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The idea of Playboy didn’t bother me. I thought it celebrated women as sexual beings. My father and I are very different people—I have no interest in hanging out at the Playboy Mansion—but we agree on what Playboy represents. I worked there the summer after graduation, then lived in Boston for a year as a freelance journalist before moving back in 1975. When I took over as chairman and CEO in 1988, the company was in too many businesses. They had a modeling agency, movie theaters, limousines, hotels, and clubs. Literally, there were Playboy air fresheners. The hardest thing was convincing Hef to close the clubs. Our idea was to draw on the heritage of the magazine and the good life, and make it hip and relevant. The new generation of young women, it turned out, thought the rabbit head was cool. Wearing a cute jacket or a T-shirt with the [logo] on it was sort of like reading Seventeen when you’re 13. We took a 50-year-old magazine and turned it into a global multimedia lifestyle brand.
By 2008, I was thinking of moving on. I had been an early supporter of Barack Obama. With his election, I thought, if not now, when? I was inspired by his agenda, and I felt the company was in a good place. When I went to tell Hef, he said, “I thought this would happen.” My father is very consistent in his view that people should do what makes them happy. I never felt pressured to come into the company. I never felt pressured to stay. I put pressure on myself. I left in January , went to the inauguration, and started to build a portfolio of personal projects. I approached the Center for American Progress with the goal of helping make [the liberal think tank] an ideas factory for the administration. I’m trying to help the Columbia Journalism Review build on its role as a thought leader in media. Being out of Playboy Enterprises underscores for me what a stressful job it is to be CEO of a public company. I could handle the stress, but it’s 24/7 worrying about everybody else.
I ran the company for 20 years. I’m told I was the longest serving female CEO of a U.S. public company. Hef and I had a good relationship. I’ll always be associated with the Playboy brand. I’m proud of that. I’m using those skills to work on social justice and other issues I care about. — As told to Diane Brady