COVER

Turning shame into lucrative fame

B.L. May 29 1995
COVER

Turning shame into lucrative fame

B.L. May 29 1995

Turning shame into lucrative fame

It all started with Tonya Harding, the street-tough figure skater who leaped into the media limelight when implicated in the bashing of her rival's knee in 1994. "It just kept escalating beyond belief," says Sherri Spillane, a Los Angeles talent agent. "They had taken something that shouldn't have had more than a couple of days' press and turned it into front-page news. We're talk-

ing about a crack on the knee here— the girl was not a Manson killer.” Spillane had a notion, and started the so-called scandal division of Ruth Webb Entertainment Inc. After securing Harding as a client, Spillane moved on to John Wayne Bobbitt, whose claim to infamy began the night his wife slashed his penis off. Next, recalls Spillane, “someone said to me, ‘You’ve got Tonya and Bobbitt, who’re you going to get next, Buttafuoco?’ And I laughed. And then I went, ‘You

know, not a bad idea.’ ” And so her third client became Joey Buttafuoco, who served four months in jail for the statutory rape of Amy Fisher, the “Long Island Lolita” who shot his wife.

Operating out of Webb’s house high in the Hollywood Hills—a house boasting a parrot, a peacock, five cats and hundreds of stuffed-animal raccoons—the agency takes in human strays and tries to turn their shame into lucrative fame. As the O. J. Simpson trial rivets the world to the city below, Webb and Spillane—still-glamorous former actresses who guard their ages like state secrets—are banking on the evidence that never has the public appetite for scandal been so insatiable. “A lot of people’s lives are very dull,” says Spillane. “Maybe they live vicariously through some of these people. Maybe they need to feel that someone is in a worse position than they are. They’re titillated, it’s something to talk about at parties. Everybody’s talking about O.J.”

Spillane knows a thing or two about scandal. When she was still married to mystery writer Mickey Spillane, she carried on a public affair with singer Sammy Davis Jr., and also posed nude for one of Spillane’s book covers. Her foray into representing the notorious has not always run smoothly. Harding, she claims, turned down 35 jobs, including movie and TV roles, “for stupid reasons,” and she and Webb eventually gave up on her. When Bobbitt made a porn movie against their wishes, they severed ties with him, too. “There’s only so far we’re gonna go,” explains Spillane. But Buttafuoco, says Webb, “is our white hope. He definitely could do things that John Candy and John Belushi did. He’s a big teddy bear. He’s very funny and he’s a very good serious actor”—and they got him a role in a thriller called Cul de Sac.

The rest of the rogues’ gallery includes Webb’s personal project, Gennifer Flowers, the former lounge singer who claims to have been President Bill Clinton’s mistress (“a lovely girl,” says Webb), and Tammy Faye Bakker, teary songstress and ex-wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker (“We’re looking for a musical for her,” says Spillane). They briefly represented Kato Kaelin, Simpson’s blond and bemused houseguest, but say he was only interested in serious parts. “I tried to get him a hair commercial,” Spillane says. “Shampoo—he needs it. No one was interested.” But they are finding public appearances and TV commercials for one Randal Tamayei, a bus mechanic who is a lookalike for Lance Ito, the judge in the Simpson case.

Then there was Rosa Lopez, the maid who testified reluctantly—and unconvincingly—that she had seen O.J.’s Bronco outside his house at the time prosecutors say he killed his ex-wife. Lopez then flew off to her native El Salvador—prompting a call, Spillane says, from a national TV magazine show. “They wanted to know did we handle her,” Spillane recalls. “I said, ‘No.’ ‘Well, would you handle her. Because if you want her as a client, we’ll follow you down there and watch you try and bring her back.’ ” For the saleswomen of scandal, the idea was at least momentarily intriguing. “We actually thought about it for a minute,” says Spillane. “And then I said, ‘El Salvador, are we out of our minds?’ ”

B.L.