I’ve had a longstanding fascination with Playboy and the incredible women who seemed to thrive within the Empire, but my views have recently been rocked. After watching the A&E docuseries “The Secrets of Playboy”, I feel physically ill thinking about how much I idolized a franchise that existed to actively hurt women so badly and brutally.
The events outlined in the docuseries were so horrific that I don’t even know where to start. Actually, let’s start with a massive trigger warning for what comes ahead. There was grooming and manipulation of young women, undelivered promises and outcomes for their work, poor working conditions, unfair pay, contracts signed under duress, images promoted on unapproved platforms such as porn sites, and so much more. And those were the women who got off easy. For others they were drugged, raped, sodomized, humiliated, and all of it was often photographed or filmed. Hef was able to make generations and generations of women do exactly what he wanted because of the fear of leaked footage and images he held in his possession of unspeakable things happening to these women while under various stages of influence. Women who suffered his abuse often turned to drugs or even suicide – making the average rate of suicide among Playmates 40% higher than the national average for American women overall at the time.
This is still unfortunately just scratching the surface of things. The abuse went from the Playmates (and potentials) all the way to the executives – because even the female executives were fair game for Hef’s circle. Miki Garcia speaks out most notably in the docuseries and speaks of her mistreatment, multiple assaults (one from a fellow executive), and the abuse she tried to get the other women out of. Speaking of, the “shadow mansions” were specifically designed as pimp circles belonging to Hef’s friends, essentially to exploit the women who did not make the magazine. There’s so much more darkness that is so deep and so layered that I could never successfully recount all the awful details and stories. All of these women suffered so many levels of physical and emotional abuse.
And let’s not forget the girlfriends. They were not only also sexually assaulted – often forcibly, but also manipulated into agreeing to sexual situations that made them uncomfortable. Sondra Theodore is my new hero and is the focal point of the new series. She speaks openly, with sadness and regret, and in hope that she can finally speak her truth. She wants to encourage others to do the same, and be a “voice for the women who suffered the most at this hands.” The things Hef did to her was awful – using her body, coercing her into orgies, making her a drug mule, and even forcing her to watch him rape other women. She also outlines things that Hef disclosed to her that were truly shocking – such as the time she walked in on Hef having sex with their dog, or when he and his friends drugged a famous pornstar named Linda Lovelace and forced her to give oral sex to a German Shephard while they all watched and filmed. What Hef put Sondra through was barbaric and a level of psychological manipulation that no 19 year-old could have known she was getting herself into.
Hef did not see these women as people, but as a tool, a bargaining chip, a reward… property. He mistreated them, allowed and encouraged his friends to mistreat them, and created an environment where he could hide it all and silence anyone who dares to speak of it. He did not value or appreciate women, but rather thought he deserved whatever he wanted from them. The abuse these women ensured was boundless.
The craziest thing is that even though there are countless victims and witnesses coming forward on screen – there are still plenty of people who still defend Playboy. I recently was listening to a podcast that I will absolutely not give mention to, where two washed-up former Playmates called the victims “liars”, simply because it had not happened to them. The way that they discredited these very real stories was so disgusting, and they are not the only ones. It’s honestly really disappointing to see a lack of women supporting each other, but a lot of them are of the catty-women generation that I’m glad is no longer the norm. (I did listen to one podcast prior to watching the docuseries that started to highlight the darkness behind Playboy – even some of the same victims spoke on both mediums. The podcast was called “Power: Hugh Hefner”, and covers other problematic influential men, and I actually would recommend the listen to the Hef episodes.)
My own history with Playboy actually started with I was in high school and read Jennifer Saginoir’s memoir, Playground. Her story of growing up in the Playboy mansion (her father was Hef’s BFF) and the events that transpired as a result lured me into learning more about Hef’s world. I became obsessed with the women of Playboy, was admittedly a huge fan of the franchise, and continued to read more books on the fantasy land, such as Izabella St James’ Bunny Tales, Holly Madison’s book of course, and even ones written by other women who worked for Playboy Enterprises.
I’ve even recently read The Bunny Years by Kathryn Leigh Scott, which was a collection of the stories of the women who worked in the infamous Playboy clubs in the 60’s. However, it is hard to read anything Playboy related after knowing all of the darkness that existed behind the scenes. It’s awkward and eerie to see Bunny after Bunny make the same excuses.. “there are other clubs that have skimpy uniforms, too” .. “I was making more money than other women those days” .. “Hef was always so nice to me!’ .. etc. etc. etc. But knowing the unsafe environment that was provided to the women working in the clubs (not to mention the pressure from all sides to act and present themselves a certain way and the actual assaults that were hidden) it makes this book feel more like a way to try and save face.
A major focus of the book was Gloria Steinem and her stint as a Playboy Bunny for journalistic purposes. She wrote a tell-all article for Show Magazine titled “A Bunny’s Tale”, outlining her short experience as a Playboy Bunny working on the club floor, where she posed under a fake name to expose the Bunny conditions. Her article outlined her experience being objectified during the interview process as well as tough working conditions for little pay. This was even turned into a movie with the same name starring Kirstie Alley, and Steinem has republished the article with the title, “I Was A Playboy Bunny”. The movie is actually decent if you like super cheesy 80’s movies! Despite making the experience seem demeaning and career damaging, the movie does show her actually sympathizing and sticking up for the women. There’s even a really fun scene of the bunnies doing a burlesque number for each other and joking around in a very sisterhood/sorority kind of way. Regardless of the whimsy in the film, the article still outlined a job full of misery and unfairness. The women working in the clubs clearly felt some type of way about the way they were portrayed, and I believe used their voices in Kathryn Lee Scott’s book to mention the slight they felt from Gloria. I can’t help but wonder if things like this book and other PR stunts were used to rehab Playboy’s image when conveniently needed.
I believe that everything Hef did was for perception purposes. He cared about his image above all things. I think that the humiliation he felt as a result of infidelity in his formative relationships made him react with overcompensation. He created not just the Playboy image and lifestyle, but committed himself to living it. He wanted to be the walking emblem, the permanent mascot, the guy that everyone wanted to be. He lived in this excess and grandiosity as a defense mechanism for how small he felt inside.
While he may have been fond of the women in his life, I don’t believe he actually cared about them overall. His girlfriends were his business, and his business was his lifestyle, and none of it can be separated. He chose women who looked or acted the part and he made them feel wildly special. He would love-bomb them, which is actually common in early stages of abusive relationships. He made these women feel unique to him, even though they weren’t. In the 50’s and 60’s he was cheating on his girlfriends unapologetically, but by the 70’s and 80’s had made this practice more open and known, even if not accepted by all his partners. By the end of his marriage in the 90’s, he created the idea of a “party posse” – meaning a group of girlfriends that would all intertwine, mingle, and of course, turn heads in a crowd. I call this his “gimmick dating”, as he always wanted to have an edge. Like when he dated twins Mandy and Sandy Bentley alongside Brande Roderick – having a double gimmick of both twins and girlfriends with rhyming names. In the phase of Tina Jordan as the main girlfriend, there was a rotating group of 7 or more girlfriends who all looked relatively the same. These women would date Hef, appear in the magazine, and then move on – leaving room for new flavors of the month. While everything appeared to be fun and games, there was a huge amount of manipulation going on, including often pinning the women against each other to start drama and fights. The environment was often toxic and controlling, and of course came with lots of rules. There certainly was a lot of fun to be had in the mansion, but the girls were not made aware of the true costs.
What’s also interesting is that Hef did not end his relationships, but rather made life miserable enough for each woman until they saw no choice but to leave and move on. (This excludes the women in his “Party Posse”s who were kicked out for breaking the rules, of course.) And somehow, he managed to get each ‘former girlfriend’ (he never called them ex’s) back for holidays and reunions, because everything is so incredibly layered that on some level he convinces them that in the end, they are family. He wanted to stay in their good graces, probably as some form of damage control or an insurance policy. If these women were still on his side, they couldn’t go against him.
It’s never been a secret that the women are what made Playboy what it is. Time after time, the women of Playboy have kept Hef relevant and trendy and out of hot water. We saw this when Christie Hefner was made the CEO of Playboy Enterprises during the height of their feminist pressure. We saw this when he made virgins and Baptists and girls from the bible belt Playmates when Meese Commission put their spotlight on him. We saw this when he used Rebecca Armstrong for his political image and stance on AIDS, which was wonderful for Rebecca, but life and safety at the mansion did not change. It’s all for public show. Again, we saw this when his girlfriends kept him in the headlines and on the VIP list to LA’s hottest clubs, contrasted with when he married Kimberly Conrad just as the mansion parties were starting to get out of control. Every woman provided Hef with an angle he could use for his own image and personal gain. And in the early 2000’s, Hef’s trio of girlfriends brought him to relevancy again with the hit E! TV show, ‘The Girls Next Door’.
The show ran for six seasons, and I own every single one of them on DVD. The first five seasons highlight girlfriends Holly, Bridget and Kendra – a trio, which was smaller than Hef had been known for at the time. But the three blondes by Hef’s side was more digestible for the audience, especially since the show was created with a relatively family-friendly vibe. Aside from the occasional boob, the calmness of everyday life at the mansion seemed to be in contrast to stories heard about the crazy atmosphere from the 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s proceeding the current trio. This made the Playboy lifestyle once again marketable, this time for primetime TV.
The show itself was enjoyable because of the personalities that Holly, Bridget and Kendra brought to the screen. My favorite episodes always included their photoshoots or other behind-the-scenes insight, like when the girls had a cameo in the movie ‘The House Bunny’. The dynamics of the girls changed over the years, but their roles on the show for the most part stayed the same:
- Holly Madison was shown as the one who was obsessed with Hef. While they showed her actual personality from time to time, her main role was to love and tend to and care for Hef. They didn’t emphasize too much tension between her and the other girlfriends, but as a viewer, we are supposed to root for Holly and Hef to make it in the end. In reality, Holly is a very sweet and unique girl who longed for a sense of belonging and thought she found it in Playboy.
- Bridget Marquardt has always confused me; while she was in her 30’s during the filming of the show, she sometimes acted the most like a little girl. She often wore her hair in pigtails coupled with frilly costumes and was always shown crying when she didn’t get what she wanted. This wasn’t done in a tantrum kind of way, but almost to make Bridget look like this sad girl whose dreams haven’t come true yet. Hef, of course, was withholding these dreams from her of becoming a playmate, and wants to look like the hero on camera when she finally gets the spot. Bridget’s gentle demeanor seems genuine, while overall naïve. I can’t lie though – I live for her level of campiness.
- Kendra Wilkinson was everyone’s favorite – the sporty, party girl who was hot, young, and just wanted to have a good laugh. She was often shown as non-conforming, wanting to be seen as different and not so girly like the rest of her co-stars. Watching the show, she seems the least interested in Hef, but brings most of the entertainment. She had continued success in reality TV post-Playboy, but has also been quiet after the recent docuseries, which raises questions for me.
When the show was in its popularity, the girls put a book together; I would classify it as a coffee table book. The success of their show was evident, and it was portrayed as a project they all felt very passionate about. Who knows the truth now, but it’s stocked with photos, behind the scenes info, favorite recipes, and more.
I have to admit that I did not go in with the right mindset the first time that I read Holly Madison’s book. I still had on my rose-colored glasses about Playboy, and I was a big fan of Kendra’s – like many people. Holly doesn’t speak highly of Kendra in her book, nor Hef, nor her experience in the mansion overall. She wrote the book to come clean about her feelings so that she could stop putting on a fake face when asked questions post-mansion life, and a lot of people saw her words as hypocrisy at the time – myself included. After all, we had watched hours and hours of television where Holly is seemingly in love with Hef and having a great life. After having my eyes opened to the dark side of Playboy, I decided to read her book again with a fresh mind.
I was obviously more inclined to believe her in the second read, but Holly also took a lot more accountability than I remembered, and I found that she was actually super transparent. Don’t get me wrong, she does throw a lot of shade, including to co-star Kendra, but most notably to the “Mean Girl” girlfriends who of course included Tiffany Holiday (known in the book as antagonist “Vicky”) and Izabella St. James. Izabella’s book actually included a lot of overlap in the mansions cast of characters, although Izabella did mostly speak pretty decently of her experience in the mansion. They both mention how petty Hef could be and how he loved to pin the girls against each other or find other ways to manipulate them. For example, Izabella St. James mentions how the girls would have to ask Hef individually for their contracted weekly allowance, during which he took that time to air out any current grievances he had with the girls and start up new drama. Both Holly and Izabella also give a peak behind Hef’s “bedroom routine”, which of course was mostly for show by this point. Obviously Hef was known for his sexual adventures, but being well into his seventies and eighties now, I imagine that his stamina was a little off – even with Viagra. While his bedroom did not seem as glamorous as it had once been made out to be, women still made their way up there – in fact were even expected to do so if they were testing for the magazine. However, it’s noted that while girls did have technical intercourse with Hef, it was mostly for show and girls were mainly faking their way through sexual interactions with both Hef and each other. The bedroom routine slowed when the seven-girlfriend party posse became the GND trio, and Holly even said she didn’t push girls into Hef’s room to spare them what she went through. Many through this was jealously, and Holly didn’t mind what people thought as long as it scared the girls off.
Holly has been quoted saying that Hef was incorrectly portrayed on the show as a warm grandfatherly figure, coming in to catch up on the antics of his girls. In previous years, Hef had used his Playboy fame and the magazine as a way to control the women, who of course all wanted to be a Centerfold. For Holly, Bridget and Kendra, they knew by not not to expect the promises when it came to pictorials, and so Hef was able to use the show as his new ammo. It was clear that the show as never about Hef but rather about the women that surrounded him. Even the special and guest characters on the show were women, such as the trash that is Mary O’Connor. Mary was portrayed as a nice and innocent grandmotherly house guardian figure, which degusts me to know now how involved she was with keeping Hef’s status quo of manipulation. Mary is thankfully dead now, but was known for responding to girls who confided in her or came to her for help with a simple, “if you don’t want to be here, some other girl will.” Somehow, Holly actually spoke very highly of Mary in her book, which truly shocked me. Holly must have been spared of Mary’s manipulation or perhaps somehow still oblivious to it, which I find strange. Another reoccurring face on the series was the eccentric and former girlfriend, Barbi Benton, who I am surprised has not come forward to speak out against Hef. However, she was always clearly obsessed and overly involve with Hef, having even lost her virginity to him, so I can’t be too surprised that she would still have his back even after everything that has surfaced.
Hef has a pattern of finding young girls who come from a not-great home life and grooming them into participating in the lifestyle he has created for himself and his friends. However, something that I found interesting is that the girls’ families were regularly featured in the first five seasons of ‘the Girl’s Next Door’. Kendra’s mom was a fan favorite, Bridget’s parents were frequent visitors and her brother’s deployment was even a plot point for an episode, and who could forget the shade of red that Holly’s dad turned at the luncheon where Barbi Benton sat on his lap! While the success of the show was due to the women, Hef was continuously using the women for the narration of his own image – it was all to make him look good.
Season six of ‘The Girls Next Door’ was a shift that viewers were not expecting. In fact, when the show was renewed for the sixth season, it was planned to focus on a quieter mansion life between just Holly and Hef. I think most of the audience expected Holly and Hef to eventually get married, but instead they had a rather awkward fallout. The transition itself happened off screen, where Kendra first decides to leave the mansion. I’ve learned now that she was already pregnant during this time with Hank Baskett’s baby, who Holly has claimed in her book was the “only ‘side boyfriend’ to ever stick around”. Honestly, what Hef knew of this at the time is still super unclear to me. On screen, they play this transition off like Kendra leaves because she just met someone new, not that she had been cheating on Hef for a while. Bridget’s exit is also a little unclear – she says she’ll be gone for a while for a project, but never returns as a girlfriend, which leads to a lack of closure, honestly. The reality is that after Kendra and Bridget left, Holly found Hef to be too unmanageable and abusive on her own, leading to her departure soon after. The process of her leaving the mansion took months, during which Hef repeatedly begged her to stay, even using season six of the show as a bargaining tool for staying, thinking that if she doesn’t stay for him maybe she would stay for the show. He even went as far as to leave out a copy of his will for her to find, which stated that if she still lived at the mansion at the time of his dead, she would receive $3 million. Regardless of the offers, Holly moved out and made her way to Vegas. Much of this is kept off screen in case Holly had accepted offers to come back to the show, which left the timeline murky but made room for the new girlfriends and their stories on screen.
Kristina and Karissa Shannon, the twins who move in next and are featured in season six, have recently also spoke out on the A&E series. Holly actually doesn’t speak wonderfully about them in her book, though I wonder if she has changed her tune post-docuseries. The twins were just 18 when they met Hef, who saw them purely as his next schtick. I’ve mentioned that Hef loved a gimmick, and had previously dated the Bentley twins in the “Sandy-Mandy-Brande” girlfriend phase. The Shannon twins were exactly what Hef thought he needed: blonde, naïve, fun-loving, a bad family history, AND there was two of them! Likely convenient, as he saw them all the same anyways. Hef was in his late 80’s when he asked the twins to move in, and when they wouldn’t sleep in bed with him, he told them they needed another girl. The twins then found Crystal Harris, who immediately took the role as number one girlfriend in Holly’s shadow. While the twins only stayed at the mansion for a year and a half, and their ‘Girls Next Door’ season with Crystal only lasted ten episodes, Crystal stayed long enough to marry Hef and become Crystal Hefner. They did have an awkward road to their wedding, including her skipping out on Hef publicly a few days prior to the wedding for one of her side boyfriends, resulting in thousands of dollars down the drain for their disastrous E! special. However, she came crawling back not long after running off, taking the vows and ending up as his third wife after all. Upon Hef’s death in 2017, due to an iron-clad pre-nup, the only thing that Crystal Hefner got to have was his last name. She did, however, receive monetary gifts from Hef prior to his passing, as well as a multi-million dollar mansion. There are current rumors of her writing a tell-all book, and she has reached out after the series to confirm that she had destroyed the tapes and film that decades of women were worried about.
As I’ve said before, my fascination with the women of this empire was ever-present, which led to an interest in Mr. Hugh M. Hefner himself. I’ve studied his history, learned his routines, and can even recognize most of his girlfriends by name and face. He had many strange rituals, including the extreme documentation of his life. There are pictures of everyone who has ever came to the mansion, scrapbooks and video tapes of every party, and so much more – all organized neatly into binders and books. At least, there was – I’m not sure where these things are shelved and stored today, outside of the “revenge porn” tapes allegedly destroyed by Crystal.
I recently read Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream by Steven Watts, and was pleasantly surprised that it was not just filled with admiration for Hef and his empire. This was actually a somewhat unbiased look into Hef’s life, including mentioning a bit of the darkness. The Dorothy Strattan scandal was mentioned – even including the allegations made that Hef had raped her in the grotto. Dorothy even outlined this in an autobiography, and her boyfriend, Peter Bogdanovich, also wrote a book on the abuse Dorothy suffered titled The Killing of the Unicorn, which led to years of sleepless nights from Hef. While I want to reach this book, it’s mysteriously unavailable anywhere I have looked for it… which is particularly interesting considering the public feud that went down the Peter and Hef at the time.
From this book, I learned some new insight into Hef’s troubled mind, including the fact that his “revenge porn” idea was not an original one. During Hef’s first marriage and the beginnings of the magazine, he first started experimenting with orgies and homosexuality, and had group sex with two of his friends and five females. His friends took a few pictures of him with two of the women, and later played a prank on him using the pictures. They made it seem as though they were being sent to him with a blackmail amount of $500, and the friends said that Hef turned so white that they immediately stopped the joke. He must have remembered this feeling and used this idea to ensure he had all the power over others in the future.
It was no secret that Hef had an affinity for women of a certain age, and his may have been hereditary. When Hef was young, his grandfather was charged with statutory sexual assault on four accounts of three girls aged ten and eleven. Hef apparently had a confusing reaction to his grandfather’s legal troubles, excusing this behavior as a result of sexual repression. He did not demonize his grandfather for his actions, but rather sympathized with him and attempted to understand. While Hef may not have been going for women quite this young, he still blurred lots of lines. He allowed women to pose naked for the magazine at the age of seventeen, but just did not release the pictures until after they turned eighteen. He often dated women who were freshly eighteen, even when he was well into his eighties. While many people saw him with groups of beautiful woman and saw him as an idol or “the man”, Hef was actually a pedofile.
What Hef really was, was an absolutely disgusting and pathetic monster. His story revolves entirely around the women in his life, and it has become wildly apparent to me that he would be nothing without them. Hef can hide behind this idea of sexual revolution and freedom, but it all stems from the hurt he felt when women in his youth were not faithful to him. He took this out on young women for the rest of his life as a result, which begs the question on how he even feels about women. Does he even enjoy the company he keeps? Is it all for show? If so, who is he trying to impress?
The answer is of course, other men. If you study men who treat women so poorly, they often show signs of not giving a shit about women as a whole at all, alluding to possible repressed feelings of homosexuality. They care about the status and respect they get from other men – especially as a result of their sexual conquests with women more so than women or the act itself. This obsession with status gained rather than genuine enjoyment of experiences is even more clear when you hear of the mansion bedroom routines, during which Hef was often known to be more of a voyeur than an actual participant. During his old age, this may not have been surprising, but it was a pattern that started in decades prior. Hef certainly went through exploratory phases, to the point of crossing boundaries into beastiality. He often excuses this exploration as a part of the sexual liberation of the 70s, including using this to explain the copious amount of massive orgies.
Throughout the years, you can find Mark Saginor by Hef’s side. (In the 90’s documentary made, titled “Inside the Playboy Mansion”, you can see Mark in the interviews speaking about Hef just as many of the girlfriends mentioned in both Izabella’s and Holly’s books are as well.) Once known as Dr. Saginor, nicknamed “Dr. Feel-Good”, Mark is the father of Jennifer Saginor, whose book I mentioned and who is a main speaker on the A&E docuseries. Mark Saginor was just as disgusting as Hef, with the added benefit of unlimited pharmaceuticals at his disposal. Mark was largely responsible for the drug accessibility in the mansion, often housed Hef’s ‘rejects’ in the abusive “shadow mansions”, and was deeply involved in the abuse distributed over the years. Jennifer does not paint her father in a good light in her book, Playground, and exposes some of the abuse and paranoia he inflicted on her growing up, but she saved one big detail for the A&E series. Jennifer believes that her father was the love of Hef’s life – and I believe her.
Hef and Mark Saginor were inseparable for decades, working together to emulate the Playboy lifestyle. While the women around Hef were always replaceable, Mark stayed consistent. Mark Saginor actually broke up his own family and left his own practice just to be closer to Hef, and even had a room inside the mansion where he resided for a long time – just down the hall from Hef and the girlfriends. Some might have seen him as a brother to Hef, but many knew it was more. It’s been noted that both men participated together in orgies at the mansion, and its speculated that these were formed for an opportunity for the men to be closer. Lines were certainly blurry, but when a drug issue left Playboy exposed, Hef let Mark take the fall. At the time, Jennifer couldn’t understand the level of emotion Mark was experiencing as a result of this fight, because she wasn’t understanding this fall-out as the break up that it was. Mark was notably depressed during the separation from Hef, but their friendship was actually rekindled for the remainder of Hef’s life. In fact, Mark Saginor was the one holding Hef when he died. Sounds fucking romantic to me.
Hef was not a good person. He was not a role model, nor an icon, nor a legend. He was a rapist, a pedofile, an abuser, and a manipulator. He was weak inside, but he had power that he used to inflict decades upon decades of pain. A power, by the way, that he only achieved through women. Hef built his entire empire off of Marilyn Monroe’s pictures, and yet never paid her directly or even met her to my knowledge. And yet, he insisted on being buried beside her for all of eternity, and we have no idea whatsoever if that’s something that Marilyn would have wanted or not.
My fascination with Playboy has obviously shifted. What used to be a feeling of awe and amazement that you get when entering an amusement park has changed to the uncomfortable curiosity of not being able to look away from a train wreck. My love for Playboy has been put to rest, as I can now see it for the damaging cult that it was. However, I will redirect the love to all the amazing women who carried Playboy throughout the years.
Overall, my heart goes out to the many women who suffered the abuse of Hugh Hefner and Playboy Enterprises. These women are beautifully complex and brave survivors. I admire them, respect them, and I hope for some justice. While there may be beauty hidden in their stories, I can only wish that they find some sort of peace in their recovery from all the darkness.
Thanks for reading.