For decades now, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion has sat like a mysterious figure that looms over the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. There’s a lot of myth surrounding the mansion and its goings-on, but now, four years after the entrepreneurial mogul’s death, we can finally get a factual, truthful investigation and a behind-the-scenes look into the mansion. And it’s not pretty.
The Playboy Mansion is a landmark in Los Angeles, known for its hedonistic parties and debaucherous events at the height of Hugh Hefner’s popularity, as well as where actual Playboy Bunnies resided with him. There have been many portrayals of Hefner, the Mansion, and the Bunnies in popular culture, but we’ve never really gotten a clear picture of what exactly went on there, as well as how the women who lived there were treated. Until now.
The House Bunny vs The Girls Next Door
There have been many portrayals of Playboy Bunnies in the past, but it’s safe to say that those have been a mixed bag.
In the early 1960s, America’s foremost feminist, Gloria Steinem, was at that time emerging as a journalist in New York City. Her recounted investigation of going undercover at an actual Playboy club and working as a cocktail waitress, published in Show Magazine with the title “A Bunny’s Tale” in 1963, helped skyrocket her reputation as a journalist and public figure.
Gloria Steinem went undercover as a cocktail waitress at a Playboy club to write an exposé.
Steinem’s exposé wasn’t flattering either, whether we self-identify as feminists or not. As part of her “bunny training,” based on standards set forth by the Playboy company, she was required to wear heels, take pictures with club patrons if they wanted, stuff her bra, and lie about her age. She was also required, for some reason, to undergo a medical exam which included an “internal physical.” Bunnies were paid $50 per week (which even in 1963 wasn’t great), had all their tips taken, and had to pay for their own uniform and physical upkeep.
This sort of investigation gave us clues about what kind of culture the Playboy business promoted, even 60 years ago. But more recent portrayals have served to tamp down that kind of negative attention and any negative press thereafter.
Take the 2008 comedy The House Bunny, starring Anna Faris. It’s a funny, lighthearted chick flick about a former Bunny who leaves the mansion, moves to a college campus, and manages to teach a whole sorority that beauty is actually on the inside before the movie is over. Hefner even has a cameo in it, and while the Playboy lifestyle isn’t ideal for Faris’ character, it’s generally portrayed as harmless.
The message of each episode essentially told viewers that they should want to be a Playmate.
Then there was the series The Girls Next Door, which was a reality program produced by E! that ran from 2005 to 2010. The main focal point of the show shed light on Hefner’s various Playmates, including Holly Madison, Kendra Wilkinson, and Hefner’s wife, Crystal Harris, and meant to serve as a “behind the scenes” look into life at the Mansion. The series showcased the infamous midsummer and Fourth of July parties and Playmate “Fight Night,” but despite the talking heads and unintended hilarity that always ensues, the message of each episode essentially told viewers, especially young girls, that they should want to be there and want to be a Playmate (I would know, I used to watch it — sorry, Mom).
Bunnies and the company as a whole have been called out for years for being anti-feminist and exploitative, but what really makes a difference in the conversation is hearing from the Playmates themselves.
Former Playmate Holly Madison, who dated Hefner from 2001 and 2008 and went on to write her memoirs about her time in the Mansion, alleges that the whole atmosphere in the house was very “cult-like,” with demanding rules and regulations for the Playmates, and no accountability or responsibility for Hefner.
Madison also revealed that she had to sleep with Hefner first to get invited to live in the house, and that she never once had sex with him while not under the influence of alcohol or party drugs like quaaludes, which Hefner reportedly called “thigh openers.” Madison also said that Hefner thrived on the constant drama between the women living in the house, and that she and several others signed their contracts for The Girls Next Door “under duress.”
Hefner thrived on the constant drama between the women living in the house.
Other Playmates and Bunnies, like Jill Ann Spaulding and Izabella St. James, corroborated Madison’s claims in their own accounts and autobiographies. Playmates often had sex with Hefner in succession, one after the other, and were never tested for STDs. Kendra Wilkinson described intercourse with Hefner as a job, “clock in, clock out.” Playmates were rarely allowed to leave the house, weren’t allowed to have jobs or to invite friends over, and depended on a weekly allowance from Hefner which he would hold over them if they hadn’t done something he liked.
They were also subjected to a code of conduct, what they could and couldn’t post on social media, and would get a sternly-worded email from Hefner or his company if they stepped out of line. Infighting in the house was extremely common as the women had to tear one another down to get Hefner’s attention. Madison revealed that more than anything, it was her shame which motivated her inability to leave and kept her in the house so long.
Symptoms of a Larger Problem?
The media portrays Playboy Bunnies and Playmates, Hefner’s girlfriends, as rarefied social icons — the beautiful, wealthy, status-laden women every young girl wants to be.
But it’s clear, more from their own words than from anything else, that the Mansion was less heaven-like than it was a personal hell for so many.
It’s tragic that so many women thought meaningless sex and drug-filled parties with an elderly man was “making it.”
It’s especially telling that Madison used the word “shame” to describe her experiences. After all, in this day and age, who is ashamed of living life as a notorious public figure, and the close-at-hand woman of one of the most influential men in modern America? Who feels shame for going after what our culture tells us will fulfill us the most — money, sex, and appearance?
It’s truly unfortunate, tragic even, that so many of these women thought this was the highest their success could ever go, that meaningless sex and drug-filled parties with an elderly man was the upper echelon of “making it.” Only now do we realize how hollow those ideals are. They’re not as fulfilling as The Girls Next Door would have us believe, but unfortunately, they’ve conditioned an entire generation of girls to believe in their superiority.
I feel for Holly Madison and for so many others who were able to speak the truth only after Hefner’s death, to prevent others from labeling their experiences, as Hefner himself described it, as “rewriting history.”
But the truth is, Hugh Hefner did build a cult, one which commodified sex and made it available in magazine and Bunny-form for the American male. The profit that business created was from the self-esteem and futures of countless women who were misled into thinking they had found success. Our success can’t be determined by a powerful man, by sex, or by a weekly allowance and a public appearance. We characterize it ourselves by the defining choices we make in life, and our legacy is determined by making the right — or wrong — decisions.
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