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Former Reality TV Star and Playboy Mansion Resident Holly Madison On Fame and Reinvention

Written By: Nick Cimarusti Holly Madison
Photographed By: Bradley Blackburn

A public persona is not easy to change, especially when that persona is attached to a 63-year-old brand founded on sex appeal. Just ask Holly Madison.

“We consume so much over-sexualized content, everything from pop music to crazy internet porn, ” says Madison. “But in real life, you use it as an excuse to shame other people and feel better than other people.”

As both a New York Times bestselling author and former costar of the E! reality television series The Girls Next Door, Madison is no stranger to how the entertainment industry works. But after seven years living and working in the Playboy Mansion, Madison left in 2008 and never looked back. She became a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, moved to Las Vegas and headlined Peepshow, a burlesque show at Planet Hollywood, plus she starred in her own reality TV series, Holly’s World.

Now, Madison is in charge of her own career. She’s written a No. 1 New York Times bestselling memoir, Down the Rabbit Hole, and will release her second book, The Vegas Diaries, this month. And in 2013 she married Pasquale Rotella, with whom she has a daughter, Rainbow, and is expecting another child this summer. The Vegas Diaries will continue Madison’s retelling of her own story. “It was really hard to shake the ideas that people had about me just based on the TV show, ” says Madison. “I really had to confront my past and just get real about it, even if people weren’t going to like what I had to say about it.”

Her first book detailed life within the Playboy Mansion and the beginnings of her transition from reality star to post-Playboy life. Madison says it’s not easy escaping the assumptions people make based on what they see on TV or read from clickbait articles. “Obviously the exposure brings you opportunities in some ways, but if it’s not the right kind of exposure it can kind of brand you in the wrong way, ” she says. “And I could never be that girl fresh off the bus from Oregon who could be somebody’s discovery again.”

Personal branding is key for anyone looking to reinvent their image and today, many celebrities rely on social media to construct their public identity. But Madison isn’t one of them. “I don’t know if I’ve outgrown it or if I feel like it’s become too manufactured, but I’m just not as into it, ” Madison says. “I’m so sick of Instagram right now—I feel like I don’t have a lot of followers because I’m not constantly posting tits and ass, but that’s not who I am or what I want to market anymore.”

Rather than social media, Madison has used writing to change how the public perceives her. Down the Rabbit Hole was a way for Madison to finally take control of her very public narrative, especially as she began to move on from her Playboy persona. “It kind of scared a lot of people away and made them think I wasn’t a good person or that I’d been involved in a world that was too sexy, and they couldn’t touch me, ” Madison says. “I just wanted to be known for doing my own thing and being a single woman and being a businesswoman.”

The release of her first book, Madison says, has been the most rewarding yet also the most difficult aspect of her career so far. She says hearing positive feedback from readers who can relate to her experiences is extremely gratifying and reinforces how proud she is to have told her own side of the story. On the other hand, Madison also has to deal with negative attention, which she says often comes from people who haven’t actually read the book. “They were just reacting to the tabloid headlines and the blogs’ clickbait headlines, ” says Madison. “But when you get that sort of press it makes the book sell, so it’s a double edged sword.”

If Down the Rabbit Hole was about setting the record straight against countless tabloid headlines, then The Vegas Diaries is more about Madison’s reinvention. She describes it as a journey toward self-sufficiency, having spent most her 20s living in the Playboy Mansion. “We all reach a point in our adult lives when we need to go out there and figure out who we are, and for me that came later in life, ” Madison says. “I hadn’t really grown up or learned who I was or what I really wanted to do in life, independent of being with someone and living their life.”

Even when she first started Dancing with the Stars, Madison says producers wanted her to capitalize on her Playboy relationships, rather than introduce herself with her own accomplishments. This was when she realized she couldn’t rely on nostalgia to further her career, even if this was hard to do in the beginning. “When you’re leaving everything you know and starting over, you can tend to hold onto things that are comforting because you have so much change elsewhere in your life, ” Madison says. For a while, she says she couldn’t even bring herself to darken her signature platinum blond hair. “Looking back, I probably could have toned down my hair a little bit and not wear cleavage dresses every time I went out on a red carpet, but at the time I was still clinging to a lot of things that were familiar to me.”

Aside from appearances, Madison writes in her books about realizing how self-esteem also played a factor in her choices and the way she navigated her career. “I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m so lucky to have even this crumb of an opportunity, that I don’t really have to demand to be paid for it, ’” Madison says. “Even though that’s what’s fair and everybody else would have been paid for it.” Under the strict rules of living and working at the Playboy Mansion, Madison lost her sense of self. But The Vegas Diaries chronicles Madison’s first three years after leaving the Playboy mansion and how she began to grow into a more independent person.

“This is my story about how I reinvented myself and started over, ” Madison says. “If I were to give somebody advice on reinventing themselves, I would say do a complete 180 because it’s really hard to get people to change their opinion of you.”

Don’t mistake her self-reflection for regret, however, because Madison acknowledges all of her experiences have been opportunities to learn and grow, both personally and professionally. She says she’s not at all embarrassed about the choices she’s made and with a little hindsight she understands why she made them. Madison says writing her books has also given her the tools to explain her career to her children when they’re older and inevitably have questions. “Honestly, I avoided a lot of landmines that a lot of people in similar situations haven’t avoided—like, knock on wood, I don’t have a sex tape, ” Madison says with a laugh. “People can try to look down on me all they want, but I’m comfortable with the life I live and that’s that.”

Being a Playboy Bunny allowed Holly Madison to become a household name, but her fame is also the product of a male-focused business. That’s why she says it’s difficult to pinpoint just one issue as the most challenging for a woman in her industry. “There’s no answer I could give that wouldn’t just be the tip of a huge iceberg.”

One thing Madison definitely doesn’t want to hear, however, is that her memoirs are chick lit. “It implies that women can only be interested in these really frivolous stories, ” she says. “If a man were to write about his day-to-day life, and it was contemporary and it wasn’t super serious, just his reflections of what he learned, it wouldn’t be categorized as the kind of fluff that women’s memoirs get put into.” As a female writer in the entertainment industry, Madison says this marginalization is one of her biggest fears. But with the immense success of her first book and future writing and production projects in development, the public is listening.

Even today, Madison still faces people who try to use her past against her, but her attitude now is different. Right now, Madison says her top priority is balancing a growing career with motherhood. “When you have kids you realize, ‘Would I want my daughter doing that?’ No, I want her to stand up for herself, ” Madison says. “As far as sticking up for myself and letting myself be represented the way I want to be represented, that’s just something I’ve learned over time.”

Holly Madison’s top picks for summer beach reading:
The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer
Me Before You, Jojo Moyes
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
American Girls, Nancy Jo Sales
Orange Is the New Black, Piper Kerman

Powerful Reads:

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
1984, George Orwell
Ordeal, Linda Lovelace

Silly Rabbit: Holly Madison’s favorite animals are ferrets, because they’re so playful and loving. She has four: Sid, Nancy, Frosty and Mystery.

The Dating Game: Originally, The Vegas Diaries was meant to focus on dating. Holly Madison’s top two dating tips? “Be yourself and don’t send nudes!”

All right, no bunny move.