Hugh Hefner was revolutionary. Praised for his part in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the Playboy founder was ahead of his time as an early proponent of gay rights, abortion and birth control. He was progressive with inclusion at his company when racism was rampant.
But, according to a new docuseries, Hefner was also a monster — one who would drug women, coerce them into sex, secretly record them in the bedroom and use his power and connections to blacklist and silence them into fear.
A&E’s 10-part “Secrets of Playboy,” which is airing Monday nights and had the network’s biggest premiere since Leah Remini’s Scientology series in 2016, re-examines Hefner and his Playboy Enterprises through the lens of 2022.
“I think that Hef had two sides to him and they were radically different,” says the doc’s director Alexandra Dean, who also directed Paris Hilton’s YouTube Originals documentary, “This Is Paris,” in 2020.
“His progressive reputation was like a shield that stopped a lot of these allegations from touching him. It was just too hard to believe that this guy who was always promoting women at his company and was a progressive champion, how could he secretly be attacking women behind closed doors?” Dean says of the Playboy founder. “That other side of Hugh Hefner really does need to have a reckoning now — we need to figure out how to reconcile the two Hugh Hefners and now decide what his real legacy is.”
Hefner, who died at the age of 91 on Sept. 27, 2017 — less than 10 days before the bombshell Harvey Weinstein stories that launched the #MeToo movement into the mainstream — started Playboy in 1953 as a magazine that featured nude women.
Differing opinions say that Playboy either objectified women’s bodies or celebrated their freedom. Over decades, Hefner spun the magazine into a media and lifestyle empire that defined American culture with television shows, products, apparel and Playboy Clubs around the globe. In the years following Hefner’s death, when his family sold off their financial stake in the company, the magazine changed direction. Today, the publication prides itself on diversity and topical subject matter.
Now called PLBY Group, the public company is distancing itself from Hefner’s empire, and standing in solidarity with the women who have come forward in A&E’s doc, which features some of Hefner’s girlfriends, including former E! star Holly Madison and Sondra Theodore, who was 19 when she met a 50-year-old Hefner in the ’70s, and claims he is a “predator” who “groomed” women throughout the years.
“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,” says a Playboy spokesperson, in a statement to Variety. “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. Today, our organization is run by a workforce that is more than 80% female and we will continue to confront any parts of our legacy that do not reflect our values today, and to build upon the progress we have made as we evolve as a company so we can drive positive change for our employees and our communities.”
Hefner’s son, Cooper Hefner, came to his late father’s defense, calling the docuseries “salacious,” tweeting, in part, “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.”
After the A&E premiere, a letter defending Hefner was signed by hundreds of his ex-girlfriends, Playmates and employees who called him a man of “upstanding character” and categorized the series’ accusations as “unfounded.” The network responding stating that “signatures on a letter…do not negate the experiences of those who have come forward to share their truth on the series and we look forward to continuing to bring these stories to light.”
“Secrets of Playboy” director Alexandra Dean spoke to Variety about the allegations she uncovered behind Hugh Hefner and Playboy.
After the #MeToo movement, the public has been educated on terms like “gas lighting,” “consent” and “grooming.” Many women in this docuseries describe being groomed and taken advantage of by Hef, though there is a lot of gray area. Through your investigation, did you find went on behind closed doors was consensual, or was it abuse and assault?
It was both. It’s not a simple story. It’s not bringing these girls onto an island and then just assaulting everybody. There were whole systems for recruiting women, women were used to recruit women. Some women were drugged without knowing it, some women wanted the drugs, some women were pushed into the drugs. Every shade of gray happened at the mansion and happened over a span of 40 years.
When you say like they weren’t thrown onto this island, that’s obviously a reference to the allegations against Jeffrey Epstein. As I was watching this, I felt shades of Epstein or Harvey Weinstein, in that women were essentially told, “If you do drugs, or participate in sex, then I’ll make your career.” There seem to be similar patterns. Can you speak to the power dynamic among Hef and the women?
There are definitely crossovers between what we see with Weinstein and Epstein and what we’re seeing with Hefner. They’re not obvious. It’s more subtle. It’s in the control of the women, the grooming, the dangling of opportunities over them slowly, so that they find themselves in situations they never expected to be in and don’t quite know how they got there. It’s presenting them with a sweet face and then suddenly turning around and becoming this very menacing person. All of that pattern is the same.
One of Hef’s girlfriends says in the series that Quaaludes were used regularly in the Playboy mansion and they were referred to as “leg spreaders.” Did you find that the women were drugged against their own will, or did they voluntarily take drugs?
Definitely both scenarios happened from my reporting. The drug use was covered up very well for a very long time, so people didn’t necessarily know that there were all these drugs that the mansion, even if they were partying regularly there. One of the complicated things about Hugh Hefner is that he was able to present different faces to different people. But we do hear in this doc from insiders who were given the key to his personal drug stash and knew what was in it and helped supply those drugs, so we have a really inside view into what drugs he was getting, how he was getting them and how he was using them. You don’t really get the full picture of how he was using them until the final episode, and I think in the final episode, you’ll agree that it definitely wasn’t always with consent or knowledge.
According to your series, there appears to have been a system of blackmailing. You found that Hef had cameras everywhere, and that’s how he made sure that they kind of kept their mouth shut.
Hef had cameras everywhere in the mansion, so he was always recording everyone everywhere. He also had audio recording devices. And then on top of that, he recorded everything in the bedroom. He would often sit there by the camera, eating his M&Ms and watching the action on the bed. By all accounts, he was kind of like a director telling people what to do and filming it — he was sort of making films, in his mind. But then he kept all of these tapes in his tape library, and everybody knew about the tape library. It was very public. So you knew he had a tape of you doing whatever sex act.
The women knew that the tapes existed, but did they consent to being recorded?
According to Sondra Theodore, one of Hef’s past longterm girlfriends, he would regularly say he was turning off the recording device because women would say they don’t want to be recorded, and then he would pretend to turn off, but he would actually be recording. She would see the tape a few days later and realize they had been recorded.
And that is what made people fearful to ever speak up because they didn’t want those tapes to be released?
When I talked to a lot of the women, one of the reasons that they didn’t want to tell me everything up front, early on, was that they kept bringing up these tapes. “I think there’s a tape of me out there still.” I realized from their reaction and their fear, that those tapes have been looming large in their imagination for years and have been stopping them from speaking up.
Some of the women say they wanted to write a book about their experiences with Playboy, but they found out that Hef was blocking them. What were some of the tactics you found were used by Hef to stop women from coming forward?
What would happen is they would decide to write a book or an article, and they would receive threats. Or they would find out that their press had been canceled. Hef was extraordinarily connected in the worlds of publishing and media, so the book would just disappear or press appointments just evaporated if you wanted to speak up.
So, you found through your investigation that Hef would use his power and connections to silence the women?
Sondra Theodore was told that the production team behind “Happy Days” was auditioning her. It was down to her and one other girl and she ultimately didn’t get the part, but right after that, they came to her and said, “We’re thinking of building the entire sitcom around you.” She says she went into Hef’s bedroom and said, “I think they’re building a sitcom around me,” and he didn’t even look up and he said, “Why would they want to do that? You’re nowhere near good enough.” She said she just deflated like a balloon. She says she heard later that they were just told not to call back.
Over the years, there were newspaper items and broadcasts about sexual abuse, overdoses and even suicide in the mansion. How did all of these negative stories just go away?
In the doc, one of the women said that Hef is like Teflon. Every major scandal and all these stories that dripped out during his tenure, they just bounced off him completely. They never made a mark, and people never drew a line in between them and pointed out the patterns. That’s because our culture was different, before #MeToo. We didn’t believe women, we were much more doubtful and skeptical.
Based on your reporting, it sounds like Hef was enabled by the media. Did you find there were systems in place that enabled his alleged wrongdoings?
Oh yes. Hef was not operating alone. He was swimming in a sea of people who validated the way he wanted to operate and enabled him. Everywhere he went, he was able to operate the way he wanted to operate.
In many of these women’s allegations, they say they were being groomed or coerced into uncomfortable situations, but how often were the sexual incidents at the mansion you reported categorized as rape?
I’ve heard from women in almost every decade who used the word “rape.” At the same time, I would say the vast majority of women who were at the mansion were somewhere in the gray area. But there is a percentage at every decade that were not in the gray area; they’re completely talking about rape. Actually, we’re hearing now from women who say they experienced rape there. I heard from somebody two days ago.
Since your series has aired, more women have come to you with new allegations?
Two more allegations, yes.
Do you plan to do more reporting for a potential follow up series?
If people continue to come to me like this, I think we would consider.
The documentary exposes very serious allegations. What steps did you take to verify these accusations?
We had a legal team who were very, very tough on us. We had to come back with two corroborating sources in almost every single thing. A lot a lot of things were cut because we couldn’t get those two independent sources in place.
Had Hef still been alive, do you think he would’ve survived the #MeToo era?
He would’ve survived the first wave of #MeToo because what he did was just so much more subtle and more complex, and I don’t think we were ready to tackle that right out of the gate. We were just looking at the out-there predators right in the beginning, and now, we have much more nuanced idea of the words “consent” and “boundaries” and all of that, which has made us much more sensitive to the more complicated cases like Hef’s. I don’t think it could have come out until now.
Hugh Hefner is not alive, so he cannot defend himself. As a filmmaker, do you have any concern with that?
That is really why I tried to include so many of his defenders in the doc. I interviewed anyone in his close inner circle that would take an interview with me because I wanted to hear why they were so loyal to him and loved him so much for all these years. And I wanted to hear what they said in response to some of these allegations — what they showed me was this incredible split person where you could know him for 30 years and not see any of this because it was happening behind closed doors.
Hef’s son Cooper came to his father’s defense, in response to your docuseries. Part of his statement said, “These salacious stories are a case study of regret becoming revenge.” What do you think about what he said?
I think that’s what he thought, as his son. I totally get it. Of course he wants to defend his dad. Maybe when he hears the full story from all of these women, he might make another statement, maybe more in line with what Playboy is now saying, which is they support these women. I would hope that Cooper will also voice support for these women because I’m sure he doesn’t want to say that this many women are lying.
Have you been keeping up with the reaction on Twitter, as this has been airing?
When I scroll through Twitter, I am surprised at how many people still condemn the women for not speaking up before Hef died. First, a lot of them did and nobody listened. And second, those who did faced very serious consequences — their careers were shut down, they were threatened, other women ostracized them. I hope people look at that more carefully and think about why women sometimes can’t speak up. And this thing of, “Why did they go to the mansion in the first place?” They wanted a career and they believed Hef when he said they would be safe and this would be a great experience. But none of those are good enough answers. People think that if they were walking through the doors of mansion, they should have known they could get raped. That seems like a crazy attitude to me, and I hope we really start to challenge those assumptions.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.