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Crystal Hefner came too late Her Playboy memoir was scooped by #MeToo

(Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy)

(Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy)


January 25, 2024   6 mins

Half the trick of business is knowing when to get out, and Hugh Hefner was a great businessman. “His timing was perfect,” said the New York Times obituary, when he died in September 2017. The comment referred to Hefner’s genius for anticipating the desires of a more libertarian, more consumerist post-war America: Playboy was the perfect product for the moment, selling a tasteful vision of sexual freedom — a vision that, crucially, women could buy into.

As far as Hefner was concerned, he was offering women feminism the way it should be. Being a bunny was a way to move beyond prissy morality and claim sexual empowerment. “Women were the major beneficiary of the sexual revolution,” he told Cosmopolitan in 2015. “It permitted them to be natural sexual beings, as men are. That’s where feminism should have been all along.” That was a self-serving definition from a pornographer, but it was one that some women embraced: if feminism was about a woman’s right to choose, they chose to commodify themselves for profit.

But the obituarist was more right about Hefner’s timing than she could have known. Eight days after his death, the same paper published its devastating expose of Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual assaults against women, and the #MeToo movement quickly assembled in response. You can’t exactly call it luck when a 91-year-old dies, but if Hefner had lasted two weeks longer, the memorials would have been far harsher judgement about his influence on the 20th century.

#MeToo was, broadly, about sexual harassment; but specifically, it was about the fact that sexual harassment could happen even in industries where women’s sexuality was treated as an asset to be exploited, even in circumstances where a woman might cynically be said to have profited from the encounter. Leveraged consent was not consent. A choice made under pressure was no choice at all.

Perhaps Hefner had sensed the coming reckoning. Six months before he died, he summoned Crystal Hefner — his third and last wife, 60 years his junior — to his bedside, and made her promise to “only say good things” when he was gone. Crystal agreed, but the deathbed setting, the frail old man desperately trying to extend his powers beyond mortality? That belongs in a book — and now her promise is the title of Crystal’s memoir, in which she very much does not limit herself to saying only good things.

Life in the Playboy Mansion in the late Noughties, she writes, was controlling and transactional. A strict 6pm curfew applied to Hefner’s girlfriends; in exchange for performing regimented group sex, they got bed, board and $1,000 cash a week. To her credit, Crystal is frank about the reason she and other women entered into this high-gloss servitude. When she first visited the mansion for a Halloween party in 2008, she was 21, and Playboy promised impossible glamour and riches. “That ornate front door looked like the doorway to success, to a place that could make all of our dreams come true.”

If you became a girlfriend, you might be able to become a playmate, with a centrefold in the magazine. If you became a playmate, you might be able to parlay that into the kind of fame that Pamela Anderson or Anna Nicole Smith had achieved. Implicit was the assumption that the bad parts of these women’s stories — the stolen sex tape that humiliated Anderson, the drug addiction that killed Smith — could be skipped. In the economics of choice feminism, the undesirable costs of sexualisation were outsourced to the sexualised, never accounted for. Hefner’s mini-harem were forever kept in check by the threat — as Crystal puts it — of being replaced “by another woman with blonder hair, better breasts, and a better nose”.

Hefner had always had a type, going back to the very first issue of Playboy in 1954, which flew off the shelves on the basis of a nude Marilyn Monroe pictorial: slim, fair, busty. Anderson fit this mould, and so did Smith. But whereas in his prime Hefner had made some room for variation — he was, along with everything else, a committed anti-segregationist — by the time Crystal was in the picture, that type had calcified entirely. Photos show him flanked by eerily samey women: femaleness as an entirely fungible commodity. Their hair, breasts and noses all converge onto one ideal, which is to say Hefner’s ideal. This was a work of art as well as nature. When Crystal decided to upgrade her appearance, she went to “the plastic surgeon who did all of Hef’s girls”.

When multiple women “chose” to turn themselves into Hefner’s fantasy, the result was a brutal kind of physical competition, in which the body itself was remodelled to approach an impossible physical standard — and to demonstrate their loyalty to their master, who was not such a fan of “natural sexual beings”. Women could work within the system and even achieve short-term gains, but the toll of being an object was borne by the flesh.

The women of Playboy were rational actors, certainly, but they were acting in a tiny ecosystem governed by the whims of one man. “Nobody likes a prude, Hef would say, and I could make your own choice about whether to stay or go,” writes Crystal. “After I’d been there for a while, it didn’t feel like much of a choice.”

By this time — the late Noughties — Hefner had become a victim of his own prescience: the America of the 21st century was one he had helped to create, which meant his product no longer stood out. In a Playboy world, who needed to buy Playboy? Nudity was readily available online: why pay for softcore pictures when you could get the hardcore stuff for free? It’s symbolic of how exhausted the Playboy concept was that Hefner ended up selling his mansion to a fan from under himself before he died.

All that was left, really, was the brand. And the obvious way to make money from a brand in the 2000s was to turn it into a reality show. The Girls Next Door had been running for three years when Crystal arrived, stepping into the show as Hefner’s girlfriend number one, although not particularly successfully. As she admits in the book, she was “wooden and quiet”, although in her defence, she wasn’t being paid to be compelling. The deal was between the network and Hefner. He got $400,000 an episode, despite barely appearing. The girls — the stars — got nothing. “It didn’t even occur to me that it wasn’t a fair arrangement,” says Crystal. “I just felt lucky to be there.”

This seems like an extraordinarily unworldly thing to believe, but people — women — who felt “lucky just to be there” were foundational to large chunks of the Noughties economy. It was why girls went wild for Girls Gone Wild, even though they received no more than some cheap beads in exchange for flashing their tits. You could take your portion of the sexual revolution, only if you acceded to it happening on men’s terms.

Hefner was a pioneer here as well: he built his empire directly on profiting from women’s bodies without sharing the rewards. Anderson has said that being a playmate was “empowering”, but not so much in the financial sense. It launched her career, but in her 2023 Netflix documentary she says she didn’t get a cut from any of the calendars or videos that Playboy sold off her back. And those Marilyn nudes in the first issue? Bought from the photographer for $500. Monroe herself got nothing — a fact that was once seen as proof of Hefner’s business acumen.

And yet, if Hefner was the master of timing, his widow’s book comes too late. Crystal’s isn’t the first book not to “say good things” about Hefner. In 2015, Holly McKenzie — the number one girlfriend before Crystal — wrote her own memoir of the “betrayal and abuse” she experienced in the mansion. In 2013, Jennifer Saginor — daughter of one of Hefner’s best friends — published Playground: A Childhood Lost Inside the Playboy Mansion. Since 2022, the documentary series Secrets of Playboy has racked up an exhaustive 20 episodes. At this point in the #MeToo cycle, the victimisation of women like Crystal is well established.

In fact, she’s told the unflattering story of her time in the Playboy Mansion already — in, among other places, an interview with Howard Stern in 2011, when she and Hefner had temporarily broken up. In the book, Crystal refers to that episode regretfully, saying she “let Howard Stern coax me into saying cruel things about Hef” and “felt awful about it after
 like I’d lowered myself even further into a pit of shame and regret”. Yet all she did was share the same truths she’s sharing here — describing the same rigid rules and squalid sex — in a now-unfashionable register. In 2011, she was playing the part of the shameless vixen. In 2024, she’s playing the part of the woman-child, “a kid who went trick or treating somewhere and never left”.

The truth, probably, is somewhere in between. Hefner used women, but he was only able to because women like Crystal believed they could use themselves to extract money and power from the Playboy institution. Part of the genius of choice feminism, from the male point of view, is that it makes women complicit in their own exploitation. Crystal never approaches those subtleties: she says she felt trapped, but then can’t fully articulate why, having broken her engagement to Hefner, she returned to become the last Mrs Hefner.

But it’s the subtleties that would make her interesting. I know Hefner was a goat and a shark. I would much rather read an honest account of the political acumen it takes to become the chief girlfriend, and eventually the wife, of a professionally promiscuous and very wealthy man. But in that sense, at least, Crystal chose her moment perfectly: as his widow, she’s probably the only woman to have made more money from her bargain with Hefner than he made from her.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
4 months ago

I guess we had better brace ourselves for the tidal wave of misogyny, s**t shaming and old school sexism that this article is bound to generate. You guys are nothing if not predictable…

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
4 months ago

On the other hand, I found your comment entirely unexpected and insightful.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Yes, CS never fails to surprise us!

Fabio Paolo Barbieri
Fabio Paolo Barbieri
3 months ago

Hey, mate, if being a s**t is not shameful, why do you asterisk the word? I guess hypocrisy is part of champagne socialism.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 months ago

Hefner was not a symbol of Everyman, and Crystal was not a symbol of Everywoman.

The truth, probably, is somewhere in between. Hefner used women, but he was only able to because women like Crystal believed they could use themselves to extract money and power from the Playboy institution.

Much like other wage slaves working in jobs they dislike for the sake of the benefits they receive. So?

Liakoura
Liakoura
4 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

So?
Is that the kind of exploitative world you want to live in?
I doubt it.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

That’s the way the world is and the way it always has been and we’re living in it whether we want to or not. Our attempts to ‘fix’ things and eliminate exploitation have tended to end, and I’m being charitable here, somewhat poorly. Oftener than not, the attempt made things worse. We’re better off addressing specific problems and eliminating the worst abuses.

Harry Child
Harry Child
4 months ago

Perhaps Mary Harrington could right an article on why young women would sign up to a life inside Hefner’s zoo or marry some rich old man 60 years their senior. Baffles me!

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

Is it really so complicated? Most women love power and wealth and he had both.

Robert
Robert
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

I would add status to power and wealth. Or, maybe status sums it all up. Either way, it’s an age-old story. Nothing complicated about it.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Druish princesses in particular I’ve heard. Not sure the almost word for word Spaceballs reference is intended or coincidental. Well done either way.

J. Hale
J. Hale
4 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

Well obviously if you marry a rich old man you can be reasonably sure he won’t live too many more years and you will inherit a lot of money when he dies.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago
Reply to  J. Hale

Like Anna Nicole Smith. But that didn’t work out.

Ian Folkins
Ian Folkins
4 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

It was amazing the way he was able to exploit (some) women’s narcissism and desire for attention, for personal gain.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
4 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

They genuinely liked him, and grew to love him

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago

Nah.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
4 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Well the original article explains it sufficiently doesn’t it?
There’s an ongoing negotiation of power, wealth and fame involved, and participants are using their looks as an access and negotiating tool.
Pretty straightforward – like when Mrs.Merton asked Debbie Mcgee ‘So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

It’s legal prostitution.

starkbreath
starkbreath
4 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Legal self-prostitution. There’s a huge chasm between a Playmate crassly trading on her looks and a young runaway with a history of abuse being pimped out on a street corner.

Eowyn Fellows
Eowyn Fellows
4 months ago

Did Crystal eventually have the last laugh by inheriting Hefner’s fortune, or did he leave it all to his daughter?

Doug Israel
Doug Israel
4 months ago
Reply to  Eowyn Fellows

He has I think three children.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago
Reply to  Eowyn Fellows

Exactly. I’m not so sure she scored big-time, but it made for a nice wrap-up to the piece.

Jane Awdry
Jane Awdry
4 months ago

“Part of the genius of choice feminism, from the male point of view, is that it makes women complicit in their own exploitation.”
Absolutely this. Some women may wish to carry on arguing about ’empowerment’, but we all know where the power really resided.

Liakoura
Liakoura
4 months ago

“Women were the major beneficiary of the sexual revolution,” he told Cosmopolitan in 2015. “It permitted them to be natural sexual beings, as men are. That’s where feminism should have been all along.”
Actually it was the contraceptive pill, not Hefner, that freed women from the combined fear of sex and pregnancy hence the term – “Women’s Liberation”!
All Hefner and Playboy did was to make men who knew little or nothing about the mutual enjoyment of sex, even more horny for the unapproachable women who adorned the pages of his magazine.

Liakoura
Liakoura
4 months ago

“In the economics of choice feminism, the undesirable costs of sexualisation were outsourced to the sexualised, never accounted for”. 
I’ve read this sentence more than a dozen times and still can’t make much sense of it. Are there some words missing?

J. Hale
J. Hale
4 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

Exactly. How does an attractive woman outsource her sexualization to some other sexualized woman without losing her sex appeal to the other woman too?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

I think it should be “In the economics of choice feminism, the undesirable costs of sexualization outsourced to the sexualized, were never accounted for”.

starkbreath
starkbreath
4 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

There should be more words missing. It’s quasi-Butlerian.

Liakoura
Liakoura
4 months ago

“This was a work of art as well as nature. When Crystal decided to upgrade her appearance, she went to “the plastic surgeon who did all of Hef’s girls”.
Or more likely it was from Hefner’s lack of performance, (a young man’s forte?) that persuaded him that paying for cosmetic surgery was rather better, in so many ways, than the headline – Playboy Hefner can’t get an erection?
These were after all, pre-Viagra days.

Liakoura
Liakoura
4 months ago

“As she admits in the book, she was “wooden and quiet”, although in her defence, she wasn’t being paid to be compelling. The deal was between the network and Hefner. He got $400,000 an episode, despite barely appearing. The girls — the stars — got nothing. “It didn’t even occur to me that it wasn’t a fair arrangement,” says Crystal. “I just felt lucky to be there.”
Some would conclude you were lucky to be alive?
Nearly 99% of perpetrators of rape are male.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

What?!

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
3 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

But more than 99% of males are not rapists.

Liakoura
Liakoura
4 months ago

“And those Marilyn nudes in the first issue? Bought from the photographer for $500. Monroe herself got nothing — a fact that was once seen as proof of Hefner’s business acumen.”
And doubtless contributed to her decision to end her life.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

Nah.

Liakoura
Liakoura
4 months ago

“Part of the genius of choice feminism, from the male point of view, is that it makes women complicit in their own exploitation”.

In my experience the genius, exemplified by those men who came up against Margaret Thatcher face to face, was that they forgot almost everything, other than, at the end of the day, they were ‘mummy’s boys’.

This despite or maybe because Thatcher said – “I owe nothing to women’s lib,” during her first term in power.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

What?!

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago

One malicious truth here is that, whatever one thinks of Hefner or the women involved, this path to whatever lay ahead was only open to women. None of the girls was ever hauled into the mansion at gunpoint.

J. Hale
J. Hale
4 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Correction: the path was only open to BEAUTIFUL women. Others need not apply.

Doug Israel
Doug Israel
4 months ago

The original Playboy brand was 1. The girl next door naked and 2. The modern sophisticated urbane man. Maybe myth. Maybe not.
By the time Hef was finished on this earth he had clearly thrown over both. The girls were all, as noted, fake Hollywood blonds and the image was of a man that liked fake Hollywood blonds.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 months ago

Between an aristocrat and a commoner, the commoner has always been mostly powerless. In prior ages, the sons of barons and dukes were expected to respect the virtue of ‘ladies’ but free to take whatever liberties they wished with the servants, who were expected to keep quiet about whatever liberties were taken and whether the party other party consented or not. Then as now, many did consent, either out of simple mutual lust or in the hopes that being the mistress of a lord and maybe bearing his b*****d child would improve their station, which it often did. Then, as now, people would risk a great deal for even a small chance at a more comfortable lifestyle. Just how much coercion there actually was and how much consent then would be as impossible to determine as it is now.
Today there are laws to limit the worst sorts of exploitation. Non-consensual sex is considered unacceptable to everyone regardless of social status. Still, lecherous aristocrats want women and have plenty of resources to leverage to get what they want. There are enough women in the world that some of them, like some of those servants in medieval times, will jump at the chance for even a little bit of wealth and status. They’ll offer themselves up willingly given the right incentives. All one has to do is come up with the incentives and make the procedure legal. I think Hugh Hefner understood that better than most. He never hid what he was, a wealthy, womanizing lech. He never apologized for it. If these women didn’t have a pretty good idea what they were getting into, that marks them as unbelievably, tragically naive. I just don’t believe the women are innocent victims. If they are victims, then so are the hundreds of unpaid interns who offer up their services for free just for the opportunity of getting on with a sufficiently famous or influential organization. The sexual aspect makes the subject more uncomfortable for the morally upright, but considered objectively, the pattern is the same.
I’m sure a lot of them regret signing up. A lot of us regret a lot of the choices we made when we were young. Doesn’t mean they weren’t our choices. None of us get to take them back. Can’t say I blame Crystal for continuing to profit off the man. That’s the nature of the relationship. She’s as free to sell herself as the naive little girl victimized by the lecherous old b*****d as she was to sell her body to the lecherous old b*****d in the first place. In #MeToo land, that’s a story that sells. A book filled with ‘good things’ about her lecher husband on the other hand, not so much. I suspect Hugh knew on his deathbed his dying request wouldn’t be honored, because he knew himself, he knew her, and he knew what their relationship really was.

angusmckscunjwhich
angusmckscunjwhich
4 months ago

It’s seems disingenuous to equate the choices of young women too some concept of “choice feminism” that has never existed. Female emancipation has a long history of being interpellated into capitalism, Edward Bernays did a similar thing making smoking cool for women. No feminist ever said smoking was emancipatory like no feminist ever said monetising your body based on a male vision of your sexuality is exactly what we mean by liberation.

Hefner’s bunnies weren’t exposed to any feminism before entering his mansion and I doubt they’d read any Reich. They were, however, drip fed the American dream from birth and it’s Barbie’s all the way down… Karen is just Barbie at fifty: still bitterly defending the patriarchy that justifies her self loathing. just sad the dog whistles stopped (how else do you tell if you’re pretty?).

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago

Well said.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
4 months ago

No mention of Don Cornelius and the twins he held hostage; or the cabin with the “important filmmakers” drugging the bunnies for pornography films. So much drugging in those days – never mind Bill Cosby, another of the Playboy regulars, Today it’s even worse.