Behind every man's success is a woman. In Hugh Hefner's case, there are thousands of women. The Playboy mogul died at 91 on Wednesday, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar brand and a silk-robed legacy.
Though the Casanova and his business drew wide criticism from feminists and conservatives for sexualizing women for decades, his cotton-tailed allies say he was simply being a good businessman.
Several former Playboy Bunnies either live in the Phoenix area or worked here.
Ex-Bunny Pam Auble, who worked at the Phoenix Playboy Club in the 1970s, said she had the utmost respect for Hefner.
"He was the ultimate businessman," Auble said. "He wasn’t this sex person that everyone thought. He marketed a product. He was revolutionary."
Of course, Auble doesn't overlook the obvious — after all, this is Hugh Hefner we're talking about.
When the magazine subscriptions dropped and the nightclubs lost their glamour, Hefner pivoted. To a younger audience, he's known as the old man in silk pajamas surrounded by gorgeous 20-somethings on E!'s The Girls Next Door.
“He’s not a playboy, if you really knew him," Auble said. "I saw beyond this façade. Let’s get real, he’s 90 years old with these young girls.”
No judgment, though, Auble said. He was building his empire. After all, at his peak Hefner was reportedly worth $200 million.
After the first Playboy club was opened in Chicago in 1960, the brand expanded to 45 clubs worldwide over the course of 54 years. From there, Bunnies did what they do best — they multiplied.
Auble was recruited to work at the Phoenix club in 1970. She had to wait two months until her 21st birthday to start working.
“I'm not a country bumpkin, but it was a totally different realm," Auble said of her two years working at the club.
While bunny life doesn't define her, she said, it certainly sustained her lifestyle. She bought herself a Mercedes Benz before she even had a license.
"I thought I retired at 25," she said.
She met Hefner and his then-wife Barbi Benton at the Chicago mansion when she was visiting a friend for Christmas.
Auble hasn't held onto much Bunny memorabilia, but she kept a Christmas card signed by Hefner to commemorate the trip.
Her favorite part, though? The mansion's 24-hour kitchen.
For Scottsdale resident and former New York Bunny Bobbie Walters, Playboy was a dream come true for an aspiring actress from New Jersey.
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After landing minor parts in movies, Walters came across a Playboy magazine in the supermarket one day when it clicked. That was what she wanted to be.
As luck would have it, the New York club was holding auditions. The Bunny Mother looked her up and down and decided she was in. Walters began her training to become Bunny Bobbie.
Walters studied the Bunny Bible cover to cover. She was there to work.
“You were on display there every night," Walters said. "Your only job was to look beautiful, be classy, and follow the rules. That’s all. Now if you couldn’t do those things, you were called in.”
Walters proudly boasts that she never received any demerits from her Bunny Mother. She avoided the usual pitfalls of dirty costumes, unfluffed tails, and the cardinal sin — dating customers.
That doesn't mean that she didn't find love. Where there's a will there's a way, she said about her late husband Jules, who pursued her despite the rules and a wife. Walters recently wrote a book, Ageless, about their love affair and the role Playboy played in their whirlwind romance.
Walters worked at the New York club seven years after Gloria Steinem published her now infamous expose of what appeared to be demoralizing and misogynistic treatment of bunnies.
Walters said she saw none of this.
"I was treated like a goddess," she said.
Bunnies have their own brand of feminism. Men could pluck their tails, make lewd comments, or even leave their hotel room keys, but bunnies held the power.
"Honey, you can be a man any day," Walters said. "I’ll be a woman. I want to be a woman. I have the upper hand. Men think they do but uh-uh. I know how to get things I want."
Both Walters and Auble had dozens of stories about times men would leave them tips of a hundred dollars or more, making them filthy rich by 1970s standards.
Auble said the few times men got too rowdy, she had no problem putting them in their place. In one instance, this even meant "accidentally" spilling a tray full of ice water in their lap while doing an infamous "bunny dip."
"I didn’t have a problem speaking my mind," she said. "If I got fired, who cares? My self-respect comes first.”
Hefner's legacy may be his smoking jacket, a pipe, and quite a bit of nudity, but for hundreds of women, he gave them the experience of a lifetime.