Even at 84, Hugh Hefner is a busy man. In fact, ridiculously so: His days are broken down into 20-minute intervals. So, when we were offered a couple minutes to sit down and speak with the man who created one of the most recognizable and influential media companies in the world about his new documentary, we dropped everything. It's Hef! Yeah, there have been many films about Hugh and his Playboy empire, but most focused on the girls, the launch of the magazine, the girls, the mansion...and the girls. Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel attempts to tell the other side of his story. Directed by Brigitte Berman, it takes the focus off the twos and thighs and looks at Hugh's impact on the racial, sexual, and artistic climate of the '50s, '60s, and '70s. After screening it, we chopped it up with Hef and talked about his legacy, his take on magazines and the iPad, and who his favorite Playmate is. Long live the king! Check out the trailer for Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel and read the interview after the jump!
Interview by Damien Scott
Complex: This is the first documentary to really look into this other side of your life. How do you feel it came out?
Hugh Hefner: Exceptionally. What makes the film special is that it focuses on the other part of my life that most people really don't know about. And it manages to do it in a very entertaining way. In the original edit, it was about three or four hours long, so Brigitte's been cutting it down to playable length. But the response to it in the film festivals where it's been shown was remarkable.
Complex: Why do you feel that this part of your life has been so swept under the rug and not spoken about?
Hugh Hefner: I don't think it has been. I think it's just that, as Ray Bradbury—a longtime contributor to Playboy—said a long time ago, a lot of people, when they're talking about the contents of the magazine, they don't see the forest. People don't see the other part of my life because they're too fascinated with the girls.
Complex: Right, even though Playboy touched on so many groundbreaking subjects.
Hugh Hefner: It's very clear that it's still very controversial today. I started the magazine in 1953, and the '50s was a very conservative decade. But with all of that, there was not the same kind of political quickness, or that notion that somehow nude pictures—pinup pictures—were exploitation. So as much as things have changed, one continues: The fight is ongoing, and the controversy is ongoing.
Complex: Something that people will learn about through the film is the Playboy Legal Fund. Is it still active? Is it still working on cases and helping out people?
Hugh Hefner: Oh yes. [Laughs.] The Playboy Foundation, which is the activist arm of the Playboy philosophy, is very, very busy.
Complex: What are they up to exactly?
Hugh Hefner: There's the Freedom of Expression awards, which we do every year. And we continue in the forum of the magazine to get letters from people who have various kinds of problems. And the magazine itself focuses on social changes in terms of sexuality and illogical drug laws, and similar kinds of things. Frequently—historically, the foundation has been engaged in subjects that might be perceived as controversial, but might not be supported by other foundations.
Complex: I wanted to get your take on the current state of magazines. When you began Playboy, it was a completely different media landscape. There wasn't Internet, or eBooks, or iPads, or anything like that. How do you feel about the current state of publishing?
Hugh Hefner: I think that it's very clear that we're going through a really revolutionary period in terms of technology, and with progress—and it is progress—you gain something, but you also lose something. I think that the Internet is a remarkable international form of communication—something unthinkable just a few years ago. But in the process, increasingly young people are getting their information and entertainment in small bites on the Internet, on the television. And you lose something with that, because books and magazines provided a different kind of reading, and a different kind of learning. And as a result, I think that a great many young people have very little sense of yesterday, their own history. And that costs you.
Complex: Speaking of the young people, do you think that your legacy will be lost on the new generation of kids who are growing up and think of Playboy as something completely different from what you intended it to be?
Hugh Hefner: To the extent that I'm able to see it, it seems to me—quite frankly—that it's remarkable how much the young people do embrace it and understand what Playboy is all about. Playboy is now over 55 years old. The fact that it manages to reach and get a response from whole new generations—women as well as men—is absolutely incredible.
Complex: You touched on it briefly in the documentary, but was there any big blowback from you being involved in the fights against racial discrimination and for sexual freedom?
Hugh Hefner: Obviously, yes. Some of the conservative elements that are aligned against me are in positions of great power. Some were in the government, some in places that were able to reach out and impact us in various ways. And that is the way of things. As I said in the documentary, you don't really accomplish change if you don't, to some extent, court controversy. So I knew that going in.
Complex: Did you ever fear for your life?
Hugh Hefner: No. Although I've had death threats, I've never been fearful for my life, no. Although I have traveled with security since the '60s.
Complex: In the documentary, you say that you're still involved with the magazine—that you look over every proof and your eye touches every part of the magazine. How has your editorial mind changed over the years? What do you see in yourself that's different from how you were when you first started as an editor?
Hugh Hefner: Well, the heart of the magazine, the editorial part of it, is edited in Chicago with secondary offices in New York and L.A. I do not—and have not for a very long time—read every line of copy. But I do oversee every issue, pick every cover, every Playmate, oversee all the cartoons, letters, party jokes, and go over the dummy as each issue comes together, and make changes and suggestions in terms of layout. So I'm still very much an editor. But I do have a very good staff.
Complex: Which magazines do you feel are making the same kind of noise that Playboy did when you first started it?
Hugh Hefner: If you're talking about social change, there is no other magazine, I don't think, over the last 50 years. There is no other magazine that has had such a resounding, powerful impact in terms of social change. I can't even begin to name number two.
Complex: Do you think it's possible for a magazine to even do that anymore?
Hugh Hefner: Of course, absolutely, sure, yes.
Complex: So why do you think magazines don't?
Hugh Hefner: I think the very nature of magazines, the fact that it's a very personal form of journalism and it speaks with a personal voice. It depends on what a person has in their mind. I must say, quite frankly, that this is not a generation of significant change. We may be seeing some curious kinds of changes on the political front—the Tea Party phenomenon, etc.—but in terms of the kind of dogmatic social-sexual-political changes that took place in the '60s, you don't see anything comparable to that today, and of course there isn't quite the same need for it either.
Complex: Switching gears to the girls in the magazine, who from the past has been your favorite cover model?
Hugh Hefner: [Laughs.] That's a tough one. Uh... [Laughs.] Just looking at some of the issues here... I really don't know. I think that Hope Dworaczyk looked gorgeous. She was on the June issue.
Complex: What about back in the day? I think I remember the documentary saying that Jayne Mansfield was the all-time best seller at the time. Who would you say has the all-time best body out of any Playmate?
Hugh Hefner: [Laughs.] Oh boy, uh—I have no idea! I think it's a matter of personal taste. What sets the Playmates apart is that they're very natural girls-next-door kind of [with a] California outdoor-sy look about them. When Playboy began, the models in the women's magazines looked like someone's older sister. And young women back in the 1950s, when they were dressed up—even the younger ones—would wear pointed bras and girdles to bring a natural kind of look. And I made a case from very early on that the most beautiful women were the most natural.
Complex: Have you seen a change in the body type that appears in the magazine throughout the years? It seems that, back in the early says, the women were more full-figured. And now, they've slimmed up. Do you see that?
Hugh Hefner: Well, I don't think it's any question that women are healthier, although there's some indication that people are getting fatter. I think that, as compared to 50 years ago, beautiful women are taller and healthier. The taste really hasn't changed that much. There isn't a whole lot of difference between Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson.
Complex: You were talking about the amount of reading that people are doing now. Which writers in particular are you enjoying at the moment?
Hugh Hefner: Well, I just finished a biography on Warren Beatty called Star [How Warren Beatty Seduced America], a non-fiction [by Peter Biskind]. And the reason for picking it up is that I know the players, the characters.
Complex: Cool. Another cool part of the documentary was seeing clips of the Playboy After Dark show that you produced and hosted. Does it still exist?
Hugh Hefner: Yes, we have all those shows on tape, and indeed, several of them—the original Playboy's Penthouse and Playboy After Dark—were released in two packages, with about 12 shows, on DVD a couple years ago.
Complex: Are there any plans to bring that back in any capacity?
Hugh Hefner: There's always continuing talk about it, and I think that I would encourage it. It's quite possible.
Complex: You're probably asked about this all the time, but who is the most unexpected visitor to the Playboy Mansion?
Hugh Hefner: Hmmm, you're asking good questions! The most unexpected...Mary O'Connor, my secretary, who's sitting here, suggests Donald Trump. I suppose Muhammad Ali, but along the way, almost everyone lines up here eventually.
Complex: Are the stories true about people trying to break into the mansion?
Hugh Hefner: Oh yes. There was even a reality show here that aired a few months ago on either VH1 or MTV, about a couple of young guys who actually had a bucket list—the things they most wanted to do in life—and one of them was to get into the Playboy Mansion. They managed to find a way to, during the Candyland charity event, sneak a fake cake in. They released that on the show.
Complex: I know that you said that you feel that the same problems that were affecting people when you first started the magazine are still prevalent. But what do you think is the most pressing issue facing Americans in 2010?
Hugh Hefner: Well, I think, very clearly, the economy. The major problem is the economy—that, and war.