In 'Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself,' the late Hugh Hefner's widow takes off her bunny ears
Crystal Hefner’s not the first woman to look back on her younger years with some misgivings, but most people's early adulthood doesn't play out on a hit television show, giggling alongside a slew of other women in barely-there attire draping themselves over an international sex icon more than 60 years her senior.
Now, the 37-year-old entrepreneur, advocate and widow of Hugh Hefner is throwing open the doors to the Playboy Mansion, giving those who think they knew her a look inside her former home — not to mention her relationship, and her heart. And there is a lot to tell.
The title of Crystal's tell-a-lot memoir, Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself, stems from the late Hugh's directive to his wife: “I want you to continue my legacy going forward…and I want to remind you to only say good things about me," she says he once told her.
Not long after, 91-year-old Hugh came down with a minor infection that led to his death from sepsis and cardiac arrest on Sept. 27, 2017 at his Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. At first, Crystal kept her promise. The international sex icon and founder of the Playboy empire had quite the hold on his girls, and that felt good, she explains in the book.
“At the time I thought I was on top," she tells PEOPLE, of the period of time after she first accepted Hef's invitation to the mansion in October 2008. "I thought, wow, if I just like everything that he likes and do all the things that he wants me to do, then I'm the favorite. And I was, but I just lost myself in the process.” But behind the glittery facade, paradise was crumbling.
Hef allegedly controlled everything about the girls — right down to their manicures
According to Crystal, the ultimate party boy had strict rules about everything, right down to making his girlfriends come to him each week to collect their “allowance” that he doled out in crisp bills. She says he stipulated the money was to be spent on making them look more beautiful and had opinions on "weird, silly, stupid things."
“Our nail polish couldn’t be anything but some neutral color, no French manicure,” Crystal says.
To this day, he gets in her head about her grooming choices. She recalls him saying, “Don’t have a belly button ring because that’s trashy."
"He would tell me ‘Wear the flag,'" she adds. "That’s the Playboy logo and those shirts were uncomfortable and cheap.”
Crystal also recalls Hugh pointing to her roots whenever her dark natural brown started growing out.
“So I’d have to go bleach it and it would burn my scalp and I’d have blisters,” she says. “But for some reason I thought this was all normal and that’s what it meant to be seen as beautiful in Hef’s eyes."
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The iconic mansion was falling apart
Even though it looked decadent onscreen, Playboy Mansion was more frat house than fancy, Crystal tells PEOPLE: “This place doesn't really get cleaned that well and there's mold, and it just felt just kind of run down and gross after a while. Too, too many parties. It was worn out.”
She writes in the book that the birds in the house were dying of thirst, and that felt like an apt analogy for the women living there, too.
"I feel like I was constantly crying for everything and everybody there," she tells PEOPLE. "All those animals were so depressed and sad-looking. It was all an illusion. I don't even know if I was happy, to be honest."
She originally ran away after Hef proposed
When Hugh first proposed marriage, Crystal recalls, she initially accepted but then ran for the hills. But after what she describes as a destructive relationship with Dr. Phil’s son Jordan, she eventually returned to marry Hugh. While she acknowledges that she loved Hugh, she was never “in love” with him and she served as his caregiver in his final years.
"I realized I was dealing with a really big power imbalance,” Crystal says. “It seemed like a world of success and fantasy, but everyone's having to sleep with an 80-year-old. There's a price. Everything has a price."
In recent years, several women have spoken out about life in Hugh's orbit. Before A&E’s Secrets of Playboy — which explores his controversial relationships — was released in 2022, the magazine released a statement denouncing Hugh's alleged "abhorrent actions" and detailed a commitment to "positive change" under new leadership, which “no longer associates” with the Hefner family.
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