‘Secrets of Playboy’ is not the Hugh Hefner takedown you were expecting

A man in a suit and tie walks with many Playboy bunnies in 1966.
Hugh Hefner arrives in London with an entourage of Playboy bunnies in 1966.
(Ted West / Getty Images)

The 10-part docuseries “Secrets of Playboy” promises to “explore the hidden truths behind the fable and philosophy of the Playboy empire through a modern-day lens.” A&E’s series, which premiered last week, partially delivers on that promise, though it holds back at critical junctures and spends far too much run time debunking a brand image that’s been dead for decades.

Exactly no one will be surprised to discover that the late Hugh Hefner used and traded young women like commodities and that his mythology of Playboy as a progressive outgrowth of the sexual revolution and a bold expression of feminism was largely a charade. The women lured in by the excitement of Playboy magazine, which arrived in 1953, may have been shocked by the sleazy reality of the enterprise at the height of its power in the ’60s and ’70s, but who today still buys the sales pitch that Playboy and Hef, who died in 2017, were all about celebrating the girl next door?

W. Kamau Bell’s ‘We Need to Talk About Cosby’ is a compelling, complicated wrestling match with the legacy of the cultural icon and alleged rapist.

Jan. 22, 2022

Rampant drug use, the alleged predations of older men (including Bill Cosby, Peter Nygard and other luminaries), the travails of gullible young women and Playboy’s broken promises to protect their interests and bodies are recounted via exclusive interviews with insiders, many of whom share their stories for the first time. Coupled with hours of archival footage from inside the “cult-like” environs of the mansion and the clubs, the docuseries skillfully depicts America’s fluctuating moral standards from era to era, and Playboy’s response to those shifts.


“Secrets of Playboy” could have lived up to its title as an eye-opening exposé of previously uncharted terrain if it didn’t save its most damning revelations about the controlling, sadistic, power-hungry Hefner for the last episode. Prominent docuseries using later or additional episodes to grapple with the fallout from new developments is now standard practice (See: “Surviving R. Kelly: The Reckoning,” “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”), but burying the lead as “Secrets of Playboy” does is a disservice to those who came forward to claim that they were trafficked by the “evil” empire and raped by the “creep” in charge.

Hugh Hefner standing in a red robe at the foot of a staircase.
Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion in 2010.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Puppet master Hefner remains the pipe-smoking cad we already know for most of the series, where his appetite for sex with everyone and everything appears to be his greatest indiscretion. During a segment about the wild orgies at the mansion, an ex-girlfriend says Hefner consistently enjoyed the company of one reluctant male lover — a potential bombshell that’s never explored. Hefner allegedly hosted parties called “Pig Nights,” where Sunset Strip sex workers were shuttled to the mansion to “entertain” his male guests. In another instance, Hefner ex-Sondra Theodore recalls with horror walking in on Hefner having sex with her dog. She says she never left the two alone in a room together again.

The stories of former Playmate and director of promotions Miki Garcia and past girlfriends of Hefner’s, including Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Theodore, paint the picture of a dangerous enterprise that recruited fresh young women and broke them. Hefner’s personal valet Stefan Tetenbaum, Bunny Mother PJ Masten and Playboy Mansion West resident Jennifer Saginor (the doctor’s daughter) describe an environment in which women who wanted to become Playmates of the Month or Year had to have sex with Hefner and then were passed around to his friends like human party favors. If they deviated from the process, there were violent consequences (a story about Dorothy Stratten, the 1980 Playmate who was later killed by her husband, is particularly heartbreaking). If they refused Hefner’s advances, they were allegedly raped.

From Lifetime’s bombshell docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” to an explosive interview with Gayle King, TV helped bring the singer to justice. Finally.

Sept. 28, 2021

It’s horrible stuff, but the material that charts new terrain in our understanding of Hefner and his empire is all too easily lost amid the series’ unfocused structure. Indeed, it’s “Soul Train” creator and host Don Cornelius, former Playboy execs and Hefner’s inner circle of lecherous friends who overshadow the Playboy chief’s own actions for much of the series. In Episode 3, which runs Monday, Masten alleges that Cornelius, a Playboy club VIP, invited two bunnies from the Los Angeles location to a party at his home, where they disappeared for days. When they resurfaced, according to the docuseries, they said they’d been held captive and raped repeatedly by Cornelius. “Secrets of Playboy” claims that Cornelius — who died in 2012 — was back in the club the following week.

In the second half of the series, multiple claims are made that the late Valerie Cragin, head of Playboy promotions, helped traffic Playmates around the country under the guise of “promotional” events and that the mansion was the hub for a constellation of sex dens in Los Angeles run by Hef’s inner circle. These “shadow mansions” housed the girls who didn’t make the Playboy cut. They were promised modeling contracts by the men who owned the properties, but were essentially used as sex workers for Hollywood’s rich and powerful.

The problem is that by mixing together allegations large and small, frightening and simply strange, public and previously unknown, “Secrets of Playboy” reveals less than the sum of its parts. It may be worth viewing as a time capsule of a tarnished brand, the depravity of the porn business and the evolution of the culture. But it’s a far cry from a devastating — or zeitgeist-shaking — case against Playboy’s suave figurehead. The real story of Hugh Hefner is still to be told.

‘Secrets of Playboy’

Where: A&E

When: 9 p.m. Monday