Friday, April 19, 2024

Surviving Hugh Hefner: Why Crystal Hefner Isn’t Keeping Quiet Anymore

Sarah Lang was going to read the memoir by Crystal Hefner so you didn’t have to, but she actually thinks you should.

For more reviews of unexpectedly compelling memoirs, check out our Capsule’s reviews of Prince Harry’s Spare, and Britney Spears’ The Woman In Me.

After years of staying quiet, being president of the Hugh M. Hefner (HMH) Foundation, and having to say nice things in public to uphold a certain image of ‘Hef’ (as a crusader for social and sexual freedoms and all that), Hugh Hefner’s third and final wife Crystal Hefner has had enough – and found her voice. She’s written a tell-all book called Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy And Finding Myself.

And look, it’s really good. Well written, not too short and not too long, with staggering revelations and a devastating level of detail, particularly when it comes to Hefner’s coercive control of women.

Hefner’s secretary once said that, of his girlfriends, ‘Hef’ would keep the ones with broken wings

Between ages 21 and 31, Crystal spent five years as one of Hefner’s girlfriends, then as his ‘main girlfriend’, then as his only girlfriend, followed by five years as his wife. She was his constant caretaker during his final, ailing years. He died in 2017.

Hefner’s longtime secretary Mary O’Connor once musingly mentioned to Crystal that, of his girlfriends, ‘Hef’ would keep the ones with broken wings. Mary didn’t say who they were, and Crystal doesn’t spell this out, but two prime examples are Crystal and the ‘main girlfriend’ who preceded her, Holly Madison.

From what I know, they were both women who were unsure of themselves. Women who felt their looks defined them, but weren’t quite convinced they were pretty enough. Women who would edit themselves physically, mentally and emotionally to say, do and look like what Hefner wanted. Women who would submit to coercive control without perhaps realising that was what it was.

Crystal’s book is particularly enlightening when paired with the recent Secrets of Playboy documentary series. Unfortunately Hefner died before it exposed how he and the Playboy empire, including its nightclub chain, allegedly exploited and abused women (and worse).

Look, I know more about Hefner’s sphere than I probably should. Years ago, being curious, I watched some episodes of The Girls Next Door, in which Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson were Hef’s live-in girlfriends; and where he presented himself like a doting uncle figure. Their replacements in his bed and, briefly, in the show, were Crystal, and twins Karissa and Kristina Shannon.

I’ve read excerpts of Holly’s book (many details corroborate Crystal’s accounts) and watched some of Holly’s podcasts that ‘recap’ The Girls Next Door episodes by explaining what was happening behind the scenes.

Crystal was, and I think still is, president of the Hugh M. Hefner (HMH) Foundation, which defends civil rights and liberties, and freedom of expression. I’m not sure how that position will play out, but there’s wonderful irony in Crystal exercising her freedom of speech after regaining her liberty.

Trapped In The Playboy Mansion

Growing up, Crystal lived with financial insecurity, moved from place to place, lost her beloved father, lost her first boyfriend to war in Afghanistan, and was sexually assaulted by various people, left feeling it was her fault.

Hefner had ways of reminding Crystal that her position was precarious.

Aged 21, the psychology student and aspiring model attended a party at the mansion. Hefner beckoned her into the VIP area, asked her to stay the night, then asked her to become a live-in girlfriend. Crystal was dazzled by the world of the one percent, but it was also about finally having a home. Being desperate to please and shadowing ‘Hef’ became her “superpower”. She became “a mirror, reflecting his own importance back to him”. Still, Hefner had ways of reminding Crystal that her position was precarious.

Some say she traded sex for the high life. But being Hefner’s girlfriend actually wasn’t glamorous. He didn’t like going anywhere (apart from to a club with his girlfriends on the occasional Thursday night to show he was still ‘the man’), so Crystal had to stay home too. She got bugger-all ‘perks’ unless you count living in a mould-filled, decaying ‘mansion’ where she had to perform unenjoyable group-sex acts, beg for a small allowance every week, and have a 6pm curfew.

Crystal had to perform unenjoyable group-sex acts, beg for a small allowance every week, and have a 6pm curfew

Crystal had to stay small, in every sense. When she weighed 60kg, he tapped her thighs and told her to tone up. When he tapped her brunette roots, she bleached them – so often that her scalp got burned. She felt pressured to have plastic surgery. She had only a closet-sized ‘room’ to call her own. She started having panic attacks. She had prolonged, serious illnesses, some due to the mansion’s black mould, including Lyme disease.

Love, Or Stockholm Syndrome?

Crystal straight up says Hefner was a misogynist and a narcissist. From the stories she tells, he could be cold, calculated, cruel, imperious, dismissive, egotistical, rigid, and mercurial.

You might ask ‘so, why didn’t she leave?’. Well, his treatment of her had worsened her self-worth. She had bugger-all money, no degree, no job prospects, no family to lean on.

You might ask ‘well, why did she marry him?’.Well, incredibly, he never actually proposed to her. Rather he had her open a ring box in front of others, meaning she didn’t feel she could refuse.

Crystal – who was paid nothing then very little for appearing on The Girls Next Door – found out Hefner would make $800,000 from a televised wedding special but she’d get merely $2500, even though she’d be the one doing nearly all the filming. When she quietly said she maybe deserved a bit more, he made a demeaning comment, and she left. Well, tried to. Hefner yelled at the security guards to “detain her”. So she managed to save a little of her allowance, and smuggled herself out.

“I loved him the way someone might love their kidnapper after 10 years of being with him everyday.”

After she’d left, Hefner lobbied others to pressure her to come back. She was susceptible to being wanted, felt he needed her, felt lost, felt broken. She went back. They got married; an iron-clad pre-nup meant she’d get nothing in his will. She’d soon became the caretaker of an ailing man who always demanded her presence.

People ask her ‘did she love him’? “I loved him the way someone might love their kidnapper after 10 years of being with him everyday,” she writes.

Hefner’s Hidden Secrets

Hefner told her he’d destroyed VHS tapes that secretly captured hundreds of hours of people having sex with him and having orgies, including celebrities and politicians. When Crystal, stunned, didn’t reply, he said “my bedroom, my house”.

Before he died, Crystal found shoeboxes full of decades’ worth of photos snapped by Hef with his disposable cameras, largely in limos. Women lifting their shirts, spreading their legs and more. Was it potential blackmail? Crystal tore apart the photos by hand, into thousands of pieces.

Sometime after they married, Hefner bought Crystal a house (worth around $US5 million), and decided he’d leave her some money too (thought to be around US$5 million). Did he want her to have a home and some financial security after he died? Or (and this is my own speculation) was he trying to buy her silence about everything she knew? Because Hefner made her promise ‘to only say good things’.

“For a long time I kept that promise but that promise was killing me,” she writes. Now she’s realised what she owes to herself, not him.

Yes, she got that (comparatively small) inheritance. But as a lifestyle and travel content creator on social media, and a house ‘flipper’, she’s earning her own money. She also speaks about body image, objectification, and harmful beauty standards. She should know: she nearly died during a fat-transfer procedure.

People make snarky comments about how she’s kept Hefner’s surname to sell more book copies, but I say fair enough: it can help her pay for therapy after the psychological harm she experienced.

While Hefner was alive, Crystal was often ridiculed in media appearances. Even now, she’s still being treated poorly by interviewers while promoting her book. Gayle King from CBS disdainfully told her to adjust her hair.

Underneath YouTube clips of such interviews are comments calling her a gold-digger, a hooker, a criminal, a liar, even “an absolute disgrace to humanity”. I say that these commentators hurling uninformed insults are the disgrace. Read the book first, people.

Crystal doubtless had help from her publishing house in improving the narrative, but it’s her voice. The audiobook she reads gives an even stronger sense of her. She’s clear-eyed, thoughtful and likable. She admits her flaws. She knows she made some bad choices. She admits she was involved briefly with another man during Hefner’s later years. She’s not just presenting herself as a victim and Hefner as a villain. She points out he did some good socially but also caused damage.

What I like most about the book is that Crystal really has something to say, rather than writing a book for the sake of it. Something to say not just about her, not just about ‘Hef’, but something about women standing up for themselves, calling out misogyny, speaking the truth, not judging their worth on their appearance, and realising they’re enough just as they are.

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