From Bunny Ears to Breaking Barriers and Beyond: The Changing Look of 'Playboy'

Travel down the rabbit hole to see how the brand has evolved through the years as the new A&E docuseries Secrets of Playboy puts the magazine and its mystique under a microscope 

01 of 15

Playboy Debuts

Playboy through the years
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty

Hugh Hefner published Playboy's inaugural issue in December 1953, purchasing a photo of Marilyn Monroe for its cover.

Hefner, a former Esquire copywriter, was inspired by the fantasy of the girl next door – and hit an untapped niche in the American market by publishing naked, full-color photos of women in an industry first.

02 of 15

The Bunny Makes Money

Playboy through the years
Hugh Hefner with the Playboy bunnies. Archive Photos/Getty

The initial launch was a smash success, with the magazine selling upwards of 1 million copies per month by the end of the 1950s, Business Insider reported. The revenue made it possible for Hefner to quickly expand the brand, keeping readers hooked with favorite features like "Playmate of the Month."

In this 1960 image, Hefner smiles with six lookalike honorees.

"I was always a dreamer and I worked to make the dream come true," Hefner told PEOPLE of creating an entertainment empire.

03 of 15

The Playboy Club Opens

Playboy through the years

The media mogul smiles with two dozen Bunnies, matching in uniform, at one of his Playboy Clubs. The original club opened in Chicago in 1960, and more than 50,000 people joined in its first year in business.

Launching the venture when segregation still existed in the American South, Hefner was adamant from the start that such discrimination would never be tolerated in his clubs.

"There were syndicated [Playboy] clubs in New Orleans and Miami and in both cases, there were segregation problems. We said to the guys, you have to accept the members, racial consideration is of no importance. You have to accept them if they're members," he told PEOPLE. "And we literally bought back the franchises and ran them ourselves."

Musing on just how revolutionary Playboy was at that time, Hefner continued, "Part of the concept behind the magazine was breaking barriers. And it wasn't just a sexual thing. It was racial and doing the things that were right. And in the process that set Playboy apart."

04 of 15

The Look of the Bunny, Defined

Playboy through the years
Victor Blackman/Daily Express/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty

The women who worked at Playboy Clubs were young and ready to hop into action. Here, London staffers strike a pose in what quickly became the brand's signature look: bunny ears, a high-waisted satin corset and tights, accessorized with a bow tie, cuff links, a cotton tail and heels.

05 of 15

Hefner Speaks on Women's Rights

Playboy through the years
Val Mazzenga/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty

As the women's rights movement made strides in the 1960s, some activists pointed fingers at Playboy as promoting everything that was wrong with how women were represented – and saw themselves – in popular culture.

Holding his ground, Hefner addressed a group of protestors who stormed into a Chicago open house for women interested in becoming Playboy bunnies in this 1969 shot. Hefner considered himself a feminist, though many have argued he was anything but in the years since his death in 2017.

All of the U.S. Playboy clubs closed between the late 1970s and 1980s.

06 of 15

The Interviews Evolve

Playboy through the years

Beyond its stripped-down centerfolds, Playboy was known for its wide-ranging interviews. Notable names who sat for a chat include Martin Luther King Jr., President Jimmy Carter (during his run for office), Princess Grace, Malcom X, Fidel Castro and Margaret Atwood, among many others, per company history.

Artists and writers like Shel Silverstein, Alex Haley, Ray Bradbury, Hunter S. Thompson and Lenny Bruce also got their start in Playboy's pages.

07 of 15

Male Bunnies Debut

Playboy through the years
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty

In a bid for greater equality between the sexes, Playboy introduced male bunnies when it opened its Empire Club in New York City in 1986, the Orlando Sentinel reported, as seen in this image with Hefner and his daughter Christie.

The younger Hefner would go on to steer the company as chairman and CEO from 1988 to 2009, making her the longest-serving woman to hold such positions in a public company in the United States.

08 of 15

The Playboy Mansion Rises

Playboy through the years
Hugh Hefner with the Playboy bunnies. Paul Harris/Getty

In this 1986 photo at the infamous Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, the Playgirls rocked the big hair and bold makeup that defined the decade.

09 of 15

The Magazine Makes Celebrities

Anna Nicole Smith, Jenny McCarthy
Ron Galella Collection via Getty (2)

Some of Hollywood's leading ladies shot to stardom after partnering with Playboy in the '90s. Anna Nicole Smith was the 1993 Playmate of the Year, followed by Jenny McCarthy in 1994.

Dozens of celebs have posed for the magazine through the years, including Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Garcelle Beauvais and even Dolly Parton.

10 of 15

The Girls Next Door Premieres

Playboy through the years
Paul Hawthorne/Getty

Hefner gave fans a glimpse of his life inside the Playboy Mansion with The Girls Next Door, which came out on E! in 2005. The reality show followed the magnate's adventures with three of his girlfriends – Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson – and brought his brand to a new generation.

The series was an instant hit, reaching more than 150 countries, Insider reported.

"It was a happy time. I thought it was good timing," Hefner told PEOPLE of the show's six seasons.

Much of what happened when the cameras stopped rolling, though, is the subject of the new A&E docuseries Secrets of Playboy, which features extensive bombshell interviews from Madison, who hasn't held back about tough times in the mansion before.

"Looking back on my time at Playboy, it reminds me of a cult," she said in one episode. "We were all kind of gaslit ... it was so easy to get isolated from the outside world there."

Hefner's son Cooper recently spoke out in defense of his late dad ahead of the series premiere, with the brand releasing an open letter that details a commitment to "positive change" under Playboy's new leadership.

11 of 15

Playboy Covers Up

Playboy through the years

Heads rolled when the news broke in fall 2015 that the iconic men's magazine would no longer publish nude photos of women. The March 2016 issue was the first in its 63-year history without such shots.

Explaining the decision, Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told the New York Times that the Internet eliminated the power the provocative pictures in its pages once held.

"You're now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it's just passé at this juncture," Flanders said at the time.

12 of 15

Nudity Returns

Playboy through the years

A little over a year later, Playboy announced it was bringing nudity back.

On the return to tradition, Hefner's son Cooper (then serving as the company's chief creative officer) admitted that the the initial decision was wrong.

"I'll be the first to admit that the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated, but removing it entirely was a mistake," he tweeted. "Nudity was never the problem because nudity isn't a problem. Today, we're taking our identity back and reclaiming who we are."

The apropos "Naked is Normal" issue debuted in spring 2017, in the mag's old form.

In September 2017, Hefner died at the age of 91; though Christie and Cooper had been handling much of the company's business in the years prior, his passing marked an end of an era for the publication and surrounding brand.

13 of 15

Ines Rau Makes History

Playboy through the years
Andreas Rentz/amfAR/Getty

The same year, Playboy introduced readers to its first openly transgender Playmate. French model Rau made history with her pictorial and centerfold, summing up the honor as one of a lifetime.

"When I was doing this shoot, I was thinking of all those hard days in my childhood," she said in the accompanying interview. "And now everything happening gives me so much joy and happiness. I thought, 'Am I really going to be a Playmate—me?' It's the most beautiful compliment I've ever received. It's like getting a giant bouquet of roses."

14 of 15

Hayley Hasselhoff Does, Too

Playboy through the years

When she graced Playboy Germany in April 2021, Hasselhoff said she was thrilled to be the first "curve" model to cover a European edition of the magazine.

"I am overcome with emotion around what this cover signifies for inclusivity and its greater purpose towards female empowerment," she posted on Instagram. "I wanted to use this platform to express that you have the power to love your body without hesitation because of societies' standards of beauty."

15 of 15

The Brand Continues

Bretman Rock Makes History as First Gay Male to Cover Playboy
Brian Ziff

In October 2021 the brand marked another milestone, making influencer Bretman Rock the first openly gay man to don the complete bunny suit for a cover.

With the Hefner family out of the picture, The PLBY Group is now made up of 80 percent female employees who run the all-digital magazine (print ended in the U.S. in 2020) and the company's various entities.

"Today's Playboy is not Hugh Hefner's Playboy," staff wrote in an open letter ahead of Secrets of Playboy's premiere.

"Together we are building upon the aspects of our legacy that have made a positive impact, including serving as a platform for free expression and a convener of safe conversations on sex, inclusion and freedom," the letter added. "We will continue to confront any parts of our legacy that do not reflect our values today, and to build upon the progress we have made as we evolve as a company so we can drive positive change for you and our communities."

In December 2021, rapper Cardi B was named Playboy's first-ever creative director in residence.

According to a press release, "Cardi will provide artistic direction across co-branded fashion and sexual wellness merchandise collections, digital editorial, experiential activations and more," in the partnership.

"In addition, Cardi B will serve as the Founding Creative Director and a founding member of Playboy's upcoming creator-led platform, CENTERFOLD," the release added.

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