Hop It Hefner
Hugh Hefner built a fortune on sex and blondes, but the bunnies are leaving him and his business is in trouble.
From the day he first slipped into a velvet smoking jacket and decided to launch his own publishing empire, Hugh Hefner has said that his career and self-worth revolve around two creations.
The first is Playboy, the 55-year-old magazine that pioneered the social and consumer revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, spawned a global multi-media brand, symbolising his version of the American dream.
The second great creation is his own life: a roller coaster of fame, fortune and willing blondes played out against the backdrop of the Playboy Mansion.
Yet nothing lasts for ever. In recent weeks, the institution that is Hugh Hefner has been rocked by a string of setbacks that have conspired to throw this increasingly frail man back into the public eye.
Some of his troubles revolve around his love-life; others centre on his commercial interests. All boil down to a single problem: Hefner's aura of Gatsby-esque sophistication is ever more at odds with his advancing years.
On the home front, Hefner was last week cuckolded by not one, but two girlfriends leaving him feeling "like roadkill".
At work, his magazine's profits have evaporated and its circulation is in free fall, forcing Hefner to cut staff -- and, for the first time, to invite paying punters to his private parties.
So, Hugh Marston Hefner is facing a sobering reality: his two great creations appear to be unravelling for him at the age of 82.
The pouting face of Hefner's current troubles is Holly Madison, a former glamour model who is 28 years old and has for the past seven years lived at the Playboy Mansion.
After weeks of speculation, Madison confirmed rumours that she had left Hefner for the celebrity magician Criss Angel. The revelation left Hefner deeply upset.
But worse news was soon to follow. Kendra Wilkinson also confirmed rumours that she had ditched Hefner.
A triple whammy may not be far off, either.
Bridget Marquardt, the eldest of the trio at 35 and the last officially remaining on Hef's sexual roster, has so far failed to comment on speculation that she is considering her position. For any man in the public eye, this would represent a bad week. For Hefner, it has been a bewildering upheaval in the unique domestic set-up he has enjoyed since separating from Kimberley Conrad, his second wife and mother of two of his four children, in 1999.
From the moment he bought the mansion in 1971 -- excluding the decade of his marriage to Conrad -- Hefner has filled it with a rotating cast of girlfriends, who are given a weekly allowance in cash, together with being fed, watered, and provided with health insurance, a car and free plastic surgery.
To some, this set-up sounds suspiciously like a form of prostitution; to others, merely eccentric. But in all these years, Hefner has only twice made concessions on it: first, when he met Conrad, who married him in 1989; and when he first encountered Holly Madison in 2002.
The two shared a laconic sense of humour, similar interests, and an apparent spiritual connection.
Last week, Hefner gave a distraught interview to US Weekly, blaming the split with Madison on the failure of repeated attempts to have children with her, together with his refusal to make her his official third wife.
"If she says it's over, it's over. But like I've said before, she is the love of my life, and I expected to spend the rest of my life with her," he said. "We tried to have a baby earlier this year and it didn't work out. I've been feeling like roadkill."
A broken heart is one thing. A broken wallet, however, would be quite another. And the foundations of Hefner's vast wealth have entered a period of increasingly rapid decline.
Rumours about his firm's future have swirled around Wall Street for months. But last week, the first real evidence of trouble emerged when the Los Angeles Business Journal revealed that he was "eyeing his household staff and other assistants for possible cutbacks".
And for the first time ever, he will be selling tickets to the famous private parties he holds at his Gothic Tudor pile. Tickets to parties hosted by Hefner will sell for $5,000 (€3,634) to $25,000 (€18,177). In the past, he hasn't charged because he hasn't had to.
Lately, however, shareholders have grown increasingly worried. Playboy Enterprises is run by Hefner's daughter, Christie (Hugh is its figurehead, editor-in-chief, and owner of roughly 30 per cent of the shares). It operates out of his home town, Chicago, and was yesterday trading at $2.33 (€1.69) a share, down from $12 (€8.72) a year ago. In 1998, those same shares were worth $32 (€23) each. The company's spokesman failed to return calls and emails from the Herald regarding its financial position but, speaking to the Los Angeles Business Journal, Martha Lindeman, Playboy's senior vice-president, claimed that reports of Hef possibly filing for bankruptcy were "absolutely untrue and absurd".
But, in business, it's difficult to argue with the bottom line. The company's most recent report to shareholders reveals that, in the three months to June, the firm lost $2.1m (€1.5m), with revenues declining by 14pc to $73.4m (€53.3m) from $85.7m (€63.6m). As a result, the firm has outsourced parts of its operation and is looking to cut down on its 789 employees -- imperilling the future of many of the maids and gardeners (but not, so far, the bunnies) at the mansion.
If you want to understand the reasons behind Playboy Enterprises' decline, look at the pages of Playboy itself. Once, the magazine was among the most respected publications in American journalism, with a circulation of seven million. Recently, Playboy has started to look its age. It is no longer agenda-setting, and its editorial highlight each month is a couple of question-and-answer interviews and pictures of scantily clad blondes. US monthly circulation fell almost 10pc in 2007, to 2,790,300.
Playboy has always been a unique company, and Hefner has made a habit of confounding naysayers. But in a world entering recession, he'll need to be on top of his game.
For now, Hefner is doing what he does best: trying to get over his broken heart (if not his crippled business) with new girlfriends. He claims to have two new girls in his life, 19-year-old blonde twins. They may not make him happy -- and they certainly won't fix his troubled business -- the duo will at least demonstrate that there's some life in the old dog yet.