Doing Well by Being Bad

Original Publication: The Washington Post, September 27, 1987.

GOOD GIRLS go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere. Or do they?

Ex-church secretary Jessica Hahn, responsible for bringing down PTL, the lucrative empire of TV evangelist Jim Bakker, is appearing topless in the November issue of Playboy. Sources close to her advisors say she is being paid one million dollars to do so.

The Mayflower Madame, Sydney Biddle Barrows — dubbed a “female Iacocca” by publishers — has taken in nearly a half million dollars for her best-selling book on running an upscale New York brothel and is at work on a fictionalized sequel. Candace Bergen is set to play the madame in the TV movie.

Nobody is yet cast to play Donna Rice, the aspiring actress whose relationship with Democratic front runner Gary Hart him out of the presidential race. Although ABC at one time announced Rice would be the subject of a TV movie, the project is stalled for the same reason Rice has no book contract. She can’t bring herself to kiss and tell all. Says Rice’s literary agent, Richard Curtis, “Publishers wanted to move fast and sensationally, she found it difficult to be as candid as a publisher wanted her to be — it bothered her conscience and that created both a delay and a problem in viewpoint.”

It is tough to sustain a career based on a series of “moments.” Still, if she were willing to be confessional, Rice could command what is considered a top price for her story. In contrast, the going rate for a TV movie about someone like Candy Lightner, founder of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) which sparked a nationwide movement towards sobriety, is not more than $35,000. Meanwhile, Rice isn’t starving. Now taking acting lessons, she was reported to have been paid in the low five figures and will collect residuals on the TV commercial she’s made for No Excuses jeans.

Fawn Hall’s agent Ron Yatter of the William Morris agency, feels it is unfair to put Hall “in the category of {Hahn and Rice}.” Yatter does not regard the Iran-contra affair as a scandal: “A scandal is something like a sex thing which causes a government to be brought down.” It’s true that Hall’s notoriety spring’s from her work for the NSC’s Lt. Col. Oliver North, not from a sexual encouter. Still, as a result of his client’s appearances before the Iran-contra hearings, Yatter says Hall has been offered at least $100,000 worth of merchandising, poster and T-shirt deals, all of which she has nixed. “She does not want to exploit her fame as opposed to the other two.”

Yatter, who also handles Diana Ross and Hugh Downs, sees Hall “as a natural TV communicator who is going to go to school” to learn her craft as a broadcaster. “Not journalism school, but she’s willing to start local, yes. She will not be an actress on Dynasty.” Hall herself ay have even bigger plans. “It definitely crossed my mind,” she answered when Barbara Walters asked her whether or not she had ever thought about running for public office. “I’m 27 . . . there’s a big world out there.” Certainly bigger than the $23,866 tops that a GS-7 secretary can make.

Indeed, what distinguishes the current crop from past starlets of scandal, Fanne Fox, Elizabeth Ray and Paula Parkinson, who after all, were only fooling around with Congressmen, is the scope of their expectations. “Why do you think so small?”, chided Long Island lawyer, Dominic Barbara, Jessica Hahn’s latest representative, when I guessed that Playboy paid his client a mere one or two hundred thousand to undress for the magazine.

“Not undressed” Barbara further corrected. “Like my wife would if she were on a beach in southern Europe.” As for the limited perspective of the low-paid journalist, “You’re always thinking of sixes but I talk sevens. Jessica’s got offers from two TV series, one to appear for ten weeks more or less playing herself. I’m making her book and movie deals . . . . I’ve always said Jessica will make two-and-a-half million before this is over. She’ll never have to work again.”

Maybe, maybe not. This is a woman who, back in 1984, reportedly called the Charlotte Observer, the PTL’s hometown paper, to give her story away for free. A few weeks later, however, she had hooked up with her first of many agents, called the paper back and said to forget it all or else she’d sue. By then Hahn was busy negotiating her $265,000 hush money deal with the PTL. Then, it seems, she sat home for three years in a modest Long Island apartment with no more to comfort her than a painting of Elvis on black velour hanging over her couch.

Not exactly a grabber of a story like Tammy Faye Bakker’s. In fact, spokemen at all three networks declined interest in Jessica Hahn as did several publishing types, dismissing both Hahn and Rice as well as Fawn Hall as “minor characters.”

“Donna called me up and I turned her down,” says Amanda Urban, a well-known literary agent with ICM in New York. “I don’t think she has anything to say except whether she slept with him or not and how good he was.” When asked to explain what made Barrows such a valuable property then, Urban replied, “The Mayflower Madame ran a business and was successful at it. She is not a bimbo. She hired bimbos. That’s important to remember.”

George Coleman who acquired the Barrows book when he was an editor at Arbor House, stressed that the Mayflower Madame was actually applying the principles of “In Search of Excellence” to her business. “She had very high standards.” He too was cool to giving Donna/Jessica/Fawn book deals, though by the end of our conversation he asked if I knew how to get hold of Donna Rice.

Finally Alfred Lowman of the Authors and Artists Group and agent to John DeLorean, suggested the trio try a feminist assault. “If the three got together and combined forces and got into a sisterhood approach, linked arms literarily and filled in each other’s lapses literarily, then you could sell it for seven figures.” Otherwise, everyone is waiting to sign Tammy Faye.

The big question, of course, is what will happen to Donna/Jessica/Fawn 10 years down the road. Will they form a support group and have long lunches with Fanne Fox and Elizabeth Ray? Jessica has Jesus and Fawn can always type, but what about Donna? “William Morris was all over Donna,” says a rival agent, “until they signed Gary Hart.” Then she was left behind. Whenever I worry about Donna’s future, however, I am comforted by the words I once heard from a Montana cowboy: Never feel sorry for a girl on a yacht.