Almost six years ago, at the end of September 2017, Hugh Hefner, the man who founded a multimillion-dollar empire around sex, the female body, parties full of (female) nudity and orgies died in his home, surrounded by Playboy bunnies, admirers and relatives. Just two weeks later, a movement came to light that would revolutionize feminism and our views on actresses and models: MeToo. For Hefner it was too late to experience it. But as his third and last wife, 60 years his junior, notes, he “missed it just in time.”
Crystal Hefner, now 37, has spent a lot of time on reflection and therapy. Hefner’s widow has granted several interviews (to US Weekly, the New York Post and the British newspaper Daily Mail) where she described how she has lived these six years without her husband and previewed part of her memoir, which will be released in January and will be titled Only Say Good Things, because that’s what Hefner asked his wife to do after his death. And although she recognizes that she was “so ‘Team Hef’,” she can no longer just keep talking about the good stuff. Because there was a lot of bad too, she explains. So much so that if she achieves her PhD in psychology, she has vowed to drop the Hefner surname and return to her maiden name: she will be Dr. Crystal Harris. “If I get that, it’s over. Bye.”
Rather than from resentment — she acknowledges that she had happy moments during her time with the mogul, who also left her in a comfortable financial situation — Crystal Hefner speaks from introspection, after six years of “deprogramming,” she says. Years in which she realized that her breast implants were too big and she had them removed. “That chest was too big. I looked like a blow-up sex doll from China. My implants were just props, they felt like I was wearing a costume.” She also confessed that she hated having to dye her hair blonde, that she did not like to wear heels or racy clothes (the only thing she keeps from those days is her bunny costume) and that she was, literally, locked up.
Her husband did not allow her to leave the house. She was never able to travel, not even to go to the beach or Disneyland, as she longed to do. At the Los Angeles mansion, there was a six o’clock curfew. For dinner: chicken soup and cheese spread. Afterwards, either a classic movie session or an orgy. “It was embarrassing,” she told the Daily Mail. “I don’t know the most people there’d been in our bedroom at one time but a lot. Pretty bad. We were like, ‘Oh, now it’s your turn.’ Nobody really wanted to be there but I think in Hef’s mind, he still thought he was in his 40s, and those nights, the people, the mansion, solidified that idea. He felt, ‘I’ve still got it.’” On Sundays there were always orgies, with up to 200 women in the mansion, where its owner took Viagra pills one after the other, so much so that he became deaf in one ear: “Hef always said he’d rather be deaf and still able to have sex. Weird.”
The couple met when she was just 21 and was invited to a Halloween party at the famous house. Born in Arizona, Crystal moved with her parents to Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, when she was very young, where they lived in a house above the family pub. Her father was a singer, and did opening acts for a few stars of the time, but he died when she was 12 years old, leaving her and her mother in a precarious situation. She studied psychology in San Diego, California, and, when she managed to get into that party, she found something to talk about with Hefner: he had studied for the same degree 40 years before she was born. That night they were lovers, a moment she remembers as “nothing remarkable.” They married on New Year’s Eve 2012, when she was 26 and he was 86, after signing a prenuptial contract. They were going to do it six months earlier, but she had backed out five days before the wedding.
When Crystal entered the Playboy Mansion, she was dazzled. And she moved in right away. She dropped her studies and focused her life on Hugh Hefner. The age difference fascinated everyone. “Everyone had questions. Mostly anatomical,” she says today with a certain sarcasm. Although “the hardest part of trying to have a relationship with Hef was that it was judged so much. Rightfully so.” She dedicated herself to taking care of him, especially at the end of his life, and cultivated a cordial relationship with Hefner’s four children, born from two previous marriages. Among all of them, they have shared a legacy estimated at around €40 million.
Hef, as she calls him, gave her a sense of belonging after coming from a broken family. “You depend on the kindness of others and you make yourself small to try to fit in. You have no power. Then I met Hef. He lived how the other half lives. You feel, ‘Wow, I could belong here too.’ At first, the Playboy Mansion felt like a sanctuary. It wasn’t. But then you either abide by it or you leave, and I didn’t feel like I had anywhere else to go or that I could make anything of myself.” That’s why she moved there with the twins Karissa and Kristina Shannon, 18, also chosen by Hefner to be a part of his tribe, a choice that was “devastating for us girls, but a game to him,” according to the mogul’s widow, who notes that it was easy to find replacements for the young women and that, being always on guard, it was difficult to cultivate friendships. “I’m learning what female friendship even means — learning what it’s like to have female friends that truly want the best for you that you could actually trust. It was a hard cutthroat environment for so long.”
It is common to see Hefner in the final photos of his life with the three young blondes, his wife and the even younger Shannon twins. In a documentary released a year ago, Karissa accused the tycoon of rape and confessed to having an abortion after becoming pregnant at the age of 19. Crystal has explained that, in a search of the house, she found photographs of many naked women, and that she decided to destroy them. It’s what she would have wanted them to do with her own images, she maintains. She also admitted to “arrested development” between the ages of 21 and 31 due to living inside that bubble. She was rewarded for being dependent and for many strange and competitive things. Now she says she is learning what it’s like to be a normal person and to go out on dates. But she realizes the reasons that led her to live that way at that stage of her life. And when the end was approaching, she felt the need to take care of Hefner, although now she sees that theirs was not a healthy relationship.
After Hefner’s death, his widow came to speak of him as “an American hero.” “He changed my life, he saved my life. He made me feel loved every day,” she said after burying him in a grave next to Marilyn Monroe, a niche that the businessman had bought 40 years ago. Today, she does not feel quite the same way. “All I can say is that if you come from a happy, perfect, loving childhood, you don’t usually end up with someone who was already 60 years old by the time you are born,” she said in her interviews. “‘The other day I found a picture of me with him at the very beginning. It’s just so sad. It [she means the image of herself] looks like a baby. I look back and I feel sorry for that girl. There was going to be this Wizard of Oz moment where the fantasy fades, you draw back the curtain and see the reality of it. But he who has the money makes the rules, right?’”
“Looking back, I think I had a kind of Stockholm syndrome,” she says. “There was part of me that always thought if this was real love, there wouldn’t be other women in the bedroom. I reconciled myself to it by trying to believe that Hef loved me as best he knew how.” She explains now that she is living an independent life thanks to the money the magnate left her, but also thanks to an intense activity on social media (she has more than three million followers on Instagram, which gets her paid collaborations) and her work as an ambassador for a digital club and as president of Hefner’s foundation, which defends freedom of expression and whose legacy she manages. But she admits that it is difficult for her to maintain romantic relationships, and that she is always receiving offers to meet older men.
Crystal kept the promise about only saying good things for five years. “After going through a lot of therapy and healing, I realized that I needed to be honest about my time there. The book is about healing from a toxic environment,” she told the NY Post. In her interviews she describes her husband as “a narcissist and a misogynist… he was a very complicated human. But he also did a lot of good. He helped a lot of people and helped stand up for things. At the same time, he also hurt people in ways that he didn’t realize,” she says. Harris, who now lives in Hawaii, has already visited 37 countries, has a podcast about to be released, has gone on dates with different men, has frozen her eggs to be a mother at a future date, and still loves British Cadbury chocolate more than anything in the world.
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