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At the Bunny Girls’ Reunion

August 28, 2011
by the gentle author

On Sunday night, I attended the most glamorous party of my life. It was a Bunny Girls & Playboy Models’ reunion hosted by ex-Bunny Barbara Haigh, esteemed landlady of The Grapes in Limehouse. Never have I encountered more voluptuous charismatic ladies per square metre than were crammed joyfully together in the tiny bar-rooms of this historic riverside pub that night.

With Sarah Ainslie, Spitalfields Life contributing photographer, as my chaperone, I was thrilled to join this exuberant sisterhood of more than a hundred garrulous alpha females for a knees-up. Squeezing my way through the curvy bodies – fine specimens of their sex who have all got what it takes to succeed in life – I arrived on the river frontage where waves were crashing theatrically over the verandah as if, in reenactment of Botticelli’s Venus, each of these goddesses had just emerged triumphant from the Thames’ spray to delight the souls of mere mortals like myself.

The first Aphrodite to catch my eye was cheeky Bunny Sandie (pictured above), the seventh Bunny to join the newly opened Playboy Club in Park Lane in 1966, who is more formally known these days as Lady Sandra Bates. Within seconds of our introduction, Sandie gleefully revealed she had bedded Sean Connery, Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty and Telly Savalas, emphasising that her most important conquest was Sir Charles Clore, owner of Selfridges and Mappin & Webb. “I was living in a house in Mayfair at the time, but the owner put it up for sale and wanted to throw me out, so I told Charles and he bought it for me!” she declared with a glittering smile, rolling her chestnut eyes, batting her eyelashes and clutching her hands in girlish pleasure. “You should see my art collection!” she proposed recklessly now that her husband Sir Charles is no more, as we shared a glass of wine on the veranda and the setting sun lit up the clouds, turning the river livid pink.

It was a remarkable overture to an unforgettable evening, because these girls all know how to party. Bunnies had flown in from all over the world, Tasmania, Las Vegas, the Bahamas, Egypt and as far away as Australia to celebrate the glory days of the British Playboy Club that ran from 1966 until 1980. As Marilyn Cole (the first full frontal nude in the history of Playboy in 1972) put it so elegantly in her speech of welcome, “When people ask ‘Where did you go to school?’ I say, ‘Fuck that, I went to the University of Playboy! You learn much more about life.’” An astute comment that drew roars of approval from the assembled Bunnies.

Marilyn, resplendent in a quilted leather miniskirt and thigh length high-heeled boots, ushered me over to meet her famously reclusive husband Victor Lownes, who opened the London Playboy Club. Formerly in charge of all Playboy’s gaming operations, Victor Lownes is a bon-viveur who was once Britain’s highest paid executive, counted Francis Bacon and Roman Polanski as friends and reputedly had five girls a day, sometimes two at once. He looked at me benignly from under a mop of white hair across the chasm of our different experiences of life. “Do you miss it?” I enquired tentatively, and Victor rolled his twinkly eyes in good-humoured irony. “What do you think? I am eighty-two years old!” he replied with dignified restraint.

There was a giddy atmosphere in the Grapes that night and so I chose to embrace the spirit of the occasion and mingle with as many Bunnies as possible. “I was a young girl from a very religious strict background in Birmingham who ran away from home.”admitted Bobbie, one of first black Bunnies, who worked at the Playboy Club from 1975-80, “I was shopping one day and I went along to ‘a cattle drive’ and out of fifty girls was one of a handful accepted to be a Bunny. I had four wonderful years that totally changed my life. It was a terrific experience. I have run my own business for the past twenty years and the things I learnt at Playboy set me on the road to be able to do that.”

“There was only one rule,’Don’t touch the Bunnies!’”explained Bunny Erica, raising a finger of authority,“Membership of the Playboy Club came with a key, which members handed in when they arrived and collected when they left. If somebody went too far the management took away their key. So the men always behaved respectfully. You were never forced to do anything. It’s made to seem cheap now – but we wore two pair of tights, our costumes were fitted and stiffened with whalebone, we even put toilet rolls down the front as padding – it was an illusion. We were supposed to share tips, but I put mine down my costume and when I took it off all the banknotes would fall out. The money was fabulous. Playboy gave us the most amazing part of our lives. It gave us freedom. It gave us a love of humanity. It enlightened us.”

“I was the very first UK Bunny to be hired in 1966,” declared Bunny Alexis, still glowing with pride over forty years later, “I was a dancer at the Talk of the Town in Leicester Sq on £12 a week, but at Playboy I earned £200. I was already married with a child and on the strength of my two years as a Bunny I was able to buy our first house in Wood Green. It was the hardest work, eight hours a day on five-inch heels with just one half hour break. But it was good fun and we met all the most amazing people. 1966 was a very good year!”

People often ask what happened to the nineteen sixties, yet here the evidence was all around me. It was a buzz to be in a room full of such self-confident women who knew who they were and were supremely comfortable with it too, women with their wits about them, who counted brains amongst other natural assets when it came to interactions with the opposite sex. Women who knew how to make the best of the situation they found themselves in at the Playboy Club –  unashamedly constructed as an arena of male fantasy yet, paradoxically, as all these women testify thirty years on, provided opportunities for them to take control of their lives.

Undoubtedly there were those that, as Bunny Serena put it succinctly, “screwed their way to the top,” but equally there were many who, as Bunny Lara confirmed, found it, “An empowering experience. They sent us on management training courses, and I learnt how to handle people and manage staff. All of which has come in useful ever since in everything I have done.” She now runs a young offenders’ programme, training staff in conflict management. Many women I spoke with occupy senior management roles in the gaming and entertainment industry today – including one who manages a chain of casinos – in jobs that would have been closed to them previously.

Above all, these were women who were full of life, they had seen so much life and had so many stories to tell, that it was wonderful simply to be amongst them, confirming Bunny Lara’s fond verdict on her experience working at the Playboy Club, “The camaraderie was phenomenal.”

Bunny Cleo, with evidence of her encounter with Sid James at The Playboy Club.

Marilyn Cole, “Whatever else happens in life, good, bad or indifferent, we can always say we had this!”

Bunny Maretta & Bunny friend.

Bunny Marisa is now an artist painting in oils.

Bunny Dilys & Bunny friend.

Bunny Alexis, ex-Windmill Girl was the very first UK Bunny to be recruited in 1966.

Bunny Serena & Bunny Jane.

Bunny Bobbie

Bunny Brenda, Bunny Nancy & Bunny Marion

Victor Lownes, “What is a playboy? It is someone who is getting more sex than you are.”

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. August 28, 2011

    This one absolutely deserved to be reprised. So does the one about the trannies. And whatever happened to that party you were supposed to be organising……:-) Brilliant stuff!

  2. sophie permalink
    March 13, 2012

    i feel annoyed as the croupiers never get an invite to any of these reuions, we were as much a part of the playboy as the cocktails bunnies……how does one hear of these things……?? a very sad ex bunny

  3. January 28, 2013

    This such a wonderful in depth feature and it’s great to see the girls getting together to reminisce about the high life – they deserve everything that they have got and of they haven’t got much they have many memorable experiences to carry with them for a life time.

  4. Ruth K permalink
    May 8, 2013

    So much botox.

  5. Sandra permalink
    June 19, 2013

    I was at the playboy in the early seventies my bunny name was Jane just recently I lost all my old memories in a house fire . If any one remembers me it would be great to get in touch for the memories

  6. Mia permalink
    May 21, 2014

    I agree I was a croupier and I was one of the 25 picked for the 25hours party in tring at stocks. I still live in London, left on good terms, but the croupiers never have invitations….we don’t hear about it.
    Well here’s my email above , my bunny name was/is ‘Mia’ so if anything else comes up please invite me and I will find loads of croupiers that worked there

  7. Diana Airey permalink
    October 30, 2014

    I agree as a croupier, would love to meet up.

  8. Diana Airey permalink
    October 30, 2014

    I was a croupier at the London Playboy Club from 1966-1968 then went on to the Penthouse. Dealt American Roulette and my ‘mentor’ was Fiona Richards, then Bunny Amber. My Bunny mother was Jeanette & Molly Mouse made the costumes. My Bunny name was Dusty because there was already a cocktail Bunny called Diana & it was easier for the wages dept. if we had different names! My costume was shocking pink but I only have 2 photos in black & white (taken by the Camera Bunny). Would love to meet up with other ex croupiers, why don’t we have our own reunion? I now live near Oxford but can easily get to London. Diana (nee Saville)

  9. Barbara Haigh permalink
    February 3, 2015

    A message to all of the Ex-Bunnies in the above list of complaints about not being invited to the reunions. Anybody who is an ex-Playboy Bunny, Cocktail or Croupier, is invited to the reunion; anyone who was a male member of staff e.g. dealers, inspectors, room directors, cashiers, floor managers, pit bosses etc., etc., etc. are also invited.

    The reason you haven’t had any news about these parties is that you haven’t kept in touch with anyone who worked there or you haven’t researched any of the contacts. Dozens of croupiers turn up every year! Numbers grow every year!

    Go to the website and all reunion news and photos from previous get-togethers is there, including details of this year’s gathering in October 2015.

    Ex-Bunny Barbara – Organiser

  10. Rosemarie Virgo permalink
    April 24, 2018

    Hello Barbara
    I started at the Club in Park Lane in 1968, I waited for my eighteenth birthday before I could begin in February. I did a variety of jobs over several years but started in the Casino dealing blackjack. I then trained for cocktail which was less stressful and also was Camera bunny for a while. I would love to be told of any future parties and see you, Brenda and many other girls I worked with.
    Kind Regards,
    Rose Virgo

  11. Val Lownes permalink
    March 24, 2020

    It always amazes me how much affection and joy has lasted through the years with this association with Playboy. It was fun “back in the day,” but in many cases the memories seem even more enjoyable now.

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