The Mansion Lounge at the Playboy Club [Photo:Steven Gomillion]
On a Wednesday evening a couple of weeks ago, I stood on the corner of Forty-Second Street and Ninth Avenue waiting for a friend. Two middle-age men halted before me, and looked me up and down appraisingly. “Working the corner?” one queried, and his friend let out a snigger. “Sure am,” I said, less assertively than I’d have liked, and then watched as they departed.
Soon after, my companion arrived, and we rushed toward Tenth, late for our dinner booking. We had reserved a spot at the Playboy Club, where, according to the OpenTable app, it was not essential for nonmembers to make reservations: walk-ins were permitted to sit at the bar, as long as they met venue dress codes. But the multistory, fourteen-thousand-square-foot space had opened a mere three weeks before, with its iconic namesake—the media and entertainment giant Playboy Enterprises—touting a triumphant return to the city. Its first club launched in Chicago fifty-eight years ago, spawned thirty now-shuttered American chapters, and the last Manhattan joint closed its doors in 1986. Despite mostly dubious media coverage—the Guardian lamented its comeback as “defying the #MeToo era” and several journalists noted its proximity to the route of January’s Women’s March—we suspected the retro joint might be bustling, though we weren’t sure exactly with whom.
The club’s entrance was opposite a Travelodge Hotel. A long, street-facing window glowed red like some kind of spaceship, like the illuminated storefronts of Amsterdam’s De Wallen district, suggesting an indistinct fantasy within. The doorway was flanked by tall potted firs and security guards in suits. Above, printed on an awning, was a giant rabbit insignia, the same logo that appears on sunglasses, sweatpants, wall calendars, and Zippo lighters, all of which are sold on Playboy’s online store. Its cute, pointed ears were both erect; Hugh Hefner once praised them for their friskiness. The trademark bow tie sat at its neck, as though the suave hare might buy you a drink.
“Welcome ladies,” smiled one guard, having confirmed our reservation. We were beckoned through a pitch-black hallway peppered with photos from the club’s heyday. It opened out to a cocktail bar and dining room—the only areas accessible to those without annual memberships. In this dark, nightclub setting, rabbit heads were everywhere: emblazoned across the large, peach-hued screen adorning an empty DJ booth, printed on menus, replicated en masse along a plush paneled wall as though knobs to secret drawers. Later, when we received our drinks, they’d be served atop paper napkins stamped with decapitated bunny heads in shimmering gold ink.
It has become cliche to call an interior Trumpian, but the attributive is fitting at Playboy, where the brief sent to the design studio, Cenk Fikri, could only have read “tacky, but monied.” One wall was painted black, covered in empty gold photo frames of varying sizes. Nearby was an enormous, dimly lit cabinet, stocked with champagne bottles stacked in towers. There were squat, plush armchairs of red velvet, and black leather sofas with deep-buttoned upholstery. I counted thirteen vases along the bar, all of them filled with red roses, like a restaurant on Valentine’s Day, and the silver tables strewn around the room were adorned with candles and cut-crystal glasses.
But looking around Level One—portrayed by a rhapsodic press release as “unlike anything else in Manhattan … a luxuriant cocktail and culinary destination for after-work drinks, dinner and late-night entertaining alike”—the most conspicuous feature was its emptiness. Sure, it was a Wednesday, but this is New York, baby! The place was more desolate than Times Square’s greased-up TGI Friday’s, or the city’s last-remaining Planet Hollywood (both establishments which, sadly, I have frequented midweek). It was so vacant that our white-suited bartender—a handsome, friendly character, presumably hired, like the Bunnies, at least in part for his looks—made sure to fervently assure us the club was “crazy” on weekends. For most of our stay, there were about sixteen staff (Bunnies, bartenders, official-looking people outfitted in black) to seven patrons, which included our small party. By the time we departed, the customer count had skyrocketed to ten.
The other visitors were exclusively men. There were a pair of lost-looking tourists in casual attire, both awkwardly looking-but-not-looking at the corseted, buoyant Bunnies, whose heads were cocked just so as they tried to seem busy. There were three middle-age businessmen who told jokes as a blonde Bunny laughed dutifully. Another, in a collared shirt, barked, “Why doesn’t he have my money?” his mouth moving jerkily, like a windup toy. Everyone heard and pretended not to, and I ordered a drink at the giant oval bar.
According to the press release, Playboy’s menu brims with “gastronomic attitude,” a phrase that is as embarrassing to type as it is to say aloud. It was devised by Nobu veteran Richie Notar, who began as a busboy at Studio 54 and now serves as the Playboy club’s creative director. It includes crispy shrimp dressed with spicy yuzu and cilantro, chilled prawns heaped with cocktail sauce, and a lobster mac and cheese—served with sourdough bread crumbs—that will set you back forty-five dollars. There is also a lot of sushi. My friend and I ordered a single appetizer to share: truffle fries with chives (sixteen dollars). They came in a metal cone and tasted fine. Of more interest were the cocktails, which were priced at twenty-six dollars and had deliciously obsolescent names like Call Me, Blonde Ambition, El Hefe, and Honey Rider. The most cringeworthy was the sort-of martini, Q, named after the James Bond character. I enjoyed an intoxicant christened Silhouette (very sexy!), comprised of Empress gin, maraschino, and champagne, with a curly slither of lemon rind propped on the side of the glass, like a Goldilocks ringlet. It was the pleasing purple hue of My Little Pony plastic and tasted like a melted popsicle.
What exactly do you do at the Playboy Club, other than sip drinks and admire the infinitude of rabbit logos? If you are a member, you probably leave the area I spent my evening in, moving to other, more discreet lounges. At the time of my visit, many were still in construction, but included an adaptable event space called Black Box and an extravagant three-level hideaway dubbed the Rabbit Hole, billed as a speakeasy-style lounge. The extra privacy is pricey. Membership, which is available to women (in Hef’s day, it was exclusively male), comes in four tiers, starting at $5,000 per annum and stepping up to $100,000 plus. The highest tier is Mansion Level, referencing Hefner’s mythologized former residence in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles, famous for its lavish parties in the seventies. (As it happens, my dining companion’s dad—a photographer who shot celebrities for Playboy—was once attacked by swans in the Mansion’s lagoon, before a nude, oiled-up Bunny rescued him.)
Outside of extended club access, the membership’s Entourage-style perks include chauffeuring to and from the venue, complimentary stays at the adjacent Cachet Boutique Hotel, free gambling tokens for Playboy Club London, and the enviable “VIP Treatment synonymous with Playboy.” There is also a member app for booking tables and buying drinks. The main draw, for everyone, is presumably the Bunnies: the real, live women employed as hostesses. In their boned leotards—fitted to the curves of their flesh by a seamstress, with space for padding at the bust—and sparkling Roberto Cavalli cummerbunds fastened around the midriff, they looked like Vegas showgirls. With the addition of a bow tie, cuffs, satin ears, and a flocculent tail affixed to the rear (Gloria Steinem called it “a grapefruit-sized hemisphere of white fluff”), they were a corporate logo made real.
On Level One, I saw Bunnies everywhere: all delicate frames and coy smiles and black stockings and high heels. A group of blondes gathered near the unpeopled entrance, Victoria’s Secret hair tousled beneath silken, slightly bent ears. Near the restaurant area, where buckets of booze waited for no one, a Bunny leaned gently against a velvet chair, holding a tray of what appeared to be straws, standing perfectly still. Across from her, another Bunny smiled prettily while proffering a tray of napkins.
Our assigned Bunny, Bria, had sleek black hair and chemically white teeth. She left us with the bartender most of the night, expertly gauging we’d tip the same whether or not she feigned interest in our conversation. Midway through the evening, at my request, she moved us to the bar’s adjoining dining area, which was decked out like a library, its volumes mostly by Playboy writers. Behind our table was a six-hundred-gallon aquarium, glowing purple like a hotel swimming pool—at once the most resplendent and tragic article in the place. We watched exotic fish shimmy around a fake reef centerpiece, which had been hand-sculpted to resemble a white Playboy bunny head. A few days later, my friend sent a text, smattered with aquatic emoji: “The fish tank was a highlight,” she wrote, “but also, a symbol of living beings subjected to objectification.”
When Steinem went undercover as a Bunny for her 1963 Show expose, “A Bunny’s Tale,” she made explicit the brand’s enduring blind spots, its liberalism undone by a chauvinist raison d’être. Hefner’s crusade against America’s right-wing moralism is well documented: he supported the Equal Rights Amendment and funded rape crisis centers via the Playboy Foundation. He broke racial barriers by booking Dick Gregory—a black comedian—in his ostensibly white Chicago nightclub, published interviews in Playboy with Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as articles advocating abortion rights nearly a decade before the Roe vs. Wade decision. But inside his clubs, waitresses donning rabbit ears, clip-on bow ties, and skin-gouging costumes were constantly nickel-and-dimed—Steinem reported a policy of skimming fifty percent off their first thirty dollars in tips each night, twenty-five percent of tips adding up to sixty dollars and five percent after that. Indicating a preference for cash tips could result in being fired. And the Bunny Manual—Playboy’s fabled brand behavior guide—often veered on tyrannical. It outlined the club’s partnership with detective agency Willmark Service Systems Inc., hired to ensure Bunnies never dated customers or staff. It delineated a mandatory physical and “internal” Bunny examination by a Playboy-selected doctor, as well as a blood test checking for STDs, and dictated the precise manner in which women were allowed to smoke, sit, stand, walk, and speak to patrons, including a standardized, dehumanizing rebuff: “Please sir, you are not allowed to touch the Bunnies.”
The most offensive part of Playboy’s resurrected club is not that it is sexy, but that its version of sexy remains so stultified. It is more or less the same version of hetero-sexiness the brand has presented without irony for decades: a James Bond cliche, built for a stock-image banker. The Bunny is long-legged and bare-shouldered, bending just so to proffer a cocktail, a name tag pinned close to her crotch. The venue is titillating in the same way sriracha is spicy, as twee and predictable as a Disneyland ride. For those prone to meliorism, perhaps the live Playboy experience would feel less archaic in its fetishism—to anyone beyond a ragtag crew of brand loyalists, bored bro-tourists, and rich corporate-types—if it weren’t so contrived. If there were Bunnies of myriad sizes, genders, and orientations. If they weren’t laced so tightly into their corsets. If they could exercise some ownership over that slinky, cartoonish uniform beyond bending an ear. If they weren’t dressed as Bunnies at all.
Around the same time the latest iteration of the Playboy Club opened, the New Museum launched its survey show of British artist Sarah Lucas—a former YBA whose sculptural schtick involves the transformation of cheap, quotidian objects (cigarettes, vegetables, kitchen utensils) into makeshift anatomies and parody scenes that are jocular and titillating and comically sad. In one room, originally part of a 1997 installation at Sadie Coles titled Bunny Gets Snookered, a series of headless, anthropomorphic forms are arranged around and on top of a billiard table, their tapered ankles grazing its green cloth. These Bunnies are all long legs and folded, floppy ears—flesh forged from stuffed stockings, crotches forced outward in lewd positions, their missing heads a violation—and each limp, slim body is bulldog-clipped to an office chair, like a secretary. A woman is a pair of legs, Lucas seems to say. A pair of legs is a woman.
The work’s title references the billiards’ expression “to be snookered,” which is slang both for sex and for being duped. In the game, it indicates a player’s shot has blocked the opponent’s next one, preventing them from scoring. In this game, all the Bunnies were playing snooker, but none of them could win.
I thought a lot about Lucas’s droll, doll-like representations at Playboy’s digs, as I sipped my Careless Whisper and surveyed the bathroom wall, plastered with archival magazine covers where women licked cute bunny stamps or bent over coyly. Lucas’s figures, in their explicit symbolism, both poke fun at the process of objectifying femininity and indicate its reductionism as self-defeating: the object is rendered so passive it is no longer desirable. I took a selfie in front of the Playboy covers, like I was meant to, and then felt a little dumb.
We paid the check and left. Outside, New York was still New York. The sky had turned marble gray. People power walked in all directions as though on fast-forward, seemingly unbothered that “all things provocative, playful and exclusive” were moments away. A guy strode down Forty-Second Street in a fluorescent shirt that read CITY METAL SCRAP. His footsteps jangled like keys. A man wearing three-quarter running tights held a pair of curly-haired dogs on leashes. A kid ran past, arm in arm with her mother, dressed in a cape emblazoned with the Gryffindor crest and clutching a toy owl. Everyone seemed to be in motion—the frenetic pace of the city electrified the air. Behind us, inside the new Playboy Club—only a mile and a half southwest of the original venue—a woman was probably adjusting her ears.
Laura Bannister is the editor of Museum. She writes for numerous publications about contemporary art, history, and culture.
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