E! Series Offers Sneak Peek at Hef

Things are not what they seem to be at the Playboy Mansion.

The blonde sidling up for a pat turns out to be Archie, a male mutt living the good life at Hugh Hefner's (search) estate.

A bubbly woman clad in a T-shirt (tight), shorts (very short) and heels (very, very high) is an official G.O.F. — Girlfriend of Hef — but also holds two college degrees.

Hefner, who founded an empire on the allure of an unavailable nude making eye contact from a magazine page, says he's a misunderstood romantic who created a world befitting his own comfortably elastic definition of the term.

This world is on view in "The Girls Next Door" (search) (which premiered Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday on E!), an eight-part series from executive producer Kevin Burns that promises to introduce viewers to "the secret side of an American legend."

On the brink of 80, Hefner is an elder statesman — a veritable Yoda of the sexual revolution. He even looks the part, a slight, oddly endearing figure who offers a gentle handshake and polite conversation with the ring of repetition, testimony to a road-tested personal philosophy that forms the basis of an enduring corporate brand.

"The major message in my life is there isn't one way to live your life, and we should not be judging if they're living it a little differently next door — many roads to Mecca," he told The Associated Press.

"I think, in my own way, I've tried to break down the boundaries related to sexuality, related to age, related to gender."

In doing so, he argues, he and his 51-year-old magazine have become a gauge of America's awkward back-and-forth dance with sexual freedom while hobbled by Puritan roots.

"At the very beginning, I said my life and Playboy are a Rorschach test. It's a culmination of the dreams and fantasies and prejudices you bring to the table," Hefner said.

Inclined toward candor, Hefner opened the door to his life a bit wider to promote this new reality TV series. During an afternoon interview in the mansion's library he's dressed in his trademark uniform of silk pajamas and robe, his gray hair neatly combed.

No dyed coiffure for this swinger, the "luckiest cat on the planet," as he unselfconsciously labels himself. A team of young and attractive girlfriends, whose combined ages almost reach Hefner's, provide all the proof of vigor a man could want.

Those eager to adopt his approach may find an instruction manual of sorts in the show that peeks into Hefner's life and the playboy-perfect love quadrangle he forms with his three live-in loves.

Hefner, at least in a preview copy of the first episode, makes only cameo appearances. We see much more (although not too much, for any Puritans out there) of his squeezes.

They are Holly Madison, 25, who pronounces herself "Hef's No. 1 girlfriend" and treats the role as her job; well-educated Bridget Marquardt, 31, who is working on a second master's in broadcast journalism; and Kendra Wilkinson, 20, dedicated to sports and mastering massage therapy.

While the show includes mildly salacious shots of bosomy women on trampolines and hula-hooping — which feel tacked on, either so viewers don't feel cheated or might have forgotten that Playboy and cleavage go together — the debut half-hour turns out to be tame.

The camera travels past Hefner's bedroom door but avoids showing any hanky-panky. The most passion involves a couple of quick pecks on the lips and, at one point, Madison tucked into Hefner's bed and looking glum when a perky Wilkinson intrudes to get a movie video.

More than anything, the program is a bittersweet take on how one man's dream might be an imperfect fantasy for his women.

"I think there are two main adjectives people think when they see us: bimbo and slut," Marquardt says, with a fixed smile and giggle.

While all the women profess to enjoy their female camaraderie, Madison lays out the hard truth (and if she's playacting for reality's sake, she does a good job).

"Do I like him having other girlfriends? No," she said. "I know I'm his No. 1 girlfriend but I think he needs to get rid of the extra girls."

The extras, however, seem intent on maintaining the status quo.

"Kendra and I are just icing on the cake," Marquardt said, adding: "I can't turn this down and go back to Lodi," a reference to her small California hometown.

"I love him. He loves me," Wilkinson firmly declares.

While "love" is a word that rarely slips from Hefner's lips, at least on camera, he insists he is deeply romantic, the result of growing up with the glossy music and Hollywood love stories of the 1930s. Those who simply tally his exploits are missing the point, he said.

"What gets the publicity is the number of relationships I've had over the years... but the remarkable thing is I am still close to almost all of them," he said. "To live a life with a family of friends and share all that is very special."

The series comes as Playboy Enterprises takes advantage of global markets and new technology, including online services, wireless and video on demand. Daughter Christie Hefner is in charge as chairman and CEO, while Hefner has the title of editor-in-chief.

He proudly notes that new versions of the once-flourishing Playboy clubs are due, with one planned in Las Vegas and one in China under licensing agreements. There's also the international popularity of Playboy merchandise carrying the famed bunny logo.

Maybe a change in perception is helping, with the cheesecake shots once denounced as female exploitation recast, at least by some, as female sexual empowerment.

Besides, Hefner says, conservative times such as these beget sexual rebellion.

He's on a personal high, too, after coming through a 1985 stroke and separating from wife Kimberly Conrad Hefner (the couple has two sons) in 1998. Against all logic, he said, life is better than ever.

"The marriage lasted 8 1/2 years and I was faithful to it the entire time. I came out of it emotionally beat up and bruised to find that a whole generation had grown up and was waiting for me to come out and play."