'Secrets of Playboy' : How Young Women 'Signed Their Life Away Forever' to Hugh Hefner

Former Playmates and close associates of Hugh Hefner share how Playboy's promise of fame and opportunity didn't match up to Playmates' real lifestyle of alleged sexual abuse and financial control

Hugh Hefner. Photo: RICH SCHMITT/AFP/Getty

In the mid-1980s, Playboy faced its biggest challenge yet when a former longtime employee testified before a government committee, leading to a brief but damaging hit in the magazine's newsstand sales.

In 1985, Miki Garcia appeared before U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography. Armed with damning firsthand knowledge from her time as January 1973's Playmate and the company's Head of Playmate Promotions until 1982, she was prepared to share as much information as she could about her former boss Hugh Hefner's powerful empire.

Monday night's chapter of Secrets of Playboy, "The Big Playboy Lie," chronicled some of those allegations, including how many women felt "sold" and exploited by Playboy — and frequently by Hefner himself.

That feeling, and the "stigma" on their reputations that came with working for Playboy, would define countless women not just during their time working for Hefner's company, but often for years to come.

As Garcia put it, "It was a life sentence."

As with every installment of A&E's 10-part docuseries, episode 7 featured a statement at the end of the episode: "This series contains allegations of wrongdoing over decades by Hugh Hefner and others associated with him. The vast majority of allegations have not been the subject of criminal investigations or charges, and they do not constitute proof of guilt."

Signing Away Their Dreams

Playboy established itself as a global vanguard of sexual freedom in its early decades. Though there were other pornographic magazines on the market, what set the brand apart was how it integrated high-end content (photographers, writers and celebrities) with the illusion that its centerfolds were approachable "Girls Next Door" (who just happened not to be fully clothed).

But in the 1970s, raunchier brands including Penthouse and Hustler emerged as true competitors, forcing Hefner to push Playboy's boundaries. The magazine debuted its first full-frontal pictorial in January 1972, setting off a newsstand battle that Hefner himself dubbed "The Pubic Wars."

And in order for Hefner to maintain the brand's profitability, the women — on whose images the brand was built — began to become increasingly uncomfortable. And the women speaking out in Secrets of Playboy make a point to call out how some of those women were not, legally speaking, necessarily equipped to sign Playboy's photo consent form.

"It's a big deal to take your clothes off for a camera," said Sondra Theodore, a former Playmate and Hefner's girlfriend from 1976–81. "A man [is] taking the pictures. All of a sudden, one of the makeup girls comes up and hands you [a piece of paper]: 'Can you just sign this for us? Because we're taking your picture, you know, we have to have your permission.' You don't know what you're signing, really."

Added Garcia, "Several Playmates took their photos at 17 years of age with the consent of their parent. They were signing contracts in front of either Hefner or someone of his choosing, and he's holding these photos until they are of age."

sondra theodore secrets of playboy
Sondra Theodore. A&E

And Theodore said the young women signing contracts weren't always in a clear state of mind: "Sometimes they got the girls stoned, partied out, and then they'd hand them the contract. They had their ways," she recalled. "Through this, you signed your life away forever."

According to Garcia, Hefner "took it for granted that he could control us and that he could get away with it."

She continued, "Over time, I realized that what was supposed to be the launching pad for these young women was really a pit. ...The reality is, once you sign that release, you are no longer in control, and Hefner was the one in control of your image."

Playmate Dona Speir said, "Playboy had an obligation to protect us girls, especially with our photos and videos. They just opened the floodgates and let 'em go. It was all about the money."

Garcia put it more bluntly: "Hefner sold us. He took our photos and put them on hardcore porn sites."

The 1980 launch of the Playboy Channel especially changed the game for many Playmates.

Theodore, for example, had previously agreed to shoot a video only because she had been assured any fully nude footage would never be seen because it wouldn't meet primetime decency standards. But when Playboy later launched its cable channel (which was not bound by the regulations), the company "pieced [outtake footage] together, released it in cable without telling me that it was going to be happening, not paying me for it — and that was soft porn. They had made me a porn star against my will."

Hefner had even once publicly promised the Playboy Channel would be "tasteful," but former Playmate Cristy Thom — who can now find her own Playboy footage on porn sites around the internet — said the content "bordered on kind of porn-ish. And that's why we did Playboy. That's why we didn't do Penthouse, we didn't do Hustler."

For these women, the spirit of their contract with Playboy had been violated — but for Hefner and according to the letter of the law, they had not.

Publisher Hugh Hefner looks over proof sheets for his magazine Playboy

The Waiting Game

And while the looming threat of explicit photos and videos might haunt Playmates years after their time with the company, the reality of working for one of the less visible arms of the empire could also be harrowing, even dangerous.

Much of Garcia's job in Playmate Promotions involved dispatching young women to appearances and photo shoots. These moonlighting gigs were often a necessary financial fallback because Playboy had structured centerfold compensation in a way that meant full payment could take as long as two years, according to Thom.

"They drag [payment] out because you have to fulfill your duty before you get it all," explained Playmate Tylyn John. And as the women waited to be paid, they "couldn't do anything without permission. Like if you were trying to make money off yourself, that was a no-no."

Many Playmates chose to bide their time by becoming regulars at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, where "drugs definitely played a major role in controlling and manipulating these women," according to Jennifer Saginor, whose father was Hefner's longtime friend and personal physician.

Eating disorders and addictions were rampant, according to Saginor, Garcia and Theodore.

"The pull of that Mansion and his power was just way too much for most. And once they're hooked on drugs, they're no longer in control. And when they ended up hitting rock bottom, Hefner was not going to give them support," said Garcia.

Recalled Theodore, "There were a lot of girls, they were fresh off the farm and they felt like they had made it. And yet those same girls months later would go home a skeleton, just a mere shadow of themselves — it happened to me."

hugh hefner
Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

Keeping Up Appearances

Other Playmates went out on the road. Some made fast cash by donning the iconic Playboy Bunny suit at local expos. Others were sent on modeling shoots — though those often turned out to be far less glamorous and professional than promised.

"It was like they were pimping us out a little bit," said Speir.

Thom remembered a "gross" encounter with a large group of men in Atlantic City who demanded a photo in a hot tub, including one man who said "Get in here, I paid for you!"

"Really," said Thomas, "as if we were prostitutes."

And that was just the start of it, according to Garcia: "I had a front seat in the lives of many women," she said, "and I could see the damage that happened."

September 1986 Playmate Rebekka Armstrong had two particularly harrowing experiences during the tenure of Promotions head Valerie Cragin, who took over the department in 1982 after Garcia departed. ("At that point in time, [the department] became what I considered flesh-peddling," said Garcia.)

When Armstrong realized that one booking was essentially "just a date," she recounted, "I remember barricading myself in the room and putting the chair under the door. I called Playboy, and I said, 'You gotta get me out of here, this isn't real, this isn't happening.' It was Valerie Cragin on the other end of the line saying ... 'What we're understanding is that the client is very upset because you are the one who has acted inappropriately.'"

According to Playmate Susie Krabacher, Cragin (who died in 2019) "was an incredible manipulator. ... She made my skin crawl."

The Sun/Shutterstock

Armstrong's second experience with an allegedly unvetted modeling booking was even more horrific.

"Playmate Promotions sent me to Alaska to model, and it turned out that there was no modeling gig," she recalled. "I ended up driving all around Alaska with this guy ... then he came looking for me later. He found out where I lived."

Armstrong alleged that the man who'd booked her as a model found her at home, drugged her and "did a lot of really horrific things" — though she acknowledged, "I honestly don't know everything that happened" because of the drugs.

Armstrong said she took told Playboy's clean-up crew about the alleged assault, and the matter was handled extralegally: "I didn't have to testify, I didn't have to do anything, they took care of it. That's all I know."

Armstrong summed up the feeling of disempowerment — which often enabled alleged sexual violence — that many women on the show experienced, saying, "As Playmates, we get put in situations that are almost impossible to get out of without conceding."

Armstrong would test positive for HIV in 1989 when she was just 22 years old. She initially kept her diagnosis from Playboy and only shared her status when she had full-blown AIDS three and a half years later. She credits Hefner and the brand for positioning her as a prominent educator about the virus and AIDS prevention for the brand.

Still, she could not say whether the assault was related to her contracting AIDS, though she admitted the thought has passed her mind.

Also, despite the embrace of AIDS education by Playboy, she said, "Life at the Mansion didn't change. No way."

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to rainn.org.

Miki Garcia
Miki Garcia. A&E

Taking a Stand

In the years before Cragin's tenure as head of promotions, Garcia had found the position increasingly tenuous and emotionally fraught, saying she "almost got fired several times" for trying to help women that she believed Hefner would have otherwise cast aside.

"I had become Mother Confessor to many women, and I felt a sense of responsibility," she explained.

Eventually, she said, "I realized I was fighting a losing battle. I could not handle it anymore."

But just a few years after she left, she saw that conditions for the Playmates had worsened. At the same time, Attorney General Meese had pornographic publications in his sights.

Garcia saw her opportunity to expose the company's toxicity on an unprecedented level.

"Playboy was dangerous to women," she said. "Playboy ruined women's lives. And I was going to stop it any way I could."

According to Theodore, Garcia "stood up against a lot of threats." And Garcia herself noted that Hefner seemed "terrified" of what she might reveal "because he sent so many people to me to come shut me up."

Both women also noted that promises from other people inside the Playboy proved empty. "I did not have the support of any women," said Garcia. "No one wanted the truth out. Nobody."

Summing her account before the Commission of "drugs, rape, abuse, coercion," she said, "I went in there and said, 'Wake up, America! Do not buy that piece of crap, don't be fooled by this man. ... Playboy was not what [all these young women] read about. It was a far more sinister world."

After the hearings, Playboy was briefly dropped by major convenience store chains like 7-Eleven, which undoubtedly impacted the brand's — and Hefner's — bottom line. Eventually, though, the decision was walked back. The magazine could be sold as long as it was covered in a plastic wrapper that obscured the racy cover.

As for Hefner, "I am sure that he was constipated for 10 years after I testified," said Garcia, "and I loved every minute of it."


In a statement released just before the docuseries' premiere on Jan. 24, Playboy's current leadership denounced Hefner's alleged "abhorrent actions."

"We trust and validate women and their stories, and we strongly support the individuals who have come forward to share their experiences," the statement read. "As a brand with sex positivity at its core, we believe safety, security and accountability are paramount, and anything less is inexcusable."

The statement also noted, "Today's Playboy is not Hugh Hefner's Playboy."

Secrets of Playboy airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.

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