n the summer of 1998, I was invited to spend six months aboard Playboy magazine’s Playmate 2000 Search bus and chronicle my adventures, via a digital camera and regular online updates, as the bus trekked across America, searching for the Playmate of the Millennium. The following are excerpts from my account of that trip.
As for my own role in the story, much as I may have been tempted to cast some of my misadventures in a more flattering light, I have resisted the urge. It also bears noting that the following is not a novel, though it may at times read like one. Such was the odd and appealing nature of life on the Playboy bus, where life had a way of unfolding as it would in a book.
DEPARTURE PARTY: THE PLAYBOY MANSION
Los Angeles, California
We’re waiting, waiting with the pregnant anticipation of hunters sensing their prey. Except that, rather than the bleary-eyed, crack-of-dawn hour of hunters, it’s midday, and instead of a mosquito-ridden bayou, we inhabit a lush sun-filled enclave that, considering the roaming peacocks and screeching monkeys, may as well be the garden of Eden. And where hunters tend to be stoic, even surly, we’re all in high spirits, smiling openly. Not just us, but even the service staff. Everyone is in such unabashedly good spirits that if Disneyland hadn’t already staked the claim, one would call this the happiest place on earth.
Oh, and no offense to hunters we’re not drunk.
The place is the Playboy Mansion and the day is the kickoff party for the Playmate 2000 search. It’s quickly become apparent that “party,” in the current context, is a festive synonym for “media event,” with all the photographers and videographers milling about. I’m the only one in the mix who doesn’t seem to know everyone else. And with my little, just-issued digital camera with its fey wrist strap, I’m humbled next to the multiple cameras with embarrassingly long lenses. I’m also the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on. We’re sending off the bus, I know that much. The milling that’s taking place is all in the shadow of the beast. It’s parked in the circular drive in front of the Mansion. The thing is massive (they rented a crane to help maneuver it up the Mansion’s curvy driveway) and is painted glossy black, with the words PLAYMATE 2000 SEARCH and the huge bunny-head logo, all in a design that looks like liquid mercury. There’s talk the vehicle was formerly Aretha Franklin’s rig and that the renovation cost a million dollars.
Inside, there’s more black, a lounge with a long leather couch running down each side, a huge TV hanging precariously from the ceiling, a galley/wet bar, a two-person shower, a staging area with two changing stalls and well-lit makeup vanity, and, all the way in the rear, a mobile photo studio tricked out with electric doors from Star Trek and a white photo backdrop, also electronic. Had someone thought to include a helicopter pad on the roof, the thing would look a great deal like the ultimate ride kids back in the ’70s dreamed of when conversion vans were all the rage.
According to my press kit, the bus was partly inspired by Hugh Hefner’s jet, which he owned before he ensconced himself in the Mansion West and was still going back and forth between Chicago and L.A. The aircraft was known as the Big Bunny, a name that the bus will adopt. Placed as it is amid this sunny Eden, the Big Bunny is about as quiet as a roller-coaster ride filled with kids who don’t make it up to the height line. It’s hard not to giggle at the thought of this monster pulling in to Anytown, USA. Someone, it seems to me, has a darkish sense of humor.
It’s not just the waiting that’s like hunting, but also the end of the waiting. Suddenly, blam!, the pack is off, skittering across the lawn, cameras jouncing, all before I even notice, before I shake off the thought, What am I doing here? So, without knowing exactly what we’re after or why, I’m running, giving chase. Fortunately, we’re not in pursuit of migrating ducks and I quickly catch up, but the boys aren’t about to do the gracious thing part and let the new guy have a clear shot so I have to peel off around to the side for an inferior vantage.
When finally I come around the edge and get my clear view, what appears is so overwhelming that for a moment I lose my breath. There are two of them. They’re dressed in brightly colored bikinis, one yellow, one orange, the colors of M&Ms. On an average woman the swimsuits would be adequate, but on these women, with remarkably assertive busts, hips and asses, they struggle at coverage. Ohmygod, my mind helpfully offers, Playmates!
In combination with the bikinis, they wear high heels and full-on photo-shoot makeup and are tanned with an evenness that is more Barbie-doll skin than human. It should be mentioned that this combination alone, bikini with heels and makeup, is something I’ve never encountered before, no matter how many times I may have sketched it out to girlfriends as an ideal getup for vacuuming.
They walk slowly, a step up from slow motion, a speed that if it were on a blender would be labeled “delicious,” and though the shutters clatter like locusts and the photographers shout at them to look this way and that, they maintain their apparently whimsical conversation as they go. Juggling knives would be no more surprising, given the context.
Oh, and there’s the little matter of fighting that nagging I-know-you-from-someplace feeling. I know their images, have seen them repeatedly. Had the women had the ability to look out from their pages, they would have seen me along with several million of my fellow Playboy “reading” comrades in a highly compromised, totally unflattering position.
The bunnies seem to replicate. Their numbers swell until there are ten of them, but ten of them, because of everything they are, seems like more. There are four men to every woman on the grounds and yet we men seem outnumbered.
A few Playmates climb inside the bus for a look, while photographers call out others’ names, pull them aside for a shot, pose them in a certain light, and the Playmates respond with enraptured smiles, crinkled up noses, and sparkly eyes, all seeming synced to the camera shutter. Ever so out of place, I opt for the documentary photo, over other photographers’ shoulders, parasiting off their moment. Hey, Karen, over here! I just can’t bring myself to say it.
And then there’s a change, something that interrupts the Playmate-photographer tango. It’s coming from the direction of the Mansion and causes us to drop the Playmates and scurry off in pursuit once again. Dressed in black silk pajamas and smoking jacket, he steps into the dazzling light of day with a friendly succession of nods to the photographers, before jauntily setting off with an appraising eye for the new Big Bunny. Good God, he’s real.
The Playmates have been wrangled into a picturesque line right in front of the bus. After receiving a few kisses and “Hey, Hef’s,” he steps into his place in the center. The photo and video guys are getting riled up, with everyone shouldering in for a shot. Like in grade school, no one trusts the calls for everyone to take a step back. Finally one of the boys suggests that the photo guys go first and then the video, narrowly avoiding a photographer melee.
I’m no longer shooting from the edge and have assumed a position dead center. It finally occurred to me that, unlike nearly all the others, I actually work for Playboy. These are my people. I can shoot from wherever I want. From where I crouch, the Playmates look like giants. The other boys are screaming for the women to look their way, I’m fighting an urge to call for a kick line. After the video guys have had their chance, Hef breaks away to check out the bus and hold court with the news cameras. He quickly reveals himself as a master of the sound bite, his decades as an icon not for nothing. Will Hef go out on the road with the bus? “No, the bus’ll come to me.” What does he hope it will bring? “A lot of beautiful ladies.” How can just an average guy get on this bus? “They can’t, just gorgeous girls allowed.”
He finishes each bite with a laugh that is only a touch less quirky than Burgess Meredith’s Penguin on the old Batman series. And with all his references to beautiful ladies and gorgeous girls, part of me expects a media handler to come running up and interrupt with, I think the point Mr. Hefner is trying to make is that the bus is a unique opportunity for young women of all races, ages, appearance and economic background to come out and. . . Such candor from a corporate figurehead even Playboy in this day and age seems, well, pornographic.
Hef seems like a pleasure Buddha, a man who couldn’t erase the smile from his face in the worst of moods. I’m tempted to put Band-Aids at the corners of his mouth. Standing there in that glowing satisfaction, I can’t help thinking about the disparity between us. My life has included more than its share of pleasure, but compared to Hugh Hefner, there is little difference between me and your average coma victim.
Insignificant as I may feel in comparison, I react to certain of Hef’s words as though they were a shot of adrenaline. The questions about men on the bus and Hef’s “Only gorgeous girls allowed” was not totally accurate. That’s gorgeous girls and me. As Hef said, not even he will be along on the ride. For a moment, my knees go weak at the suddenly real possibility. So this is what it would have felt like to go to the college of my choice . . .