It seems rather quaint, by today‘s standards: I tucked away my reporter’s badge and went “undercover” to audition for the Playboy Club in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Yes, I know – Gloria Steinem did it first. But I was barely out of diapers in 1963, and didn‘t read her article.)
They came in droves, searching for stardom. Some with fresh-faced prom queen smiles and some whose faces belied their youthful shapes. Many came in pairs (“Gee, what if one of us makes it” they giggled), some brought boyfriends and one or two even were flanked by parents.
Makeup ranged from nonexistent to theatrical – so did the costumes.
“Wear leotard or bathing suit and high heels,“ the Playboy ad requested in its call for prospective bunnies.
“You mean it didn’t specify one-piece bathing suits?” asked Bunny April, in St. Petersburg from the Dallas club for the local bunny-hunt, Playboy-speak for en-masse viewings of area talent. Her eyes rolled. “You’re really going to see some sights.”
She was right: Appropriate attire was far overshadowed by innumerable tributes to vulgarity. Breasts and bottoms strutted about the Bayfront Concourse lobby clad in string bikinis. Some labored under the gross misconception that prospective bunnies must bare all.
But not everyone. Working my way through the thongs in the lobby, I met several women who were actually clothed – among them a mother of two who sought part-time work, an airline stewardess there on a lark and Jean Albrecht, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer cheerleader now working as a marketing consultant.
“Whether I make it or not, I thought the experience would be good for me,” Albrecht said, managing a smile.
I watched her stand for a full-length Polaroid snapshot that was stapled to her application for identification. Trudging back out to the hall, yet another line formed – this one to International Bunny Mother Harriet Bassler, worldwide bunny coordinator.
“I got this yesterday,“ giggled the woman behind me, whipping aside her bathing suit bottom to reveal a Playboy logo tattoo on her hip. “Isn‘t it cute?”
Cute, real cute.
I was so taken with our conversation that I almost missed the announcement that a centerfold photographer would take test shots of anyone interested in becoming a playmate of the month. One by one, girls quietly left the line to approach him, closing his hotel room door behind them.
Many bypassed the opportunity and were ushered into Bassler’s small sitting room.
After a few questions she requested they, “Take a short walk, turn around and come back to me with a great big smile.“
Checking out the derriere, of course. Playboy vice president John Tosarello had remarked on it earlier. “You can find the nicest personality and the prettiest face, but if she can’t fit into the costume, forget it.”
End of interview. Many women had spent upwards of six hours waiting for 90 seconds of discussion. What can be discerned about a woman in such a short period of time?
“Actually, I just look at the physical appearance,” Bassler admitted in a later interview. “The way a girl is built, if she’s well-proportioned, has a nice smile, pretty face and somewhat of a personality, certainly. And I always take into consideration that the girl is nervous.”
The throng was whittled to 100 and from that number, 25 young women were offered ears to staff the Playmate Lounge and Bunny Boutique…Among them was former Buccaneer cheerleader Jean Albrecht.
“I feel like I’ve been through boot camp this past week,” Albrecht sighed. “Of course, it could just be the hose – you wear two pair. One pair of support hose that make me work up a sweat every time I get ‘em past my ankles, and one pair of black.”
(Those were even more essential than her fluffy, white tail!)