Holly Madison on Hugh Hefner: "I Was Constantly Made to Feel Ugly"

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Holly Madison’s new book Down the Rabbit Hole shows off the unglamorous side of the Playboy world. Photo: Instagram

When it comes to empowerment stories, you might not expect one to start in the Playboy Mansion, but Holly Madison’s does. Before Madison became the “Number 1 Girlfriend” of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, she grew up in a small town of 10,000 with big dreams of becoming an actress like her idol, Marilyn Monroe. But soon after she arrived in Hollywood, at age 22, her life took a detour when she met Hefner, the “notoriously lecherous 70-something old man who offered me Quaaludes that he referred to as ‘thigh openers.’” It’s a moment, Madison, now 35 wishes she could do over. “Are you kidding me?” she writes in her revealing new memoir Down the Rabbit Hole. “ Why didn’t I run for the nearest exit?”

Instead, Madison got caught up in the myth of the Playboy mansion and becoming a Bunny. About to be kicked out of her apartment, the mansion offered a solution on where to live rent-free, and she hoped that Playboy could launch her career. It did, but there was a big price to pay. Madison went from being a confident, happy girl to insecure and deeply depressed. She even developed a nervous stammer. At one point she told Hefner she wanted to see a psychiatrist and he told her to talk to his secretary instead. He knew a therapist would tell her to pack her bags.

A constant rotating cast of women, all vying for Hefner’s attention and weekly $1000 clothing allowance, created a nightmare mean-girl scenario. Plastic surgery was paid for, along with salon appointments. It was all designed to have the women looking like clones—platinum blonde, booby, with perky “baby” features. When Madison tried to assert some individuality and cut her hair into a bob and wear red lipstick, Hefner told her she “looked old, hard, and cheap.” The experience made her feel “beyond ugly…maybe I was just the homely girl who was ‘lucky’ enough for Hef to allow into the mansion.”

With younger, prettier girls always available and ready to compete, a bizarre group relationship with Hefner (she was never intimate with him alone), and a requirement to never spend a night from the mansion, Madison lost herself. completely. But this being an empowerment story, the book takes a surprising turn when just as she is about to become the only woman in his life, with promises of babies and marriage, Madison chose to leave and follow her own path. Madison went on to star in her own show in Vegas, do a stint on Dancing with the Stars, and has plans to write a second book. She is also now married with a daughter, and describes her life now as “balanced and happy.” But Madison doesn’t want women to see marriage as her fairytale ending. Read on to find out the inspiring place where she feels her story ends, and begins.

Sara Bliss: I love that you are definitely not holding anything back in your new book. What made you want to lay everything out on the table?

Holly Madison: For so many years after I left the mansion, I didn’t want to be branded Hugh Hefner’s ex-girlfriend anymore, so I wouldn’t really have anything to do with Playboy. I wouldn’t talk about it when people asked me. But it’s just kind of been the elephant in the room and the question that never goes away. I met so many fans of The Girls Next Door over the years, and I definitely came away with the impression that they saw things in a way that wasn’t really real because much of the show was just propaganda for Hef and Playboy. He approved everything that went into [the show] and it didn’t reflect the whole of my experience being a woman in that environment. So I thought it was important to finally tell the truth.

Since you are so revealing, are you worried about anyone’s response that you write about?

The book isn’t designed to get a response. It’s not about having an axe to grind or wanting a response from Hef. I honestly don’t care what he thinks. He’s always had a chance to tell his side of the story through the TV show, which he controlled, or the articles about us in his magazines. We were always used as accessories to glamorize his life, that was basically what our job was living there as girlfriends. I feel like it’s only fair for me to finally get to tell the truth and have my say.

You wrote that you hoped that sharing your mistakes would prevent other women from making similar ones. What do you want people to take away from this book?

I want to inspire people if they have made a bad decision in the past and if they feel branded or limited by that. Or if they are in a really bad relationship and they are scared to get out. I want to inspire people to reinvent themselves, have faith in themselves again, and reclaim their lives.

In the book, you wrote that at one point while you were at the mansion an interviewer asked when you discovered you were beautiful, and you said “I didn’t ever discover that I was beautiful. I made myself beautiful.” What did you mean by that?

When the interviewer asked that I had been living in the mansion for four years and being constantly made to feel by Hef that I was not attractive, that I was ugly, and I was lucky to be there. So at that point I really believed it. I was kind of taken aback when the interviewer asked me that question. I wasn’t sure if he was messing with me! Was he trying to get me to say something that sounded conceited? I really didn’t even believe his question was sincere because that was where my mindset was at the time. So I just kind of snapped out of it and said ‘Because I made myself beautiful, because I felt like if I was attractive at all it was only because I had a nose job, or wore a lot of makeup, or something like that, because that’s how being with Hef made me feel.

How did you get out of that negative mindset?

It definitely took a long time to get out of it because I was in the mansion for so long. I didn’t really feel ok with the way I looked until I left there because that environment can have a really unhealthy effect on a woman’s self esteem. The only thing really valued in that environment is the way [a woman] looks and her youth. That’s the only reason women are celebrated there. There are always new women coming through the door that are younger and more beautiful every day. I definitely snapped out of it when I left the mansion and came out into the real world.

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There is definitely a clone beauty ideal over at Playboy, you couldn’t even cut your hair short! Were you surprised by Hef’s negative response to your cutting your hair in a bob?

I cut my hair and I thought I looked good. It was a fun look. I thought, I’m still blonde I still fit the criteria to be here, so I didn’t expect anything other than a positive reaction. So when the reaction was not only negative, but mean—I was really shocked and upset. It was just another one of those things that made me feel ugly. The longer I was there, not just me but the other girls as well, you just keep picking on your appearance and you never look good enough, you are never happy enough about the way you look, and it’s a vicious cycle.

While plastic surgery wasn’t a requirement at the mansion, it was all paid for if you did decide to do it. Didn’t that create an environment which encouraged everyone to go under the knife?

Definitely. It had definitely become such a program. Before I even moved in there were so many girls coming in through that revolving door, and it was just clear to everyone that they were getting things done and he was paying for it.

You said in those seven years you went from a happy, confident girl to a depressed, insecure, unhappy person. How did you find your confidence again?

It was definitely a couple of things. I think the TV show, The Girls Next Door helped a lot. Things got better after the show started because Hef really values fame and values the opportunity to spread his propaganda through the show. We were kept very tightly under wraps and we didn’t have freedom, but we were valued and treated a little bit better. Because we had to constantly create new plotlines for the show, we were allowed to do a little bit more. We were allowed to travel. Because they needed something for me to do on the show, I was given a job at the Playboy photo studio where I really thrived. Having that job and having new responsibilities to learn gave me some confidence.

What gave you the confidence to leave the relationship with Hef?

For so many years I had made this decision to live at the mansion and I had been trying to rationalize it in my mind and turn it into something good. I always wanted to be the only girlfriend because I thought the other girls were the problem (laughs). But Bridget booked the travel show and Kendra had met the man who would go on to be her husband. Without the dynamic of the other multiple girlfriends to play off of, Hef’s true colors really came out. He started to get really snappish and verbally abusive with me. I had been able to overlook so many things in the relationship, but when he finally verbalized how he truly was, and I realized he wasn’t that nice of a guy–I really woke up.

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Holly Madison with husband Pasquale Rotella and baby Rainbow. Photo: Getty Images

On the last page of your book you say that you found your Prince Charming, your husband Pasquale, but that you didn’t need saving, because by then you had saved yourself. Why was that an important message to share?

I started to get the idea to write this book even before I met Pasquale and decided to get married, because one of the things that really frustrated me was I would meet people who were fans of the show and they would say things like ‘Don’t you miss the mansion?’ or ‘I’m so sorry that Hef didn’t marry you.’ I was looking around thinking, I’m making millions of dollars on my own, I have this amazing career, I’m single, I’m free to do whatever I want! I’m great! It was amazing to me that women are still so judged and seen as successful by whether or not they are married or have kids. Of course marriage and family are beautiful parts of life, and the best parts of my life, but if you never meet that right person that shouldn’t be a gauge on how successful you are as a person. So while I was ending my story when I got married and had the baby, the message to take away was that even before I met Pasquale I already won–because I found my independence.

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