When I am tooling around in my car, I like to listen to memoirs by female humorists. The excellent Jen Lancaster, Laurie Notaro and Celia Rivenbark were my gateway drugs. Sharp, sarcastic and relatable. I often found myself laughing hysterically alone in my car. But soon, my delight took on a darker hue. The suggestive “Related Items” tab in Amazon lured me into the celebrity memoir section, first with delightful tips like Tina Fey’s BossyPants, but then it degenerated.
Tori Spelling’s memoirs? Check. Jennie Garth? Why not. I like to call this my 90210 phase. Justification? It’s nostalgic. Chelsea Handler? Wait, what? I don’t even know who she is, the clever title just sucked me right in. How can you resist Are you there God, It’s me Vodka? Oh, Audible now you want me to listen to Heather MacDonald? Another hilarious title: You’ll Never Blue Ball in This Town Again. Sure. Turns out she works with Chelsea on another show I’ve never watched.
And then I thought I’d hit rock bottom: Brandi Glanville. Seriously. What the actual fuck? You have a doctorate, I told myself. You can’t possibly listen to a five hour book by a Real Housewife. Whatever, she can’t possibly be as crazy as she is on teevee.1 It turns out, yes she can!
But this week, I’ve hit a new low. Holly Madison, Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny was Audible’s latest suggestion, and seeing only the teacups and pink cover, I downloaded it before I could stop myself.
Madison’s book is, first and foremost, an exposé. Her story is fascinating, making the reader question her decisions throughout the early years of the book. She describes meeting Hugh Hefner in ways that make it seem almost inevitable.
A love of Marilyn Monroe turned into a desire to appear in Playboy, which somehow resulted in her moving to Los Angeles, being invited to the Playboy mansion parties and eventually to going out for an evening on the town with the infamous Hef.
Madison goes on to say that this evening of clubbing resulted in what was essentially a lackluster orgy, totally shattering my belief that the bunnies that accompany Hef in the media were simply eye-candy that added credence to his Casanova reputation, without the implied intimacy.
And yet, this is the part of the book that is the least developed. What motivated Madison to move into the mansion almost immediately after her uninspiring sexual encounter with the millionaire? The reader really has no idea. Madison alludes to credit card debt and a soon-to-end lease, but given the same set of circumstances, would your choice be to become the girlfriend of a 70-something man? This is both the most redeeming and frustrating characteristic of the book.2 Many celebrity authors make the mistake of trying desperately to justify earlier decisions, usually public spats or scandals. Hello, Tori Spelling! *waving*
Madison may allude to incidents in her past — her apparently well-known fight with Kendra Wilkinson, for example — but she doesn’t justify her behavior.3 She explains in great detail how Hef was able to convince her to stay, by undermining her confidence and manipulating her into thinking she would be unable to succeed without him, but this still doesn’t explain her initial decision to date the Playboy publisher. She talks about the motivations of the other women in Hef’s life, but never really delves into her own.
On the other hand, the book is a no-nonsense account of what does go on behind the mansion’s facade and it is not pretty. With the “bunnies” ostensibly faithful to Hef, he controls them all, manipulating them to get his own way and also to create drama. Appearing to be a generous benefactor, behind the scenes it appears that the lothario kept the women on a tight financial leash: leasing cars instead of buying them outright, requiring an accounting of how they spent their “clothing allowance” so that they were unable to save up funds to leave the mansion, enforcing a curfew if the women left the grounds of the house without him, and other behaviors so oddly controlling that it gives the reader pause. The sugar that let this bitter medicine go down more easily? Promised Playboy pictorials, appearances and perks like The Girls Next Door television show. In fact, in listening to Madison, it’s pretty easy to see that for a significant chunk of the time she, Kendra and Bridget were at the mansion, the most rewarding element of their lives was their work on The Girls Next Door.
Oh, what a shame, you may think to yourself, “these barbies sign up to be a paid girlfriend to one of the best known philanderers in the world and all they get is their photo in Playboy.” Yeah, it has a touch of that poor little rich girl tone, and in some ways that’s absolutely correct. But at root it gets at an age-old story: the idea that women are like livestock, to be fed and watered if and only if they agree to live abiding by the rules of their owner. Contrast this with the family presented on Sister Wives. Stay with me here.
Critics of Sister Wives argue that it illustrates patriarchal oppression at its finest, because Brown holds all of the power in the relationship. When you actually watch the show, however, Sister Wives is an atypical illustration of traditional polygamy because it’s difficult to see the power that Brown wields over his wives. Perhaps the control mechanism is invisible because the show doesn’t actually delve into the religious beliefs the Browns hold about the role of marriage in the afterlife – an afterlife women can’t access without their husbands, and one which improves with an increased number of wives. Nevertheless, in Sister Wives, the women don’t appear to have particular rules they must follow, other than those prescribed by their religion, in the same way a devout Catholic may feel required to attend Mass. The same can not be said for Hef’s bunnies.
Let me clarify: I am decisively not arguing in favor of a Sister Wives-like lifestyle. That being said, I’m all for consenting adults creating a family of the composition of their choosing. But Madison’s memoir highlights some unsettling contradictions between the ostensible Playboy lifestyle and the reality of these women’s lives as Hugh’s professional girlfriends. The book raises some interesting tensions that cloud what we think of as a polygamous relationship. I think if confronted, most people would argue that Hef’s harem4 is totally different from polygamy – particularly polygamy of the religious persuasion – but is it really, or is this just the cult of Playboy?
Featured Image: Holly Madison on Instagram
I admit it, I have a weakness for all things Housewives. For the record, Andy Cohen’s books are some of the best I’ve ever listened to – that man is whip smart. ↩
For the record, the most frustrating element of the audio version of the book is Madison’s insistence in reading Lewis Carroll quotes that head every chapter with a fake British accent. She also slips into the “voices” of her co-stars, boyfriends, and past self throughout the book in a way that can be a bit jarring. ‘Course it might all be worth it as she also does a bang-on Hugh Hefner “voice” that can’t help but make the listener laugh ↩
There is one rather glaring exception to this rule: Madison rehashes a short-lived relationship with Criss Angel — the magician — that lends an air of significance to the experience that an outsider like me doesn’t understand. Throughout this chapter she seems to be trying to explain both that Criss wasn’t the driving force behind her leaving the mansion and to provide her reasons for not staying with him. Girl, it’s okay, we’ve all had crappy relationships, even if we didn’t first date Hugh Hefner for 7 years. We totally get that it took you awhile to get your shit together after that. ↩
one of the many turns of phrase coined by Madison that made me laugh out loud ↩