Saturday was a homecoming of sorts for Lodi native Bridget Marquardt.
Sitting in the back seat of a black Lincoln limousine, she stared out the window, as she headed down Highway 12. She passed Flag City and then breathed in the familiar vineyard landscape of her youth. Although she had left Lodi more than three years ago, it was still fresh in her mind.
So, too, was the sting of rejection from Lodi residents, who don't support her or her lifestyle.
Marquardt is one of Hugh Hefner's three girlfriends, who lives in the Playboy Mansion. She has been going out with the 79-year-old Playboy magazine founder for three years. Marquardt and Hefner's other two girlfriends, Holly Madison, 25, and Kendra Wilkinson, 20, currently star in their own reality TV show, "Girls Next Door," on the E! Network. The series premiered last month.
Marquardt had originally planned to visit the Grape Festival on this day. She wanted to bring Madison, Wilkinson and camera crews to Lodi and show off her favorite Lodi event. She has fond memories of attending the Grape Festival as a child, wolfing down Negrette's tacos and icing-laced cinnamon rolls, watching the grape stomp. But when show producers contacted the Grape Festival to get permission to shoot their visit, they were denied.
"We're a very family oriented event," explained fair manager Mark Armstrong, who made the decision. "People will say that we're glamorizing the life of a Playboy girl, who is one of three girlfriends to a man."
Armstrong added: "What's the next step? She wants to come wearing a thong and walk around?"
Marquardt thought it was very rude of the Grape Festival to refuse the offer and made other plans instead. She and the girls would visit Phillips Farms and do a grape stomp there, stop at Wine and Roses and the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center, drive by her alma mater, Lodi High School, present a donation to Lodi Memorial Hospital, do some Halloween shopping at Ooga Booga and finish the tour with drinks at Casablanca and cigars at Stogies.
But the errant thought still remained: Would Lodi embrace her, the girls and the camera crews? Or would she be confronted by angry people, telling her that she wasn't welcome in her own hometown?
The limousine, carrying Marquardt, Madison and Wilkinson, pulled into the parking lot of Phillips Farms just before noon. Marquardt instinctively rolled down the window to put her head out so she could see a crowd inside, her relatives and friends waving through the windows. She waved excitedly back, grinning broadly, revealing a perfect set of whites.
Camera crews stood at the door, filming their arrival.
Bridget Marquardt was born in Lodi on Sept. 25, 1973. As a youngster, she wanted to be in Playboy magazine after sneaking a peek at her father's magazines when she was 5. She thought the models were beautiful and hoped one day to be like them.
Marquardt attended Washington Elementary School in Lodi and Oak View School in Acampo, before moving out to the country in Galt. She attended Galt High School for two years, before transferring and graduating from Lodi High School.
"She was a very spunky teenager," remembered Marquardt's cousin, Melissa Nelson, who is the sales and marketing assistant at Michael-David Vineyards. "She was very pretty, very Valley Girl-ish and always did well in school. I remember her tutoring my mom, when she was taking a math class."
Marquardt attended Delta College and graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with a major in communications.
Following graduation, she tested for Playboy magazine and did well enough to be invited to the Playboy Mansion to take more photos and meet Hefner. But when she was rejected, she opted to further her education. She received her master's degree in communications at the University of the Pacific.
But the Playboy bug had bitten. She began attending parties, dinners and movie nights at the Playboy Mansion and would meet up with Hefner and some of his friends. Six months later, Hefner asked her to move into the Playboy Mansion as his girlfriend.
A camera is inches from Marquardt's face, when she begins greeting over two dozen relatives and friends with hugs. Boom mics hover overhead.
Disposable cameras click and flashbulbs light up the room, as Marquardt poses for pictures.
Clad in a sky blue velour jogging suit, the long-haired, leggy blonde looks every bit the Playboy bunny. A Playboy pendant sparkles around her neck and she carries a pink Playboy brand purse.
"This is Kendra and this is Holly," says Marquardt, with each new greeting. Looking far too blonde and polished to be a typical girl next door, Madison wears a Holby Hills Bunnies team jersey, the briefest of pink shorts and athletic knee socks; Wilkinson, donning large A/X brand sunglasses, wears a Michael-David Vineyards' black Earthquake T-shirt and tight denim shorts. The girls smile enthusiastically, buoyed by the attention.
Marquardt's crowd includes her mother, Judy Case, her sister Anastasia, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and friends from high school. It's a much bigger crowd than she was expecting and she is touched by the outpouring of support.
"There goes the tears. I've got to stop," she says, emotionally. "It's happy tears," she continues, looking up, wiping her black mascara-ed eyes.
Dave Phillips invites the girls to the wine tasting table and begins pouring them a glass each of Sparkling Duet.
"Welcome to Lodi," he says, raising his glass.
"Thank you!" the girls exclaim, grinning mega-watt smiles, while clinking their glasses.
Marquardt takes a sip and savors the flavor.
"I like it," she says.
"Girls Next Door" premiered in August on E! The reality TV show follows the escapades in the Playboy Mansion, focusing on Mansion residents Marquardt, Madison and Wilkinson.
Madison, who has been with Hefner for three-and-a-half years, is considered the Alpha Female of the group and Hefner's No. 1 girlfriend. She first befriended Hefner at the Playboy Mansion's Midsummer Night's Dream party and two days after their first date, Hefner asked her to move into the Mansion. At one point, she was one of seven girlfriends and has seen many girls come and go, but maintains that she would love Hefner all for herself. A native of Alaska, Madison is currently studying real estate and business at Santa Monica College.
Wilkinson, the newest and youngest girlfriend, is also the Sporty Spice of the group. She met Hefner at his 78th birthday party, where she worked as a cocktail waitress, dressed only in body paint. Before their first date, Hefner asked Wilkinson to move in to the Mansion. A native of San Diego and an avid sports enthusiast, she also attends massage therapy school five days a week.
While the show focuses on Hefner's girlfriends, it doesn't touch on their intimate relationship with Hefner. Instead, it captures the lifestyle: The exclusive events they attend, nights out on the town and parties that Hefner throws. In last week's episode, the girls baked cookies and sent care packages to the troops and Marquardt flew to North Carolina to see her brother, Eddie, before he begins his next tour of duty in Iraq.
In a couple of months, Marquardt's trip to Lodi will be aired on an episode or two.
Stompin' good time
After the girls take a walk through the pumpkin patch and finish lunch at Phillips Farms (Marquardt orders a BLT, Madison has the Lodi burger and Wilkinson has a chicken club sandwich), it's time for the grape stomp. Two barrels filled with 7 Deadly Zins grapes are piled high, ready to be crushed.
A crowd forms to watch Madison and Marquardt challenge Wilkinson and Marquardt's sister Anastasia to see who can stomp the most grapes.
"You have two minutes," says Dave Phillips. "Ready, set, go!"
The girls squeal as their bare feet sink into the sticky grape bunches and they begin to stomp.
"Oh my God, it's gross," yells Wilkinson, jumping up and down in the barrel.
"This is my workout for the day," says Madison, hopping from foot to foot in the sludge.
"Mine, too," giggles Marquardt.
When Phillips calls time, the amount of juice is measured and Wilkinson's team is declared the winners.
"You have to drink it," taunts Wilkinson.
"I'll take a sip," offers Madison and drinks from the plastic canister. Then Marquardt tries.
"It's really sweet. It's actually good. I would totally compete again," she says.
"It smells like feet," says Wilkinson, making a face.
"We're actually going to make wine from this," Phillips says.
"Really?" asks Marquardt, before getting her legs sprayed clean with a hose.
"Anyone would eat anything off your toes," yells one guy in the crowd.
While another man turns to his friend and says, "That was worth the wait."
The afternoon continues
After taking a tour at Wine and Roses and wine tasting at the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center, the girls wait in front of Lodi Memorial Hospital for film crews to arrive. They are presenting a tour of the Playboy Mansion as an auction item to raise money for the hospital, before hitting their next stops.
"I'm having fun," said Wilkinson, who had never visited the Lodi area before. "The wine is good."
Wilkinson and Madison had heard so many stories about Lodi from Marquardt and were excited to visit.
The girls attracted a few stares from people heading into the hospital, but no one stopped. Until Marty Pastula.
Would this be the confrontation Marquardt was dreading all day?
He introduced himself briefly, before explaining that he was visiting a friend, an older gentleman with bladder cancer. Would they mind coming up and saying hello to him for a minute? he asked.
There was no sign of the film crews. They would be waiting here a while longer. They said yes.
"This is going to be cool," said Pastula, as they followed him to the second floor of the hospital and then to the room of his friend, Tracy Dawson.
"Hi Tracy, How are you feeling?"
"OK," Dawson replied, wearily.
"I've got some girls here that want to say hello. They're directly from the Playboy Mansion," Pastula said, and the girls walked to his bedside. The room was dimly lit and Dawson, an older gentleman, had tubes up his nose. He was tucked in bed, still groggy from the morphine.
"You're kidding me," Dawson said, focusing his eyes on the three blondes.
"Nice to meet you," said Marquardt. Each girl introduced themselves.
"I hope you feel better," said Wilkinson.
"Thank you," said Dawson, with a smile.
As the girls walked out the door, they could hear Pastula exclaim, "Those were real Playboy bunnies!"
And Marquardt smiled, feeling a rush of acceptance, right here in her hometown.
The "Girls Next Door" episode in Lodi will be aired in either November or December. The show plays every Sunday from 9 to 10 p.m. on E!
Contact Lodi Living Editor Tricia Tomiyoshi at firstname.lastname@example.org.