Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
Down The Rabbit Hole—The Girls Next Door star Holly Madison’s scathing tell-all about life inside the Playboy mansion—reminds me an awful lot of the worst book I’ve ever written about for this column: Dustin Diamond’s jaw-droppingly hateful memoir Behind The Bell. Both Diamond and Madison posit themselves not as C-list celebrities peddling sordid sleaze for a quick buck, but as truth-tellers.
In Diamond and Madison’s minds, it is their sacred obligation to go beyond the glittering facade of the pop-culture touchstones that made them famous and disabuse what they imagine are the public’s intense delusions about their life and work. Diamond seemed to labor under the misconception that the public saw Saved By The Bell as a thinly fictionalized docudrama about the lives of its cast, and would be shocked, horrified, and, above all, titillated to discover that these rich, sexy teenagers behaved, like, well, rich, sexy teenagers and not saints.
Madison, meanwhile, seems to assume that the world sees her “romance” with Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner as the ultimate fairy-tale fantasy, with her as Cinderella and Hefner as an aged, half-deaf, doddering Prince Charming. She adorably feels like she needs to reveal that Hefner was no virile Casanova who kept her in a state of perpetual erotic thrall, but a pathetic, deluded old man nearing the end of an epic journey with little dignity.
Among her many truth bombs, Madison wants readers to know—and I hope you’re sitting down and holding onto your monocle tightly, because this is guaranteed to shock the holy living shit out of you—that even though it’s called reality television, a lot of it is not, actually, real. I know, fucking crazy, right? I mean, it’s called reality television and it’s supposed to be real, but it’s not.
So while Madison’s hit reality show The Girls Next Door depicted life at the Playboy mansion as one of the chosen concubines of our culture’s preeminent geriatric sex fiends as a fizzy pink dream of success and glamour, the reality was something much different, much darker, and much more disturbing. Down The Rabbit Hole is surprising, but not in the way Madison intends. The surprise isn’t that life as one of a series of kept women at the beck and call of a dirty grandpa type wasn’t a magical fantasy. It’s that a living situation most of the public probably sees as sad, mercenary, and more than a little creepy was actually way sadder, more mercenary, and far creepier than even the most cynical skeptic would have guessed.
Madison writes that very early in their relationship, Hefner offers Madison a Quaalude. He explains that—like his good friend Bill Cosby—he personally disapproves of drug use. But since, in his charming turn of phrase, in the 1970s these notorious pills were known as “thigh openers,” he has no problem doling them out like like Tic Tacs. Madison is self-aware enough to realize that when a potential beau essentially offers, “Hey, how about a nice date rape drug? It’ll relax you, and make it easier for me to sexually violate you!” as an opening gambit, it’s best to stay the hell away. But she could not resist the siren song of life as a sexy, glamorous playmate.
So a broke and desperate Madison signs onto life as one of Hefner’s seven girlfriends, each young enough to be his granddaughter. Technically, Hefner was sort of Madison’s boyfriend, but he was equal parts mentor, boss, Santa Claus, life coach, and the kind of grandpa whose hugs linger way too long at Christmas. She inexplicably imagined that life at the mansion would then resemble one giant slumber party full of sisterly solidarity, meaningful friendships, and good times. She is shocked, yes shocked, to discover that the house of Hef is instead a viper’s pit of manipulation, back-stabbing, and deceit, with Hefner’s ostensible “girlfriends” all competing for his favor. Life at the mansion resembles a vicious medieval court full of intrigue, deceit, and sinister machinations more than the romantic and sexual equivalent of Disneyland.
It does not take Madison long to become bitterly disillusioned. In Madison’s telling, the Playboy mansion is a hovel rather than a castle, foul-smelling (the scent of dog urine was apparently overpowering), filled with tacky knick-knacks, scrapbooks, and old films and videos, including one, Madison informs us, devoted to dog-on-woman action.
In a characteristic passage, Madison writes:
As Tina led me into the bedroom, I stumbled over and weaved through massive piles of junk covering the floor. It appeared that Hef liked to collect more than just women. Ceiling-high piles of videotapes, stuffed animals, art, and gifts littered the room. It was like an episode of Hoarders. But perhaps in his case it would be more appropriately titled Whore-ders.
This passage is essentially the book in microcosm. Everything is there: the casual and not-so-casual slut shaming, the depiction of the Playboy mansion as a shimmering palace from the outside but a hellhole on the inside, the air of smug superiority as well as the self-satisfied, none-too-clever wordplay.
Transitioning from one of Hefner’s seven girlfriends to one of the three stars of the hit reality show The Girls Next Door, Madison was enticed by the proverbial golden handcuffs. But these were more like gold spray-painted handcuffs full of rust, since her glamorous life was oddly short on money, even if it was long on luxury and indulgences. We learn that Hefner doesn’t even own the Playboy mansion. Playboy does, and Hefner merely rents it. As a boyfriend/Svengali/jailer, Hefner apparently lives in mortal fear that his coterie of surgically enhanced lovelies will leave him for someone less haunted by the imminent specter of death. Madison speculates that that’s due less to genuine jealousy than fear that one of his kept women will, say, be seen at a Lakers game giving a hand job to Mark McGrath. Which would not be good for Hefner’s reputation as the world’s greatest Casanova.
From the very beginning of her time at the mansion, the bane of Madison’s existence is a coterie of cruel, viciously competitive hellions she refers to extensively as the “mean girls.” These mean girls all tend to blur together into one giant ball of bleached blond, surgically enhanced, spandex-clad nastiness, sabotaging Madison and making her feel ugly and unwelcome. Madison was so disturbed by their awful behavior that she felt duty-bound to write an unrelentingly mean-spirited book where she constantly derides them as slutty, cheap, greedy, mercenary, stupid, tacky, and wrong. Also actual, literal whores.
Madison doesn’t just suggest that some of her Playboy mansion peers are not women of high virtue. She flat-out asserts that it is a poorly kept secret that a lot of Playmates, and even some of Hefner’s girlfriends, supplement their income working as high-class escorts. She suggests that some of the other women are trying to sneak crystal meth into the mansion as well.
The author tries to convince herself, and by extension the reader, that at various points in her relationship with Hefner, she genuinely loved him and wanted to be his wife and only partner. But it’s hard to believe Madison when she goes overboard to depict Hefner as screamingly pathetic. Her “affection” for him takes some strange forms, like when they’re going out on one of their mandated club nights and she is horrified that no one respects or cares enough about Hefner to tell him that he’s a ridiculous old codger whose dancing is a source of intense shame not only to himself but his entire family.
Don’t get me wrong: Hefner comes off terribly here. He may be a huge icon of the sexual revolution and an important cultural figure, but Madison portrays him as an attention-addicted, press-obsessed cradle-robber of a baby man who launches into an epic tantrum when one of his minions disobeys a dictate, like his fierce insistence that women shouldn’t wear red lipstick. In Down The Rabbit Hole, Hefner is condescending, sexist, and patronizing at best and emotionally abusive at worst. He’s a man who gets off on inciting drama, tension, and fierce competitiveness, who only feels alive if there are women fighting over him with a riveted audience watching.
Madison thinks she’s finally found an escape from the controlling, borderline-insane demands of a wealthy narcissistic maniac when she finally bolts and starts dating superstar magician and full-on ridiculous human being Criss Angel. In a shocking turn of events, the man with the Hot Topic aesthetic turns out to be an insanely demanding, narcissistic maniac as well.
For Madison, it’s not enough to succeed—and make no mistake, she has done extraordinarily well for herself, as she makes perfectly clear. She is a millionaire, she assures us, and has an amazing, age-appropriate husband and baby while Hefner and his empire flounder. But for Madison to be truly fulfilled, her many, many enemies (and at this point, the length of her enemy list rivals Richard Nixon) have to suffer.
When Madison’s relationship with Angel sours, she takes great delight in mentioning repeatedly just how terrible the reviews were for his latest stage show. She can’t help but crow with delight when the Holly Madison-free sixth season of The Girls Next Door tanks in the ratings and the show is canceled. For a woman on a holy war against “mean girls” and their pipe-smoking, pajama-wearing master manipulator, Madison comes off suspiciously like a bitter middle-schooler enraged that a rival group of girls all bought cool matching satin jackets.
Madison saves much of her vitriol for the woman who replaced her in the icebox that is Hefner’s heart to become the millionaire’s third wife: Crystal Harris. She starts off by denouncing the limp handshake Crystal gave her when they’re introduced for the first time. She goes on to claim that Crystal totally stole her personal style (her “essence”), her ideas—even the cool way that she wears her hat. This from the same author who complains exhaustively about those dreadful mean girls getting worked up into fits of rage over petty shit.
In her early days at the mansion, Madison half-convinces herself that what she ultimately wants is to be the last girl standing, and to claim Hefner as her husband and prize. But when that becomes a possibility, she realizes that that’s actually what she wants least in the world. That’s understandable—given the way Hefner treated her—but suffering through this blissfully unselfconscious exercise in narcissism and self-delusion run amok, it’s hard not to conclude that these awful people deserve each other.