Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Jake Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Stanton Daily. Posted by Jake Frost
January 28, 1950
1969 - 1976
Currently Known For:
Hugh Hefner's Girlfriend (1969-1976)
“I believe that mink are raised for being turned into fur coats and if we didn’t wear fur coats those little animals would never have been born.” Unless you are a diehard fan of vintage Playboy magazines or the television series Hee Haw, you probably aren’t familiar with the name Barbi Benton. Then again, if you keep up with the wild world of Hugh Hefner, you just might recognize Benton as one of Hefner’s favorite playmates after the legendary playboy hired her as his cohost on Playboy After Dark. Weeks later, romance blossomed as Benton dated Hefner and enjoyed the height of her success from 1969 to 1976 with multiple Playboy covers and acting gigs on shows like Hee Haw, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. So, what’s she been up to since her love affair with Hefner fizzled in the late 1970s? Let’s find out!
Born as Barbara Lynn Klein on January 28, 1950 in New York City, her parents moved the family from the Big Apple to Sacramento, California when she was only two years old. Once settled in the Golden State, she enjoyed a normal childhood and attended Rio Americano High School where the glitz and glamor of Hollywood finally called her name after she dabbled in everything from scuba diving and piano to dreams of becoming a veterinarian. At 16 years old, she started modeling to make extra money and, after high school, enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles. Before she could truly experience college life, however, the 18-year-old accepted a position with Playboy to cohost Playboy After Dark alongside the show’s director of entertainment, Hugh Hefner, himself.
Stunning with her doe-eyed stare and gorgeous mane, it only took two recording sessions before Hefner asked Benton out on a date. The offer astounded the 18-year-old Benton since Hefner was 42 years old at the time. “I don’t know. I’ve never dated anyone over 24 before,” Benton told Hefner as he jokingly replied, “That’s all right, neither have I.” Despite the age difference and Benton’s trepidation over dating an older man, the duo proved to be an ideal match as Hefner took Benton under his wing and made her a central figure in the Playboy organization. Along the way, he convinced her to change her name to Barbi Benton to ensure she had a bright future in the entertainment industry.
As Hefner’s muse and lover, Benton reaped the benefits of her relationship and appeared on four Playboy covers in July 1969, March 1970, May 1972 and December 1985. She even faced her greatest fears by posing nude for the December 1973 and January 1975 issues recalling the entire incident during an interview with People magazine in 1980. “I was shy and would make the photographer turn his back when I changed poses,” Benton admitted. “By the second one, I just let it all hang out.”
Although Benton was never named a Playmate of the Month, her close ties to Hefner opened the doors of opportunity as she landed acting roles in television and film. During this time, she was best known for her comedy sketches on Hee Haw in 1969 before appearing in the 1970 German comedy film, The Naughty Cheerleader. Adding in recurring appearances on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, Benton eventually ended her relationship with Hefner in 1976 and went on to star in the short-lived comedy series Sugar Time! in 1977.
Amid her numerous guest appearances on shows like CHiPs, The Match Game-Hollywood Squares and Murder, She Wrote, Benton also debuted as a country music singer and released her first albums—Barbi Doll and Barbi Benton—in 1975 under the Playboy label. Fortunately, her 1975 single “Brass Buckles” was a huge hit and climbed to the top five of Billboard’s country charts. Hoping to cash in on that success, she released a string of albums like Something New, Ain’t That Just the Way and Kinetic Voyage with the hopes of making it big on the country stage. However, despite her talents as a songwriter, songbird, pianist and performer, rhinestones and cowboy boots weren’t in the cards.
With her acting and music careers floundering, Benton struggled to find her footing in Hollywood with one agent who told her she was much too big of a star to audition for The Dukes of Hazzard. In 1980, she told People magazine, “I keep making the wrong moves.” That’s when Benton says fate intervened after she met real estate developer George Gradow thanks to her mother and a mutual friend who ran into Gradow and asked when he planned on getting married. Gradow replied, “When I find someone who looks like Barbi Benton.” As luck would have it, his friend knew Barbi’s mother and set to work on playing matchmaker.
“I met George as a businessman, a financial adviser, and not as a possible husband,” Benton confessed, “I was going out with another guy.” The other guy was actor Andrew Prine and, once Benton and Prine called it quits, Gradow happily stepped in and invited Gradow to the Academy of Country Music dinner. With Gradow instantly falling in love with Benton, he proposed four months later only to scare Benton into a “No!” Weeks later, she reconsidered and started planning their wedding for October 1979. They’ve been married ever since with Hefner remaining a close friend even after all these years. In fact, the iconic playboy admitted he should’ve married Benton himself. “I only regret not marrying Barbi,” he said, “because it finally led to our going separate ways. But I have been married and have children and wasn’t, and am not, interested in doing it again. Barbi hadn’t had that and wanted it.”
Today, the 67-year-old Benton divides her time with Gradow between their homes in Aspen, Colorado and Los Angeles, California as their kids, Alexander and Ariana, start families of their own. Now working as an interior designer, life didn’t exactly turn out how Benton envisioned but she certainly doesn’t have any regrets since Playboy led her to true love.