Hugh Hefner is being remembered this week as a magazine mogul, a cultural influencer, and a gross old cad loathed by feminists and conservatives alike. But for a stretch in the mid-aughts, he was perhaps most prominent in one particular role: television sidekick. Between 2005 and 2010, the be-robed bachelor shuffled around in the background of The Girls Next Door, a hit E! reality show following several of his “girlfriends” living in the Playboy Mansion. In retrospect, it was a fitting (almost) final act.
Hefner (who also executive-produced the series) had starred in television shows in the past, including the syndicated Playboy’s Penthouse between 1959 and 1961. By the time The Girls Next Door appeared, his reputation as an aging rake had calcified—he was more dotard than Don Juan—and the show’s charm depended entirely on the three lively young women at its center. There was Holly Madison, the “no. 1 girlfriend,” who performed a role that was both maternal and wifely; she doted on “Hef” and slept in his bedroom. Kendra Wilkinson was young and sporty and funny, and Bridget Marquardt was a girlish giggler whose “thing” was that she had a Master’s degree.
I’m no more sure of the number of Girls Next Door episodes I’ve consumed over the years than I am sure of the number of Sour Patch Kids I’ve eaten. In both cases, the answer is “a very normal amount, why do you ask, ha ha ha.” The show was sweet and addictive, the details instantly forgettable; I would be hard-pressed to describe a single scene, let alone a full episode. But I turned to it often in the twilight of the era where you might still find yourself watching a show simply because it happened to be on.
It makes sense, perhaps, that my first instinct is to dismiss The Girls Next Door as empty calories, since the central conceit of the Playboy ethos is the disposability of women. The magazine’s ideal woman has actually fluctuated significantly over the years, but the observation that the Playboy aesthetic isn’t “real” is almost as old as Playboy itself. The Girls Next Door wasn’t exactly “real,” either, of course—it was a 22-minute reality television show—but it came much closer. The show was both riveting and relentlessly banal, but all of its spark came from the women. Holly in particular emerged as a figure of real pathos, a smart, traditional woman trapped in a misogynist dystopia. “If I could get married and have kids tomorrow, I totally would,” she cheerfully announced in the first episode. She had to leave Hefner’s world to do that.
Everything banal, meanwhile, came from “Hef” himself, whose habit of wearing pajamas 24/7 had long since curdled from “sexy libertine” to “sad grandpa.” The girlfriends spent their time grooming themselves, scheduling appointments to groom their pets, lounging around the mansion, and making professional appearances. They had to follow their ancient boyfriend’s rigid schedule, including designated “club nights,” and yes, sex. They had a 9 o’clock curfew. It turns out that simply existing as the kind of fun, sexy, DTF gal promoted by the Playboy brand is a full-time job. And the show, even as it remained committed to its fun, sexy, DTF vibe, didn’t shy away from pointing out just how desperately tedious that full-time job could be.
Of course, the women weren’t doing this for mere entertainment, let alone for love. The Girls Next Door made explicit the idea that becoming Hefner’s girlfriend was a career move. “I just thought, ‘What a great opportunity,’” Bridget says in the first episode, recalling her decision to move in. “I can’t turn this down and go back to Lodi.” Hefner “discovered” Kendra while she was working as a “painted girl” at one of his birthday parties, and her ascendance to the house’s private quarters, too, was treated by the show as both a stroke of luck and a career move. Again, the subtext was a satisfying (if very slight) subversion of the Playboy brand: No sane woman would have sex with Hugh Hefner without getting something in return.
Their ambitions were well-placed, as it turns out. Two of the original three Girls have sustained fame of their own. Wilkinson married an NFL player, and has spun their family life into several reality shows and a lasting tabloid presence. Holly appeared in other television shows and starred in a long-running burlesque show in Las Vegas. She has also become an outspoken critic of Hefner and the Playboy universe, calling herself a “born-again feminist” in a 2015 interview with BuzzFeed. That year, she published a frank (and successful) memoir, Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny. “We were constantly reminded that the show was Hef’s show—our contributions were irrelevant,” she wrote. “According to our boyfriend, he could have splashed any three blondes on-screen and found instant success.” By the show’s sixth season, all three of the original women had either left the show or been relegated to secondary roles. Ratings plummeted. Maybe the women weren’t so interchangeable after all.