Hugh Hefner net worth: Playboy founder turned his US$600 into US$110M empire

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A woman stands behind a Playboy symbol at the entrance during a news launch of the Playboy magazine in a hotel in Manila. Reuters/John Javellana

Media mogul Hugh Hefner died Wednesday at age 91. He founded Playboy magazine, turning it into a US$110 million (AU$140 million) empire focused on a well-off, sexually liberated lifestyle.

Hefner used his own US$600 (AU$764) and some thousands more he borrowed, including cash from his mother. Originally, he planned to name the publication Stag Party yet changed his mind at the last minute.

In 1953, he produced the first issue of Playboy. During that time, he was worried the magazine would not sell that he left the date off the cover, BBC reports. The first edition featured nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Hefner had bought the set of pictures, which were shot for a 1949 calendar, for US$200 (AU$ 254).

Middle-class American society in the 1950s was strait-laced. The post-war urban males found the combination of tastefully photographed women and intellectual articles appealing. But Hefner said he never thought of Playboy as a sex magazine. Instead, he always thought of it as a lifestyle magazine “in which sex was one important ingredient.”

It was a success, with more than 50,000 copies of early-career nude photos of Monroe sold within weeks. By 1958, Playboy’s annual profit was US$4 million (AU$5 million), and Hefner skyrocketed to fame as he found a niche in the market for men's publications.

Playboy’s monthly circulation peaked at 7 million issues in 1971. Almost one-quarter of American college men were buying or subscribing by that time, according to the New Yorker. By the 1980s, the franchise struggled.

Hefner’s reality television show on E! titled "The Girls Next Door” was released in the early 2000s. The show depicted the lives of his three blonde girlfriends at the Playboy Mansion and ran from 2005 to 2010. It made his public profile surge once more.

The mansion was dubbed as the ultimate bachelor pad, and it was sold for US$100 million (AU$127 million). It was still the most expensive home ever sold in Los Angeles. Hefner was reportedly allowed to stay there until his passing.

Market research firm Wealth-X revealed that Hefner's global brand had an estimated net worth of at least US$110 million (AU$ 140 million). Playboy now makes most of its money from licensing the bunny brand for several products such as liquor, clothing, fragrances, jewellery and bath products, The New York Times notes.

US Weekly reports that his fortune was promised to his four children, the University of Southern California film school and some charities. Hefner had reportedly signed an "ironclad prenup" with his third wife, Crystal.

BBC News/YouTube