Saturday, September 19, 2020

Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny by Holly Madison

I actually received an ARC of this when it first came out five years ago and I remember really liking it. When it showed up for free on Kindle Unlimited, I thought it might be fun to do a reread. I've been feeling pretty low and sometimes it's nice to just kick up your feet and read something that's all drama, all the time. And it really doesn't get much more dramatic than having one of Hugh Hefner's ex-girlfriends regale you, the reader, about what it was like to live inside his harem.*

*Allegedly-- I remember my professor teaching me in journalism that we're all the heroes of our own stories, and everyone tries to spin events to make themselves look better, which is part of what makes objective journalism so difficult. Even the journalist has Thoughts. Luckily, I'm not a journalist, and this is a memoir.

In DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, Holly paints herself as a small town girl with big, glittering dreams. In the early 2000s, when party and tabloid culture was at its nexus, it makes sense why a girl with aspirations of Hollywood glamor would go for the Playboy lifestyle. I don't know if any of you were teenagers in the 2000s, but back then, it seems like you couldn't go into any store without seeing baby doll t-shirts with things like "Little Devil," or "I don't play well with others," and a lot of stores carried cheaply made facsimiles of the Playboy bunny necklaces. Several of our cheerleaders and dance squad troupe members wore them. I think Holly captures the zeitgeist (she actually uses that word, zeitgeist) of that time really well, and how many people fell prey to the honeyed trap of cheap, Hollywood glam. She constantly complains about how people only saw her as a bimbo, and in the beginning of the book she says that a lot of girls had to look and dress as if they were stupid because that was what society (e.g. cisgendered white dudes) had decided what was attractive, and while you could argue that she knew what she was getting into when she posed for that first semi-nude photoshoot, I think it's also important to point out that when cisgendered white men dictate the rules of the game, it's cruel and slightly unfair to select out the players for the lion's share of the blame.

Life inside the Playboy Mansion is... well, I was shocked then and I was shocked now. Hef just comes across as an emotionally manipulative sleaze, pitting his girls against each other to watch them fight, and referring to the Quaaludes he offers the girls as "thigh-openers." Like Donald Trump, he comes across as a poor man's idea of rich, and I guffawed when I found out that, according to Holly, he didn't actually own the mansion but payed rent on the rooms in use (upwards of $5000 per room in use), and that the bunny necklaces he gave the girls weren't even real diamonds but cubic zirconia. I wasn't laughing at his overt attempts to control and possess the women who ended up being his girlfriends, though, and even though they were trained to hem and haw about what really went on in the bedroom, apparently it was basically a group orgy that nobody was really into but him. He also apparently goaded them on in private to fight so he could play the good guy in public, and tried to control them with money. When Holly finally tried to leave, he left a copy of his will on her bed for her to read that said that he'd live her three million dollars when he died but only if she was living in the Mansion.

Her post-Hef life was also pretty dramatic. Her eventual falling out with Kendra made me sad (although I do wonder if Holly is really as blameless as she comes across here-- she mostly tries to be nice, but those "Southern girl" type insults (you know the ones, the "bless her heart, but" kinds) keep slipping out, and at one point she feels free to "correct" Kendra on something she said in her own memoir. So now I really want to read SLIDING INTO HOME because it would be interesting to see her perspective on things. Criss Angel comes across as an abusive creep in this book. Apparently he also took back all the jewellery he gave her too when they broke up, which is tacky. I liked how she got into burlesque stage shows, and how much she obviously enjoyed being on her own reality TV show once she was free of all the hot mess of her past. Reality TV is just another one of those things I just don't understand, and it was interesting to hear from one of the-- well, actors-- just how faked some of those scenes could be. There are definitely a lot of humble-brags. You'll get to hear about Holly's 2 hour delivery when giving birth to her child and how much she "enjoyed" it. Also, her breasts were insured, at one point, for one million dollars. But also, she's just like any other girl, she could be your bestest, nicest friend.

I actually did like Holly-- at least, I liked the version of herself she painted here. I never hear anything about her anymore either, which probably means she is nice. Hollywood gossip rags and YouTube commentators fall over themselves trashing people who are actual jerks. I'll never forget the Criss Angel sketch Mad TV put out, making fun of Mindfreak. And god, at this point, making fun of the Paul brothers is practically an Olympic sport for aspiring YouTube comedians. So, I'm like 95% convinced that Holly is as genuine IRL that she appears here, and I like the way she tells her story. Her frustration at being portrayed as dumb is pretty obvious, and I think it's equally obvious that she is not dumb at all, and felt taken advantage of and ill-shaped by her experiences as a vulnerable twenty-something who ended up in a situation that seemed to be way, way more than she bargained for.

Honestly, I'm kind of surprised that DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE has such ratings on Goodreads. It's a pretty quick read and a compelling story. It really shines a bright light on the dark side of reality TV, famous-for-being-famous D-listers, and party culture, while also serving as a cautionary tale about how sometimes the things we think we want can actually be the last things we need. I guess a lot of people were probably really turned off (literally and figuratively) by the sex and the sleaze, and maybe some of them figured Holly was a hypocrite for seeking this sort of lifestyle out and then turning around and writing a tell-all about it, and I'm slightly less sympathetic with those reviewers because I do think that situations can easily get out of someone's control, even if they consented first without knowing all the facts, and that people with a lot of money and power can make things very difficult for those who have neither (especially if, like Holly, they are poor and on the verge of being homeless).

So I liked this book. I'm taking it with a grain of salt, but I liked it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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