For decades, the famed Playboy Mansion — the 22,000-square-foot L.A. pad that was home to Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner until his death in 2017 — was the most famous party house in the world.
With a rotating cast of A-list guests and gorgeous Playboy bunnies, the legendary estate was celebrated for its opulence (the 30-room abode featured a giant screening room, a zoo, a wine cellar and multiple pools, and required some 80 staff members to keep it running) and good-time vibes.
But behind the glitzy facade, all was not as fun and carefree as it seemed. According to sources, the mansion often felt more like a prison than a pleasure palace for the women who lived there, including Holly Madison, 42, and Kendra Wilkinson, 36, who starred alongside Hefner in E!'s hit reality series The Girls Next Door.
“Drugs and orgies were the norm,” says an insider, noting that tales of bitter rivalries, humiliating bedroom antics and crude behavior by celeb guests have come to light in recent years. “The girls had to do what they were told,” adds the insider, “or risk Hugh’s wrath.”
While Hefner had a reputation for being a generous host, some former Playmates paint a different picture of the media mogul, who died from sepsis at age 91 (at the time, he was married to his third wife, model Crystal Harris, who was 60 years his junior).
In her book, Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion, former model Izabella St. James says Hefner gave his live-in girlfriends an allowance of $1,000 a week, which he would hand out in a bizarre ritual.
“We had to go to Hef’s room, wait while he picked up all the dog poo off the carpet — and then ask for our allowance,” she recalled. “We all hated this process. Hef would always use the occasion to bring up anything he wasn’t happy about in the relationship... [like] lack of sexual participation in the ‘parties’ he held in his bedroom.”
The insider says many of the girls felt trapped and knew if they didn’t abide by Hefner’s rules — which included being intimate with him and party guests — they’d be out on the street.
“They felt like prisoners. Playmates had 9 p.m. curfews and were expected to participate in whatever antics Hugh had in store for them. It was like living in a cult,” the insider dishes.
Some women turned on each other under the pressure. The insider says Madison — who dated Hefner from 2001 to 2008 — felt pitted against Wilkinson and their Girls Next Door costar, Bridget Marquardt, 48. “Holly was forced to share Hef’s bed with his six other girlfriends,” says a source.
“It was humiliating. And over time, people were jealous because she was his favorite,” continues the source, adding that things “got very cutthroat” among the girls. In her book, Down the Rabbit Hole, Madison recalled Hefner’s cruel mind games. “He liked to play favorites. How else could he stay in control of seven women?” she wrote. “He needed to somehow maintain the upper hand.”
In a new A&E docuseries, Secrets of Playboy, Madison continues to break her silence about the disturbing events she witnessed alongside Wilkinson and Marquardt, whose show premiered 17 years ago. “I felt like I was in the cycle of gross things and I didn’t know what to do,” said Madison, who moved in with Hugh when she was just 21.
She added Hefner “flipped out” when she cut her hair short. “He was screaming at me and said it made me look old, hard and cheap,” she detailed. “Hef would be pretty abrasive in the way he said things to Holly,” Marquardt noted. “She came down with red lipstick one time and he flipped out and said he hated red lipstick on girls, [and that she] should take it off right away.”
Madison has also claimed Playmates were given drugs and encouraged to take part in orgies with Hefner while under the influence. Meanwhile, Wilkinson has said she “had to be very drunk or smoke lots of weed to survive” having sex with Hugh. “It was like a job,” she wrote in her 2011 memoir. “Clock in, clock out.”
There’s no shortage of women who have opened up about what really went on at the mansion, which was sold to billionaire Daren Metropoulos in 2016 for $100 million.
In 2011, the pad’s infamous grotto (a cave-like structure with a pool where orgies took place) was linked to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, and a former valet of Hefner’s said the mogul would occasionally throw a party he called “Pig Night,” where he’d hire sex workers to sleep with friends and film them. “After a while,” says the insider, “it became clear the mansion wasn’t this safe haven that some women thought it might be.”
Playboy has since spoken out about the rumors and various experiences shared by women affiliated with the Hefner and the Playboy brand.
"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," the statement read. "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. We will never be afraid to confront the parts of our legacy as a company that do not reflect our values today. As an organization with a more than 80% female workforce, we are committed to our ongoing evolution as a company and to driving positive change for our communities."