A trip to the Playboy Mansion is just the kind of thing that makes the TV Critics summer press tour the kind of outing writers cannot overlook.
With the growing reliance on blogging, tweets and social media, it was kind of the place to provide the kind of content and surface titillation on which such sites thrive.
Everybody’s got an opinion on Playboy – out-of-date old boys experiment, rising hotbed for female empowerment, artifact of Bond-girl era naughtiness, uber party central — there was no way a group of largely out of town writers from dwindling newspapers was going to miss this sociological study, that will give them all a chance to say in dinner parties forevermore, “When I was at the Playboy mansion…”
So the line for the shuttle bus to the mansion began more than a half hour before the first bus was to leave.
There were many firsts to this press tour so far – a cash bar at one panel, coffee missing at several others, a transcript from an appearance of a descendent of a famous dog that was one page flat. But the jostling to get on those buses, and to get a wristband before that, was unique in its urgency and lack of cynicism.
And all this without clearly knowing what the party was about or for what.
I’m sure half the people assumed it had something to do with NBC’s upcoming show “The Playboy Club.” It did not. Actually it was about shows on Playboy TV that most critics had not watched and would not. Indeed, some daily papers would forbid reporting on Playboy altogether.
The blind excitement at the Mansion visit might have changed once the buses finally climbed onto the path to the property.
The stone house itself looked small – ordinary in a way that Graceland is ordinary. But the grounds were impressive, with the touches of Xanadu with the peacocks strolling the grass; the pen of flamingos, and down one paved path, a pen of some specialized monkeys, who looked curious and sad at the same time. Which was startling, since it was like looking in a mirror.
There were corners that brought to mind the lurid, ’70s- era clips of the grounds –particularly the grotto, where reporters hit their heads on the overhead rocks and traversed the odd, mattress-bottomed corner of the pool that also includes a hot tub. No one stayed too long if not for the humidity of the corner, at least for its decades of ickiness.
Disembarked from the bus, many of the guests immediately lined up to spy the grotto in a way that they did not line up at buffet lines (which is also unusual).
Just after getting out of the bus, though, the guests were invited to pose with two particularly bored looking models in bunny costumes – photos that, one imagined, were immediately sent to wives back home.
Hugh Hefner was nowhere to be found, of course. He was presumably ensconced behind the gothic walls. It was gin rummy night, we were told. A cardboard cutout of him peered outside a window, weirdly. But that was it.
Still, if you were unlucky enough to sit in a white tent with red furniture on the grounds you were told to get out because this was Mr. Hefner’s private backyard lair..
“He’s not coming out here though, is he?” security was asked.
Sure he might.
The celebrity quotient was conspicuously low, unless you memorized your centerfolds by the month. NBA John Salle naturally stood out, as did Janice Dickinson later. Adrianne Curry was recognizable as well; the former Mrs. Christopher Knight was part of one of the shows critics wouldn’t watch “Celebrity Sex Tales,” in which the aforementioned talked about lurid scenes from their past, with the sex parts animated.
Celebrities or not, it was surely one of the dullest Playboy parties in history. A female DJ played but nobody danced; food and drink was plentiful, but there was no presentation, performance or other central event to watch. And people kept their clothes on.
This hardly ever happens at the Playboy Mansion, according to one of the dozen or so young women who, like the critics, were bussed in from the hotel.
The women are recruited and invited to parties, apparently unpaid, and given access to food and drink and to meet people presumably. Some of them return to the mansion three times a week for various parties. They heed to suggested dress codes; tonight’s was “sexy,” previous ones had been lingerie,” which means yes they travel there in a shuttle bus from a hotel in their underwear. “You have to be pretty comfortable in your body, said one, Dominique. But suggested attire, or lack of it, could be more extreme, as in parties where women come clad only in a coat of paint.
But they eat (corn dogs are popular), they drink, and they largely stick to themselves even as they are polite to men who inevitably hit on them.
When I try to bring up notions of exploitation of women (having a difficult enough time getting past the irony of this being raised by an old guy to young women), it seems as faraway an issue to them as speaking of snow. They don’t feel exploited, they say; they’re just having fun. They’d just be in clubs dressed pretty much the same way anyway.
And of the women who got closer to Hef and moved in, resulting in spinoff shows and careers for “The Girls Next Door” and now the runaway bride, the Playboy machine is what they are exploiting to get a well-shaped leg up on fame and success.
Still it comes through a very tired system, which I felt most strongly in the series of restrooms alongside the grotto.
Marked with neon lights, and done in the stoneware of the grotto, the line of unisex bathroom with toilets done in 1970s light brown porcelains, lots of lid liners, rolls of tissue and even scent spritz made one a little queasy, just thinking of what’s happened in this same space over the past few decades, with so many people who have visited with that same initial enthusiasm.
One longed for rubber gloves and tubs of disinfectant.
It was tough to imagine, growing up in the infancy of feminism, that there’d ever be a day that Playboy could possibly be considered cool again – or some symbol of liberation rather than repression. Or that I’d even be here.
But it was one of those experiences I can now say I’ve had, and picking up the goodie bag that had a selection of their shows, which I fulfilled my unstated contract by actually watching.
“The Stash” is meant to be a variant of “The Soup” that instead makes fun of porn. Which is eminently worth making fun of, but the show, even without the jokes, offers an awful lot of porn.
“Celebrity Sex Stories” has elements of “Dinner for Five” in that the subjects are sitting around sharing stories. But again animating the hot parts adds an unnecessary tawdriness in the tradition of those glossy, unfunny, incessantly repetitive Playboy magazine cartoons.
“Love Brooklyn Style” from the maker of “Taxicab Confessions,” is repellant because the subjects are so unattractive. “Swing” seems an extension of “Temptation Island” to its physical conclusion with the same empty feeling. It features the same advisor who stars in yet another show giving sexual and gadget advice.
They’re all pretty awful and would serve the Playboy audience in just killing time before they get to the next X-rated feature.
And in the mansion, Hef is winning or losing gin rummy, praying his aura will flicker on to a new nation, or more likely has gone to bed a long time ago.