as a secretary?
‘No one believed a bunny could run a pub’
Barbara Haigh, 72, from North London
In January 1971, aged 21, I moved to London to work as a bunny girl. My father, who was a chief superintendent with Liverpool’s police force, was dismayed. ‘You’ll be back in two weeks,’ he told me.
The rules were tough and girls were lined up on parade every few months. If anyone had put on weight they were sent away to lose the unwanted pounds. Despite this, I had the time of my life working at Playboy and made some fantastic lifelong friends.
They were wild and crazy times. Bunnies were treated like royalty. We were automatically made members of the best nightspots in town, like the discos La Valbonne, Toto’s and Trader Vic’s, where we always got the red-carpet treatment.
I met John Wayne, told off Dustin Hoffman for putting his feet on the furniture and turned down Omar Sharif. The money was fantastic. We earned about £35 a week – almost double the average wage at the time – with at least another £75 a month from a bonus scheme, based on performance and hours worked.
I worked hard, saved most of my wages and, thanks in part to some inheritance money, was able to get a mortgage without my father standing as guarantor. (As late as the 1970s, working women were routinely refused mortgages in their own right.) In 1976, at 26, I bought a flat in Maida Vale, North London.
After working as a cocktail and croupier bunny for eight years, I was promoted to the role of room director. I would run the disco one night, reception the next and even the Playmate Bar, all with a brigade of bunnies working under me. Contrary to the stereotype, the club was not a sexist environment. There was a strict no-touching policy and we were always treated with respect. I actually found being a bunny an incredibly empowering experience. What other job in the 1970s would have given me the opportunity to buy my own home?
Which is why it came as some surprise to encounter misogyny in my next line of work. When the bunny empire crumbled in 1982 after they lost their gaming licence, I entered the pub hospitality trade. Publicans and men in the industry in the 1980s couldn’t believe a former bunny girl could run a pub and, what’s more, make a damn good job of it. Women were only in that industry as ‘the guv’nor’s wife’. They were never licensees and were usually paid an ‘honorarium’ (or token payment) for working for their husbands – a disgrace!
In 1995, I became manager of historic pub The Grapes in Limehouse, East London. I fought management in the brewery to get that position and was something of a maverick because a single, female licensee was a rarity. I had to work twice as hard as my male counterparts. I won an award for customer service and went on to win different awards and qualifications for cellar management. I became a Fellow of The British Institute of Innkeeping and a ‘Lady Master’ in the Burton Ale Guild of Master Cellarmen.
In 2006, after managing the pub for 12 years, I bought a 25-year lease to become its owner. The following year I won Pub of the Year at The Publican Pub Food Awards. In 2011, after being at The Grapes for 17 years, I sold the remaining lease to Sir Ian McKellen. The skills and street wisdom, but most importantly the training in customer service, were all things I had learned at the university of Playboy.
‘Working for Playboy helped me become a celebrant’
Gwen Rule, 63, from Southeast London
In 1977, aged 18, I was spotted working at Barclays Bank opposite the famous Park Lane club, and was asked to become a Playboy Bunny. I tripled my wages in the process. Apparently the club’s general manager had heard me chatting to bank customers and liked me.
When I told my mum I’d got a job working as a bunny girl she went crazy and cried her eyes out. At the time, everyone thought they were loose women.
Being a chatty, extrovert sort, I was put on reception so I saw everyone who came into the club and I had to remember all of their names. The job gave me so much confidence. I was treated very well. We ate at all the best restaurants and bought our clothes on Bond Street. It was such a fun time. Everywhere we went, doors opened. We were the It-girls.
I was one of six black bunnies at the club. Being a girl of colour, I was often chosen to be a representative and was flown to Madrid to take part in Playboy fashion shows, or taken for trips to Ascot in a helicopter.
The sexism was worse than the racism. The male waiters at Playboy would tell you to f*** off if orders weren’t correct. But for all that, it was exciting. I met Muhammad Ali. And we hosted a party for Roger Moore when he appeared as 007 in Moonraker – we all had to wear silver costumes.
I started to conduct funerals and weddings in 2012 after setting up my own business. Having worked reception at Playboy for so many years, I had got used to listening to people, paying attention, being able to empathise with people very quickly and gain their trust, as well as being diplomatic and sensitive. All of which were transferable skills for my new life as a celebrant.
I’ve had some heart-wrenching moments, such as conducting funerals for babies and children, but it’s my job to remain professional and caring. I couldn’t have dealt with the intensity of people’s grief or anger had I not had the life experience at Playboy.
I’ve retired now, but I stay in touch with many of the bunnies I worked with. They’re all strong, intelligent women who were able to set their lives up off the back of Playboy. That experience gave me the belief that if I wanted something and worked hard for it, I could achieve anything.
‘As bunny girls we were the early pioneers of equality’
Joan Lawrence, 76, from Sidcup, Kent
‘Croupiers wanted, salary £35 a week.’ When my girlfriend spotted the ad in the Evening Standard in 1967, I had no idea what a croupier even was, but I did know what an incredible salary that was. Options for women to earn decent wages in the 60s were virtually nonexistent.
Growing up in Kent, the daughter of a construction manager, I had been raised to believe that nothing was handed to you on a plate. So from the day I started at Playboy I worked my collar and cuffs off.
I had a husband and four-year-old daughter Tracey, so working nights – midnight to 8am – suited me, as I could clock off from the casino and then take her to school.
I was 24 when I put on my hand-stitched bunny costume for the first time. Fortunately, being young I didn’t need to count the calories, nor did I need much sleep. The atmosphere in the club was electric and the casino was packed every night. Celebrities mixed with high-rollers and Arab millionaires, and I grew to love working at the roulette table or dealing cards for blackjack. This was the 60s after all, and people partied hard. On occasions, the other bunnies and I would head to Tramp and dance the night away in Biba hotpants and thigh-high suede boots.
Playboy’s vice-president William Gerhauser was visionary. He understood a bunny’s working life was short, so we enjoyed an amazing tips system and good pensions, paid out when the girls turned 50. When I was offered the chance to progress I grabbed it with both hands and, in 1974, I made history by becoming the first woman to be granted a casino manager’s licence. I felt incredibly proud to be a pioneer. Playboy paid for me to have a black satin suit custom made in Savile Row and gave me an exceptional pay increase. I was on my way.
When the Playboy Club closed, my professional reputation in the casino world meant I could walk into another position at a Mayfair casino. I worked my way up the ladder, eventually becoming executive director of Crockfords Club Casino, a prestigious establishment in Mayfair, with more than 100 people working under me.
The job at Playboy changed my life and enabled me to travel the world, buy my own home and become financially independent. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth and I had to work hard to achieve these things. It opened the door to a world of opportunities that were unheard of in those days. We were the early pioneers of equality.
I retired in 2019 and my life is quieter these days, walking my dogs and meeting with old friends from my Playboy days. We’re now ladies who lunch, courtesy of our Playboy pensions!