Hugh Hefner, a multifaceted and controversial life


Brian Bauer

Legends Bar & Grill displays sign to commemorate the death of Hugh Hefner. The Daily Illini Editorial Board addresses the contention of honoring Hefner’s work and lifestyle.

Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, died Wednesday night. Twitter came alive shortly after with the usual mix of celebrity reactions, inspirational quotes and memorial portraits.

Yet among the tributes, a notable fraction reacted differently, questioning the integrity of honoring Hefner, the premiere ladies’ man.

His legacy, much like his life, will always be divided. To some, he was a visionary who helped pioneer gonzo journalism and unapologetic sexual liberation. To others, he was a misogynist who objectified women.

Hefner is arguably the University’s most widely known alum. He spent only two-and-a-half years here but managed to leave a lasting impression on campus.

The Daily Illini’s parent company Illini Media inducted him into its hall of fame in 2006. Tom Thomas, an alum of WPGU, nominated him at the time for having a profound impact on American social values.

“Whether you agree or disagree with the Playboy concept, the magazine redefined how Americans interpret the First Amendment and freedom of the press,” Thomas said.  

Thomas’ words are at the heart of Hefner’s legacy. He was an outspoken advocate for human rights, particularly during the civil rights movement. Though his persona was often ostentatious and sometimes gaudy, he routinely championed sexual liberation amid the AIDS epidemic. He even spoke on AIDS before former President Ronald Reagan or even the rest of the nation, agreed to acknowledge the plague.

Hefner had a voice, and he unwaveringly used it for public revolution and personal gain.

It’s the latter that dominated his persona in recent years. Hefner’s most recognizable outfit was a smoking jacket and pipe, with a Playboy bunny on each arm. His persona and impact for younger audiences was more chauvinistic reality TV star than crusader for social change.

Regardless of his intent, when people think of a Playboy bunny, they don’t think of a liberated woman.

His activism and success do not negate serious allegations of verbal abuse and control placed against him throughout his life. 

Staying in the spotlight because of sex, which to this day still generates debate, will lead to conflicting ideas over empowerment and oppression. However, it is important to marry the two sides of Hefner. He was a human being, complicated and multifaceted.

He can be both of these personas. One does not negate the other, rather exposure — whether physical or transparency of his life — dominated both facets of his persona.

Hefner lived his life outside the cultural norms of the time, setting and following his own moral compass.