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Secrets of Playboy: Why We Should All Care About The Hugh Hefner Docuseries

This article contains references to emotional abuse and graphic claims of sexual assault.

Last week, a documentary called Secrets of Playboy premiered in the US, unveiling alarming accusations about the late Hugh Hefner – including allegations of rape, bestiality, and blackmail.

The Playboy brand is no longer affiliated with the Hefner family after the Mountain Crest conglomerate paid $381 million for the franchise in 2021. Still, in anticipation of the documentary, Playboy’s new owners released a statement supporting “the individuals who have come forward to share their experiences” and reiterating that “today’s Playboy is not Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.”

It begs the question: what was “Hugh Hefner’s Playboy?” And why has it taken the release of a documentary, five years after his death, for us to find out?  

In 1953, 27-year-old Hefner started Playboy magazine. The first issue had a photo of Marilyn Monroe on the cover, with the sub-title, “First time in any magazine / Full Color / The famous Marilyn Monroe Nude.”

The magazine cultivated a reputation for publishing highbrow fiction, long-form articles, and – of course – nude profiles of women. Its success enabled Hefner to transform Playboy into what we’d now probably call a ‘lifestyle brand’. This included transforming his home into the “Playboy Mansion,” where Hefner lived until his death in 2017. 

On the surface, it appeared that living in the Playboy mansion was akin to living the dream.  It had a “grotto”, which featured a waterfall for pool parties, as well as a permanent fireworks permit, and even a zoo licence. The catch? To live there you had to abide by Hefner’s “cult-like” orders, which involved curfews, restrictions on seeing family and friends, and engaging in sexual relations with Hefner and some of his “VIP guests” – according to allegations made in Secrets of Playboy.

In a preview clip of the new documentary, Holly Madison, one of Hefner’s ex-girlfriends, said that she and other women in the mansion were “gaslit and expected to think of Hef as, like, this really good guy,” adding that, “And you started to feel like: ‘Oh he’s not what they say in the media, he’s just a nice man.’”

She continued, saying it was “so easy to get isolated from the outside world [in the mansion] You had a 9 o’clock curfew. You were encouraged to not have friends over. You weren’t really allowed to leave unless it was like a family holiday.”

In the documentary itself, Holly explained “When I lived at the mansion, I was afraid to leave […] Something that was always lingering at the back of my mind, I think since the very beginning, was that if I left there was this mountain of revenge porn waiting to come out.”

As disturbing as these allegations are, they’re seemingly only the tip of the iceberg. Sondra Theodore, another of Hefner’s ex-girlfriends, alleges that “[Hefner] had tapes on everyone,” adding that Hefner would lie about the recordings. 

Stefan Tetenbaum, Hefner’s valet from 1978 to 1981, confirmed this account, saying in the documentary, “Hefner taped everything in his bedroom and many men and stars and athletes came into the bedroom and had sex with these girls,” later adding, “Many of the girls were devastated after what they were expected to do, what they were forced to do.”

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