More than 60 years later, Playboy is still trying to accomplish what it first set out to do when the brand was born. And now more than ever that mission is an important one. From the time when Hugh Hefner launched Playboy in an attempt to normalize sexuality in 1953 to six months ago when his son Cooper Hefner took over as CCO of Playboy Enterprises, the war for civil rights, women's rights, and LGBTQ rights still rages on almost as if 60 years haven't passed. Many people, especially younger generations, may not know that Playboy was more than just a nude magazine. Hugh actually played a massive role in the fight for civil rights back in the '60s, and now, Cooper hopes to continue his father's legacy in the current fight for women's rights.
For those who don't know about Hugh's contributions and impact on the fight for civil rights, that's where Amazon's new series American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story comes in. The continuation and retelling of the Playboy legacy features unprecedented access to never-before-seen archive footage and personal scrapbook collections of Hugh's. The 10-episode series, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, chronicles Hugh's life and the history of the Playboy brand that he built from the ground up. But the show doesn't just glamorize the parties and envious lifestyle Hugh enjoyed; it also takes a deep look into the lesser known story of his fight for and impact on free speech, civil rights, women’s rights and more and Playboy's impact on global culture and history.
Telling that major part of Hugh's life is one of the main reasons why Cooper wanted his father's story to be heard in this new way.
"Certainly the civil rights activism and the LGBTQ activism in my father's story... I think that's surprising to a lot of people," Cooper tells Bustle over the phone. "They don't realize the role Playboy as well as my father played in paving a path. I'm not trying to generalize here because when you talk to people who are older, they do [usually know about that], but I'm talking as a 25-year-old that many men and women who belong to Gen Y and the millennial generation are not familiar with that side of the brand. That's exciting on a personal and professional note for us to share with people. Amazon did a really great job of telling the entire narrative."
The series is a mix of archived footage from Hugh's life, interviews with people like Bill Maher, Gene Simmons, Denise Richards, James Caan, Jessie Jackson, Dr. Ruth, Pam Anderson and more, and reenactments of Hugh's life, making it a docuseries that plays like a fascinating nonfiction drama.
"What was most special to me was seeing these parts of the brand come to life in reenactments," Cooper says. "And talking to my dad about his fight for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson and these documents he has held on to where he was exchanging these telegraph blows with Ronald Reagan about what the sexual value should be, that was special for me to relive and share with people."
But Cooper doesn't just want the series to tell his father's story to a new audience. He also hopes that by watching, a new generation will open their eyes to what's happening in the world.
"I hope that people who are my age can take a moment to pause and realize that so much of what was being experienced in the '50s, '60s and '70s is actually happening now," Cooper says. "There's a conservative movement in government — and I'm not saying anything that's going to surprise you — and there's conversation about women's rights, and the First Amendment, and civil rights, and the LGBTQ community. The saying, 'history repeats itself,' could not be more on point today because there are certainly a lot of scary parallels."
He pauses, then continues: "I hope that's an undertone note that people take away. I think that comes from being a millennial and knowing I belong to a generation that has a tendency of not quite being aware of where we came from, and just digesting media quickly. There's a lot that we can still learn."
Cooper believes "100 percent" that his father and the Playboy brand are feminist, and argues that Playboy is "massively important" in the current fight for women's rights.
"I mean, look, the amazing thing about feminism or maybe the problem with feminism is it's a lot like the word 'love,'" Cooper says. "It means one too many things to too many people. When I think about the fight that Playboy has historically played on women's rights, I don't even necessarily look at it as a brand that has fought for women's rights, I don't look at it as a brand that has fought for a male agenda. I really look at it as a brand that fought to normalize sexuality and bring sex out of the closet and find a way to say we should celebrate the fact that the two sexes are attracted to each other, because that attraction is ultimately what allows us to exist. For whatever reason, we've decided to consider sex dirty and shame it and I think that is exactly what the Playboy philosophy has communicated, what my dad spent his life fighting for for 63 years, which is that sex can sit next to sophistication and that sex should sit next to intellect. That fight is really far from over."
As the current head of the Playboy brand, Cooper has already put into motion initiatives that he hopes will help the right side of history win.
"We brought nudity back to the magazine," he says. "When I stepped into the role of Chief Creative Officer six and a half months ago, that was one of the first agenda items that I wanted to tackle. What's fascinating is I think the fact that we were having that debate internally of what Playboy should be is really a direct impact of what was happening outside of our office walls. We are going through a time where what it means to be a liberal and what it means to be a conservative is not entirely clear, what it means to be a feminist or an activist is not entirely clear. So in the most recent issue, my fiancé was actually in it with an really wonderful op-ed about her interpretation of feminism."
Cooper explains that Playboy's fight to normalize and celebrate sexuality goes hand-in-hand with the fight for equal rights for women and feminism.
"Women for so long have been shamed for trying to own their sexuality by both men and women," he says. "The idea of me having the ability — although I don't think anyone would buy the issue — to be published on Men's Health topless and a women being published on a magazine sitting right next to it topless and for whatever reason us feeling a need to cover that up, is a direct reflection of society's 'uncomfortability' with sex and how women have a tendency in every circumstance whether it's sex or in the workplace or anywhere else of really getting the bad end of the stick. It's promoting that conversation and continuing to promote a healthy debate and understanding that we don't all need to agree with each other, but what we all should do is fight to understand each other."
When asked how Hugh would have handled the current controversial political climate had he been building the Playboy brand today, Cooper pauses to think for a long time, before answering carefully.
"That's one of my gauges, if I'm being honest with you," he says of his current position as the head of his father's empire. "It's important for me to say that I bring my own set of eyes to the table but I frequently say, if my dad was doing this today, what would he do and how would he make it make sense? How do we take 63 years of history and editorial content and continue to create new stories but still celebrate that and unapologetically live in our past? We have to celebrate our heritage. That's what we're doing across our platforms."
He continues, "We discover young talent and get young people to contribute while still holding on to that publishing credibility that was brought to the table with people like Kerouac and Ian Fleming and Ray Bradbury and MLK Jr. writing for the magazine. We just ran a piece of original fiction by Stephen King a couple weeks ago and a really wonderful interview with Scarlett Johansen. It's a mix."
While Cooper admits that he wasn't shocked by anything that the series uncovered about his father's life — "I'm pretty familiar with my dad's story" — working with his father on the new Amazon show did teach him something surprising about Hugh.
"It was pretty unbelievable how meticulous he was about the details as we developed this with Amazon and Stephen David," Cooper says with a laugh. "And he has every right to be because it's his story. But it was obnoxious at times."
When pressed for an example, Cooper replies, "There was a scene that we were shooting and he said, '1965, the girl I was with was wearing a cast.' It was like, well, OK do we reshoot it? It was that level of detail that he wanted to make sure was accurate."
It sounds like Hugh ran American Playboy with the same level of commitment that he ran Playboy.