"He was in favor of what they were fighting for, and he was always rather surprised that they felt that he was exploiting women," Benton tells PEOPLE TV
Without a doubt, Hugh Hefner was a complex figure.
Over the course of his 91 years, Hefner lived an exciting and controversial life. On the one hand, he revolutionized the publishing industry, contributed to the sexual revolution that permeated the 1960s and ’70s and fought for birth control and abortion rights — but on the other hand, he was criticized for objectifying women, and even admitted that he considered women to be “sex objects.”
Sitting down with PEOPLE TV, Hefner’s longtime love Barbi Benton defended the late icon’s complicated legacy, arguing that he actually celebrated and empowered women.
“I honestly think that Hef had a lot to do with women making more money and getting better jobs,” she said. “He’s had a huge impact on the entire world, and I think that’s for the better.”
Benton, 67, credits Hefner for pioneering a sexual revolution.
“Before Playboy, people couldn’t talk about sex,” she said. “Nobody talked about sex. It was an extremely puritanical time. In 1953, women were dressed up to [their necks] with their aprons and barefoot in the kitchen. Hef brought them out and said, ‘Hey, the woman in the kitchen is pretty sexy.’ “
“Hef always felt that he was in favor of women’s [liberation],” she continued. “He was in favor of what they were fighting for, and he was always rather surprised that they felt that he was exploiting women.”
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Benton met Hefner in 1968 on the set of his TV show, Playboy After Dark. She was 18 and he was 42, and while she initially wasn’t interested due to their age difference, they ended up dating until 1976. As the pair traveled the globe in the 1970s, she appeared on four Playboy covers, and they eventually moved into the famed Mansion in Los Angeles together.
“When I first met Hef, I was a co-ed at UCLA,” she said. “I didn’t really think about who puts together this magazine, but certainly I knew the name of the publisher. When I was asked to be on Playboy After Dark, I jumped at it.”
Benton went on to marry Los Angeles entrepreneur George Gradow in 1979, but she will always look back on her time with Hefner with great fondness.
“People recognized us together and our names were synonymous,” she said. “Whenever you heard Barbi Benton, you think of Hugh Hefner. And I loved that. I was his girlfriend and he was my boyfriend.”
“When he died, he took a big piece of me with him,” she continued. “I’m sure that every time I do something, I’ll think about having done it with Hef. He had an enormous impact on culture and lives of people all over the world. I’ll miss him immensely.”
Added Benton, “One never knows when the angels are coming to get you, but everybody has to go. And Hef had a great life — what a wonderful life.”
—WITH AURELIE CORINTHIOS