As he slips into the crowded Old Towne Orange Starbucks, senior film production major Cooper Hefner relaxes a bit. There, he doesn’t have to worry about being noticed. He’s anonymous among the bustling throng of college students.
It’s something new for the youngest son of Playboy creator Hugh Hefner. He grew up a celebrity and emerged an heir.
“It was awesome because as a teenager in the Playboy mansion I snuck into some of the most exclusive parties in the entire world,” he said. “But you’re also very isolated because not that many people can relate to you.”
While Hefner’s older brother Marston Hefner shied away from that experience, the younger Hefner took it head-on, and is now the heir of the Playboy enterprises. This responsibility, he said, is his chance to re-introduce the magazine to a modern audience.
Following his graduation in May, Hefner will inherit Playboy and start running the company with the continued help of his father and advisors.
Founded in 1953 by Hugh Hefner, Playboy grew from a small magazine to one of the most circulated publications in the 1970s by featuring pictures of nude women next to articles written by some of the most famous authors of the times. It also gained fame for Hefner’s stance on social justice from Playboy interviews with figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
As a child, the youngest Hefner said that he felt most comfortable around other celebrity children like the Hiltons and Nicholsons who were regulars at the mansion. He said his best friend growing up was Scout Willis and they remain friends even today.
“They were my first friends because they were really the only people who understood my life,” he said. “We were just kids and happened to be celebrity children.”
Part of that childhood was understanding how to deal with the pressure of being famous. Hefner said he learned most by watching his friend Paris Hilton’s fall from grace.
“Seeing what happened to her when she started flaunting her wealth made me realize what I never wanted to become,” he said. “You don’t earn respect by what you’re given. You earn it by what you do.”
Another close influence that Hefner said kept him out of the spotlight was his mother Kimberley Conrad. In 1989, the 26-year-old Playboy bunny married 63-year-old Hugh Hefner and the couple raised Cooper and his brother Marston before separating ten years later. Still, Hefner said that his childhood was much tamer than most people imagine and that his parents intentionally kept him out of the spotlight.
Yet even the protection of his mother couldn’t guard him from the perils that come with a celebrity lifestyle, and Hefner said as he grew older he noticed how people treated him differently after they learned his last name.
While he said this made him more cautious, his close friends like freshman strategic and corporate communication major Gunnar Helman still described him as friendly. Helman, who went to high school with Hefner, said the Playboy heir is like an older brother to him.
“He’s like a grown-up child and always wants to have fun,” Helman said. “He would always make sure that everyone could be involved in everything he planned.”
One person that Hefner said he had complete trust and admiration for was his father, the polarizing and celebrated creator of Playboy. Hefner said he never understood what Playboy was until he more recently came across his father’s journal and learned the history behind the bunny ears.
“My dad kept all these amazing photos of him with Martin Luther King Jr. and other people who fought for civil rights and justice,” he said. “Back then Playboy changed the world with its activism.”
Armed with an idealistic mind, Hefner said it’s his duty to change the current perception of Playboy and introduce what his father tried to do 40 years ago. Hefner said that while the Playboy brand has always been 50 percent sex, the other 50 percent used to be about activism and political relevance. However, he said all of that was lost when “The Girls Next Door” started to represent Playboy instead of the activism he believed in.
“My generation was introduced to Playboy as blonde hair and fake boobs,” he said. “There was an out-of-touch moment when the people who ran the company didn’t understand what our generation was attracted to.”
Hefner said his vision is to market Playboy toward a modern audience that is attracted to intellectual women who are comfortable with their sexuality. A key part of this is for Hefner to establish himself as an individual and not just a younger Hugh Hefner.
“I am not my father,” he said. “Although I don’t have a business degree, I have a fresh set of eyes that can make Playboy relevant again to a market that thinks of it as a brand of yesterday.”
However, as Hefner starts to talk about the famous writers who have written for Playboy, it’s easy to see traces of the elder Hefner who spent his life trying to make Playboy famous for more than just its centerfolds.
In the meantime, Hefner is still faced with the daunting task of deciding between a vanilla or caramel latte. In this moment, he is just like any other young college student – with an unimaginable future before him.