For 32 years, host Bob Barker has charmed audiences on "The Price Is Right," the game show that made "Come on down!" and "You've won a new car!" household phrases.
Off-camera, however, the show has resembled a soap opera, complete with power plays, demeaning comments, racial slurs and secret conversations, according to several employees.
"It's a weird show," said Linda Riegert, 57, a former production assistant. "It's like the most dysfunctional family you ever saw."
The behind-the-scenes battles have involved suits from nine employees who alleged wrongful termination or sexual harassment. One suit, which has been pending for eight years, recently got a boost when an appeals court ruled it was suitable for trial.
Holly Hallstrom, one of the original "Price" models, said she was fired in 1995 because she gained weight. A trial court had tried to toss the suit, but on Sept. 8, 2004, a Los Angeles appeals court ruled that she had a valid claim.
Nick Alden, Hallstrom's attorney, said he expected the trial to start in early 2005.
Hallstrom's suit goes deeper than external appearances, according to Alden.
"The weight was an excuse," he said.
In reality, Hallstrom was fired because she did not support Barker in another model's sexual-abuse suit, according to Alden.
"It's a chain reaction. Anyone who doesn't support Barker is fired," Alden said.
According to Alden, the chain of events began in 1989, when another "Barker's Beauty," Dian Parkinson, began an affair with the then-65-year-old.
Both parties admitted to the three-year relationship, but Barker publicly said it was the Playmate's idea to get "hanky-panky." Parkinson, however, called it sexual harassment and filed an $8 million suit against Barker in 1993.
To discredit Parkinson, Barker asked Hallstrom to lie in his favor, Alden said. But when Hallstrom refused, Barker privately threatened her with "early retirement," and badgered her about her weight, according to Alden.
The president of the show's production company, Jeremy Stamos, even admitted to calling Hallstrom "the Pillsbury dough girl," according to a court opinion.
Hallstrom claimed she had gained 14 pounds because of medicine to treat a hormonal condition. She claimed she lost the weight in the time limit Barker allotted — and was still fired in September 1995.
|Bob Barker has hosted "The Price Is Right" since 1972.|
Hallstrom was now out of Barker's way, and so was Parkinson. Barker's mistress dropped her sexual harassment suit in April 1995, saying it was too costly and had taken a toll on her health.
The game show's legal troubles, however, were far from over. When Hallstrom told news programs she was fired for her weight and age, Barker followed with a slander-and-libel suit in December 1995.
"Holly's weight has absolutely nothing to do with her departure from [The Price Is Right]," Barker told Entertainment Tonight. "Her dress size has fluctuated from an 8 to a 14. Now if the company were going to terminate her for a weight problem, Holly would have been gone years and years ago."
Barker said Hallstrom was terminated because of show cutbacks. However, another model, Chantal Dubay, joined "Price" just after Hallstrom left. Dubay was 28 at the time, while Hallstrom was 43.
"He's a slippery devil," Hallstrom said of Barker.
Hallstrom fought back in July 1996, filing a suit for medical-condition discrimination, age discrimination and retaliation.
When Linda Riegert, a production assistant who overheard Hallstrom and Barker's secret conversation, sided with the model, trouble started for her as well.
"He called me a 'stupid bitch' in front of the audience and a 'f---ing idiot,'" Riegert said. "He made my life miserable, and he used to write me notes during Christmas saying our friendship was so strong."
In the summer of 2000, Riegert came forward and testified on Hallstrom's behalf, but not without resistance.
"Barker's lawyer, Patricia Glaser, told me to go home and think long and hard about my version of the story," Riegert said.
Barker dropped his suit against Hallstrom in September 2000, after damaging testimony from Riegert and three other women on the show, according to Alden.
Their testimony came with a price: On Oct. 19, 2000, the four women — Riegert; Janice Pennington, a model; Kathleen Bradley, a model; and Sherrell Paris, Barker's personal assistant — were dismissed from the show. Sharon Friem, a writer who rejected Barker's alleged sexual advances, was also let go that day, Alden said.
"We know for a fact that five out of 14, or 38 percent, of the show's women were fired the same day. Coincidentally, these same women are the ones who are fighting against Bob Barker," Alden said. "It doesn't leave much room for coincidence."
"They weren't fired," countered Henri Bollinger, Barker's publicist. "Basically, they weren't renewed. It's not Bob's decision whether they stay with the show or not. It's the production company's decision."
Bollinger was referring to Pearson Television, which took over the show's production in October 2000. According to news reports, CBS needed to cut costs. Even Barker wasn't immune: In 1999, he started renewing his contract just one year at a time.
Riegert insisted Barker was still responsible for the staff changes.
"Barker's really good at covering things," she said. "He waited until the takeover of Pearson. As executive producer, he made all the decisions on who's hired and who wasn't going to be there. It was very rare for people to be fired."
All five women who were dismissed in October 2000 filed suits against Barker and Pearson Television, claiming wrongful termination. With the exception of Riegert, they all settled out of court.
Riegert is still awaiting a trial date after her case was vacated June 25, Alden said.
Barker suffered another legal blow on Aug. 3, when Claudia Jordan, a model, and Sylvia Clement-Henry, assistant to producer Phillip Rossi, sued over allegations of wrongful termination, sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
"You are the butt model. ... Repeat after me: 'I can fire your ass,'" Rossi told Jordan, according to the suit.
Jordan, an African American, was also told to stand between two Caucasian models "to do the reverse [Oreo]," the suit said.
After Jordan confronted Rossi, he advanced the clock on the set and cursed at her for being late, the model claimed.
When Jordan formally filed a complaint, human resources pressured her to withdraw it, and she was fired on Oct. 31, 2003, according to the suit.
Moreover, Clement-Henry claims she was instructed to mark a "B" next to African American contestants, "to make sure that no more than two African Americans are selected" and to make sure they perpetuated racial stereotypes.
She was fired when she refused to stay silent, the complaint said.
"Barker is probably the most vicious man I've met in my life," Alden said, who also represents Jordan and Clement-Henry. "I honestly liked him before I got involved in these lawsuits, until I took his deposition and thought, 'My God, what a monster.'"
Bollinger, however, viewed these suits as a publicity stunt.
"Barker has been dragged into every one of these situations, not because he was responsible for the direct actions, but because he's a big name," Bollinger said. "When lawyers just sue the production company, they get no attention."
Both Barker and his lawyer, Glaser, declined to comment on his pending litigation.