Disclaimer: This is a 2015 story on two former Playboy Bunnies and has been republished in the wake of Hugh Hefner's death.
Being in a club during the daytime is weird. Meeting two Playboy Bunnies in a club during the daytime is even weirder.
I'm perched on an exceptionally uncomfortable black velvet couch in a club overlooking Sydney's King Cross. The interiors are trying to be classy, all sunken leather chairs and intricate framed mirrors. The Playboy logo is emblazoned everywhere, from the neon sign flashing constantly at the back of the club down to the napkins at the bar.
Two tall beautiful women - a blonde and a brunette - saunter through the door flanked by publicists. Crystal McCahill (the brunette) and Jessa Hinton (the blonde), both 31 and single, are ambassadors for Hugh Hefner's Playboy Enterprises, a company trying to reinvent itself from sleazy men's mag to luxury media conglomerate.
Before we're even introduced, I hear McCahill whispering to her Australian publicist. They're unhappy with the tone of a story published in the paper that morning and want to make sure everyone sticks to the script. The publicists plant themselves next to us, guarding the velvet couch like lions protecting their cubs. McCahill and Hinton have an audience and they're ready to perform their part.
They're both warm, polite and very well trained. Both are dressed casually for a day of sightseeing and wear full faces of makeup. They correct themselves mid-sentence ("We're not allowed to" changes to "We're not supposed to") and our conversation is peppered with phrases like "I'm so grateful" and "It's such a great brand".
For a company known for its wild, hedonistic lifestyle, these women are being awfully tame.
HOW DO YOU GET INTO PLAYBOY?
Crystal McCahill grew up in a tiny town in Illinois where she was home schooled and started competing in beauty pageants from the age of nine. Crystal was "discovered" while eating at a Hooters restaurant by Hugh Hefner's then-girlfriends Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt.
She was a finalist in the 55th anniversary Playmate competition (yes, women must compete to be in Playboy) and was Playmate of the Month in the May 2009 issue. She's an actor with 120,000 Instagram followers and has appeared on several episodes of the reality TV series The Girls Next Door. Playboy runs in her family - Crystal's mother Gale Olson was Playmate of the Month in the August, 1968 issue.
"I just really wanted to be a Playmate like my mum," Crystal told news.com.au. "I wanted to do exactly the same pose that she did. It was beautiful. It's just her tush and she's turned around in a pool holding a blow up swan pool toy.
"It just so happened they had a swan in the pool at the [Playboy] mansion when I went there for the first time and it was so surreal. It was so amazing," she said.
Jessa Hinton grew up just outside Los Angeles and is a model and TV presenter with almost 1 million Instagram followers. She starred in Baywatch at age 16 and used to host an online poker competition founded by her ex-boyfriend Dan Bilzerian, the obnoxious, gun-toting 'King of Instagram'. A former Playmate submitted Hinton's MySpace photos to Playboy and she was chosen to be Playboy Playmate of the Month for July 2011.
"I did my test - we shot for two days - and Hef either says 'yes' or 'no'. I found out the next day that I got it and became a Playmate two months later. It happened very fast."
Hefner has the final say on who appears in the magazine. "Hef always decides," says McCahill.
WHAT HUGH HEFNER IS REALLY LIKE
There are three 'tiers' of Playboy women - the Girlfriends who live in the mansion with Hef, the Bunnies who live in a house down the road, and the Playmates who appear in the magazine's centrefold.
Hefner is currently married to this third wife, Crystal Harris, who used to be a live-in Girlfriend, but he has a long history of dating multiple women at once.
Being a Girlfriend (yes, it's meant to be capitalised) is tough work. In her tell-all book Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion, Hefner's former girlfriend Izabella St. James says his generosity - a $US1,000 weekly allowance, new car, free medical treatment, limitless clothes, makeup and cosmetic surgery - wasn't worth it.
There's a 9pm curfew, you're not allowed in the kitchen (all food and drink is ordered from a butler) and the Playboy mansion is decrepit and unhygienic, with stained mattresses and carpets covered in dog poo. And they barely have sex. James says she had "less than 15 intimate minutes" with Hef in her two-and-a-half years at the mansion, where she shared Girlfriend duties with six other women. "I may as well have lived in a convent," she writes in her book.
Crystal McCahill lived in a house down the road from the mansion with seven other Bunnies for three years, during which she filmed The Girls Next Door. Rent is free but there is no allowance ("I wish!" says McCahill).
"Hef asked me if I would like to live there," McCahill says. "Other girls write to him and ask if it's OK. He loves supplying the playmates with a space if they wanted to pursue acting or anything in LA. He's so generous, like he would ask me, 'So how long do you wanna come out for?' and I said, 'Well maybe a couple of months' and then I ended up staying for three years. He just loves having everyone around."
I remind Crystal of the unflattering accusations made against Hefner by numerous ex-girlfriends. Kendra Wilkinson (she's now married to football star Hank Baskett) said she "had to be very drunk or smoke lots of weed to [have sex with Hef]". Holly Madison has described her time at the mansion as "oppressive" and "a nightmare".
"I mean [Kendra] was a Girlfriend, I don't know what they had going on," McCahill said.
Are there any obligations that come with being a Bunny or a Playmate?
"No. People think that when you become a Playmate you have to hook up, that you have to sleep with [Hefner]," says Hinton. "I laugh so much. I'm like, 'are you serious?' Like, you think that every single Playmate sleeps with him? But he gets girls that hit on him all the time so I don't think he really needs to go fishing."
"And he's married," McCahill adds. "I just think he's such a gentlemen."
"Yeah, and I haven't had any problems or heard anything since he's been married with Crystal [Harris]. He seems happy," Hinton says.
"He pulls out chairs for you, offers up his home and doesn't expect anything in return. He's never hit on me, he's very sweet to me. He invites everyone's families over for Easter and everyone brings their kids and grandkids. It's so much fun."
PLAYBOY, A FEMINIST CHAMPION? THESE LADIES THINK SO
McCahill and Hinton believe women's rights and Playboy go hand in hand.
"When I think of the Playboy brand, I think of women's rights. What Hef has done for women in general is amazing," says Hinton.
"I think guys still look at it as sexual, but it's not. Even if you look at the centrefolds, their expressions are not this sexual porn type of thing which gets so misconstrued. It's this image of independence and owning the way that we look as women. Whether you're 21, whether you're 30, no matter what, for that moment how you own how you look and it's such a freeing experience.
"I found myself when I did Playboy. The confidence, kind of owning my own sexuality. I was very shy, very reserved and then it just gave me a way to be myself," Hinton says.
McCahill says being a Playmate is empowering. "I definitely think I broke out of my shell when I became a Playmate as well. I was very shy and insecure but this just makes you feel more comfortable in yourself. You are surrounded by all these beautiful women and it's like a sisterhood. It just makes you feel really good about yourself," she said.
"I didn't have a tonne of girlfriends growing up and so becoming a Playmate and getting to live at the Bunny House for a few years, that was my first experience with a bunch of amazing women and they set the bar high. It's hard to imagine women fighting over stupid things."
The word sisterhood is thrown around a lot during our conversation. McCahill and Hinton tell me there's no animosity between the girls and they all get along like a house on fire.
"It's this weird society that we have, but we're grateful," says Hinton. "Like, you might not meet a Playmate and for some reason - we have a group email - somebody needs a dog sitter or whatever, we come to each other's rescue and we don't even know the other person. It's like the most original sorority in the world."
Each Bunny has their own custom-made corset. How do the girls feel when they put the suit on? Empowered but suffocated, it seems.
"You can't breathe," says Hinton. "I mean in the mirror it looks amazing. I feel like I'm so tiny.
"It's a privilege to be asked to be a Bunny and those are the kind of jobs where we know that we're looked at in a higher regard".
There are rules about what you can and can't do while wearing the bunny suit.
"It's a demeanour that you have. There's this whole etiquette that you go through," McCahill explains. "They're from all the way back when the girls would serve drinks at the Playboy Clubs."
You're not allowed to sit down.
"You perch, you never sit. You kind of sit on the edge [of your seat], you don't ever slouch," McCahill says.
You're not allowed to drink.
"We're not allowed to drink at all in the bunny costume," says McCahill. "Never take a picture with a drink in your hand." "Even if it's water or whatever," says Hinton.
There's an art to serving someone a drink.
"It's called the Bunny Dip. That's for when they worked at the Playboy Club. We don't serve drinks though," McCahill explains.
No touching the fluffy tail.
"Nobody is allowed to touch your tail. You get a warning. It's rude! People always want to grab it," Crystal says.
And arms on the waist, not over the shoulder.
"During pictures people will put their arms on top of you. They're supposed to go around the waist," Hinton says. "And some guys get grabby."
It seems McCahill and Hinton have the best of both worlds. They're able to capitalise on the success of the Playboy brand - use its connections, build their resumes with no exclusive contractual obligations (they're free to pursue other opportunities) - but don't have the tiresome obligations Hefner's Girlfriends must deal with.
The only downside? "Just when people judge us or make it seem like we're that girl that is a ... a hussy I guess," McCahill says.
"They generalise," Hinton adds. "But we're just normal girls. I love having people come up to me and day, 'I follow you on Instagram and you're so funny!' Not 'you're so pretty' but 'you're so funny'. I love that. It's like, 'OK, I must be doing something right'."
Crystal and Jessa are in Sydney to promote The X Studio in Sydney's Kings Cross.