“Everything I am today is from Playboy,” Mary Sharina states with pride.
Playboy Enterprises still publishes the most famous high-brow men’s lifestyle magazine in the world, and Sharina still fits into the bunny costume she wore while dealing blackjack at their casino in London, England, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Playboy, she says, inspired the discipline to always look her best.
“You were always performing, you always had to look good. And to this day, I never leave this house without makeup, and I think it’s stood me in good stead.” Now 67, Sharina speaks of her former employer in glowing terms.
“If you had the attributes they wanted you to have, if you fit the mould, they were amazing to us.”
Nowadays, Sharina is a happily married wife and mother. She and her husband, Tom, have lived in Ottawa since the mid-1980s. She worked as a technician at the Ottawa Public Library for 20 years. She’s also a croupier (dealer) at the Rideau Carleton Raceway Casino. Sharina speaks with no-nonsense directness, unafraid to delve into hot-button issues — and that includes questioning the motives behind some of the sex-abuse allegations currently engulfing the entertainment world. In fact, she’s now completing a book about her life — including her time with Playboy.
“I never felt like I was going to work — I felt like I was going to Disneyland. And I was getting paid for it. And I was seeing all these famous people every night. I would look up, and there would be The Beatles or Dean Martin or Steve McQueen. It was in 1969, 1970 — Playboy was the place in London to be. I was invited to parties. I went to a party thrown for Sammy Davis Jr. Diana Ross was there. I also met Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate at that party three weeks before she was murdered. I held quite a long conversation with her.”
Sharina was born into a working-class family in England. Her father was shocked to learn his daughter was a Bunny. Playboy welcomed her parents into the club as special guests — and her newfound wealth enabled her to buy them the latest appliances and treat them to lavish dinners. Her dad was soon very supportive of her new life.
And yet that new life included drama, even danger. She recounts going for an interview in Africa for a casino job there. She soon discovered her potential employer was an armed con man — and an arms dealer — mostly interested in her ability to satisfy his sexual lust.
“I had a choice. I could have opened my legs and given in, and I didn’t,” she says. That choice meant being locked in a hotel room until the multi-millionaire figured out what to do with her. But still, she says, “Everyone has a choice.”
She also recalls a casting-couch experience that will surely resonate today thanks to the explosion of #MeToo accusations alleging exploitation and assault in the movie industry.
“I was offered a small part in a movie, The Hunting Party, and during the [casting] experience, I was asked to take off my top and bra.”
The setting was a room in the Playboy Club being used for casting sessions. Sharina regrets exposing her naked breasts to the group of men in the room, who she believes were the producers of the film.
“And I look back and say I must have been a fool to just do it. I learned from that experience.”
She ended up having no part in the violent Western starring Gene Hackman, Candace Bergen, and Oliver Reed; Playboy wouldn’t give her the three months off required to shoot. Sharina only recently tried to sit through the film herself.
“I say thank God I was not in that movie.”
She says she has no tolerance for real cases of abuse or exploitation. However, she suspects that some accusations, made long after the alleged incident, might be motivated by revenge or greed. The alleged victims, she says, should have known what they were getting into.
“If you are invited to a hotel room, what are you to expect? It’s pretty obvious. So if you go there knowing that, don’t be surprised what’s going to happen. And how badly do you want that part? And if you want it terribly bad, perhaps that is the price you have to pay. But as for my own morality, there is not a price high enough for me to do something that I don’t want to do.”
Sharina sees her casting experience differently. “It was minor. It didn’t affect my life, it didn’t scar me.”
I spoke to Sharina before the revelations that actress Asia Argento arranged payment of hush money to a young actor she had sexual intercourse with when he was legally underage in California. Argento is a leading voice of the #MeToo movement, last year accusing Harvey Weinstein of assaulting her. When that story broke, I thought of something Sharina said, because it struck me as so prophetic.
“You have to hear both sides of the story,” she says. “In the movie world, I think it’s such a false, plastic world of what you look like, and I don’t think you can have an honest conversation. I think it’s too cutthroat.”
Regarding views that Playboy Bunnies are objectified, she sees things differently: “I chose to do it. I was exploiting every opportunity I got. I’ve had a very privileged life, coming from a humble background, and that’s thanks to Playboy.”