Reviewed by Laura Marriott
“I always thought it would be classy to not kiss and tell … but after a while you just get sick of having other people trying to tell your story for you.”
This is how Madison addresses at the beginning of her autobiography what is probably the first thought everyone has when a celebrity announces they are going to sell their story. Why and why now? The memoir caused a sensation when first released in America and the discussion around it doesn’t seem likely to dim as she takes the reader behind the scenes of the once mysterious Playboy Mansion and the man who reigns over it: her former boyfriend, octogenarian pornographer Hugh Hefner.
Madison grew up in small town Oregon before trying her luck in LA. Waitressing and studying at college she found herself in difficult financial circumstances when an opportunity presented itself to live at the Playboy Mansion. This would involve becoming one of Hefner’s girlfriends. At first she was one of seven. By the time the top rated behind the scenes reality TV show Girls of the Playboy mansion went to air she was now the number one of three girlfriends, alongside Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson. The show was a hit, introducing Madison to a wide audience. When she finally left the mansion after seven years she found she was still only known for her association to Playboy, almost tainted by it. She went on to star in her own E! reality show Holly’s World which followed Madison as she began her new life. After leaving the Mansion she embarked on an ill-fated love affair with illusionist Criss Angel, before becoming a hit on Dancing With the Stars. Then her chance to find success independently came along as she headlined the popular Las Vegas burlesque show Peepshow, at Planet Hollywood to great acclaim. All of this is covered in depth in the memoir.
In Girls of the Playboy Mansion Madison was widely perceived to be in love with Hefner, with hopes of marriage and children. In the end however they broke up. Madison discusses this in her book, answering the question of whether she was really in love and what it was like in practice to be one of several girlfriends to the ageing lothario. On this point her account differs somewhat to the programme. Whether this is down to clever video editing or Madison is trying to reclaim and retell her story one cannot be sure.
This candid and detailed memoir goes much further than Girls of the Playboy Mansion ever did. Through living at the Mansion Madison quickly lost her sense of identity, connections to the outside world, self-worth and hope for her future which resulted in some very dark lows. At her darkest she considered ending it all. “Maybe it was the pot and the alcohol, but drowning myself seemed like the logical way to escape the ridiculous life I was leading.” The double edged sword that is fame and the life she chose is explored with clarity. In the end she takes charge of her life and digs her own way out of the rabbit hole, creating her own happy ending.
Those looking for gossip and behind the scene anecdotes to life and the Playboy Mansion and her relationships with the other girls will find that aplenty. Depictions of the happenings in his bedroom are detailed and enlightening. Her portrayal of Hefner differs significantly from the image of himself that he presents to the media; coming across as old fashioned, manipulative and jealous. She also delves into her relationship with the other girls of the Mansion. First the many other girlfriends she was in competition with and finally the two who became with Madison Hefner’s main girlfriends: Marquardt and Wilkinson. Rumoured tension between Madison and Wilkinson is addressed in an impersonal, short and matter of fact manner near the end of the book.
If the Playboy Mansion seemed bizarre before Madison’s account is only going to enhance this idea. She discusses the dated décor, the hierarchy that existed between the different girlfriends, the 9pm curfew and the undignified lining up to be given their allowance and hear any complaints against them. Those living at the Mansion had to follow a strict code of conduct. The stories of sex, drugs, abuse and rivalry are both shocking and surprising.
Cleverly Madison avoids the pitfall that many autobiographies fall into and only gives a short amount of space to her early life, aware that what the reader is looking for comes later. Madison treads the fine line between telling her story and descending into scandalous point scoring largely successfully. She is a capable writer (no ghost writer is credited) and the chapters skip along. It is very easy to find you have started the book and next thing you know you are a hundred pages in. Madison comes across very well, as an intelligent, hardworking and friendly individual. Although many will have difficulty with the life path she chose for herself Down the Rabbit Hole sounds more like a cautionary tale than a how to guide. She does not encourage others to follow in her footsteps but instead re-examines her life as she takes charge and rediscovers herself. Down the Rabbit Hole is a juicy and unpredictable memoir that has much to offer fans and the curious alike.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.
Holly Madison, Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny (Harper Collins, 2016). 978-0062372109. 334pp., paperback.