Sex & Love

Barbi Benton: Sacramento’s own 1970s starlet

Sacramento has sometimes been ribbed for being the Midwestern region of California, but there’s something a little sexy about that. Just look at our own personal pinup girl, Barbi Benton, a celebrity who epitomized the ideal of the sweet but sizzling country girl next-door. Benton, with her head of dark curls and bright green eyes, was born Barbara Klein in New York in 1950, but by 1952, her father, a military doctor, had been shipped to Sacramento, where her “parents never locked their doors,” said Benton by phone from Los Angeles.

Benton attended Rio Americano High School before heading for Los Angeles at 16, where she began modeling to supplement her allowance. By the time she met Hugh Hefner in 1968, she was getting regular work on television shows as diverse as Hee Haw, The Love Boat and Playboy After Dark, which filmed A-list entertainers performing in Hugh Hefner’s mansion surrounded by lovely women. Benton said she pretended to be Hefner’s girlfriend for a couple of episodes and soon found herself living the role full time. She was on her way to becoming a multifaceted icon of 1970s glamour.

A Playboy model who graced the cover of the magazine repeatedly, Benton was an example of glowing good health. She was naturally buxom with visible bikini tan lines and feathered hair—half Farrah Fawcett and half Betty Page. Benton was Hugh Hefner’s own personal playmate throughout the 1970s, but she also became a recording star, a Las Vegas headliner and a movie actress, with credits including Deathstalker, The Naughty Cheerleader and Hospital Massacre.

A 1998 Esquire story on Hefner quoted the aging playboy as saying that “Barbi became a kind of Hollywood version of the teenage romance that I never really had when I was in high school.” Benton recalls Hefner as a “very sweet, down-to-earth boy next-door” and herself as “the girl next-door, who just happened to pose nude.” She said she loved being surrounded by stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett, but she eventually realized that Hefner wasn’t really interested in starting a new family, so she left, concentrating for a while on performing and recording.

Fan sites now refer to Benton as one of the top five most beautiful women ever, and one who could “bring eyesite to the blind.” But Benton claims that she doesn’t really think of herself as a sex symbol. (Can’t you put me with the musicians, she asked, when hearing that she’d grace the pages of SN&R’s Sex & Love section.) Benton prefers to focus on her eight albums, the last of which she personally produced in 1979; she also composed the songs, sang them and played piano.

Though she hasn’t recorded recently, Benton retains her celebrity status. After splitting with Hefner, she went on to marry George Gradow, a successful developer who was interested in starting a new family. The couple now has two children, 16 and 18 years old. Benton mostly concentrates on building and designing homes now—which makes her sound somewhat conventional and Sacramento-like. She’s just the pretty lady next-door—who used to pose nude.