28 Jan 2024

Crystal Hefner: Behind closed doors at the Playboy mansion

From Sunday Morning, 10:00 am on 28 January 2024
Crystal Hefner

Photo: PhotoRoom

Crystal Hefner, widow of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, opens up about life with the late tycoon in her new memoir Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself.

She talks to Sunday Morning's Jim Mora about the misogynistic, toxic and controlling culture she experienced.

She says she regrets posing for nude centrefolds and has since paid "thousands and thousands" to have them removed from the internet. 

"When I was there I would post photos ... showing my body. And I was completely contributing to the misogyny there and making money from it.

Only Say Good Things by Crystal Hefner.

Only Say Good Things by Crystal Hefner. Photo: Supplied

"It took growing up a bit and realising that it's wrong. And now ... it's very rare that you'll see anything revealing on my social media.

"Misogyny angers me. I'll turn off a movie if it has it in it. I've gone the other way now."

After losing her father at a young age, she grew up in relative poverty with her mother.

"I came from a world where I lost my dad, my mom and I had no money. So ... I'm used to [keeping] myself small. I was a people-pleaser."
The then-Crystal Harris aspired to be one of the women in the pages of Playboy magazine. "I remember thinking, 'These women just look like they have the world at their feet and they're so powerful. And I wanted to be one of them. The whole thing was very enticing."

So the psychology graduate submitted her photo, was invited to Hefner's annual Halloween party, and moved in shortly after. But she soon realised life behind the doors of the Playboy Mansion was far from glamorous.

"It felt like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ... You see all this carved wood and this ornate, beautiful home and I just thought, 'Oh, this is how the other half lives. This is amazing. I want to be a part of it.' But after a while it got hard and Hef [Hugh Heffner] was very controlling of the girls.

"Playboy was supposed to be this place of freedom, and freedom of expression. And it was anything but that. I felt very trapped while I was there."

Los Angeles, CA - OCTOBER 25: Hugh Hefner and Crystal Hefner attend Playboy Mansion's Annual Halloween Bash at The Playboy Mansion on October 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.   Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy/AFP (Photo by Charley Gallay / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Hugh Hefner and Crystal Hefner attend Playboy Mansion's Annual Halloween Bash at The Playboy Mansion on 25 October 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: CHARLEY GALLAY / GETTY / AFP

Crystal married Hefner when she was 26 and he was 86. She was expected to share him sexually with the other "Playmates".

"Hef wanted it to be a group event, so other girls would join us. I never wanted to do it by myself because I felt that, you know, Hef wants this big song and dance and [with] just me on my own I would feel too much pressure. So yeah, girls would be up with us and they would be happy to be there. You know, Hef had that power over people. They wanted to come up and sleep with him."

She said women would come and stay in the Playboy Mansion for many different reasons.

"Some women wanted to be Playmates, they wanted to be in the magazine. They felt that that would be a great opportunity. Some people wanted to maybe move in. It was all different."

The women got regular cash handouts, but were expected to use it to maintain their physical appearance and attend the regular movie nights, she said.

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner in 1970

Hugh Hefner. Photo: AFP

"Hef wanted to give the girls money, but not enough [so that] they could leave. You reflected his self-importance back at him and then you [got the] allowance.

"I'm a natural brunette. So when my hair started growing, he would tap me on the head... One time he told me he had nightmares that my hair was dark. And so I had to keep bleaching it and stick to the schedule. It was like a boring cruise ship-type of itinerary every day. Most nights I had to be in by 6pm for movie night. It was control, disguised as a schedule, for sure.

"We'd go out to Sunday Funday, and Hef would want the girls jumping on the trampoline or hula hooping. It's like that toxic male fantasy. ... I'm guilty for helping perpetuate that. But that's not things ... women want to be doing." 

Hefner's Playboy empire was initially touted as having liberated sexuality, and initially he wanted the magazine to be "tasteful", she said.

"[But this] then paved the way for other magazines that were not as tasteful. And that paved the way for the internet and all of these explicit, crazy foreign things. So I don't know, did he help or did he hurt society?"

Far from being a glamorous home, the Playboy Mansion was a "depressing" place, she said.

"Everything was old. He didn't really like to modernise anything or keep anything clean. Just imagine thousands and thousands of people coming through, party after party, and things not getting cleaned properly. It [was] gross."

Crystal realised she was not in love with him. The imbalance in their relationship was highlighted during discussions for a reality show about their marriage. Hugh Hefner and his producers stood to make US$800,000 (NZ$1.3 million) from the show and she was encouraged to sign an agreement that would see her get only a $2500 "talent fee". 

"I said, 'This is kind of a slap in the face.' And he said, 'What are you in this for?' And it gave me PTSD [back] to all these interviews that had called me a gold digger ... because in reality, I never really asked him for much... I felt like I wasn't respected and I left." 

Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner arrives with his fiancee  Crystal Harris at the TCM Classic film Festival opening night and World premiere of the newly restored "An american in Paris" on April 28, 2011 in Hollywood, California AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner arrives with his then-fiancee Crystal Harris at a movie premiere in Hollywood, California in April 2011. Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

After a while, Hefner's secretary called Crystal to say he was missing her. She remained with him until his death.

"I felt sorry for him. I tried to help him the best I could in the last stages of his life. After he passed away, I couldn't even leave the house for six weeks, but I think it took time and space to realise what had happened. 

"Now, we have terms for what I didn't understand then. Narcissism is talked about a lot. Boundaries are talked about a lot. As we pull away from this super misogynistic culture, things are getting better. You realise how bad it was.

"I'd like to think maybe towards the end of his life he realised some things. I stopped dying my hair, I took out my implants, I started becoming myself, and he still wanted me around and maybe even started respecting me more, so maybe toward the end he learned a lesson or two, I would hope."

Crystal Hefner now owns eight properties and a farm in Hawaii.

"I just try and live a quiet life. I'm not big into the Hollywood scene, I never really have been. I didn't come into the mansion wanting to be an actor or anything like that."

Hefner and his behaviour would never have been given a pass in the #MeToo era, she says.

"I feel that it was some kind of social experiment in our culture, that will never be repeated again. And yeah, it was weird and I ended up somehow being a part of it and I'm glad it's over.

"It took time and space to really understand what I went through ... and I think I have healed a lot and writing the book, even more so, has helped me in that process."