Opinion: Playboy bunny aunt left lesson of empowerment

Kyla Smith Special to The Detroit News

For me, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s passing was not just another celebrity death. His legacy is a significant piece of my family history.

Dorothy Rankin

When I was 13 years old, my dad told me his oldest sister — my aunt Dorothy Rankin, who was born in Magee, Mississippi, in 1940 and raised in Detroit — was one of the first black Playboy bunnies chosen to work at the club on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit.

She started at the club in 1963 at age 23 and spent four years there. My dad told me she was known for her looks and her legs because she was tall and lean.

My aunt, who died before I was born, was also a licensed nurse practitioner but needed more money to support her five children. She auditioned to become a bunny and she was chosen out of 30 women.

“Hef was very progressive,” said my cousin Carmen, Dorothy’s third-oldest daughter. “He liked to help working women that needed extra money because he knew the playing field was not equal.”

I thought this was the coolest thing ever. I was an awkward adolescent girl with full lips before they became the thing to have. But in my head, I felt like I was bunny royalty, since my aunt was a bunny.

Kyla Smith

Authentic Playboy blood ran through my veins. It was a newfound confidence. That same day, I wanted a Playboy shirt so bad that my mom went out and bought my sister and me shirts and hats with the famous bunny logo. I wore that shirt so much that I’m sure it could walk on its own.

Teachers, friends and strangers would ask me why I would I want to wear something that sexualizes women. And I would always give them the same answer: The Playboy symbol, to me, is a tribute to my aunt and represents female empowerment.

By choice, women displayed their curves and showed the beauty of their bodies. In my opinion, it takes pure confidence and strength to do that.

Hefner hired people of color when it was deemed unpopular. Choosing my aunt to work at the club and choosing women of color to be featured in Playboy magazine shattered the mold of what was considered beautiful, sexy and attractive. I believe Hefner found all women beautiful no matter what ethnicity they were.

My aunt passed tragically in a domestic dispute in 1970, when she was just 30. But she still inspires me and her children today.

“She never met a stranger,” said her oldest daughter, my cousin Esperanza Del Rio.