The unexpected death of Playboy creator, Hugh Hefner, has sparked a news frenzy of information surrounding Hefner and his publication. The world has been privy to many Playboy secrets; from celebrity centerfolds to “Hef’s” notorious home, there are few things the world doesn’t know about the magazine, including the fact that the designer of the famous bunny costume was a black woman.
In 1952, Hugh Hefner left his copywriting job in Chicago to start a men’s entertainment magazine. In 1952, Zelda Wynn Valdes had already opened the first black-owned boutique in Manhattan had dressed big names like Dorothy Dandridge, Jessye Norman and Gladys Knight. After Hefner saw how glamorous Valdes’ clients looked, he commissioned her to design the first-ever Playboy bunny costume. Valdes’ costume made its first formal appearance at the opening of the Chicago Playboy Club in 1960.
Since the costume’s inaugural appearance, it has been altered several times – by Halloween stores and true playmates. In 1963, journalist and famed feminist Gloria Steinem went undercover in Valdes’ bunny costume to expose the unknown life of a Playboy girl. Steinem wrote that the costumes were so tight that bunnies often stuffed the costume with silk, socks or plastic to keep from getting injured after walking all night in the club.
Although Hefner has been cited as a progressive in the civil rights movement for his support of Martin Luther King Jr. and publishing controversial interviews between Root’s creator Alex Haley and notable civil rights figures, the magazine’s “entertainment” section was not as forward-thinking. The first black Playmate, Jennifer Jackson, did not appear in the magazine until 1962, 9 years after the first issue. In 1970, 17 years after the premiere issue, Jean Bell became the first black Playboy covergirl.
Since then, Playboy has debuted many black women – famous and unknown – to its readers. Hefner was adored and abhorred by many, but there is no denying the influence he had on American sexuality and public displays of eroticism.