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‘Secrets of Playboy’ pulls back the curtain on the dark side of Hugh Hefner’s empire

<i>Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy</i><br/>Late Playboy's Huh Hefner's legacy
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy
Late Playboy's Huh Hefner's legacy

By Brian Lowry, CNN

The Playboy mystique and Hugh Hefner’s legacy receive a serious debunking in “Secrets of Playboy,” a 10-part A&E network docuseries that explores the dark side of the lifestyle Hefner sought to embody. Somewhat bloated in its format, there are plenty of disturbing revelations scattered here for those with the patience to reach them.

Sister network Lifetime notably had considerable impact with its documentary expose “Surviving R. Kelly,” and this fits squarely within that genre. Yet because Hefner is gone, having died in 2017, the main thrust lies in examining the culture that Playboy promoted and the tactics employed to protect is founder, the brand and Hefner’s buddies from facing any damaging scrutiny.

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.

The key to understanding Hefner, journalist Chris Jones suggests, is that “He is whatever you want him to be.” And indeed, the film includes several interviews with friends and employees who fondly remember him and Playboy, providing some balance to the negative accounts. That included Hefner integrating the clubs and his staunch support for civil rights.

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.

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