feature

Showcase Showdown

Pin it

 DISPATCHES
Showcase Showdown


  Send to a Friend
  Printer Friendly Format
  Leave Feedback
  Read Feedback
  Nerve RSS

The game-show boom of the 1970s fit the decade like a Qiana suit. Trendy hedonism, economic jitters and the explosion of color TV had given the country a thirst for freebies, and CBS spotted an opportunity. On September 4, 1972, the network began airing a daytime game show called The Price Is Right. Its premise was almost aggressively unremarkable: contestants guessed how much things cost, from canned tuna and toilet paper to sports cars. But its tall, dark host was a housewife’s fantasy, and its three spokesmodels seemed both lusty and wholesome while presenting brand-name prizes in bikinis. In its first year, Price shot to the top of the ratings.

promotion

    Holly Hallstrom remembers that era well. “It was the perfect platform for my own personal brand of shameless exhibitionism,” she says of her nineteen years as a Price Is Right spokesmodel. “There was really no time for rehearsal, and a lot of it was like” — she adopts a monotonous inflection — “Okay, go stand next to the refrigerator, make the sweeping arm gesture . . . But when we got to the silly stuff, I just loved it.

Barker's Beauties
Happier Times
Top: "Barker’s Beauties," circa 1982: Holly Hallstrom, Janice Pennington, Dian Parkinson. Bottom: in happier times, and shoulder pads.

It was very creatively free.”
    Holly was the redhead, which made her easy to distinguish from Janice, the blonde, and Dian, the other blonde. Together, the trio softened the show’s fairly transparent existence as a vehicle for product placement. Holly, Janice and Dian worked as The Price is Right‘s main spokesmodels for a combined total of sixty-six years — unheard-of longevity, not just for their profession but television itself. They perched on Jacuzzis in the ’70s, climbed StairMasters in the ’80s and reclined on SUV hoods in the ’90s. By the late 1980s, the three women had achieved recognition on par with Wheel of Fortune‘s iconic Vanna White. Holly looks back on those early years fondly.
    “Initially, I was just close with everyone,” she says. “I had moved to L.A. for that show and I didn’t know a soul, so these were all my new friends.”
Her first day on the show, Holly didn’t know when the camera was on or off, “so I just smiled all damn day long. The next day I could barely eat my breakfast!” Life was one breathless taping after another. The three women coasted on the exhilaration for years, partying together, once jetting to Janice’s place in Aspen for a vacation. “We were like a giant family,” recalls Holly. “A stage family.”
    Then one night in 1989, Bob Barker took one of the models to bed, and it wasn’t long before everything fell apart.


Holly Hallstrom
Holly Hallstrom, resident goofball (click to enlarge)

The first car ever won on The Price Is Right was an aquamarine 1972 Chevy Vega. Janice Pennington leaned on the door, respendent in a corn-yellow dress. During the taping of the show’s debut episode, Janice was feeling pretty okay. Aside from the new game-show gig, she had recently been anointed Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month. She’d turned thirty that year, yet producers had deemed her young and sparkly enough to appear astride dishwashers and vacuum cleaners on the first game show to use spokesmodels as an integral part of the cast.
    Game-show spokesmodeling has never been the modeling industry’s most glamorous sector. It’s steady work that involves standing near products the average middle-class consumer can afford. Some would argue it requires an incalculable flair — “It’s much more difficult than you might think, because it’s not natural to be fondling a refrigerator,” Janice insisted in a 1985 interview. Holly says she and the other models were told they were “moveable props.” This sense of derision permeates pop culture — in L.A. Story, when Sarah Jessica Parker’s character is asked why she’s taking spokesmodeling classes (the idea of such a thing itself being part of the joke), she explains that she “always liked pointing.”

              

  

 DISPATCHES

  

              

  

promotion

 
    When Holly joined Janice and Dian on The Price Is Right in 1977, she was in her early twenties and fresh from San Francisco. She’d won a modeling contest at her finishing school. After that, agents started calling, and friends encouraged her to move to Los Angeles. The Price is Right was her first audition.
    Over time, she and the others realized that their careers depended on their ability to never grow old.

Dian
Dian

Janice Pennington

In a short news bit that aired in 1972 right after the show’s debut, the reporter intones, “For hostess Janice Pennington, The Price is Right means a steady job, one that she hopes will get her through the next season or two.” Janice remained on the show till she was fifty-eight.
    Yet the women’s salaries would never match their celebrity. While on the show, Holly carried a thirty-year mortgage on her house and drove a ten-year-old car. “After eight years of eighteen-percent inflation, [my salary] was nothing,” she says. Financially speaking, the three women weren’t much different from the contestants they guided around the stage day after day, shopping at the mall for the same products they smiled next to on camera. And when it came time to fight Bob Barker in court, Holly found herself unemployed, bankrupt and living out of her car.


Dian
Dian
Dian

Dian Parkinson

In 1987, Bob Barker, a newfound supporter of the ASPCA, stopped dyeing his hair because all of the products were tested on animals. When he stepped onto the set that season, his formerly mousse-brown hair was a dazzling silver, and the matte-finish tan he’d sported in the 1970s had turned rosier. The three models had replaced their wavy bouffants with ponytails and bangs; Holly, in particular, had a phenomenal hairsprayed plume of shimmering crimson. Their curvy dresses had given way to power suits, and though all three were beginning to show subtle signs of aging, they still looked shapely and vibrant.
    On the show, each model had a specific persona. Janice was the wholesome suburban MILF, someone you could picture sunbathing in a string bikini next to a backyard pool, a reflective tanner tucked under her chin. Because she’d been on the show from day one, she had the honor of handing Bob his skinny microphone at the top of most episodes; this lent her an appealing Gal Friday vibe. Holly was the goofy girl next door, a personality she proudly embraced. Before she went to finishing school, she says she was “a shameless tomboy.” On the show, she was “a ham and a clown.” In a 1993 interview, she recalled, “When I was hired, they said, ‘We’ve got glamour. Now we need someone who can take a pie in the face.’” Loyal viewers remember her as the one who would fall when modeling a treadmill.
    Dian was different. Despite her conservative Mormon upbringing, she was a former Miss USA who had the look of a woman who went home with airline pilots and mechanics — a pure sex bomb. The show’s producers dressed Dian in bikinis more than the other two models. Even today, the internet is rife with fansites containing grainy screengrabs of Dian in swimwear. (One has a poll where you can vote for your favorite Dian body part; sixty-six percent prefer her breasts.) While Holly and Janice flashed warm, innocuous smiles, Dian’s resembled a housecat in heat. From her very first appearance on the show in 1975, Playboy received letters demanding to see her naked.

  

              

  

 DISPATCHES

  

              

  

promotion

    By all accounts, in early 1990 Bob and Dian started having a sexual relationship. Bob was sixty-six, Dian a nymphlike forty-five. Bob’s wife of many years had died of lung cancer eight years earlier, and Dian wasn’t married. The affair caused instant discomfort among the staff. Bob had become executive producer three years earlier, which meant that Dian was sleeping with the boss. After this shift in status, Dian’s friendship with Holly and Janice deteriorated rapidly. “She had the boss’s ear, and that’s always hard when you have a boss who’s listening to the pillow talk,” says Holly. Everyone on the set knew — a fact that both Holly and Janice have said Dian made sure of. “It gave her a different stature on the set,” says Holly. “It got to be really ugly.”
    That year, Playboy asked Dian to appear in a spread. Their offer was lucrative. Bob personally went to Mark Goodson, head of the show’s production company, to request permission. Goodson took the request to CBS executives; they said no. Goodson then sent a memo to the spokesmodels declaring Playboy officially off-limits.
    In December 1991, Dian showed up in Playboy anyway. On the cover, she wore an emerald-green bikini. “I think after doing eighteen years of The Price Is Right and wearing bikinis and swimsuits and lingerie and very sexy things, it was such a tease that I think doing Playboy actually settled the savage beast,”
she said in 1993. But sometime between the shoot and the publication of the photos, Bob ended

Dian Playboy
Dian Playboy
Flouting CBS policy, Dian appeared in Playboy for the first time in 1991. She defended her decision, saying that after eighteen years of modeling bikinis on the show, "doing Playboy settled the savage beast."
Dian Playboy
Dian’s second Playboy spread, two years later, was more explicit than the first. It antagonized Bob and many others involved with the show. Dian quit soon afterwards.

his relationship with Dian. According to Janice and Holly, Dian was furious. “It was daggers being shot across the stage, doors slamming,” Janice said.
    When Dian posed for Playboy a second time in 1993, she was on her own. Under the headline “An Erotic Encore,” she was photographed for the cover spilling out of a white negligee. Bob admitted he was not pleased. The second spread was more explicit, with full-frontal shots featuring ample pubic hair. Bob said he’d never approved the second shoot. When he confronted Dian about the photos, she “went ballistic,” he would later claim at a press conference. At odds with Bob and estranged from Janice and Holly, Dian’s position on The Price Is Right was untenable. After eighteen years on the show, she quit, just shy of her fiftieth birthday. The show replaced her with a wide-eyed, twenty-two-year-old college student, who would leave just two years later to become a regular on Baywatch.

A year later, Dian re-emerged in the public eye, this time bearing a sexual-harassment lawsuit. She claimed Bob had forced her to have a sexual relationship with him; Bob said it was consensual. Eventually, Dian dropped her suit before it went to trial, citing her doctor’s concerns about how the stress was compromising her health. According to some reports, however, she was out of money.
    The next year, Holly, then forty-three, went on prescription medication for menopause. The meds caused her to gain weight, and she says Bob told her she needed to lose a few pounds. Bob would later admit that he talked to Holly about dieting, but claimed it was merely a suggestion. A production assistant named Linda Riegert corroborated Holly’s version of the story, saying she heard Bob tell Holly she should take early retirement. Bob later said that the show had one too many models, and the producers had decided to cut one loose. Describing Holly as "difficult" and "not well liked," Bob said she “was the obvious choice.”
    After nineteen seasons, Holly shot her last episode in July of 1995. There was a brief on-air goodbye; she waved to the cameras while the staff surrounded and applauded her. Holly wasn’t financially prepared for retirement, but she figured her experience would lead to other modeling gigs. That assumption ended when she saw a story about herself in a tabloid. “I started reading all these things about myself, that I had stormed off the show and this and that, and here I am, unemployed,” she says. “I’ll tell you, I never worked in Hollywood again after that.”

  

              

  

 DISPATCHES

  

              

  

promotion

    To refute the stories, Holly held a press conference in September. Wearing a demure cardigan, she stood alone at a single microphone before a handful of reporters. She contended that Bob and the show’s producers had forced her off the show because of her weight gain. Soon, she was telling newspapers, magazines and talk-show hosts the same thing.
    These interviews would turn out to be the first volleys in a decade-long legal battle. That December, Bob sued Holly for slander. Holly countersued for wrongful termination. Nearly out of money, she moved to Utah, where she found work at ski resorts. Eventually, she lost her home and began living out of her car. All the while, says Holly, she was offered multimillion-dollar settlements to drop the case, but each had a hush clause attached which would prevent her from telling her side of the story. She rejected all of them.
    “He thought he was going to just hit me with the big legal guns, scare me off,” she says, proudly indignant. “And I said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’”

In the summer of 2000, Bob, Janice, a spokesmodel named Kathleen Bradley who had been hired in 1990, and a few other staff members gave depositions in Holly’s case. Janice and Kathleen testified in support of Holly. On October 19, a media company named Pearson Television acquired Mark Goodson Productions. Immediately after the taping of that day’s episode, Janice and Kathleen were fired. Although she’d been on the show since its debut episode, Janice was told she would not be allowed an on-air goodbye.
    Kathleen, forty-nine at the time, believed their firings were retaliation for their depositions in Holly’s

Holly Press Conference
After Hallstrom’s 1995 press conference (above), Bob Barker sued her for slander.
Holly Press Conference
Holly Hallstrom today.

lawsuit. “[Bob] was upset because my truth and his truth were different,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Bob denied having anything to do with the firings, and according to the Times story, even objected to the word “fired,” insisting that, in fact, after twenty-nine years, even Janice “was never hired.” Technically, he was correct: the spokesmodels were never under contract; essentially, they were rehired from week to week. “We were so underpaid for what we did on that show,” Kathleen told the Times.
    Meanwhile, Holly’s case languished. Her first attorney was a Beverly Hills lawyer who, she says, “was really best at showing up for the cameras.” A second attorney jumpstarted her case. A trial court threw out her lawsuit; she appealed. In 2000, Bob dropped his slander suit and was ordered to pay Holly’s legal fees pertaining to that case. That left just Holly’s wrongful-termination suit against Bob. In October 2004, she won her appeal: a Los Angeles court reinstated her case, and trial was set for 2005.
    Holly says that Bob’s lawyers called to talk about a settlement. She refused any deal that wouldn’t let her speak about the case. “I had seen what Bob had done to Dian in the media,” she says. Eventually, Bob’s lawyers relented. Holly says the settlement was less than what they’d offered
earlier, but as she saw it, “I was buying my right to free speech.” Last October, ten years after she’d been fired and twenty-eight years after she’d joined the show, Holly accepted the settlement, and the era of Price is Right spokesmodel lawsuits quietly came to a close.
    Throughout, Bob Barker has maintained that the harassment claims were no fault of his own. “It was all in the minds of the women,” he said. Today, he’s eighty-three and still hosting the show, coming up on his thirty-fifth season.
    “This is what Mr. Barker has done with his golden years,” says Holly. “Sue people and be sued.” Kathleen Bradley told the Times she considered him “a lonely soul.” These days, Dian avoids the public eye; she provided character voices in two 1995 episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and since then, she’s all but disappeared.
    Janice, who’s known Bob the longest, is forbidden by a hush clause from speaking about him publicly.

Today, Holly Hallstrom is living in a Western state. She asks me not to say which one.
    “I have a stalker,” she says. “It was bad when I lived in L.A., but I’m much more comfortable where I am now.”
    Describing the size of her settlement, she’ll only whisper that it was “millions.” Asked what she’s going to do now, she speaks like a true Price Is Right devotee: “I am going to shop.”

  

              

  

 DISPATCHES

  

              

promotion


    She’s never been married and has no children. She hasn’t spoken to her two former colleagues, Janice Pennington or Dian Parkinson, in years, although in the late ’90s she met with some of the women who left the show during the period of turmoil. “A group of us former Price is Right women got together and we were like, ‘Do you ever watch the show?’ And everyone was like, ‘No, I don’t watch the show.’ And we all said the primary reason was because we could not bear to hear Bob Barker’s voice.”
    The show, in all its pageantry, carries on. Last March, CBS aired its 6,000th episode, at which time it had awarded half a billion dollars in prizes to 52,000 contestants. Its current phalanx of fresh, young spokesmodels more closely match today’s audience of U.C. undergrads and Navy cadets. And while others associated with the show have passed away (Mark Goodson in 1992, announcer Rod Roddy in 2003), Bob seems as permanent a fixture as the show’s Vegas velvet painting of a set, which stands virtually unchanged since the early ’70s.”I was considering retiring this year and going into bodybuilding with the thought in mind of becoming governor of California,” he quipped last year, “but I decided instead to stay with the body I have and the job I have.”
    Holly, for her part, misses Hollywood. “Miss it desperately,” she says. “I’d go walking out onto the set at the top of the show, and you’d see three hundred people who were just joy-filled to be there. For some of them, this is a dream come true. I felt so fortunate that I could be a facilitator for some of that excitement. I’d walk out and they’d scream my name and I’d just think, ‘Thank God that I’m in this position.’”
    In her subconscious, at least, she still partially there. She describes falling asleep one night with the television tuned to CBS. “The next morning I’m sound asleep, and I hear Rod Roddy’s voice say, ‘Come on down!’ I came flying out of bed. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m late for the one-bid! Who’s got the one-bid?’ I thought I was going to have a heart attack standing in my bedroom!"
    Then she says, a little quieter, “I’ll never fall asleep with the TV on again.”  

  

              

©2006 Will Doig and Nerve.com