Crystal Hefner Details "Traumatic" and "Emotionally Abusive" Marriage to Hugh Hefner

Crystal Hefner, Hugh Hefner's third wife, tells E! News that therapy helped her unpack what she experienced behind the walls of the Playboy Mansion—and why writing a book about it was so freeing.

By Natalie Finn, Sarah Grossbart Jan 25, 2024 8:43 PMTags
Watch: Crystal Hefner Describes Her "Traumatic" Marriage to Hugh Hefner

It's not that Crystal Hefner didn't love Hugh Hefner at all when she married the 86-year-old in 2012. But after saying "I do" when she was only 26, she became increasingly convinced that the Playboy founder didn't really love her.

"I loved Hef, I cared for him," Crystal told E! News' Francesca Amiker in an exclusive interview. "But in some ways that he treated me, I just felt, OK, this guy can't really be in love with me."

In her new book, Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself, the 37-year-old details how Hefner was controlling and, at times, downright cruel, making harsh cracks about her weight, telling her what to wear and, in a ritual that would make her stomach "flip," popping his little blue pill during movie nights at the Playboy Mansion—a sign that she'd be expected to "perform" for him when he was in the mood.

"It was very traumatic," Crystal told E! of their nearly five-year marriage, which ended when Hefner died in 2017 at the age of 91. "It was emotionally abusive. It was very restrictive. I didn't realize how bad it was until I was away from it for a while."

But while she was in it, she admittedly felt trapped.

Crystal Hefner Through the Years

"I never felt like I had a way out," she said. While she envisioned a world in which she could "finally feel free and happy," she knew that wasn't going to happen while she was living at the mansion. Instead, the onetime San Diego State psychology major found herself banishing her instincts to the back of her mind.

"I remember being 21 and walking up the stairs to Hef's bedroom after a party and something inside me is telling me, 'This is weird," Crystal said. "But I'm like, 'OK, let's just push that down, let's not listen—and let's just go!'"

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy

As she strived to meet the unrealistic aesthetic demands placed on her, "I completely changed everything about myself," she said. "Beauty is subjective and there's all types of beauty, but I just stuck to what Hugh Hefner saw as beautiful."

Replacing her wariness at the time, Crystal wrote, was the feeling of being "chosen" by Hefner, who for decades enjoyed a relatively unchallenged existence as the pajama-clad lord of a fantastical playground frequented by the rich and famous.

"My dad passed away at a young age and my mom and I were completely broke. We had nothing, we just made ourselves small," Crystal told E! of the vulnerable circumstances that preceded her decision to enter into a relationship with a man 60 years her senior. "At one point, we were just in a bedroom in another family's house. So I spent my whole life feeling that everyone was better than me. And finally, I thought, 'Wow, maybe I am special in some way—because I have been chosen.' It's really interesting what that feeling does to you."

The Biggest Bombshells From Pamela Anderson's Documentary and Memoir

Looking back, Crystal knows now that not leaving, even when she so desperately wanted to, "all comes down to self-worth and self-love," she said. "And I didn't have much of it at that time."

Since Hefner's death in September 2017—weeks before the #MeToo movement poured proverbial luminol all over Hollywood's stained history of sexual misconduct—a number of women, including Girls Next Door star Holly Madison, have shared unsparing accounts of their own experiences of life in the Playboy universe. (While she's participated in multiple projects unpacking the brand's complicated legacy over the years, when Holly released her 2015 memoir Down the Rabbit HoleHefner alleged she'd "chosen to rewrite history in an attempt to stay in the spotlight.")

The Girls Next Door: Then and Now

While she's now in "a happy and healthy relationship," after Hefner died Crystal still found herself dating men who were "manipulative and controlling," she said, "and I'm like, 'Wow, I'm falling into the same stupid traps.'"

Years of therapy, during which she took a lot of notes, helped her unpack the trauma she didn't even realize she had sustained during her marriage, which was Hefner's third. (And, she said that in the near future she plans to finally rid herself of her married name and return to being Crystal Harris, "that last step to just be myself.")

MediaPunch/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

She found that reliving even the lowest points of her life behind the walls of the Playboy Mansion while writing her memoir was a very liberating experience. 

"I'm in a much better place," said Crystal, who when not on a book tour is living her best life managing real estate projects and enjoying her lychee farm in Hawaii. "I feel that I will always be a work in progress, but I feel that I finally have true freedom."

Though interestingly, she noted, it wasn't until the reactions to her book started rolling in that she thought of her story as tragic.

"I didn't realize how sad a lot of this was," she admitted. "A lot of the feedback has been sadness."

But she ultimately wrote the book because "it was time to tell the truth for my own healing," Crystal said, "and to hopefully help people caught in the same trap."

Living at the mansion, "I didn't know who I was," she explained. "And when you don't know who you are, that could be dictated to you by somebody else. And if that's given to you by someone else, it could also be taken away. So it's very important for you to have your own power, your own voice. If you're following your own inner compass, I think that will be very helpful in life."

Read on for more of the biggest revelations from Crystal Hefner's memoir, Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself:

Life at the Playboy Mansion Was a Constant Competition

Though portrayed as a spot to indulge your wildest fantasies, life in the famed Playboy Mansion was quite restrictive for Crystal Hefner (née Harris), who was just 21 when she met and subsequently moved in with magnate Hugh Hefner in 2008.

Her curfew, for instance, was 6 p.m. on the dot. "The pantry staff would start frantically calling my phone at exactly 6:01 p.m.," she writes in Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself. "And then I would run in, pushing through the heavy wooden door, and go find Hef, so I could kiss him on the cheek and show him: Here I am, I’m home, I’ve followed the rules.”

There was also little opportunity for privacy. "Hef, of course, held the master key that ensured no one could ever lock him out." 

But the toughest bit for the psychology major who shared Hef with twins Karissa and Kristina Shannon, among other girlfriends, was the feeling she was constantly being compared to a parade of other women. "Playing the role of someone else’s image of you every day and night is exhausting—physically, mentally, and in a way that feels like your soul is actually tired," she writes, "like some kind of life energy battery is running low."

Crystal's Sex Life With Hugh Hefner Was Not Great

Let's talk about sex—because Crystal insists it was never the best with the mogul who was six decades her senior. From the first night they met at his 2008 Halloween party, the entire bedtime ritual was "odd and robotic" she writes of the process that she says included bringing in new women from the party, changing into the requisite silk pajamas, dimming the lights, turning on the music and porn and passing around marijuana. 

With Hef not even looking at her, but rather the mirror placed strategically above the bed, "He seemed less sex-savvy than some of the teenage boys I’d been with years ago,” she reveals. ”It was clear to me Hef had never taken a moment in his entire life to figure out how to please someone else.”

Gaining Weight, Condoms and Talk of Death Were All Off-Limits

With everything from grilled cheese to filet mignon at her disposal, “I quickly gained a few pounds without realizing it, like a first-year student putting on the ‘freshman fifteen,'" Crystal shares. At 134 pounds, she didn't really notice, "but Hef certainly did. One night when the twins and I were undressing for him, he gave my body a critical look and raised his eyebrows. ‘Looks like somebody needs to tone up,’ he said lightly, but with a warning note in his voice. He gave my hips a light tap, to call my attention to the offending area.” 

In a panic, she hit the gym and began limiting her food: "I dropped those offending extra pounds fast."

She "obediently" began following other what she called other unwritten rules as well, alleging she was not allowed to ask Hef to wear a condom ("If anybody caught something, he had a personal doctor on staff to treat us"), talk about death or "anything unless it related to Hef." 

As a result, she writes, she "jumped rank" and was moved into the primary bedroom as Girlfriend No. 1

While Hef passed away in 2017, his son Cooper Hefner defended his legacy after the 2022 release of A&E's Secrets of Playboy, tweeting that his father "was generous in nature and cared deeply for people. These salacious stories are a case study of regret becoming revenge."  

Crystal Received an Allowance From Hef

To afford essentials like gas, clothes and the beauty items required to maintain her flawless appearance, she relied on her weekly $1,000 allowance they received every Friday morning.

"It was demoralizing on purpose," she opines. "It was infantile. But since we couldn't work outside the house, it was our only source of income." 

Hef Maintained a Little Black Book

The Playboy publisher "could be charming, and he could be cruel," Crystal writes of his "mercurial" mood swings. "He could make you feel like you were the most important person in the entire world one minute, and like you were less important to him than the rugs that he walked across."

And he was fastidious when it came to taking notes. Along with photos he collected of his various girlfriends flashing the camera—"Rolls and rolls of potential blackmail, if he ever wanted to use it that way"—Hef kept a little black book "where he wrote down the names of every single women who went up to the bedroom," reveals Crystal.

His conquests included celebrities, politicians and business leaders, she alleges: "He only told me one specific name, a famous television host still on the air, a sweetheart in America but a victim in the mansion." 

Hef Developed an Addiction to Opiates

Originally starting as a way to treat his back pain, "Hef's addiction to pills was a well-known secret in the house," claims Crystal, "and one nobody every talked about." 

In addition to the Quaaludes he reportedly offered to his women, "doctors had no problem prescribing him opiates," Crystal writes of Hef. "His doctor had given him an 'earthquake supply' of Percocet. We didn't know until much later just how much he had tapped into that earthquake supply in addition to his regular monthly refills." 

Crystal and Hef Never Discussed Marriage Before His Grand Proposal

When Hef asked Crystal if he fully wanted to be part of his world on Christmas Eve 2010, proposing with a Little Mermaid-themed music box and a diamond, she was stunned. 

"As far as romantic proposals go, it wasn't," she confesses of the moment, captured by cameras for an already-planned Marrying Hef special. "We hadn't even talked about marriage, we weren't in love, and I was confused." 

Though she slipped the ring on as expected and began filming the wedding planning process, her doubts grew. The breaking point: Learning her payday for the special would be a paltry $2,500. "In that moment, I snapped," she writes. "I realized that Playboy was going to squeeze everything they could out of me for as long as I stayed here." 

So she left. Running toward the gate, she heard Hef's voice over the mansion loudspeaker. "'Close the back gate!' he boomed. 'If Crystal tries to leave, detain her!'" 

Feeling trapped, she continues, "I turned around and walked, steadily, back to the house." 

Crystal Carefully Plotted Her Escape

Realizing she "had to make a plan," Crystal began squirreling away her allowance money and doing paid promotions on social media. Making an appearance as a Playmate at a Lil Jon performance, she decided she would learn how to DJ "so that I was more than just an accessory." 

A producer pal connected her with Jordan McGraw and while mansion staffers began planning her wedding to Hef, Crystal found herself forming a connection with the musician. "He made me feel special, just for being me," she explains, "and the contrast between that and who I was in the mansion made me giddy." 

Buoyed by support from Jordan and his dad Dr. Phil McGraw, Crystal slowly began moving her stuff out of the mansion and into the closet Jordan had cleared out for her.

And in June 2010—just days before the planned nuptials—she left in the middle of movie night, she left, telling security guards she was just running out to get tampons. "I didn't feel guilty for sneaking away," she admits. "I didn't feel guilty about the wedding. Hef had never asked me to marry him. Going along because there's no choice and saying 'yes' are two very different things." 

Crystal Had Several Conditions for Returning to Hef

Painted a runaway bride in the media, "I ran straight to Jordan and hid from it all," she writes. "When Jordan kissed me for the first time, I felt butterflies." 

But the giddiness proved to be temporary. While she writes "I wanted so badly for it to work out," she realized she was making the same mistakes: "I ran from one man to another, hoping it would fix all my problems." 

Devastated by her split from Jordan and with no job and a dwindling bank account, "I felt unprotected and vulnerable, so in my head I began to rewrite history," Crystal shares. "Life at the mansion hadn't been so bad. They had never really aggressively prevented me from leaving. I had it pretty good there." 

So when Hef's longtime secretary Mary O'Connor called explaining how much he missed Crystal, "I felt myself softening more quickly than I would have liked."

Though she agreed to return, she had some demands: While sex could remain a group activity, she "cleaned out the other girlfriends." As she puts it, "The mansion was still a twisted underworld. But at least now, I felt a little bit in control." 

Crystal Wasn't By Hef's Side When He Died

When she and Hef finally did marry on New Year's Eve 2012, Crystal wore pink, writing, "I told myself that when I got married for real someday, I would wear a white dress." 

Playing Hef's wife was still a job, she confesses, "but it felt like a promotion." Still, it was work. In addition to kicking off a DJ and real estate career, growing her social media platform and studying crypto currency, Crystal found herself adopting the role of caretaker.

"I was there at his elbow holding his arm to support him so when we were out in public, nobody would know he was starting to get frail or confused," she writes. "I wasn't going to let him down." 

Though she faced her own health battles—Lyme disease, breast implant illness and toxic mold exposure—she became "hyper-vigilant about protecting his image." 

When she returned from a week away in late 2017, Crystal learned that Hef had developed a UTI with "a strain of E. coli that was considered a 'super bug.'" Though they turned his bedroom into a makeshift hospital room complete with the necessary antibiotics, he began to slip in and out of consciousness.

While out in the hallway debating the next steps, recalls Crystal, "one of the nurses came out of the bedroom and said simply, quietly, 'He's gone.'"

Crystal Never Really Loved Hugh

Reflecting on how Hef made an effort to see she would be taken care of—setting aside his Playboy retirement fund and buying a house for her as the mansion itself had already been sold—Crystal speculates, "maybe he really loved me in some small way." 

As for her feelings toward the nonagenerian, "Yes, I loved him, but I loved him the way someone might love their kidnapper after 10 years of being with them every day," she writes. "I feel sorry for him, that he didn't know how to love, how to actually see another person, or how to really connect in a meaningful way. The man thought to be the greatest lover in the world never knew how to love at all." 

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Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself by Crystal Hefner

If you want more revelations from Crystal, get a copy of her book.

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