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Jennifer Jackson was just 18 years old when she walked into the Chicago headquarters of Playboy. It was 1964 and Jackson, who is African American, was in college. She was looking for secretarial work, but the folks at Playboy had something else in mind. “I applied and right away they put me in a bunny costume,” she recalls. “I hadn’t dreamed about being a bunny.”
She was the youngest hire at the Playboy Club in Chicago, and it was the first time she’d ever worn three-inch heels. She got more fan mail than any other bunny — along with some hate mail, too. Almost immediately, a Playboy photographer began pestering her to bare it all for the pages of Hugh Hefner’s increasingly popular magazine, which in addition to racy pictures boasted celebrity interviews and elegant prose by some of the nation’s top writers.
At first reluctant, Jackson eventually agreed to shed her clothes for the camera, and so it was that in March 1965, the 5-foot-9-inch bombshell became Playboy’s first African American Playmate. “I didn’t show what they show now,” she recalls. “Just the top. But still, it was risque.”
The night of the photo shoot lingers in her memory. She went to Hefner’s Chicago mansion and, with a friend, explored the house, marveling at an underground pool, a garden and a private chef who served food — whatever you wanted — 24 hours a day. The members of the house band at the mansion were African American and they took Jackson in, warned her who to avoid. Comedians Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby had been guests, and Jackson says she felt “at home.”
That night she met the pajama-clad Hefner, who presided over everything from his living room, entertaining his guests. Hefner often helped gin up publicity for Playboy by sending new Playmates on college tours, but that night he told Jackson he couldn’t extend her the same courtesy: it was the era of civil rights protests, and he had no way to adequately protect her, he explained. “Hef was kind of like a pimp, a high-class pimp,” Jackson says.
Back then, bunnies had to pay for their own bunny costumes, and mend them should they tear. They received no salary, and worked only for tips. The seamstress was also an African American woman. And the mansion was managed by a “Bunny Mother.” And Hef? “We were treated well,” Jackson says. “We got a lot of attention. Playboy clubs were the biggest thing going. Everyone wanted to be a bunny. It was the sexual revolution and he brought that out. He was a guy that was not afraid to speak up.”
Jackson thought little of the shoot at the time. “If I knew there would be an internet, I never would have done it,” she laughs, “I’m thinking it’d be a one-shot deal, and then over with.” Instead, her spur of the moment decision helped in some small way to shape a much larger conversation about race brewing all around her. The Vietnam War was ramping up, and she felt proud that black soldiers could see “one of their own” in the magazine’s glossy pages. “I got so many fan letters from those guys, it broke my heart,” she says, “A lot of them never came back, and some who did come back were real messed up.”
Her parents knew about the photo. Her dad was proud. Her mother told her to watch herself. Jackson had once gone down to Richmond, Virginia and stayed in a hotel. The next morning the hotel management had told her that if they’d realized a “colored girl” had been staying in the room they would have called the sheriffs.
In Jackson’s mind, her appearance in Playboy helped shift things, if only a little. “It was something,” she says, “to show the white community that there are some beautiful black women, black people, which was disregarded, we weren’t considered at all. We weren’t a part of Madison Avenue or Hollywood, who set the beauty standards. All you saw in the movies was black maids.”
Later on, she left behind Chicago for New York, where she had modeled for Ebony. She was ready to change careers. For a time, Jackson had regrets about her Playboy shoot. “I had felt ashamed,” she admits. “I thought I wouldn’t get a job.”
She eventually settled in Seattle, where she became an investigator for Child Protective Services. She took up hiking, camping, sailing. She lives there now, near two of her three children. “I was embarrassed when my sons found out about it,” she says, acknowledging that she’s gotten over the shame. “One found out when he was 10 — his friend’s father found my picture. I was beyond embarrassed. But my daughter thought it was cool.”
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