Director Alexandra Dean has incorporated voices from multiple veterans of both the Playboy empire and Hefner’s personal orbit, such as Sondra Theodore, Hefner’s girlfriend in the late 1970s.
“I saw clearly that we were nothing to him,” Theodore says. “He was like a vampire. He sucked the life out of all these young girls for decades.”
Because Playboy possessed so many conduits, including the clubs, publishing and other media like the E! series “The Girls Next Door,” the docuseries has a somewhat ungainly quality as it jumps back and forth chronologically presenting accounts from those who worked for the company in some fashion.
The recurring theme lies in what former executive Miki Garcia and “Girls” alum Holly Madison each describe as a “cult-like” aura around Hefner, and the employment of a “clean-up crew” dedicated to preserving his image as well as that of celebrities and VIPs. Those marquee names could “do whatever they wanted,” as former “bunny mother” PJ Masten recalls, indulging themselves under the safety of knowing that what happened at the Playboy Mansion stayed there.
“Secrets of Playboy” names names about some of the most egregious behavior associated with that carte blanche, including allegations of sexual misconduct and rampant drug use.
The series also details several tragic events that transpired during Playboy’s high-flying years, including the overdose death of Adrienne Pollack in 1973; the suicide of Hefner’s assistant Bobbie Arnstein in 1975; and the murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten by her estranged husband, Paul Snider, in 1980.
The project feels on shakier ground in the assertions made that Hefner used his extensive surveillance capabilities and videotaping to ensure loyalty, implying without offering much solid evidence that people were essentially blackmailed into toeing the company’s line.
Ultimately, though, the video record puts forward a compelling case about the media dutifully buying into the beguiling picture that Hefner painted of what he calls “a Disneyland for adults,” unfettered by puritanical strictures.
As much as Hefner advanced the idea of Playboy empowering women, the stories about misconduct being overlooked, and bunnies being regularly weighed and reprimanded if they put on even a few pounds, don’t fit that part of the narrative. Ditto for the enormous power disparity that defined interactions between young women working for Playboy and Hefner and his celebrity pals.
Perhaps Hefner’s most formidable skill centered on the image and libertarian ideal he marketed, which, Theodore and others suggest, obscured abusive and manipulative actions toward women who saw Playboy as a path to fame and success.
Despite those perceived benefits, “Secrets of Playboy” makes clear that for many, they came at a sobering cost.
“The Secrets of Playboy” premieres Jan. 24 at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.