Playboy is recognized as an empire where sexuality is celebrated. But during its decades-long reign, many witnessed a dark side that remained hidden – until now.
Alexandra Dean’s 10-part docuseries for A&E, “Secrets of Playboy,” aims to look at the brand’s complicated legacy and its founder Hugh Hefner, who died in 2017 at age 91. It features new interviews with numerous members of the magazine publisher’s staff and inner circle, as well as past girlfriends. New episodes air Monday nights.
In response to the docuseries, a spokesperson for Playboy issued a statement to Fox News.
“Today’s Playboy is not Hugh Hefner’s Playboy,” the statement began. “We trust and validate these women and their stories, and we strongly support those individuals who have come forward to share their experiences. 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,” the Playboy statement added. “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.”
Dean spoke to Fox News about why “Secrets of Playboy” was made now, who refused to participate, as well as the story that stunned her the most.
Fox News: What compelled you to make “Secrets of Playboy” now?
Alexandra Dean: I realized when I was making “This is Paris” in 2020 that we had assumed [Paris Hilton’s] sex tape was something that she released and had control over. She framed it as revenge porn. And I thought, “Oh my God, there are so many scenarios like that, ones that we haven’t looked at.” I started thinking about what else we haven’t examined more closely. I got really interested in women who are known in our culture for their sexuality. And so Playboy was a really logical place to start.
Fox News: Hugh Hefner isn’t alive to defend himself against the allegations being made in the docuseries. What’s your stance on this?
Dean: I understand why people might be upset that Hef isn’t around to defend himself. But I would ask them to take a moment and think about the women who are coming forward and how hard it is for them to speak out. Some of them tried in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. They got shut down in really scary ways.
Some of them say they got threatened by him or by Playboy. Others say that they just knew nobody would believe them back in the day. It took the #MeToo movement and everything that’s happened since then for them to feel like there was a public that would believe them. So I think you have to have some empathy and understand that it wasn’t really possible for many of these women to tell their stories until today. I think the culture has to meet you halfway for you to be able to speak up.
Fox News: Which allegation made in the docuseries stunned you the most and why?
Dean: For me, the story that changed everything was Sondra Theodore’s. The viewers won’t get to see the full story right away. Sondra’s story is threaded throughout the series. It really comes ahead in episode 10. And I think when people see the final episode, they’ll agree with me that she completely explodes our version of Hefner that we all understood until now and makes us reevaluate him.
Fox News: What surprised you the most about Hugh Hefner based on the stories that you were told?
Dean: Every story about Hugh Hefner was different. That really surprised me. He had a different effect on different women … There were Bunnies who loved him because they felt like he created jobs for them. They felt safe, secured and well paid. But others felt like all these sorts of terrifying things were happening to the girls and were being covered by Playboy. They never got to process what happened to them. All of these different voices, different perspectives, kept coming at me. I spent a long time just trying to understand the whole picture.
Fox News: Crystal Hefner recently confirmed Holly Madison’s story on social media. She mentioned how she destroyed thousands of photos kept by Hugh Hefner. What are your thoughts on this?
Dean: I was thrilled to hear that Crystal had destroyed those photos. I know for many women, those photos kind of hung over their heads and made them feel like they couldn’t really be honest about what happened to them. They were just frightened that these photos would come out. It was the same with some tapes that have allegedly been recorded without the women’s consent.
Fox News: Who was one person you were hoping would participate in this project but refused and why?
Dean: I really wanted to hear from Christie Hefner (Hugh Hefner’s daughter). I was excited to talk to her because I wanted to know what it was like being a woman running Playboy. And I wanted to know how she felt about all of these stories I was hearing. But I completely understand why she didn’t want to talk to me.
Fox News: A lot of participants in this docuseries used the term “cult” to describe their experience at the Playboy Mansion. What did you make of that?
Dean: You know, I heard the word “cult” from women who didn’t want to go on camera. When I heard more stories from different people where “cult,” was used, that convinced me even more. These were all different stories, but for many, the mansion felt like a cult inside. And I now understand that because of how controlling they thought Hugh Hefner was over their lives.
Fox News: After making this docuseries, do you think Playboy ever truly supported women?
Dean: Yes, because I think two things can be true, even when they seem opposed to each other. For many women, Playboy was a supportive organization, and it did liberate them sexually. And I don’t want to take that experience away from them. But I also think Playboy destroyed some of the other women’s lives. It wasn’t always intentional and it did happen. And I think those women also deserve to have a voice.
Fox News: Some critics have argued that Playboy was a representation of sex. And anyone who entered the mansion or entertained the idea of Playboy should have known what to expect. What would you tell those people, especially after speaking to the many women who came forward to you?
Dean: If you can create a Shangri-La like Hefner did with the Playboy Mansion, and it is truly a safe playground for everybody to go and experience every sexual fantasy, bravo to you. I think that’s the kind of attitude those people who are making those kinds of criticisms have. You signed up for a sexual adventure and off you went.
But we don’t want to applaud a place where women went in thinking they would have a fun sexual adventure and end up feeling broken and destroyed or having trauma and PTSD for the rest of their lives. Do we really want to applaud that? Are we looking to destroy humans in a place that’s supposed to be fun?
Fox News: Was there ever a point during your research where you felt Hugh Hefner’s vision of Playboy had started to take a darker, more unsettling turn?
Dean: Certainly when we hear Sondra Theodore’s story. Playboy goes into a much darker turn in the ‘70s, partly fueled by its competition with Penthouse and Hustler, which was pushing it towards more explicit material. And, in turn, the magazine had to push the women to do things that they were less and less comfortable with. But also at the same time in the ‘70s, he seemed to be experimenting with what we might say are party drugs. That also affected his behavior towards the women in his life.
Fox News: What do you hope audiences will get from this docuseries?
Dean: I hope the audience will develop a bit more compassion for the women who’ve been through this. These women need to be heard. They need to be understood. They need to be able to move on with their lives. And in that process, I hope that younger women watching this will think about the choices they make and the playgrounds they play in and how they can make them safer so that the same damage doesn’t happen to them.