Mention Hugh Hefner to pretty much anybody and they’ll immediately conjure up images of a man surrounded by beautiful ladies at the Playboy Mansion. However, there’s a lot more to Hefner judging by the “American Playboy – The Hugh Hefner Story” series on Amazon Prime. Set over 10 episodes, this docu-drama gives us an insight into how Playboy started, how it grew into a major worldwide brand and some of the many battles Hefner faced along the way. Note that this review does contain spoilers!
My initial view of Hefner was pretty much along the lines of the first sentence. However, after episode 1 of the series that view soon changed. Hefner started Playboy after his them employer, Esquire Magazine, refused him a payrise. Rather than carry on working and feeling undervalued he set out to create his own men’s entertainment magazine to beat Esquire.
The big break for Playboy’s first issue was managing to acquire pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Hefner turned up at a meeting to purchase the pictures and expected to pay a fortune – a fortune he didn’t have. As is, the cost price was at a “bite your hand off” rate – but Hefner managed to stay cool and calm before beating the price down!
This stroke of luck sets the wheels in motion for Hefner and his new magazine. Success quickly follows success. From a business point of view, the whole series is fascinating in terms of the how the Playboy Empire grew. Who know that it was Playboy were involved with Monty Python’s first movie – “And Now for Something Completely Different”? In fact Hefner was involved with a whole host of things – a TV show, casinos, clubs, resorts and even a record label.
And then there was the magazine! What’s quite evident from the series was Hefner’s vision! He wanted Playboy to promote popular culture, speak out on issues of the day including racism and censorship, and set topics of conversation among it’s many readers. There were of course the ladies and early on we learn how the centrefold spread came about. Later on, when Playboy finally gets competition from Penthouse, we see how Hefner reacts to make sure they stay ahead of the game.
No one’s life is plain sailing though and this series is punctuated with some sadness and intrigue – both personally and business wise. Episode 8 – Sex, Drugs and DEA Investigations, for example, covers the DEA’s attempts to take the Playboy Empire with a trumped up drugs charge against Hefner’s close friend, Bobbie Arnstein. The charge ends up in Arnstein taking her own life!
In terms of business, episode 10 – My Way – is the most intriguing. Despite multiple business interests, 85% of the Playboy profits came from London Casinos. When the licences for them are lost, again possibly down to a bogus charge, the empire almost crumbles. The lesson here obviously being don’t have all your eggs in one basket and don’t run multiple interests that are losing money!
The series itself is entertaining. The docu-drama lends itself well to keeping you interested, although at times I’d rather have listened to the real Hefner as opposed to the one played by Matt Whelan. The cast do a good job but the star of the show is always Hefner himself. Throughout the series there are old clips of TV shows, club nights and parties at the Playboy Mansion – all documenting the life of a man who created a vision and then went and lived it!
Rushing To Finish
The last two episodes are perhaps the biggest disappointment of the series. Both feel rushed! It’s like the writers got to episode 9 and realised they’ve got 30 odd years of Playboy to squeeze into just two episodes. The loss of the London Casino licences and dismissal of Victor Lownes have intrigue all over them, especially as it almost kills off the brand. However the segment in episode 10 left many unanswered questions.
Overall though this is a fascinating series and the final two episodes don’t take anything away from the other eight. Whether it paints an accurate picture of Hefner, his vision and his lifestyle I don’t know – the caveat is that the series is “as I [Hefner] remembers it”. The series does give an insight into how one man had an idea and that idea became a massive global brand – all stemming from not getting a payrise and then getting a massive stroke of luck at the start of the process.
The takeaways from a business point of view I’d say would be believe in yourself and your vision, surround yourself with the right people, don’t over stretch or spread yourself too thin, watch your competitors and have a lot of fun! As the trailer above says, if you think you know about Hugh Hefner – you don’t know the half of it.