The pre-convention partying has commenced in Los Angeles. The host committee–the civic leaders responsible for shaking down the taxpayers to bring the Dems to town–threw an obligatory media party at the Department of Water and Power in downtown Los Angeles. A few blocks down, the Los Angeles Times hosted a bash called "Media Insides Real and Celluloid" at which the paper's editor recycled the tired joke, "Politics is just show business for ugly people," confusing us all by also declaring that politics, show business, and news overlapped.
But the hot ticket wasn't downtown–it was at the Playboy Mansion, where Hugh Hefner threw a welcoming bash for members of the press. The moralists at the Democratic National Convention may have abandoned Hef and the freedom for which he stands, but Hef wasn't abandoning the media.
On the shuttle to the mansion–we parked at a UCLA garage gratis and then were driven to the mansion–there was great anticipation. Pat Caddell, a one-time McGovernite and now a writer for The West Wing, was aboard, as was Time's Margaret Carlson. Carlson worked Caddell, ever so subtly, for a slot as a consultant to West Wing. A producer for the Ollie North Show, who later told a Playboy rep that Ollie told him to get pictures, and David Gregory from MSNBC wondered if we were going to get the full Playboy treatment or if it'd be a watered-down version (more on that later).
Once at the mansion, I grabbed a vodka tonic at the poolside bar and went to work. I wasn't on hand simply to ogle the playmates from afar while stuffing myself on appetizers and getting soused on stiff drinks: I wanted to find out what Hef and the Playmates thought of the incredible dissing they got from the DNC.
"There's a lifestyle that the Playboy mansion represents," DNC Chairman Joe Andrews tut-tutted to the Los Angeles Times. "And that lifestyle is not one this party supports." It should be pointed out that the lifestyle supports the party: The Hefners, Hugh and daughter and business partner Christine, have handed over $50,000 to the DNC over the last decade. They've ponied up an additional $9,500 to Clinton and Gore.
I was particularly interested in discovering who the Playmates were planning to vote for: Would the Democrats' back-handed slap make them do a Mary Cheney and go exclusively to Bush? Or would they, like the rest of Hollywood, stick with the Dems even though the Gore/Lieberman ticket is lousy with entertainment-industry bashers?
Hef had bashed the DNC in the morning's L.A. Times, accusing the party of hypocrisy for taking his money but not allowing him to host a classy party for what he said was a wonderful congresswoman and her noble cause. Most of the partyers, including all the Playmates, parroted this line. Miss July 2000, Neferteri Shepherd, said it best: "If you don't want to play with the Playmates, then don't play with the Playmates' money."
I caught up with Hef, who has quite a skill for giving interviews to multiple people at the same time. Standing pool side in a dark suit and salmon colored shirt, he called Gore and those at the DNC "authoritarians and bullies" for what they did to Rep. Loretta Sanchez. "They threatened to destroy her career in politics. It was the lowest," said Hef, who thinks the episode will ultimately help Playboy, since Americans don't like bullies. "This is a step backwards," he said, when I asked him what it meant for freedom that even the Democratic Party was dissociating itself from the free expression represented by him and and the entire Playboy family.
But here's the deal: Even after mishandling the fundraiser, the Gore/Lieberman ticket is still not likely to lose the Playmate vote to Bush, although Nader is a threat. Neferteri, who was wearing pink ears, says she's a Democrat, although she's not sure who she'll vote for.
The same goes for Victoria Fuller, a.k.a. Miss January 1996. "I'm just so unsure, to be honest," she tells me. "I'm not gung ho about either Gore or Bush, but I'll probably vote for Gore because I believe in the things he stands for." I followed up with a litany of Gore's positions, figuring she might believe that global warming nonsense. Nope, it turns out that she's thinking only of abortion.
Angel Boris, Miss July 1996, has never voted before, but is considering it this year in light of the controversy. That's not to say she's cozying up to the GOP. "I not a big Bush fan," the 26 year-old in turquoise ears confides in me, saying the Texan's position on abortion is a deal-breaker. But she'll have a hard time pulling the lever for Gore, so she'll be another California vote for Nader, if she makes it to the polls. "I'm quite a homebody," she tells me.
Angel is also quite persistent. She wanted to be a Playmate since she saw the magazine as a girl and thought the women were beautiful and classy. The Florida native didn't achieve instant success, however, in her chosen field. The first time she sent in pictures, the powers at Playboy turned her down, and she was forced to support herself with a series of jobs, including working as a chiropractic assistant, a dry cleaner, and a groundskeeper at her apartment complex. Angel has a message for the rest of us who cave in at the first sign of failure: "I didn't give up." It was only after Playboy scouts saw her on another modeling gig that they decided to put her in the center of the magazine.
As my lovely wife knows, interviewing the Playmates on politics was just an excuse to snuggle up to them for a spell. And since we tended to exhaust political topics quickly, I explored larger themes with them. I haven't met people who like their jobs so much since I interviewed UPS drivers.
What's not to like? Playmates can come and go as they please at the Mansion. Ever wonder why they don't have any tan lines? It's because on any given day 20 to 30 will be pool side, working on tanning those hard to reach places. Sunday is movie night. Two Playmates told me that Hef doesn't go to movies, but instead has first run movies brought to him. Hef has a way of making each of them feel special. It's great to be a member of the Playboy family, I was told more than once. (I would certainly love to be adopted.) The grounds are gorgeous. There's the expansive pool with a humid cave, for the occasional rainy day. The huge dressing-room style bathrooms come supplied with all the products a girl ever needs, Tampax, disposable razors, Vaseline, Q-Tips, body lotion, mouthwash, shaving cream, Pepto-Bismol. A private zoo features monkeys and birds. A game room contains Playboy pinball, Pac Man, and Donkey Kong.
The Playmates know they're members of an exclusive club that people of all five genders would love a chance to enter. "It's not about being naked," Playmate Victoria Fuller told me, her baby blue bunny ears sagging forward. "It's about being one of the chosen few."
Fuller is a pop artist who idolizes Andy Warhol. We found we had much in common: She says people think pop art is easy because it's simple but they're wrong because you have to have the idea. I told her I could sympathize, since people thought my job was easy too, but they don't understand that I too must come up with ideas and execute them. She said she first got interested in Playboy as a young girl, looking in her father's magazine. I too got interested as a young boy, looking not at my dad's magazines, but at those of the employees of his construction company, who helpfully kept stacks in the break room and bathroom and posted up the centerfolds in the shop.
Ms. Fuller is an entrepreneur; I occasionally freelance. She got $25,000 for the initial spread, but that was only the beginning. I earned $25,000 a year at my first job out of college, but it was just my beginning.
"I found it just wasn't the pictures, but a positive tool that empowers women," she told me. I too at times have found Playboy to be a useful tool–I relied on it heavily for a paper on feminists and pornography I wrote for a class at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her most recent tool is a soon-to-be functional membership Web site, www.victoriafuller.com, through which she will interact with fans and post new pictures each week. (Hef encourages all the Playmates to run their own Web sites, which he links to off the central Playboy page.) Victoria is a rage in Japan, a country she considers more open-minded than the United States. "We are too conservative here," she complains, another sentiment with which I agree. She's been to the Land of the Rising Sun and loves it. I went to Japan last November and loved it. She's been to Fiji and loved that too. I've never been there but am now considering a trip.
"I'd rather look at Playboy than Playgirl," she continued, again drawing a parallel to me. "Of course, I know everyone who's in there," she said. "It's like, who's going to be my new friend." Again, another connection, although in my case a totally imaginary one.
For all the fun—and it was fun—by night's end, I had a sense of tremendous missed opportunity. Offering the Playboy Mansion and Playmates to D.C. press folks, I realized, is like offering the Indy 500 speedway and cars to your 85-year-old grandmother. The rounds may get made, but there are plenty of gears that don't even get used.
"Absolutely church," is how a veteran Playboy Mansion bartender evaluated the party for me. A week ago, he said, Hef had his Midsummer Night's Dream party, at which 1,200 guests arrived in sleeping attire (and in Los Angeles, sleeping naked is popular). But no one got naked at this party, not even Arianna Huffington, who'll do just about anything for attention.
"This is tame even by voter.com standards," groused a Weekly Standard staffer, referring to that dot.com's kick-off party at DC's Union Station. And when the Weekly Standard–a magazine that has run cover stories on "the case for censorship"–finds a party restrained, you know you've hit rock bottom.
But perhaps it's only that the press is less interested in fleshly pursuits and more dedicated to a different vice: As another bartender told me, "You people drink more than others. You press people: Someone says 'free booze,' and boom!"