Hugh Hefner and Playmate Ellen Stohl Talk with Chet Cooper

Chet Cooper: Do you remember your first thoughts of having Ellen Stohl as a Playmate model?

Hugh Hefner: Initially, my reaction was very mixed. I was concerned about it because from the very beginning there were things we would be willing to publish and things we would not publish. There has always been a moral perception of Playboy. It is why, for example, we would not run the Vanessa Williams, Miss America, photos, which is part of the Playboy philosophy.

CC: What is the Playboy philosophy?

HH: Having been raised in a very typically American repressive home, very Protestant, very Methodist, very Puritan, sex was perceived as the one part of the human experience that was not natural and positive and good. I was that not only in my home, I saw it in the media. Sex was continually associated with something sensational and sinful. Only for procreation, only within the confines of marriage, and I didn't, even as a very small boy, believe it. It was the one part in my home that I felt was hurtful, even crippling. So when it was suggested that we do a pictorial on a paraplegic, I felt the association was a negative one until we had talked about it, and understood what Ellen herself wanted. Her disability had made her feel like a non-person, like a non-sexual being, and she was very articulate at expressing exactly what the pictorial could serve not only her, but other people with disabilities. As a way of saying, "We're human beings, too, and sex is a natural part of being alive with a disability or without." It was that message that was so compelling to me and made me realize it was my own prejudice that expressed the original reservation. So my only concern was that the thing be dealt with in a really classy way. I don't think any of us here could have imagined how really remarkably well received it was.

CC: At the time of the photo shoot was there a conscious effort not to have the wheelchair within the pictorial?

HH: The decision was consistent with not associating her disability. It is down that road that takes you into a exploitative kinky type of thing. In other words, a part of what this is all about is her disability and the chair began to define who she was, and that she was not perceived as a human sexual being. Therefore, if the pictures connected the two, we would fall into the same trap. It is perfectly clear, there are many darker sexual connections to be found in things related to people with disabilities. The whole bondage and S&M thing has that kind of kinky side. A good friend of mind, tells a story of a prostitute that broke her neck. While she was in the brace she did more business than before. There's a darker, kinkier aspect which is very much a part of—that's the underbelly of—what you get in a repressive society. A society that views human sexuality as dirty.

Remember, this came in a time frame which still exists today, in which nude pictures themselves—the very symbols that for me represented sexual freedom—are viewed in significant portions of society as exploitation. Frankly when I grew up, a pinup picture, nude or non-nude, was not thought of as exploitation. They carry a whole other kind of political baggage now that feeds into these kinds of stereotypes and into negative views of the body and of human sexuality, the darker side of political correctness.

What we found throughout the 80s was, as sex became increasingly political, we found and sought ways to speak to the other side of that controversy on a number of occasions. Ellen is only one of the women who have come to us or done pictorials specifically because they were trying to make some additional statement in terms of their own identity or who they were. That politicization of nudity and sexuality didn't exist until the latter 70s.

CC: What do you see in the future for Playboy magazine?

HH: Playboy is and continues to be and has been for more than a quarter of a century, the largest selling and most influential men's magazine in America and around the world. I have always hoped that Playboy would become mainstream, trying in effect not to outdistance society or the competition with more explicit images or exploring the outer boundaries of sexuality. That has never had a real meaning for me. What I'm trying to do is almost the opposite of that—trying to make sex a nice and natural part of being alive. I think that people talk a lot about sex and violence. I think violence is the problem and sex is the answer. In other words, I think that in very simplistic terms, we need to hurt less and hug more. We need to see the attraction of the sexes as the most civilizing influence on the planet. Attraction between the sexes is the beginning of family and tribe and civilization. There are many things that make this a depersonalized and inhuman world; sex is not one of them. Sex, properly understood and properly dealt with, is the magic. Most of the great art and the dreams, etc., come from that mystical thing that is so much a part of what nature is all about.

The hurt and hypocrisy that exists in human sexuality, what we do to one another because of our sick attitude about human sexuality are at the heart of a lot of problems. We just did a piece on serial killers. It's rooted in exactly the same perceptions, there is more violence in America than in any other civilized part of the world. Serial killers are by and large a white repressive middle-class phenomenon, a part of what we do to our own perception of sexuality.

Let me read the letter from Ellen that we reproduced in the magazine. It says "My name is Ellen Stohl, I am a model/actress, who three years ago was injured in a tragic auto accident. At first, I had given up hope of pursuing my career, but after a few months and a lot of learning, I realized a wheelchair should not make a difference. Since that realization, I have been working twice as hard to achieve my career goals not only for myself but also to teach society that being disabled does not make a difference. The reason I choose Playboy for this endeavor is that sexuality is the hardest thing for disabled persons to hold onto. Not to say that they are not capable, but rather that society's emphasis on perfection puts this definitive damper on self-esteem. Well, I believe it is time to show society the real story. Anyone can be sexy; it is a matter of how a person feels about himself or herself, and personally I feel great."

CC: It's a great letter, I can see why you responded to that. I don't know if you are aware that 43 million Americans are considered to have a disability—one out of six people. The Institute of Medicine just came out with a study saying that the average life span will experience 13 years with a disability. It is something that affects us all. We need to change our attitude quickly. As the "Greying of America" occurs people have a higher risk of having a disability. Society needs to change, because of employment opportunities, entitlements, etc., the perceptions, myths and stereotypes of the past.

HH: The good news is society is moving in the right direction related to that—theatres, restaurants, sidewalks, driveways. No attention was paid twenty years ago to that dramatic portion of society that is physically impaired.

CC: You realize that the main reason your seeing changes is because of the new law. The Americans with Disabilities Act. It is actually considered one of the largest pieces of legislation in our lifetime. It affects telecommunications, transportation, equal access and equal opportunity. It affects 3.5 million companies. Every employer with 25 or more employees is affected. Of course, all buildings and such, in different categories, are affected, as you are noticing. This law goes so far, that even if you are a associated with a person with a disability, you cannot be discriminated against. It goes beyond the Civil Rights Act of '64. It brings into scope a whole new outlook dealing with disabilities. That has never been addressed before is such a way.

HH: Well, one certainly sees the real parallel, and I've always related it very much to the Civil Rights Act. It is like an invisible part of the population that is embraced for the first time and becomes a part of the natural mainstream. I think it is the boundaries that we put between ourselves and other peoples, whether it is another nation or another religion, black, white, disabled, whatever it may be, that is the heart of our damage we do to ourselves. It is that hurt and that hypocrisy that separates us.

CC: It is amazing that we have gone this far and are still so backward.

HH: Well, because most our advances have not been social or philosophical; they have been mostly technological. We are literally savages living in a jungle. We've had scientific and technological breakthroughs without any of the real comparable growth so that we still make our daily decisions and political decisions, etc., with value systems that are not too far from the dark ages.


CC: What is your perception of Playboy magazine?

ES: My initial perception, before I got to know the company or to know Hugh Hefner (Hef), was that it was about women posing nude and it was the best and most tastefully well-done. But I was also under the belief that it was targeted towards men or at least towards the expression of sexuality in terms of a male-oriented society. What I got to know when I started talking to Hef and after seeing Once Upon A Time, his movie, was when the magazine started, it was also an opportunity for women to celebrate themselves.

When you're in a photo shoot, it's not about what they want you to pose like. They talk to you, they do an interview, and they set up [the shoot] as an aspect of your life. I was a student, so we had student's apartment. You see, all of the Playmates have themes, but they're not themes picked out of a hate that seem to be great. They're themes picked out of some aspect of that person's life. It becomes an expression of that individual, a celebration of the self, more or less. I posed the way I wanted to. Sure, I got technical advice, that this would be nice, that would be nice; but it was about me, and it was about my expression, and it really made me feel good about my body and about myself. I had a great crew around me that was very supportive of me and what I had to say and what I wanted to do.

As I have spoken with other people and after having talked to Hef, that was his idea all along. We live in a culture that says if it's sexual, it's for men because women aren't sexual. So women can't go out and celebrate their sexuality in simple celebration, because then they're sluts or they deserve to be raped or they're this or they're that.

Somehow, if women want to dress up or want to feel good or express themselves, we perceive it as being for men, trying to get men. Somehow, it still becomes male oriented. So, when do women get to express themselves freely without being taken back by society's restraints? I really resent that because I think that women are beautiful. I think they should be allowed to dress sexy and not be sexually harassed for it or be put down for it or be criticized.

Other women are the biggest critics. "Oh, look at that girl, she's dressed like this. Oh, look at that, she's just trying to get a man." We are so pitted against each other.

I was doing an interview with TV's David Sheehan. I was with some other Playmates, and we were at a non-profit organization's event.

He asked me what it was like posing for Playboy, knowing that you're taking off your clothes for men, and I said I wasn't taking off my clothes for men. I didn't pose for Playboy to please men. I posed for Playboy to discover my own sexuality, to celebrate that part of me that was stripped away by a disability because our society doesn't put sexuality and disability together. They're completely non-existent. Playboy was my forum to explore that.

I wasn't sure about it all, but it was my opportunity to go in and see myself look beautiful nude, to feel myself as being a woman and celebrating that fact. I didn't go in with the idea that, "Oh, great! Men are going to be turned on by this." David Sheehan said, "Well, you thought it was a good question didn't you?" I said, "No, I thought it was a very sexist question."

I believe our society is incredibly sexist, and it pits women against each other. Why can't we be successful, intelligent and sexy? Why do we have to give up our sexuality to be successful in this society? When we do have sexuality, why is it then used to become successful and demean us? It is a real Catch-22. If we have sexuality, it's demeaning, and if we don't, then how do we separate ourselves from men. I think, viva la difference! I love men and I love women, but I don't think we have to be androgynous to be successful.

My story is not a triumph-over-tragedy story, which everyone wants to make it out to be. The tragedy happened, and you go on. Tragedy happens in everybody's lives, and you go on. Here I am in a wheelchair, and suddenly I'm not supposed to do all these things or be all these things. Even when I fight those and make headway in some areas, I'll go out the next day and somebody will pat me on the head, and some people treat me like the ideation of what a disabled person is, and it brings it all back because within me exists those fears.

People live out the stereotypes everyday because they grew up with the idea of what a disabled person is, and now they're a disabled person. As much as you learn and grow, and as much as you realize it's not true, there are still some tapes from your childhood and from your socialization, that say, yes, it is. When 18,000 people treat you like that, it goes, See I told you, so!

I don't believe we are living in a vacuum, we are interactive creatures, and we are impacted by society. The looking glass-self is a very true reflection of self-esteem. We perceive ourselves based on our perceptions of how other people perceive us. I think you see me like this, and if I'm feeling that way and you pat me on the head, then it reinforces it. "See I knew he thought I was just a child." It's really difficult for people with disabilities because the labels have been around since the beginning of time. We have a law in our country that was on the books until 1984, that it made illegal for anyone that was so displeasing to the eye to be seen on the street. There is still outrage that people with severe disabilities who drool or shake should be seen in public places. It is a nuisance to other people because we are so appearance oriented, especially in Southern California. I really think that those appearances cause a lot of people to fall apart because they can't maintain them; they are forever changing. What's important, what's valuable, what's right according to the mass media changes everyday. It's really difficult when there are awful labels that really stick to you, and we're so fast paced now that nobody goes beyond the labels. They see you, they judge you on first appearances and you're gone.

In the television and film industry, I truly believe that the reason nine out of ten times a disabled part is cast with an able-bodied character is because the producers and writers can't deal with the reality of disabilities. They can only deal at the most cerebral level.

That's why movies like, Scent of a Woman and Passion Fish, in 1993, come out with these portrayals...yes, they're great stories, really well written. They're not about triumph over tragedy, but when you break it down and look at the portrayal of the disabled person, it's very stereotypical. They're either over-sexed or under-sexed because they can't have sex. They're sexless, but they are either obsessed with it or they just don't care about it. They don't deserve to live because they can't contribute to society anymore.

The appearances really go back to the beginning of time. It's scary because I'm judged all the time on my appearance. It's really interesting with a racing [wheelchair] on the back of my car, the way people perceive me. Suddenly, yes I'm disabled, but now I'm the hierarchy. I'm one of those athletic disabled people, so I'm cool. That gives me status, but I also get patted on the head, "Isn't that great that you're out exercising and doing marathons!"

I'm still not seen as a whole complete person, and if I have a bad day, it's all over. It's always because of my disability. "Oh, that poor girl, she's upset because she has a disability" and I'll say, "No, I'm upset because my boyfriend left me." "Oh, because he couldn't deal with the disability?" "No, because I slept with his best friend".."Oh, you slept with his best friend because you were feeling bad because you have a disability."

For Hef and I both, this wasn't a piece done out of fancy. It was done out of real conviction. Hef has a real conviction to expand people's ideas about sexuality. I don't always agree with stuff in the magazine, I don't always agree with the magazine itself, but I respect and appreciate the fact that he is continually having people question the boundaries of deviancy, of what is and isn't okay or how it should or shouldn't be. If we stop questioning questioning and accept the puritanistic ideals that are prevalent today, we end up with rape and teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. We are one of the countries with the highest rate of these because we won't talk about sex. We won't have sex education, to have the conviction to making people question those things, to look at sex. I mean, it's the body. Big deal. Sex happens.

I'm really dedicated to expanding the idea about disability, going beyond the social labels and stereotypes, to help people be who they are. I do that by going into myself. It's not about other people's stuff. What are my prejudices that exist inside me? I had all those prejudices about disability. I thought, now I'm disabled, I'll never have sex again. I'll never have a relationship. I can paint with my teeth, work on computers and get religious. This is what my life is going to be now, and I truly believed that.

There is a part of me that fights me at every turn, and says you're a disabled person, dammit, you can't do this. Then I say, no I'm not, I'm Ellen; I can do this. It's a constant battle because you can't erase prejudice; we all have prejudice. We are socialized with it. We are social, learning creatures. We learn through society. It's amazing how much those early tapes are still there. You can't just erase them when you get the new idea. You can become aware of your prejudices, "Oh, that's not true, that's the old belief." When I go into a room with severely disabled people, it all hits me, "They don't understand what I'm saying." I have to stop, "That's not true; that's what you were taught to believe. It keeps you from being all that you can be, but it's not true." My convictions are to make people aware of their prejudices, where they come from, why we have them.

There's this great story about a woman who cut her turkey in half every year and cooked it for Thanksgiving. Her friend said, "Why do you cut your turkey in half?" "That's the way my mom did it. You cut it in half and cook it." Finally her friend said, "Let's call your mom and ask her why." She called her mom, and her mom said, "We did that because we had a really small oven when you were little, and the only way we could cook a whole turkey was by cutting it in half."

It's amazing how much we continue to live our lives based on beliefs that are outdated and false, and based on false information. Once you have those beliefs inside you, if you don't question them, if you're not forced to look at them, you're not going to change them or act differently. You may still have the belief, but you can act differently and begin to change that belief. I'm really dedicated to changing the beliefs about disability.

People with disabilities are not subhuman, they are not less than, they are not less able. They are different, they come in different packages, but they are people. Basically, whether you're Russian, you're fat, you're black, you're tall, you're short, I believe that people are more alike on the inside than different. They need to interact, they want to have an impact on the environment around them. They want to connect, they want to create a symbiosis with somebody.

We are social creatures; we want to be a part of society. I believe that is not only a biological, psychological, social, emotional drive in people. It's there in all levels, to connect, to be a part of, to have impact on society. Our society denies that, and it really denies that with disabled people. We say without words, that you can't come in here, that you can't go there because we built steps and narrow doorways. We, as a society, create barriers that keep people out who are different all the time. It's not written on the sign, that "disabled people to the back," but when the only access to a building is through the back kitchen, the only access to Congress is around some scrappy-made ramp, not through the front door. There is a message in that.

I don't think people realize the subliminal messages that are there everyday in television, in film, in literature. Lady Chatterly's Lover talks about her infirm husband, how could he ever please her, and he believes it.

The problem is people become victims to their stereotypes and perpetuate them in their lives, so therefore they are presenting this image, and society reinforces their belief about this image. Then society treats these people like that, people with disabilities, and that reinforces their image that they feel like this. It becomes a perpetual cycle of spiraling down, and it takes great courage in this society to stand up and say, I'm not like that, I want to climb a mountain, I want to ski, I want to work at the job I want to work at.

When I was first injured, rehab said you can't be an actor anymore. People with disabilities don't model and act that just doesn't happen, and I believed them. They were right, of course I could never act. Luckily, I was never one to listen to those around me.

I was a nonconformist, sometimes out of fear. Whatever the reason, my nonconformity allowed me to say, "Wait a minute, why can't I?" That took a while, though. It's amazing how we fall into the roles set up for us by society, and the role of the disabled person is very low on the totem pole. I'm really dedicated to changing that, to giving people equal opportunity so they can choose what they want to be.

You can apply this to anybody—of color, of size, of ethnicity, of whatever. If we do not judge people by the package they come in, but by how they present themselves, we can begin to connect with people. We're so appearance-oriented, and our appearances are so rigged with stereotypes. If you look like this, you must be that. If you look like that, you must be this. When if fact most psychopathic serial killers look like real good guys. They don't look like the scraggly bum on the street, they look like politicians, accountants. That's how they were successful, because people judged them on their appearance, not on who they were or what their idiosyncrasies were. You realize a lot of harm is done. We really kill a lot of potential by judging based on appearances.

So, of course it's not going to be a small story. It's not about me, and it's not about Hef, and it's not about sex, and it's not about disability. It's about people learning to accept people by what they do and who they are, as opposed to on how they're seen. That's a struggle that has gone on forever. People fighting to be seen for their actions and not their appearances. As our world gets faster-paced and more technological and moves so quickly that we only grasp an idea of a person from their appearance, we're headed towards trouble because we're stopping human contact. The basis of human need is to connect, and we're getting so technologically advanced that we're stopping connection. We're going to have society of crazy people—sitting at home having conferences.

I think it's really important to note Playboy's commitment to change and expanding people's ideas. Even as they were unsure about working with me. I mean I think Hef has mentioned his anxiety about how the public would receive it, but the need to expose these issues was more important than his anxiety, and how the magazine was perceived. As he learned from my experience, it opened Playboy's mind that you don't have to have this "perfect" body to fulfill the ideation of Playboy, but it's the embodiment of the individual that has to be there.

Since my posing, Playboy has had two other women with disabilities pose. They are more apt to see women with disabilities as potential Playmates and potential models in their magazine. It opened up their mind and broadened their horizon as what is and fulfills their need for sexy, and I think that's really important. If we can begin making steps like that with the rest of society—start with one person and make it two—pretty soon equality will be prevalent

Ray Charles Issue 1995

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