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From Playboy Bunny to actress, one Latina’s journey of discovering new opportunities

By Al Carlos Hernandez
Herald de Paris

HOLLYWOOD – Maria Richwine is the first Latina Playboy Bunny to ever become a serious actress and model. She has joined the ranks of such luminary former Bunnies as Gloria Steinem, Debra Harry of Blondie and Lauren Hutton. Born Maria Agudelo in Colombia, her parents viewed the USA as a land of opportunity both educationally and economically.

Screen shot 2010-12-06 at 1.28.29 PM.pngHer father brought the family to the US when she was just a little girl. In NYC, they took her to see the Rockettes and “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” at Radio City Music Hall. Audrey Hepburn’s performance as “Holly Go Lightly” was such an inspiration to her and made such an impression that she decided that one day she would become an actress.

Maria Richwine

Richwine’s family later moved to Los Angeles, where she studied ballet, jazz and modern dance for eight years. She attended high school and college and majored in foreign languages with the intention of becoming an interpreter at the United Nations. During that time she began teaching aerobics classes at the Century West Health Club in Century City.

Across the way from the Health Club was the Los Angeles PLAYBOY CLUB. One of the students in her class was “The Bunny Mother” who was the person responsible for training and hiring all the Playboy Bunnies. Maria was offered and accepted the job and became a Playboy Bunny for the next four years.

Richwine began taking acting classes. The classes lead to her being cast as Catherine in Arthur Miller’s play “A View From the Bridge” at the Nosotros Theatre. Her reviews caught the attention of an agent who signed her on the spot. Soon after, she was seen by casting director, Joyce Selznick, who was looking for a young actress to play the part of Maria Elena Holly in “The Buddy Holly Story” opposite Gary Busey. The timing was perfect and Maria landed the part – Busey was nominated for an Oscar for his brilliant performance – and for her performance in the film, Maria received the Nosotros “Golden Eagle Award” as “Most Promising Actress” for that year.

Ms. Richwine has appeared in many stage productions including “The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife” and “Divine Words” at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts and “Cuba and His Teddy Bear” at the Callboard Theatre. Most recently she played the part of Constansa in the critically acclaimed production of “Hercules On Normandie” at The Greenway Court Theatre.

She worked in several other feature films and dozens of guest starring roles for television, including “Three’s Company” with the great John Ritter and “Sledge Hammer”, under the direction of Bill Bixby. She was a series regular on Norman Lear’s first Latino sitcom on prime time, “AKA Pablo” starring Paul Rodriguez. Ms. Richwine has worked in over 100 Television Commercials for the Spanish and English markets and numerous voice over projects.

Richwine has also been working as a print model and can be seen in campaign ads for VERIZON, WELLS FARGO, AMERITRADE, TELEFLORA, and AMGEN Pharmaceuticals.

Recently, Maria was cast as a regular in the upcoming cybernovela “The Devil You Know” directed by P. David Ebersole which is now in post production. She is currently working on a new Web series “The Healers” starring opposite Richard Yniguez. Mr. Yniguez is also the writer, director and producer of the new project with the collaboration of the director of photography Armando Acevedo and editor Pablo Picazo.

According to Maria, this is a very exciting time in her career and she is grateful for all the new opportunities coming her way. Maria resides in Los Angeles with her husband Andrew, her son Quincy and their dog Homer.

Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez was introduced to Maria by their mutual friend Richard Yniguez:

AC: Tell us about your parents. What kind of work did they do, whose idea was it to come to the USA and what where they looking for?

My father was very young when he met my mom. They fell in love, got married and started a family right away. She was a homemaker and he worked for Sears Roebuck & Co in Medellin, Colombia as a repairman. He had high ambitions and wanted a better life and a good education so he decided to go to the US to study and work.

We stayed with my grandmother in Colombia and Dad went to the US. He attended school during the day at the “New York Technical Institute” to study thermal engineering and at night he worked in a restaurant to save every penny so that he could send for me, my mom and my brother Fred. After many months, we arrived in NYC to a completely different world.

AC: What was your first memory of the USA? Did you have a hard time learning English, and how was it in school? Were you introverted or extroverted?

I remember it was the dead of winter; everything was covered in snow and ice. My Dad had rented a little single flat in a 4-story walk-up in the middle of Manhattan with a big bay window. All I could see were buildings everywhere, hundreds of windows, thousands of lights, millions of strangers. I was in heaven, it was magical.The four of us together again in the same space in this new land.

I had to wear almost every garment I owned to keep warm. Coming from the tropics, we were not prepared for the incredible change in climate, frozen fingers, toes and noses. For the next few years I looked forward to winters so that I could put on my mittens, boots and hooded furry jackets.

School was very difficult; I would come home crying every day because I did not understand a word. Eventually, with the help of sweet little schoolmates and some great teachers, my vocabulary improved and things became easier for me… and yes, I was very shy.

AC: What was it about the Rockettes and Audrey Hepburn that inspired you? Was it the fame, the glamour, the adulation? Does it still inspire you?

When I walked into Radio City Music Hall with my dad, the auditorium felt like a microcosm of the universe. The stage and the lights were like the stars and planets floating by me. It looked like the sun was illuminating the long legged ladies dancing in unison, it was breathtaking!

I was inspired by them to learn to dance but Audrey Hepburn’s performance left such a lasting impression on me that I wanted to grow up to be just like her.To be an instrument of illusion, pretending to be different people, on a big screen and tell stories that would somehow move and inspire other little girls. I’m still moved by great performances and I love to go see plays and films whenever possible.

AC: Why did the family decide on LA? Did your ambitions have anything to do with it? What were your first impressions of LA?

With his new vocation in air-conditioning and refrigeration, my father realized that the hot climate in California was the place to be. A new industry was booming. We headed west for a new adventure and a better lifestyle.

My ambitions were kept quiet for some time; my parents really didn’t know that I had a burning desire to dance and act.

LA was very quiet compared to NY. No tall buildings, noisy traffic or subways to catch. At first, I was homesick for the Big Apple – but eventually, I made some good friends and came to love the palm trees, the sunshine and the beach.

AC: You studied ballet. Did you plan on being a dancer?

While in NY, my mom had given me a pair of tap shoes that said “Hollywood” on the inside. Little did I know that this was to become my destiny. I wanted to learn how to tap like the Rockettes at Radio City but ended up taking ballet class instead.

I met a little girl in LA named Danielle who was taking ballet lessons from the acclaimed Ballerina, Madame Kathryn Etienne so I begged my parents to let me study with her. They could only afford one lesson a week so I spent much of my free time practicing at home on my own.

Within 6 months, nurtured by Madame Etienne and my fierce desire, I was on point and was able to dance on my toes, it felt powerful. I continued with the lessons and studied modern dance and jazz, however my desire to dance ballet diminished but I will always be grateful for everything I learned from Madame Etienne and all the other great teachers I studied with.

AC: What do you remember about your high school and college years? You wanted to be an interpreter – has being bilingual helped or hindered your career?

I was very shy in high school. I studied French and Italian and wanted to take Portuguese in college with the intention of becoming an interpreter but the road took a little turn.

I needed a job so I applied to several airlines and was hired by Braniff International Airlines. I am sure that being bilingual had a lot to do with it. Braniff flew through mid and southwestern US, South America, and Europe. Speaking another language could never hinder anyone; I am surprised that some schools have the “English only” rule.

I didn’t like being away from home so I left Dallas, where I was based and came back to LA. I met and got married to my first husband and began teaching aerobics at an exclusive health club. Those were sweet times.

AC: This may be an embarrassing question, but has being stunningly beautiful your whole life been a help or a hindrance to your career?

Stunningly beautiful is not how I would describe myself. I have always been aware of my flaws and have had to work to hide or alter them. As I get older, I see how hard I was on myself as a young girl coming up.

My first acting coach would say, “There will always be greater and lesser people than you.” He made me understand that we all have to be happy with ourselves and appreciate the unique gifts we were born with.

There are so many beautiful actresses who try to make it in this business but they want the fame more than the work. On the other hand, many average looking actresses transcend their physical appearance and are beautiful on screen and stage because of that inner quality that shines through and you can see that in their commitment to the work.

Screen shot 2010-12-06 at 1.29.12 PM.png
Maria Richwine poses in the iconic Playboy Bunny uniform.

AC: What did your dad say about you becoming a Playboy Bunny? Any stigma attached to that type of work and what are some of the misconceptions?

My dad was very supportive. He thought it was a great opportunity. The reality is that a Playboy Bunny is basically cocktail waitress in a sexy costume with ears and a tail. I loved the costume; we all looked beautiful, sophisticated and elegant in it.

This is a very unique sorority with ladies from all over the world. They just don’t make Bunnies anymore; we are a rare and dying breed. I still keep in touch with many of the girls from the LA Club.

The biggest misconception is that folks often mistake a Bunny for a Playmate. Playmates are models who pose nude for the magazine. Bunnies worked at the Playboy Clubs as cocktail and food servers.

AC: Tell us about the four years you worked for Hefner. What was the good and bad, and if you had the chance would you do it over again?

That was probably the best and most fun job that I have ever had and I would do it again in a nano second. At first I was reluctant because I was a bit of a feminist back in the 70’s.

As I grew into it, I knew that Mr. Hefner was giving the girls great opportunities. He set up scholarships for anyone who wanted to continue with an education. There were girls who were going to Law School, Medical School, training for the Police Academy, single mothers, actresses etc… I was studying acting during that time and was grateful for the job which gave me so much freedom to pursue a new career.

AC: How did you feel when you got your first big break with the Buddy Holly story? How do you view the work now?

I was doing a play at Nosotros Theatre and going to acting class at the same time. Everything I thought about was acting. During my breaks at work, I was studying scenes for class and in the evenings, I was rehearsing “A View From The Bridge” (my first play). It didn’t take very long from the time I began to study and get an agent to the time I was hired to play Maria Holly.

When I heard I got the job, after having gone to four callbacks, I was floating on air. I really had to pinch myself. Sometimes I fell asleep with the script in my arms. I knew I had to just get on that train and ride it all the way and never look back. There was no room for fear or insecurities; I just had to step up to the plate.

When I see that film now I get a bittersweet feeling. I was so young and inexperienced, working on pure instincts and a small amount of training. There are so many things I would have done differently, but it’s set and done and I will always cherish that experience.

AC: How did the instant fame and Golden Eagle Award affect you?

You know how sometimes you can’t remember if it was a dream or a memory of something that really happened? I went for about a year feeling like that. Did I really do this? Did this really happen to me? Then one day the phone rings and someone on the other line tells me that I was nominated for a Golden Eagle Award.

WOW, I can’t explain… it was like a veil of warm light, I felt so happy and proud. A few months later, Jerry Velasco (President of Nosotros) told me that I was chosen along with Edward James Olmos to go to the White House for President Carter’s signing of “The Hispanic Week Proclamation”. After that, I was called on to appear at many other events as presenter or Host. Things were really happening for me and I was very excited during that time.

AC: It’s seems like you took a break from film work after the Buddy Holly project. Did you become jaded about the business? What have you been doing?

My marriage ended and I was doing a lot of commercials and small guest starring roles on TV. The work was not coming as fast as I wanted and I needed a change of pace so I moved to New York to study and find myself. I ended up doing lots of voice-over work and more commercials but I realized that TV and Film work was in LA.

After working and traveling for about ten years, I met my second husband and we decided to start a family. I took several years off to raise my son and be a
stay-at-home mom.

Then, a few years ago, I got the urge to do a play, got a new agent and started booking commercials again – I booked five in a row and I thought, “Hey, what am I waiting for?”

I decided to go for it once more! Unfortunately, I got out of line so it seems that I have to start all over again but I am really enjoying the work this time around…

AC: Which performance platform do you enjoy the most: stage, TV, film, and now webcasting?

I love all of them. For obvious reasons, I love to do plays, the immediacy and moment to moment with an audience. Film because it will last forever and TV because of the large audience one is able to reach. Webcasting is so new to me and I am still getting the hang of it but it seems the possibilities are endless.

AC: You have done over 100 commercials. How hard is it for a working actress to make it in Hollywood today?

Commercials are the bread and butter for an actor. I see many more big stars dong commercials now, when it used to be frowned upon before.

I did a national campaign ad for AT&T with Forest Whitaker; he directed and starred in the spot with me. That was like doing a mini movie. It was just before he won the Academy Award for “Last King of Scotland”.

AC: You do print modeling as well. Tell us about that. What kinds of campaigns are your favorites?

Print is so much fun now because I get to do lifestyle work instead of all the glamour stuff. The Baby-boomer demographic is fabulous and there is a lot of work for us now, being the largest portion of our population, we need to be well represented.

My favorite campaigns are for the big name brands. The locations are exotic, everyone is extremely professional and it’s always very relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. This kind of work can be very lucrative and I am always grateful when I get booked on a job.

AC: Tell us about the project you are working on with our friend Richard Yniguez?

Richard is a very talented actor with an amazing imagination. He comes up with the most interesting concepts and fills the scenes with profound images and symbolism.

He wanted to take matters into his own hands and decided to develop a series of stories for the Internet utilizing this new medium that is accessible to us now. Hopefully we can inspire sponsors to take an interest and facilitate the making of more stories with great production values.

So far, we are just in the beginning stages and I am looking forward to what is ahead.

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