Izabella St. James was 26 and still in law school when she was invited to be one of Hugh Hefner’s seven girlfriends – and she happily hopped into the role.
The pipe-smoking, robe-wearing founder of Playboy magazine died in 2017 at age 91. In 2022, the magazine mogul became the subject of a 10-part docuseries on A&E titled "Secrets of Playboy," which aimed to explore the brand’s founder and his complicated legacy.
The series is back for an eight-episode second season, which promises to explore how the lives of several models were impacted after they became associated with Playboy. It features new interviews with former Playmates and girlfriends.
St. James, 47, told Fox News Digital she was initially hesitant to talk about "my ex-boyfriend from 20 years ago," even declining to appear in the first season. But this time, she wanted to offer a different perspective on what life was really like at the Playboy Mansion.
"I thought his whole world was just fascinating," she said. "I’m an immigrant kid. I was born in Poland. I grew up in Canada. I lived in a completely different bubble. And here was this person who created his own reality. He created his own world, his own fantasy where he set his own rules. And I wanted to learn more."
When St. James wasn’t studying, she would frequent LA nightclubs on the weekends. That’s where she was picked up by the 75-year-old who surrounded himself with blonde bombshells.
"My friend from law school, who I was with, wanted to meet him so badly," she recalled. "It was her dream to write for Playboy... She approached him and said hello. He then invited us over to the mansion the following weekend."
"My initial impression of Hugh Hefner was that of a perfect gentleman," she shared. "He was very gracious. He was very kind, polite and treated me like a lady. He invited us for games and drinks. There was a buffet dinner and a movie that was currently in theaters being played."
St. James began spending more time with Hefner at the mansion. She claimed that Hefner asked her to be one of his girlfriends, but she turned him down several times because "I had homework."
"One time I couldn’t go out because my computer broke down, and I was having a full meltdown," she said. "It’s a nightmare when you’re a broke student in law school, you have a paper due and your laptop suddenly crashes. But he had his secretary buy me a new laptop."
In 2002, after law school, St. James officially became one of Hefner’s girlfriends. She then moved into the mansion. According to St. James, she never posed for the magazine and was never a Playmate.
As for having a much older beau who also happened to be famous, it was "bizarre."
"I’m not going to pretend or lie – it was very weird to be part of a group of seven girlfriends dating the same guy," she said. "But people have to understand it’s not your stereotypical, orthodox relationship. He had one main girlfriend who shared his bedroom. The rest of us had our own bedrooms. We were able to do whatever we wanted throughout the day. A couple of nights a week, we would go out to nightclubs. And then a couple of nights a week, we would have the opportunity to be intimate with him if we wanted to."
"He never came into my room by himself," she continued. "He never slept in my room. He never slept in my bed. I never slept with Hef, like actual sleeping. It was a very casual relationship. It was like being part of the Playboy empire, the Playboy machine. It’s not the typical emotional or physical connection that you would have in a relationship. And with seven girlfriends, the contact was really minimal."
There were some strict ground rules.
"We had to be home by 9 p.m., so we had a curfew," she shared. "Hef didn’t want girls to go out and party without him. I suppose he didn’t want us to have the opportunity to be unfaithful, which leads to the second rule. You don’t cheat on Hef. He’s your boyfriend regardless of the level of intimacy. He took that very seriously. You had to be respectful. There was no mingling with the staff. You weren’t supposed to be hanging out with the butlers."
But there were pros to being part of Hefner’s harem. The women frequently jetted off to exotic destinations and partied with Hollywood’s top stars. They were also given a weekly allowance of $1,000 in cash, as well as offered a new car, free dental and medical, and nearly all the clothes, makeup, and cosmetic surgery they desired, The Telegraph reported. According to the outlet, Hefner reportedly shelled out $70,000 a year on breast implants. You could also order any food or drink you desired – even though you weren’t allowed into the kitchen.
St. James claimed parties at the mansion were surprisingly tame. Hefner, she said, preferred playing cards with his pals or watching classic films. She and the other girls managed to get him to visit the grotto, "a dream of the past," once. He kept his nightclub appearances brief, enough for photo ops, and he preferred eating his usual lamb chops in bed.
"It was honestly a tremendous experience rubbing elbows with people you otherwise wouldn’t meet," she said. "And in a sense, sharing the boyfriend lessens the burden. If I didn’t want to watch an old film with Hef, someone else would. If I didn’t want to go somewhere, another girl could. You’re sharing the duties. It’s like when you have siblings and your parents age, and you guys take turns taking care of mom and dad. It was nice to share the responsibilities."
"I was there for a good time – not a long time," she added.
But blondes don’t always have fun. St. James claimed that "pettiness and drama" plagued girls as they competed over nose jobs and extra attention from their man.
And there was one girlfriend St. James alleged was "cutthroat" in her quest to be on top.
"[Holly Madison] kept reiterating how much she wanted to be the only one," St. James alleged. "It was hard to date somebody in what was supposed to be a fun group atmosphere when one girl made it known every single day that she wants you gone."
St. James alleged that, other than Madison, "nobody wanted to be the number one girlfriend."
"Nobody wanted to sit in his room and watch old movies every night, sometimes two or three in a row," she alleged. "We wanted to have our own freedom. We were young girls in our 20s. We had money to spend. We would go to salons, go shopping, goof around. No one wanted to always be by his side because we didn’t always share the same interests as him. We didn’t have that same love for ‘40s and ‘50s films. We enjoyed some of them, yes. But that was part of being his number one."
"Also, if you were sleeping in his bed every night, there was a more sexual, intimate connection," St. James claimed. "We only had the opportunity to be in his bedroom twice a week. And it was never a requirement. Was he hopeful? I mean, sure, he was a man… But no one was required or obligated. It was all voluntary. If you chose to sleep with Hef, that was your own choice."
"I think Holly’s goal was to be Mrs. Hugh Hefner," St. James alleged. "She would get jealous if he would give attention to new girls who came to test or become Playmates. She felt threatened. But honestly, no one was vying for that position."
St. James said she left the mansion in 2004. Her best friend, one of Hefner’s other girlfriends, was kicked out after a fallout. St. James said she realized her time "ran its course." Other girlfriends soon followed. The remaining three went on to star in the reality TV show "The Girls Next Door."
"I wasn’t there to marry Hef or spend the rest of my life at the mansion," she said. "I craved a change… And I guess Holly got what she wanted."
A spokesperson for Madison, 43, didn’t immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment. Madison previously appeared in Season 1 of "Secrets of Playboy."
Today, St. James is the CEO of a nonprofit dedicated to pug rescues. She previously published a tell-all in 2006 titled "Bunny Tales."
"You know, Hugh Hefner was a very complex man," she reflected. "He was a genius in many ways… He created his own empire. A lot has been said about him, but he was always a gracious gentleman to me. Thousands of people came through those doors at the Playboy mansion. It’s up to people to hear all the stories and make up their minds."
"People focus on the sex too much," she shared. "But how many times in life do you get to live carefree, not worrying about finances – simply enjoying the day-to-day and looking forward to the next adventure? I’m grateful I got to experience that life because I don’t think it’s ever going to be repeated."