In summer 2005, E! offered viewers a rare look inside the Playboy Mansion with a reality show about three women, all blond and in their 20s and 30s, who were dating Hugh Hefner, the then-near-octogenarian founder of Playboy magazine. The series, which would run for a total of six seasons, quickly introduced viewers to Holly Madison, who described herself as “Hef’s No. 1 girlfriend.” As Madison recalled moving into the sprawling Gothic-Tudor just two days after her and Hefner’s first date, she mused, “I guess you could say we were made for each other.”
But in a new A&E docuseries, Madison says the charming persona Hefner cut on “The Girls Next Door,” where he was often depicted working in his trademark silk pajamas, was far from reality. Madison is one of several women opening up about their experiences with Hefner and the empire he founded in the name of revolutionizing American attitudes toward sex in “Secrets of Playboy.” The show features interviews with several former girlfriends, models and longtime employees, who describe Hefner, who died in 2017, as a controlling figure who wielded his power to protect his iconic brand from scandal and negative press — often at the expense of the women he recruited to live at the mansion.
There are also interviews with several of the mogul’s closest friends, who point to Hefner’s progressive view of civil rights in the late 1950s and early ’60s — when he staunchly refused to allow Playboy’s clubs to be segregated — and maintain that his unconventional relationships were consensual and mutually beneficial. The late mogul’s son, Cooper Hefner, defended his father in a tweet Sunday that alluded to the docuseries. “He was generous in nature and cared deeply for people,” he wrote. “These salacious stories are a case study of regret becoming revenge.”
The 10-episode docuseries carries a disclaimer noting that “the vast majority of allegations” discussed in “Secrets of Playboy” have not resulted in criminal charges or investigations. But several of the women interviewed in it say they were fearful of repercussions and have been empowered by the #MeToo movement, which came to international prominence just months after Hefner’s death, to share their stories.
Here are some of the most serious allegations from Monday’s two-episode premiere.
Hefner allegedly knew about an affair one of his girlfriends had with a 15-year-old on his property.
The first episode introduces Jennifer Saginor, the daughter of Hefner’s longtime doctor. Saginor says she was just 6 when her father first took her to the mansion, which she described as “a magical kingdom” where she could have anything she wanted from candy to gourmet lunches to extended leisure time in the game room. The mansion’s “larger-than-life” owner, she says, was like an uncle to her.
When Saginor was 11, her father, who had his own room in the mansion, moved her into an upstairs bedroom where she had a front-row seat to the lavish parties and sexual freedom that unfolded around the property. “As a little kid, I was buying it that these women were empowered and walking around naked and felt good about their bodies and the feminists simply didn’t get it,” she says. “As time went on, I saw some of the inconsistencies. I saw just all the tremendous hypocrisy.”
Surrounded by glamorous women — and men, including her father and Hefner, who openly judged the looks of the women vying to be in Playboy — Saginor says she struggled with her self-image and was encouraged to get plastic surgery as young as 15. It was around the same time that Saginor says she “fell very hard” for one of Hefner’s girlfriends. Away from her mother, Saginor says she “longed for the affection that only a woman could give” and became very close to the woman, identified only as “Kendall.”
Saginor recalls one night in which the woman ordered daiquiris up to her bedroom, where “one thing led to another.” Mitch Rosen, who worked as a butler to Hefner from 1983 to 1989, says in the docuseries that he “served Mr. Hefner’s girlfriend and Jennifer drinks in bed” when Saginor was underage and that “the people that knew [about the affair] knew that Jennifer was underaged.”
There was recording equipment throughout the premises of the Playboy Mansion.
Saginor says Hefner knew about the affair, in part, because there were cameras all over the mansion. Several interviewees attest to this. “Every room, even outside on the property, had cameras,” recalls Stefan Tetenbaum, who worked as Hefner’s personal valet from 1978 to 1981. “Every place had microphones and little cameras.”
“Many of the girls wanted to tell you their problems,” Tetenbaum adds. “And that made us all nervous. We had to be very careful, because we knew we were being monitored.”
The trove of recorded material, which included footage Hefner took in his bedroom, factored into Madison’s decision to stay at the mansion for as long as she did; she said she worried about “revenge porn just waiting to come out” if she left.
Sondra Theodore, who dated Hefner from 1976 to 1981, suggests the cameras helped Hefner quash negative press. “He lets the media into all these parties on purpose because usually they end up doing something they’ll regret,” she explains in the docuseries. “So down the road if anything is going to come out negative about him, he’d just say ‘I don’t think so, remember this?' And then all of a sudden it goes away.”
Hefner had other ways of eluding scandal, according to several people who appear on the show. Tetenbaum and Rosen say Hefner had deep connections with local police departments because many of his security guards were former police. He also had magazine employees read things that could reflect negatively on him or Playboy; a former editorial assistant recalls vetting books and reading stuff “that never saw the light of day.”
Even after dissolving some of the mystique around her childhood, Saginor says she took pains to “portray Hef in a very, very positive light” in her 2006 memoir, “Playground: A Childhood Lost Inside the Playboy Mansion,” out of a sense of lingering loyalty — and fear of repercussions. She recalls Hefner calling her while she was in Los Angeles promoting her book. He told her he was proud of her and asked about the interviews she had lined up for her next tour stop. He also asked that she keep his knowledge of her underage relationship a secret. Though she agreed, Saginor says all of her interviews were summarily canceled “in succession.”
“It was like something out of a mafia movie,” she says. “I know that he had someone in his office call and contact those people and stop those interviews.
The mansion could be an isolating place and “cultlike.”
Miki Garcia, a former playmate who served as Playboy’s head of promotion from 1973 to 1983, says Hefner approached his revolving cast of girlfriends like a cult. “The women had been groomed and led to believe they were part of this family,” she says. “And he really did believe he owned these women.”
Madison also uses “cultlike” to describe her time at the mansion. “The reason I think the mansion was very cultlike, looking back on it, is because we were all kind of gaslit and expected to think of Hef as this really good guy,” she says. She initially found Hefner charming and, like several other interviewees, was attracted to the welcoming community she found at the mansion.
But she quickly felt isolated, particularly after Hefner insisted she quit a waitressing job and instead take a weekly stipend. “You had a 9 o’clock curfew, you were encouraged to not have friends over,” she says. “You weren’t really allowed to leave unless it was, like, a family holiday.”
She also disliked the competition with other women vying to be the mogul’s main girlfriend. Madison describes feeling pressured to participate in orgies with Hefner’s other girlfriends and, as she recalled in her 2015 memoir, Hefner offering her a quaalude during a night out. Saginor also recalls drug use during her time at the mansion. “I would see some of these girls doing things I didn’t recognize. I would see them naked with men all around them, and I would see them on all fours on the floor and they were on drugs,” she says. “And it just really … scared me.""
“This wasn’t about empowerment of women,” she adds. “It was the breaking down of a woman.”
Theodore notes that Hefner had an obsession with Charles Manson. “There were so many similarities — the way the girls followed everything he said and we were all a big happy family,” she says. “He would say things like, ‘If you can get along with everybody, we can be together forever.’ That’s how he reeled me in.”
“I watched girl after girl after girl show up fresh-faced, adorable, and then their beauty just washed away,” Theodore says. “He went through decades of young girls — decades.”
Hefner reportedly played his girlfriends against each other.
“There was always at least three to four main girlfriends,” says Stella Tetenbaum, a former Playboy Mansion hostess. “There was always one that was ‘the special one’ … and those other girls were always wanting to be that special one.”
Hefner intentionally set that dynamic, several interviewees say. “He would pit us against each other. There was a little tiff going on with different girls,” Theodore says. “If everybody is a little unsure of themselves, then he could have his way.”
By the time Madison arrived at the mansion in 2001, Hefner’s girlfriends had all started to resemble each other, which she says was yet another way he exerted control. Six months into her stay, Madison cut her long blonde hair to set herself apart. Hefner “flipped out,” she says, and “was screaming at me saying it made me look ‘old, hard and cheap.’ ”
Hefner allegedly forced Madison and her co-stars to sign contracts for “The Girls Next Door.”
Madison says it was “The Girls Next Door” that helped her feel less isolated and more confident. She had a job at Playboy Studio for the show.
“I can see myself getting my self-esteem back,” she recalls. But she and co-star Bridget Marquardt say they weren’t initially paid for the first order of episodes. Though they were eventually, the pair says they were forced to sign contracts to continue making the show.
“We were told one day that we needed to sign contracts and we need to sign them that day or E! wasn’t going to renew the show,” Madison says. “I just didn’t want to sign a contract that in essence was signing a contract to be in a relationship since the show was about three girls he was dating. That felt very prostitute-ish to me.”
Marquardt recalls Hefner angrily cornering her while she was in the shower. Shaken, she says, “I signed the contract,” Marquardt says. “Crying and soaking wet.”
Madison also signed but says she did so “under duress.”
Madison left the mansion in 2008, the same year she completed her run on the E! reality series. Her co-stars Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson had already left by then. “At that point, there were no women to pit me against, there was none of that left,” Madison says. “I had been locked into the mentality at the mansion and had felt like ‘there’s no other future for me outside.’ ”
“But I finally saw him for who he was,” Madison adds. “And I had to go.”