Victor Powell Studios for Steed media service
Tamika Martell, A-Line Style Services
At the tender age of 5, Naturi Cora Maria Naughton belted out gospel songs in the New Hope Baptist Church in her hometown of East Orange, N.J.
By the time she was 15, Naughton was a member of the hit girl group, 3LW. Three years after that, it was over, as the group fell apart abruptly and publicly.
“I was a teenager when I got a record deal with Sony/Epic, with the girl group 3LW,” Naughton tells rolling out. “I had been touring, performing, doing the whole ‘pop star’ scene — unfortunately, the group didn’t work out. We broke up and that’s when I decided that my education meant so much to me, and it was so valuable for me to go to school. I took some time off and decided to go to Seton Hall.”
Those who may have written Naughton off couldn’t have been more wrong. The ebony-hued young beauty has proven that she has the blood of a phoenix, and the naysayers now witness her rise.
Not that Naughton sees it that way; she says that her plum role as Bunny Brenda in the new NBC series “The Playboy Club,” is the latest in a series of transitions that were just meant to be.
“I’m surprised by how natural and smooth the transition has been for me. A lot of people struggle with that, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate to be able to come from being in a girl group as a singer, to being a serious actress who is respected and getting great roles,” Naughton says.
“I am happy that the transition is smoother and organic, — it just seems meant to be for me to be in this form of entertainment. I’m not surprised by much because I’ve always envisioned this for myself,” she says.
Naughton, a political science major, was an honor student at Seton Hall, when Broadway called.
“I never got a chance to finish at Seton Hall because the business kept drawing me back in,” Naughton divulges. “I wound up doing a Broadway show, Hairspray, in my junior year.”
In 2009, she hit the big screen with her portrayal of Lil Kim in Notorious; that same year she appeared in “Fame,” and in 2010, Naughton added her flavor to one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television, AMC’s “Mad Men.”
On “Mad Men,” a series that’s set in the 1960s, Naughton portrays a Playboy Bunny. When the opportunity to audition to join the cast for NBC’s “The Playboy Club” presented itself, Naughton worked hard to secure the role, never mind that her “Mad Men” Bunny character was a coincidence that definitely played in her favor.
“My agent and my manager had set up a general meeting for me with some people at Fox TV. At that meeting, one of the ladies was like, ‘we’re doing a project … and you’d be perfect for it.’ That meeting led to an audition with the casting director, and that led to another audition … I actually went through four different call-backs, and then I had the screen test. I had to screen-test for NBC, which is our network, and I had to screen test for Fox, which is the studio that is producing my show, ‘The Playboy Club.’ It was not easy.”
About four weeks after her first audition, Naughton booked the role of Bunny Brenda, and that’s when the real work began.
“I read the book, The Bunny Years, and I watched this documentary as well, that talks about the women and how their experiences were as Bunnies in the ‘60s — and that was informative,” Naughton says. “I did a lot of research online and I reached out to people.”
Art imitated life as Naughton and the cast screened the pilot episode of “The Playboy Club,” at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles with Hugh Hefner. (“He’s really sweet,” Naughton says).
On the set, Naughton studies under Playboy magazine emerita, Pat Lacey, one of the first African American women to appear in the iconic magazine. Lacey wore the Bunny uniform from 1965-1978, and continues to work with the company’s promotional efforts. She is currently head of the Bunny Training course for the actresses.
“Bunny Training, is essentially where we learn how to do the Bunny dip, the Bunny stand, all these Bunny-isms that I learned from Pat Lacey,” Naughton gushes. “When I first met her I was amazed that she’s so beautiful. She looks great and has been working at Playboy for over 40 years. I was just honored to learn from her and to hear her stories; especially [about] being a black woman in that time, and being a Bunny.”
Thanks to her research and interactions with Lacey, Naughton profoundly understands her character, Bunny Brenda, and that in turn, adds depth to her performance.
Bunny Brenda wants to become an African American Playboy centerfold, although, realistically speaking, she is caught between the Women’s Lib Movement’s bra burning campaign and the Civil Rights Movement’s boycotts.
“My character Bunny Brenda is one of the first black Bunnies in 1961 in Chicago. She’s a woman who does not allow her environment to affect what she’s going to do. She knows that she’s up against so many challenges; segregation, racism, so many things that are happening. But yet, she has these big dreams and huge ambitions, and she wants to do so much to break down those doors,” explains Naughton.
Bunny Brenda, much like the male patrons of “The Playboy Club” successfully creates an adult fantasy playground for herself, never mind the turbulence right outside of the club’s gilded doors.
“She’s not too heavy, she’s not overly serious … she definitely knows what the world is like, but she still wants to live and enjoy it,” Naughton states.
Naughton wants to enjoy life too, and things have gotten pretty interesting lately.
Art reflects life this time around, as Naughton’s sexy role of Lil’ Kim, (followed by that steamy King magazine cover), and the current role of Bunny Brenda, have converged to create a new legion of male groupies, the star admits.
“I’ve definitely had some male fans pop up. It was crazy after Notorious.” Naughton laughs. “It’s interesting. I’ve never really viewed myself as a sex icon or anything like that, I’m grateful for the fans that think I’m sexy, so thank you. I didn’t even realize this, but it is pretty hot, when I put on my Bunny suit, it feels really sexy. I guess I’m just grateful for the fans that like that, and I just try to be myself.”
Thankfully, all fan interactions have been positive, Naughton adds.
“I just try to be a little low-key, but that doesn’t always work when I’m out and about, and I have on my diva shades, and cute little hat. But I don’t really experience any problems. I’m able to go out, and people make me feel just as good as I make them feel.
“We’re sharing the experience [and] I’m realizing how I’ve affected someone with a role, and I’m grateful for that. So when I meet fans and they come up to me, it’s not anything that I have to worry about — unless it’s craziness.
“For the most part, it’s been just a lot of support and love. When I go out and go places, I’m just a regular girl who just happens to be an actress and singer, and I’m grateful for the people who enjoy that. I’m just as enamored as they are. I take it in and I enjoy it,”
Naturi Naughton is also enjoying her relationship with her boyfriend, who is also an actor and thus, knows how to look beyond the male groupies.
“He’s also an actor, so at the end of the day, we’re each other’s number one fan, and having that support helps that understanding,” Naughton says. “He’s been great and super supportive, because at the end of the day, I’m still Naturi when I take off the Bunny suit. I get home, I’m still just going to be Naturi, the girl from Jersey who just wants to feel regular, and all that good stuff. That’s what keeps us sane without getting caught up in characters and performance and acting.”
Naughton’s fans will get to see the girl from Jersey sing and dance on the series as well.
“For all the fans who want to see me dancing and singing, I’ll be singing in episode three,” Naughton states. “I love that the show infuses the music of the ‘60s, so I’m in heaven right now. I love music so much. I miss doing it in the way that I can have my own album, and I hope to have that one day. But I don’t feel outside of that world, because with this particular show, I get a chance to fuse music and acting, and I’m having a good time.”
Check out Naturi Naughton on NBC’s “The Playboy Club,” debuting on Sept. 19. Check your local listings or visit