Secrets of Playboy is lifting the curtain on Hugh Hefner's private empire. A&E's buzzy new docuseries examines the American publisher's life and legacy through a modern-day lens — and many of the stories from his ex-girlfriends are dark and disturbing. Holly Madison describes the Playboy Mansion as "cult-like" while Sondra Theodore, who dated Hefner in late '70s and early '80s, compared him to a vampire.
"I saw clearly that we were nothing to him," Theodore says in the show. "He sucked the life out of all these young girls for decades."
Hefner died in September 2017 at age 91, weeks before Harvey Weinstein's predatory behavior launched the #MeToo movement. Much has been dissected about Hefner's legacy and view on women, but whether he would have been taken down like other powerful Hollywood men is unknown. Secrets of Playboy director Alexandra Dean calls Hefner "a really complicated case."
"I think this is the moment that he would've been facing the #MeToo movement, not early on," Dean tells Yahoo Entertainment. "He did raise up some women in corporate Playboy, he did promote women into positions they never had before, and people of color and people of every sexual orientation. He was a champion for progressive causes. So, we had to get to a point in the #MeToo movement where we had to hear some of our progressive champions might be part of this abuse that we'd seen with some more obvious predators as well."
Video: 'Secrets of Playboy' trailer
Dean, who started the project in 2020, feels like she got to know Hefner's dual sides over the past two years.
"I think this was a guy who had some very, very serious mental issues," she explains. "It felt like he wanted to love women, and champion women, and certainly externally he could do that. But there was some dark, almost lost child inside him that just couldn't do it... There was this twisted side of him and sometimes it would come out and do incredible damage."
At times watching the 10-part series, Playboy almost comes across like a giant human trafficking empire. Some women working at some of Hefner's clubs were abused by VIPs. Some women even wound up dead. However, Dean says it's "too simplistic" of a comparison.
"There are women that went through Playboy that actually became empowered, so it's just much more complex than that. But I do think women went through that and had the opposite experience. They became broken, ending up in sex work because that's what they thought was available to them after this experience," she shares. "A striking number of women actually had that happened to them. These are women who set out to become the star of a magazine where they thought that they might launch a career in acting or something."
Secrets of Playboy features interviews with former Director of Playmate Promotions Miki Garcia; former resident Jennifer Saginor; "Bunny Mother" PJ Masten; former Playmates Rebekka Armstrong, Susie Krabacher, Dona Spier, Tylyn John and Cristy Thom; and members of Hefner's staff and inner circle. Dean says it was "impossible" to get many of these women to open up at first.
"So many of them felt like when they tried to speak up, they'd been very viciously silenced, either by Hef himself, the Playboy machine, or sometimes other women who just felt like what they were saying was really challenging their reality of Playboy. That I really get," Dean explains.
"I understand why a lot of women really defend Playboy. I think there were sides of Playboy that were genuinely great for women. I think it was great that women got to take off their clothes and feel powerful on the cover of a magazine and enjoy their own sexuality and beauty, you know? And I think some of those covers are art and can still be enjoyed as art as well as being super sexy. That's all true," she continues. "I don't want to diminish any of that for any of the women that loved that experience. But the dark side of Hef was something not everyone saw. He hid it really well. And the people that he did show it to, he did stuff to them that I don't think we can ignore. I think we have to listen to them."
Dean hopes viewers get "an appreciation for how complex some of these questions are."
"Questions of abuse. What is a person's responsibility when they walk into a place like Playboy — in the '70s, we used to say a woman who walked into Playboy... if you're gonna go and fly in the face of our good morality and be sexually free and walk into Playboy, then you get what you deserve when you go to those doors. We're not there anymore, but have we really asked ourselves, what does it mean to have a world where somebody can walk through the doors of a place, which is supposed to be a venue of free sex or whatever, and have an experience that actually is safe and powerful? How do we let people actually be their full selves and play in a safe space? We've never had that conversation."
When contacted by Yahoo, Playboy issued a statement in support of the women coming forward.
"The Hefner family is no longer associated with Playboy, and today’s Playboy is not Hugh Hefner’s Playboy. We trust and validate these women and their stories and we strongly support those individuals who have come forward to share their experiences," a spokesperson said. "As a brand with sex-positivity at its core, we believe safety, security, and accountability are paramount. The most important thing we can do right now is actively listen and learn from their experiences. As an organization with a more than 80 percent female workforce, we are committed to confronting any parts of our legacy that do not reflect our values today, and continuing the progress we have made to evolve as a company so we can drive positive change for our employees and our communities."
Hefner's son Cooper defended his dad ahead of Monday's premiere.
"Some may not approve of the life my Dad chose, but my father was not a liar. However unconventional, he was sincere in his approach and lived honestly. He was generous in nature and cared deeply for people. These salacious stories are a case study of regret becoming revenge," he tweeted.
Secrets of Playboy airs on Mondays at 9 p.m. on A&E.
MORE: Holly Madison details 'traumatic' first night sleeping with Hugh Hefner