The Gruesome Reality Behind the Playboy Myth

A new A&E docuseries unravels multiple layers of the toxic Playboy ethos and its founder. (Spoilers and detailed descriptions.)

For decades, Playboy — and its instantly recognizable bunny logo — symbolized sexual glamour to millions. The magazine’s girl-next-door nudes and upscale lifestyle content catered to a new style of cosmopolitan man: comfortable with fashion, consumerism, and bachelorhood.

Writers like Norman Mailer and James Baldwin appeared in its pages, and the Playboy Playmate — blonde and fresh-faced — became an American icon. So did Playboy’s founder, Hugh Hefner. A self-styled fighter against the repression of puritanical American culture, he was like a real-life embodiment of the brand’s ethos, a debonair gentleman with luxe bathrobes and cigars.

Under his stewardship, the company expanded into clubs and pay-per-view specials. By the aughts, there was even a reality TV show, Girls Next Door, which premiered in 2005. For six seasons he settled into a different image: harmless granddad of a harem for a new millennial audience.

Yet before his 2017 death at 91, some of the women attached to Playboy and Hefner himself, like Girls Next Door star (and his former girlfriend) Holly Madison, started calling out the creepiness of the man behind the scenes. She spoke out about his double standard around sexual liberation; he expected it for men but not for women, and forced the women to act sexy in ways that were mechanic and occasionally nonconsensual.

By the time of his death, the myth had started crumbling, and some obituaries raised questions about his legacy. Secrets of Playboy shatters whatever remains of it. This gruesome and unflinching 10-part series brings out the women — and valets and butlers — who witnessed rapes, coerced sex work, nonconsensual surveillance, and a toxic labor culture at the company. (Playboy responded to the documentary’s claims. “First and foremost, we want to say: We trust and validate women and their stories, and we strongly support the individuals who have come forward to share their experiences,” its leadership team wrote about the “abhorrent” allegations.) “We’ve pulled the curtain back, wizard,” says Playboy bunny “mother,” P.J. Masten, addressing Hefner at the end of the series. “We know who you are, we know who you were.” And Hefner was just the tip of the iceberg.

The series doesn’t dwell too much on the magazine’s history, but snippets of the publication’s evolution come through. In particular, we get a sense of how Hefner and the brand accrued a liberal cultural cachet among some quarters.

Playboy originally styled itself as a publication against “hypocrisy,” publishing articles supporting abortion rights and condemning racism. When segregation was still common, the Playboy Club wasn’t just integrated but also made a point of hiring Black employees. Hefner even won an image award from the NAACP early on.

“He started out as a very liberal, modern-thinking writer, when he started putting the magazine together in Chicago on his kitchen table,” valet Stefan Tetenbaum says. “By the time he got to Hollywood, everything changed. He became a typical rich guy.”

That played out in public and private. Hefner’s obsession with sexual performance and voyeurism meant he gave little thought to women’s pleasure or boundaries, Madison says. She felt coerced into sex and remembers he would use quaaludes to ply women, joking that they were nicknamed “thigh openers” in the ’70s.

Throughout the 10 episodes, we hear from a plethora of people at different levels of the hierarchy: from the servers and greeters at the clubs to the Playmates in front of the cameras to the bunny “mothers” tasked with guiding them and even the corporate employees who worked in promotion. They were, in many ways, the workers that kept the empire running and experienced the brunt of the toxicity.

Sondra Theodore, who held the title of Hefner’s main girlfriend in the ’70s and ’80s, walked in on him trying to engage in sex with her dog. She never left him alone with her pet again. Even his doctor’s underage daughter, who viewed him as an uncle, says that she was startled when he coerced her into sex, and then into sex with his then-girlfriend.

The Holmby Hills Playboy Mansion became a fantasy playground for many men. But according to Secrets of Playboy, it was rife with sexual harassment and secret recording devices.

The Holmby Hills Playboy Mansion became a fantasy playground for many men. But according to Secrets of Playboy, it was rife with sexual harassment and secret recording devices. The security guards had cameras, there were more set up in supposedly private rooms, and women were photographed and recorded without their consent. Celebrities like Tony Curtis could threaten a lawsuit when they realized they had been caught on tape, but most of the women didn’t have that kind of power. And the recordings and photographs were used as leverage — or collateral — to keep women from speaking out about what they experienced.

It wasn’t just Hefner himself, but also all the men around him who perpetuated a culture of escalating violence. One valet claims he heard the screams as Dorothy Stratten, one of the best-known Playmates of the ’80s, was raped by Hefner. Masten, the former bunny mother, said she recalls being sodomized by Bill Cosby and waking up with blood on her leg. Another valet claims that Cosby molested a 15-year-old. Multiple employees remember the horror of a woman being attacked by football player Jim Brown in a so-called dildo chair. (Neither Cosby nor Brown has publicly responded to the documentary’s allegations.)

Behind the scenes at promotional events, the women were placed in unsafe situations, practically forced into sex work, and allegedly told they were the problem if they didn’t accede to men’s sexual demands. The Playmates remembered an unwritten rule: that you had to sleep with Hefner to become Playmate of the Month.

A lot of the women employees — both public-facing and behind the scenes — had originally believed in the Playboy philosophy. They bought into the idea of women’s empowerment, symbolized in part by much-touted women photo editors and Hefner’s daughter, Christie, who was allowed to rise in the corporate hierarchy. The series is partly a portrait of the way corporate ideologies work, and an early example of toxic girlbossing. “Listen, do you know the money these women make, do you know the opportunities?” one woman photo editor told a talk show host in the ’70s. “Nudity is beautiful. What we do is art — this is not a sleazy operation. The Playmate of the Month is the girl next door.”

It becomes clear that the celebrity of the Playmates was used to bring in young women with promises of riches, but then they were bound by exploitative contracts out of their control. As one Playmate points out, they were paid in installments, and the money amounted to wages below the poverty line. They didn’t own the rights to their images, and many of their photographs ended up on porn websites when the magazine’s archive was sold and licensed for the internet.

Secrets of Playboy is a foregrounding of the women’s stories, including those of Playmates no longer alive to tell their own. The series dives into the stories of famous Playmate Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her abusive husband, and Paige Young, who killed herself and left behind a literal “I hate Hugh Hefner” message.

But it’s also a portrait of the sisterhood that emerged on the other side. Masten, former Hefner girlfriend Sophia Theodore, and head of promotions Micki García all see themselves as survivors of the Playboy cult, and they meet up onscreen. We get a sense of their backgrounds, why they believed in Playboy, their lives before they encountered the brand, and for some of them, what came after.

If there’s one fault with the series, it’s that for such an extensive documentary, the cultural context is relatively thin. The feminist debate around Playboy comes off cartoonish; it lacks an explicit analysis of the ways gender and labor were intertwined, and how the message about labor exploitation was diluted as the women spoke out against the company.

For instance, Garcia, a former Playmate turned marketing executive, tried to talk about what she called the “system” back in the ’80s. “Once the girl is introduced to the system, and I do call it a system, she is then subjected to a lot of things beyond her control,” she says in one 1985 interview. But the stakes, the broader context, or what happened after are not explored here. She faced attacks on her credibility from Playboy as a consequence of her stance. And Garcia chose to speak out during the Reagan administration’s Meese Commission on pornography. But the right — and some strains of feminism — were more interested in anti-porn ordinances than focusing on women workers and workplace harassment and exploitative contracts (a problem that has persisted in some quarters).

Playboy Enterprises is still alive and well, still using liberalism and sex positivity as its core bona fides. The brand has recently tried to reinvent itself, making gay Filipino influencer Bretman Rock its cover star, bringing the bunny costume to a whole new audience. “Today’s Playboy is not Hugh Hefner’s Playboy,” the company said in its statement about the series. But Hefner was just the head of the system. The culture that made him an icon lives on.●

Topics in this article