LOS ANGELES — For the last month, PJ Masten says her Facebook inbox has been filled with death threats.
“You’re a piece of s—. You’re a liar. You’re a f— this and f— that,” Masten says, repeating the content of the messages.
She is no stranger to public attacks. In 2014, she alleged she had once been drugged and raped by Bill Cosby — a claim later echoed by dozens of women. But speaking out against nude magazine impresario Hugh Hefner has roused far more vitriol, Masten says. Not only for tarring the reputation of a beloved public figure but for breaking ranks with a tightknit community: Playboy itself.
“It’s all from Bunnies,” says Masten, referring to the waitresses whose uniforms at the once-famous Playboy Clubs paid homage to the company’s mascot. “These are 85-year-old women running around with their bunny ears on, and I’m bursting their bubble. Being a bunny was the best experience of my life. It was a great sorority of sisters. But the filth and language they’re attacking me with? I’m frightened of these vicious women.”
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Masten, 71, is one of nearly 30 women who appear in “Secrets of Playboy,” a 10-episode docuseries that takes aim at the legacy of Hefner, the company’s late founder. Since premiering in January, the series has featured Hefner’s former lovers, colleagues and magazine centerfolds making damning allegations about Playboy and its creator. One former Playmate, Susie Krabacher, claims that Hefner raped her. Sondra Theodore, his girlfriend in the late 1970s, says she witnessed Hefner masturbating his dog; she also claims he turned her into a “drug mule” who was forced to retrieve his cocaine. Numerous women say Hefner filmed all of the sex he had in his bedroom at the Playboy Mansion — often without consent — and kept the tapes.
Hefner is no longer alive to defend himself against such claims, but in his absence, a legion of Playboy alumni have come out against the A&E series. At the behest of Hefner’s 30-year-old son, Cooper, hundreds signed an open letter denouncing the “unfounded allegations” and praising Hefner’s “upstanding character, exceptional kindness, and dedication to free thought.” Playboy, meanwhile — which the Hefner estate unloaded its remaining shares of in 2018 — released a statement voicing support for the women in the A&E series and noting that “today’s Playboy is not Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.”
The controversy has deepened a major schism in the Playboy community. On one side are those who forged such close bonds while living or partying at the mansion that they still gather for an annual reunion at a park in Holmby Hills on the anniversary of Hefner’s passing. On the other are women like onetime Playboy Club “Bunny Mother” Masten, who have drawn closer through the shared trauma of what they claim to have witnessed while in Hefner’s orbit.
The battle within the world of Playboy has also epitomized the emerging fault lines of a culture in which public allegations of sexual misconduct are ostensibly given more credence, but individuals remain reluctant to speak out against friends and colleagues. And it’s all focused on Hefner, who died in September 2017, just more than a week before New York Times reporting on the accusations against Harvey Weinstein set the #MeToo movement in motion.
Alexandra Dean, the director of “Secrets of Playboy,” began work on the series in October 2020. She was coming off the successful release of “This Is Paris,” a YouTube documentary in which Paris Hilton claims she was abused as a teenager at disciplinary boarding schools. One of Dean’s producers on the film suggested their next project tackle “the legacy of Playboy.” So she began cold-calling former Bunnies, including Masten, who suggested the filmmaker connect with her two close friends, Theodore, 65, and Miki Garcia, 77, who once served as Playboy’s director of promotions. Although the three women had recently begun to share some of their feelings about their time at Playboy on Facebook — Garcia ran a page for former Playmates — they initially rejected Dean’s interview requests.
“When I started speaking out online, my own children said: ‘It’s over. It’s in the past. Get over it. Move on,'” Theodore recalls. “They were confused by my feelings. They asked me, ‘If it was so dangerous, why did you take us up to the mansion?’ Well, because I didn’t know. I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid very late.”
Hefner and Theodore stayed on good terms for years following their 1981 split. Her wedding reception to Ray Manzella — a pal of Hefner’s who managed Playboy stars like Pamela Anderson and Jenny McCarthy — was held at the mansion in 1985, and she says he gave them $25,000 as a gift. Eleven years later, when she and Manzella separated, Theodore says Hefner temporarily loaned her money so she could obtain a divorce lawyer.
But as she aged, Theodore started to see her time at the mansion differently. She was 19 when she met Hefner; he was 50. He was her first big love affair, so she stayed quiet when things alarmed her, like the time she says she watched her then-boyfriend use a skeleton key to unlock another room in the mansion and proceed to have sex with a sleeping woman inside.
“He broke me like a horse,” says Theodore, who now lives in the San Bernardino Mountains revamping vintage furniture. “He led me to believe that what our life was was the way life should be, and everybody else was in the Dark Ages.”
It’s this kind of attitude shift that has been difficult for Hefner loyalists to swallow. Critics of the series argue that Theodore — and fellow Hefner ex Holly Madison — appeared thrilled to be in the Playboy world while they were dating him and are making false claims to attract attention. (Madison, a veteran of the E! reality show “The Girls Next Door,” did not respond to requests for comment.)
“If it wasn’t for Hugh, Holly would be a middle-aged woman with her original nose and breasts selling slices of pizza in Ketchikan, Alaska,” says Joel Berliner, one of Hefner’s backgammon buddies. “It’s one thing if someone wants to speak their truth. But no one was upstairs that didn’t want to be there. They’re trying to pick at the culture of the ’70s from the woke-ass — frankly Calvinist — 2022 view of sexuality, when it’s supposed to be open and free for all people.”
Berliner and his wife, Alison Reynolds, participated in “Secrets of Playboy” and are now incensed at how it portrays their longtime friend. Reynolds, who served as Hefner’s social secretary in the late 1970s, says she sat for two days’ worth of interviews with Dean, only to have “little snippets making me out like I’m some dumb s—” included.
“I wanted to throw something at the television when I saw that first hour. Oh, my God, I was so pissed,” Reynolds recalls. “I told the director: ‘Listen, Hef never raped anyone. He was a gentleman. If you didn’t want to have sex with him, that was fine. There were plenty of other girls who did.’ I told her I hope I never see her again. I hate this woman for what she has done to Hef.”
Dean says she invited the couple, as well as other members of Hefner’s inner circle, to respond to the allegations in the program before it aired. Comments from the one individual who replied to Dean’s inquiry are included on a card in the series.
“I didn’t cut anyone from the series because they had more positive recollections,” insists Dean, who put together “Secrets of Playboy” in a year. “I did include many supportive voices but also included the stories of abuse that kept surfacing, sometimes from women who wanted me to know the truth but did not want to go on camera. It’s also important to note there were negative stories we chose not to include because they did not meet our standards for reporting.”
Even before the series launched in January, rumors about the allegations it might raise were circulating in the Playboy community. Renee Sloan Baio, who dated Hefner for two years in the early 2000s, is a member of the “Playboy Mansion West Family” on Facebook — a group that she says welcomes about 500 “former Playmates, mansion dishwashers [and] people who worked in Hef’s zoo.” The forum was originally meant as a place to share memories of Hefner and keep in touch, but in recent months it’s become a rallying ground for those against the A&E show.
“I was reading posts from people who had been interviewed, and they said the minute [the filmmakers] couldn’t get anything negative out of them, the interview was shut down,” says Baio, who is now married to the actor Scott Baio. “When I was there, I never saw drugs. I never saw Hef force anyone to drink. He never forced anyone to do anything against their will. However, if you lived there, there were certain rules. It’s the man’s house.”
After Baio encouraged her Facebook friends to reach out to The Times, 19 additional Hefner supporters e-mailed their positive recollections of him to this reporter. Some were rageful, calling the series a “sad, ill-conceived, wildly one-sided glittering jewel of colossal bias and unfairness.” Others just wanted to share special memories, like a onetime Playmate who recalled how Hefner personally brought her father a drink during a mansion visit despite the availability of his staff. And then there were those who wrote to express their regret for taking part in the series: “Are the many hundreds that liked and loved the man, were we all fooled? Are we all fools? I don’t think so,” said actor Leon Isaac Kennedy.
These individuals — the majority of whom signed the open letter — all shared varying degrees of closeness with Hefner. That’s troublesome to Crystal Hefner, who was married to the Playboy head from 2012 until his death. The 35-year-old, who does not appear in the show, says she doesn’t put much stock in the support of the signatories.
“I’m not sure how getting thousands of letters from people who didn’t know Hef as well as say someone who was married to him would make a difference,” she said in a direct message on Twitter. “Knowing Hef peripherally isn’t the same as knowing him day in and day out for many years.”
Days after writing those words, Hefner, who is vice president of the nonprofit Hugh M. Hefner Foundation and was not interviewed for the A&E series, announced on Instagram that she would be writing a memoir about her time at the mansion. “I’ve been on the fence about telling my story because it’s complicated and conflicting in ways,” she wrote in her post. “One of my therapists (yes I’ve seen many to try to make sense of it all) said “it’s like you went trick or treating at a house and then wasn’t let back out for ten years.” It was kind of like that.”
Theodore, meanwhile, is considering purchasing “a dark wig and sunglasses” for fear that she might be recognized even at the local grocery in her small mountain town.
“I don’t think anybody wants this kind of fame,” she says through tears. “Why would I throw myself under the train and expose things that are so humiliating and embarrassing? It’s all alive to me again. I can smell the mansion. I can smell the different rooms. But that’s maybe a good thing, because it keeps me resilient. It keeps me determined to get the truth out. He can’t hurt me anymore. And I don’t want any other girls to fall prey to a man like him. He may be gone, but there’s always a man like him coming up around the corner.”
The day before “Secrets of Playboy” premiered in January, Theodore received a call from a woman in Boston. The stranger told Theodore that during a trip to L.A. at 19 to do a test shoot for Playboy, she was sexually assaulted at the mansion. Over the phone, the two women cried together. Such connections — and her friendships with Masten and Garcia — fortify Theodore’s intent: “We’ve come together to get a very important message out. And we couldn’t have done it without each other.”
Masten, a retiree who lives in Naples, Florida, with her dog, says her doctors and attorneys have encouraged her to stay off social media. She already sees a therapist for her post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders, and she’s trying to maintain her health as best she can.
Garcia too has kept away from her Facebook account. But she has trouble comprehending why those with positive memories of Hefner can’t reconcile the fact that others had negative experiences with him.
“Nobody else was Miss January 1973. Nobody sat behind the desk as director of Playboy promotions for six years except me. Listen to the experiences I had. Give me that respect,” Garcia urges from her home near Sacramento. “To be fair, I think that Hefner should be known for the incredible work that he did with civil rights and the First Amendment — although he didn’t respect our rights. No one is perfect, but his imperfections — they’re monstrous. And those things need to be added to his legacy. Let’s pull it all out — everything out of the dirty drawer — and find out who the man really was. The women have not been free to speak before. None of us are healed. None of us. And we’re hoping that this docuseries will do something towards that.”