These days, it seems like every former television star has a podcast that recaps their glory days on a hit show. The genre already feels played out, with each announcement of a new rewatch podcast looking like a shameless money grab or a desperate attempt for the actors to worm their way back into the zeitgeist.
Usually, listening to one of these rewatch podcasts—like Welcome to the OC, Bitches!, Pod Meets World; and even the most successful example of the form, Office Ladies—doesn’t accomplish what should be the bare-minimum goal of one of these endeavors: inspiring me to revisit one of my favorite bygone TV series. Instead, the podcasts make me feel depressed that the actors are clinging to the past, their one-hit-wonder status on full display. That is, until I turned on Girls Next Level.
In Girls Next Level, Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt relive their time on the E! reality series The Girls Next Door, as well as their exciting, fun, trying, and traumatic experiences as Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends.
In case you don’t remember—though how could you forget?—The Girls Next Door ran from 2005 to 2010 and followed the lives of Hefner’s girlfriends inside the Playboy mansion. Madison, Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson were at the center of the series’ first five seasons, but after the three ended their relationships with the Playboy founder and moved out of the mansion, the show pivoted to focus on Crystal Harris and twins Kristina and Karissa Shannon, Hef’s new girlfriends, in its final season.
Though all reality shows, by their very nature, offer a certain level of voyeurism, The Girls Next Door had an extra layer of enticing scandalousness given that it was all about multiple women dating the octogenarian responsible for the most iconic pornographic magazines in history. Viewers were invited inside the grounds of a mansion, which was known by many for its exclusive parties, where inhibitions were checked at the door.
Despite the inherent salaciousness of the show’s subject matter, however, it also managed to be sweet. As a tween viewer who secretly checked to see if the show was on any time my parents left me at home alone, I naively believed Holly and Hef actually had deep love for one another, and even somehow convinced myself that “girlfriend” was just a symbolic title the 80-year-old bestowed upon women he really cared about.
In my mind, there was absolutely no non-consensual sex happening in that mansion—to be honest, as a middle schooler, I’m not sure I was even familiar with the concept of consent. Having since read Madison’s memoir Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny and watched the recent A&E docuseries Secrets of Playboy—and simply having grown up—I now know the picture painted by the show was an incomplete one.
While The Girls Next Door teased access to the Playboy mansion and the real life of Hefner and his girlfriends, in the years since many fans have come to see that the series only led to more unanswered questions about what that world was really like. In Girls Next Level, Madison and Marquardt finally give answers.
In the first five episodes, the co-hosts and real-life friends share vital context about how they first became interested in Playboy as young women, how they were made official girlfriends—spoiler alert! it does involve sex with Hefner—and how they moved into the mansion. Instead of jumping in with the pilot, like many rewatch podcasts do, Madison and Marquardt recognized that the story of The Girls Next Door is way bigger than its 92 episodes. Both women lived at the Playboy mansion for several years before the series began, and according to their telling, much of those early years were very difficult, mainly due to drama among the girlfriends and emotional manipulation from Hefner.
Listening to episode one, you immediately get the sense that both Madison and Marquardt have done an incredible amount of preparation for the podcast. This wasn’t a project that came out of nowhere so that they could get in on the rewatch podcast trend and make some ad money—in fact there isn’t even a single ad in the initial four episodes. At first, I couldn’t believe the extreme level of detail that both women were able to provide about events that had taken place over two decades ago, but it quickly became clear they had spent weeks retracing that period of their lives, which was emotional work.
It turns out that Hefner’s penchant for taking photos of everything and his hoarding tendencies rubbed off on the women. Even back then, they recognized and even appreciated what a unique life they were living. All of that manifested in lots of scrapbooking sessions at the mansion, which provided material to revisit ahead of the podcast. Their thorough accounts satisfy that same morbid curiosity that drew so many of us to The Girls Next Door in the first place. But it also offers much more.
The podcast seems like a mechanism for genuine processing for the hosts. Though Madison and Marquardt often talk about being nervous about venturing into certain topics, there’s very little filler and none of the small talk that is often present in celebrity-hosted podcasts. (Looking at you Busy Philipps, with your three-hour weekly episodes that I still definitely always listen to.) As actual friends of over 20 years, they support one another as they share, even when their perspectives on specific aspects of mansion life differ.
Beyond their association with Hefner, thanks to The Girls Next Door, Madison, Marquardt, and Wilkinson became icons in their own right, with each embracing a specific archetype of the different types of women that existed in the world at that time. Marquardt was the studious and quirky one who loved animals and all things Halloween, while Wilkinson was the tomboy, obsessed with sports and rougher around the edges. Madison was the audience’s way in, a still glamorous but much more serious everywoman.
As a young person watching, I quickly began to identify most with Bridget—though I was probably more of a Holly—but had respect and love for all three stars and their individual personalities and interests. In today’s popular terms, I guess I would say I thought of myself as a Bridget sun, Holly moon, Kendra rising. Listening to Girls Next Level now is like getting to visit old friends.
Marquardt is still bubbly and upbeat, often trying to give figures from their pasts the benefit of the doubt and even defending Hef at times, in the name of fairness. Still, she never invalidates Madison’s more negative views of events.
In Episode 3, “Rules of the House,” the co-hosts go back and forth about what motivated so many women to agree to be girlfriends and move into the mansion. Madison says that everybody was there for some sort of economic advantage, but Marquardt pushes back, insisting that some people, including herself, were there for the experience. At the end of their polite, but deep, discussion, they settle on the fact that Hef’s relationships with his girlfriends were always transactional.
Like all rewatch podcasts, Girls Next Level feeds listeners’ nostalgia. It allows us to revisit early aughts reality TV and the culture of the time: the fun parts, like Juicy Couture tracksuits and blindingly shiny silk dresses, and the ugly parts, like the rampant misogyny that was inflicted on the women of the Playboy mansion by Hefner and even each other. But it hits differently than any other podcast of this kind because what happened on The Girls Next Door and behind the scenes is so much more complicated than your average television series. That’s what makes it so much more worthwhile.