'Secrets of Playboy' Alleges 'Clean-Up Crew' Concealed Dozens of Sexual Assaults: 'I Think Hefner Knew'

The third installment of A&E's 10-part docuseries on Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire explored the dark side of the brand, from body-shaming to allegations of assault

Hulton Archive/Getty.

The third episode of A&E's Secrets of Playboy docuseries aired on Monday night, delving into both sides of the Playboy coin — the illusion of unrepressed sexual freedom contrasted with an alleged reality of physical and emotional abuse for the thousands of women embodying Hugh Hefner's empire.

Episode 3, "The Bunnies and the Clean-Up Crew," featured a number of women who worked as Playboy Bunnies from the Playboy Clubs' heyday in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

During this time, the brand gained global notoriety because, according to cultural historian Jamilah Lemieux, "Playboy allowed men to indulge in the fantasy of what their life might look life if they were wealthy. It's these beautiful, extremely young, buxom women that in the role of Bunny somehow seemed like they're primed for service."

But the Bunnies recalled the price of preserving the illusion of sensuality and availability — as well as the horrific consequences when male clubgoers took advantage of the power imbalance underlying the Playboy ethos.

A 'Clean-Up' Crew Concealed Multiple Alleged Assaults

The end of each episode of Secrets of Playboy makes a point to note: "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."

P.J. Masten, who worked for Playboy from 1972–82, had a firsthand view of dozens of alleged incidents of sexual abuse and assault because of her romantic involvement with security head Joe Piastro: "Playboy security knew how to handle everything," she said.

According to Masten, "In the 10 years that I worked for Playboy, I would venture to say that there were probably 40 to 50 young women that were silenced by Playboy because of abuse, sexual abuse."

She noted, "It was a lucrative job [so women] were afraid to come forward with a VIP assault — they would lose their job, because that's how it worked with Playboy. You open your mouth, you're out of here. And there was a constant turnover of bunnies. Constant."

Masten ran down the protocol for the unofficial clean-up crew: "If anything scandalous happened, we had to clean it up so it would not hit the press, and it certainly wouldn't go to the police department, and there were scandals in every club. You weren't allowed to take them to a hospital."

She explained, "It was a big thing for Hefner to not have that kind of heat, he did not want the LAPD coming down on him."

Don Cornelius
Don Cornelius on "Soul Train". Soul Train via Getty Images

An Entertainment Icon Allegedly Needed the Clean-Up Crew

Masten specifically claimed late Soul Train host Don Cornelius was at the center of "probably the most horrific story I've ever heard at Playboy."

Masten said two sisters in their early 20s who were new hires, or "Baby Bunnies," met Cornelius at Los Angeles hot spot Carlos'n Charlie's. He allegedly invited them back to his home for an after-party – and because Cornelius was a Playboy VIP Gold Member and "it was encouraged to take care of the big VIPs," the women accepted his invitation.

"But once they left the club, they were not protected — especially from the VIPs that were chosen by Hefner," Masten said.

"We didn't hear from them for three days."

According to Masten, "These two young Bunnies were at Don Cornelius' house and they were separated. One was locked in one room and the other was in another room. They were tied up and bound, and the sister could hear her screaming. There were wooden objects that you were sodomized with and she could hear her other sister being brutalized. It was horrible, horrible."

Eventually, one of the sisters escaped and called Playboy, who sent security to retrieve the "bloody, battered, drugged" girls.

Masten added, "I think Hefner knew all about this because Joe Piastro told me he had to do a report every single day if anything happened. And Hefner read the security reports."

She continued, "The thing that's outrageous to me, that made me so angry, was no charges were filed and Don Cornelius' privileges as a No. 1 VIP was never suspended. He was back in the club the following week."

Playboy through the years
Hugh Hefner with the Playboy bunnies. Archive Photos/Getty

Bunnies Were Fired for Being Threatened with Revenge Porn

Across the country in New Jersey, another group of Bunnies were allegedly tricked into a series of on-camera rapes in 1979, which was also Playboy's silver anniversary.

Suzanne Charneski was a Bunny Great Gorge Playboy Club from 1979–82. She recalled a story when several Bunnies were invited to a remote cabin by a group of men who "told them they were big Hollywood producers, and they wanted them to be in a movie."

The women "went thinking that they were going to be in a Hollywood production." Instead, she alleges they "were drugged. And they were raped. And they videotaped them. They were kept there for a couple of days and then they were released. They were told if they told anybody that the videos would go out and broadcast the videos and that their career would be over and their lives would be over."

The women didn't report the alleged crimes to Playboy management because they were afraid of professional repercussions since the incidents happened off company property and the official policy was not to fraternize with customers.

"However, it got out because girls talk to each other," said Charneski.

"It rocked Playboy's world. It was not a time that they would want such a scandal because this was the 25th anniversary of Playboy," she continued.

Adds Masten, "These girls were fired, they were told to get off the property and never come back there. They were newbies so they didn't have Bunny friends, didn't have the senior Bunnies. They were never offered therapy. They never went to a doctor, they never had any help."

After the men were caught, Charneski claimed members of Hefner's corporation came in to "minimize" the fallout of the crime because "Playboy at that time was extremely powerful."

As a result, "Many of the girls never knew that that had transpired."

"You would think that Playboy would want to help young ladies by preparing them for something like that," she said. Instead, countless women were "muffled [and] discarded" because "the image of the Playboy Bunny had to remain sterling silver."

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.

Playboy through the years
Victor Blackman/Daily Express/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty

Being a Bunny Was Bloody and Bruising

Even those Bunnies who did not discuss alleged sexual violence detailed the painful reality of conforming to the signature Playboy Bunny look. Weight gain was a major concern, often resulting in public shaming and professional punishment.

"Once a month we got weighed in and there was a chart in the Bunny room next to this scale, and it was humiliating," said Masten. Women who gained weight would be suspended until they returned to their prior weight. "I think that was part of it, to humiliate these girls."

Explained Charneski, "The costume has 18 metal stays in, so it took two people to put it on — you would have to hold it in the front and someone would zip it up the back. If you gained 5 lbs., [with] those 18 metal stays, you couldn't breathe. Literally."

Added Masten, "A lot of girls had kidney infections 'cause you were cinched in. We used to go into the ladies room and take our shoes off, which were encrusted with blood, and stick them in the toilet bowl and keep flushing it with, like, a whirlpool to get the swelling down hope that your shoes could fit back in."

Susanne Singer, who worked at the Playboy Club in Century City, California, from 1972–84, summed it up, saying the Playboy Bunny "wasn't a real person, so to speak — she was an image."

Ahead of the docuseries' premiere on Jan. 24, Playboy released a statement responding to the many allegations unearthed in Secrets of Playboy.

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

"Today's Playboy is not Hugh Hefner's Playboy," the PLBY Group leadership team also noted, reassuring staff that the Hefner family is no longer associated with Playboy, which is now made up of more than 80 percent female employees.

"Together we are building upon the aspects of our legacy that have made a positive impact, including serving as a platform for free expression and a convener of safe conversations on sex, inclusion and freedom," they added. "We will continue to confront any parts of our legacy that do not reflect our values today, and to build upon the progress we have made as we evolve as a company so we can drive positive change for you and our communities."

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

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