NH Playboy bunny: Hugh Hefner lived the sexual revolution

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News
September 30. 2017 10:00PM
Today, Joy Tarbell is a business leader. 

Joy Tarbell of North Conway is in her Playboy bunny costume in this photo from the 1970s. (courtesy)

NORTH CONWAY - Joy Tarbell is a local business leader, real estate agent, wife and mother.

She's also a former Playboy bunny, a term that decades later still carries a certain cachet.

In the 1970s, Tarbell was among the elite "jet bunnies" who served as flight attendants on Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's private jet.

Last week, Tarbell remembered Hefner, who died Wednesday at age 91, as "a really good person."

The man she calls "Hef" was "a super intelligent guy," she recalled. "Very nice, polite, very respectful. Good sense of humor."

"He could talk intelligently about any topic there was," she said. "He was a big promoter of the arts and musicians."

"He was a great guy, and he deserves to be remembered in a great way," she said.

Tarbell, 70, grew up in Hudson, Mass., and went to school in Boston. A girlfriend who was working as a Playboy bunny in the Boston club brought her to meet the "bunny mother," the woman in each club who did all the hiring and supervision of the bunnies.

Tarbell got the job. It was 1969 and she was 21 years old.

Hefner built an empire of exclusive men's clubs and mansions. The women who worked there wore bunny ears, cuffs with cuff links, a bow tie - and a cottontail.

"I still have my tail," Tarbell said. "I do."

The hiring process for bunnies was highly selective, and the training was rigorous, Tarbell recalled. To be successful, she said, "You had to get through all that training, you had to be good with people, you had to really know your stuff - and look good while you were doing it."

"Hef always said there's nothing sexier than the girl next door," she said. "That's what they hired; they hired the girl next door and put her in these incredible costumes and trained her to be an incredible waitress.

"That ensured that we made a lot of money and had a good time."

Tarbell started out as a "door bunny," she said. "That's the person who greets the people at the door and gets their key card and makes sure they're members."

She graduated to the gift shop, and then moved up to the Playmate bar. "I served businessmen lunch and played pool on the pool table in the afternoons with the customers," she said. "Which I got really good at and am still good at today."

Before long, Tarbell moved on to "the best job in the house," a cocktail waitress in the penthouse. "That was where the big money was for the bunnies."

Tarbell excelled at her job. "I could take orders for 33 drinks at five different tables and I would put them all on one great big tray, and when I brought them out, I would know exactly who got what drink at what table."
Hugh Hefner flashes a smile at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on June 14, 2003. (Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times/TNS) 

Hefner was protective of his bunnies, Tarbell said. "There were so many rules in those Playboy clubs. Customers could never touch you. They couldn't talk dirty; they couldn't swear. ... They had these room managers that would show people out if they didn't behave."

And the bunnies, she said, "couldn't even date the room managers, never mind customers."

Around this time, Hefner purchased a DC-9 and turned it into his private jet, naming it The Big Bunny. Each of the 19 Playboy clubs nominated two bunnies to apply to become flight attendants; Tarbell was one of the two sent from Boston, and was selected to be a "jet bunny."

She moved to Chicago and moved into the "bunny dorm" at the Playboy mansion there. No men were allowed inside - "including Hef," Tarbell said.

They traveled frequently to the West Coast, where the jet bunnies would stay overnight at the Playboy mansion. "There'd be a party that night with Warren Beatty and all kinds of famous people."

She saw Hefner often at the mansion and on board The Big Bunny. "We got to be good friends," she said.

They had remained friends ever since. Six years ago, Tarbell and her husband, Eddie Minyard, were traveling to L.A. and Hefner invited them to join him for dinner at the mansion.

Her husband was "thrilled," she said. "That was like the number one thing on his bucket list."

Tarbell had left Playboy in 1976 and gotten her real estate license, buying her first investment property in Chicago. Four years later, she moved to New Hampshire, and in 1994, she started her own real estate company, JTRealty. She recently sold it to Keller Williams but continues to work there.

Tarbell was a Playboy bunny at a time when the feminist movement was rising. For many women, the whole image of Playboy was about exploiting women's bodies for men's pleasure.

But Tarbell doesn't see it that way. "Really, you could turn that around and say, who was exploiting who?"

To her, what was happening at the Playboy mansions and clubs ran parallel to the broader feminist movement. "A lot of women don't see that part of it with Playboy. They don't see how Playboy bunnies were actually finding all this freedom, but they were."

In the 1970s, being a bunny meant economic freedom and independence, she said. "When we were flying as jet bunnies, we made twice as much as the American Airlines flight attendants doing the same thing."

It may have been the same job but their uniforms were distinctively different. Tarbell wore a black, "very short" mini-dress with long sleeves, "with a white satin scarf with a little black bunny head on it," she recalled. "Over-the-knee black boots, black stockings ..."

Being a bunny felt special, she said - so special that she learned early on not to tell men about her job on the first few dates. Otherwise, that's all they wanted to talk about, she said. "I said I was a schoolteacher," she said. "Or I was a clerk at Bonwit Teller."

Would she want her daughter to be a bunny?

"This is a different era, and today you don't need to," she said. "Women today have all that freedom ... to choose what they want."

She remembers the first time she bought an investment property, a banker balked at giving her a loan because she was a woman.

But Hefner was progressive in his views about race and gender, Tarbell recalled. "He really believed that a woman could do anything she wanted," she said. "He was one of the first people to bring black entertainers on his show and at his clubs. He was just a good guy."

Hefner, she said, "believed sincerely in the sexual revolution and he lived it."

"He was one of those guys that never had to really come on to someone," she said. "Someone who wanted to be with him, they would come on to him."

She never saw him do anything inappropriate with the women who surrounded him, she said. "He never had to," she said.

"He was Hugh Hefner."

swickham@unionleader.com


NH PeopleGeneral NewsNorth Conway

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