In 1988, "The Price Is Right" game-show model Janice Pennington was knocked off the stage into "contestants' row" by a wayward camera and rendered unconscious. After a 45-minute delay during which Pennington was transferred by stretcher to an ambulance, the show continued without her. Two surgeries later, the stately "Barker's Beauty" was left with one shoulder an inch shorter than the other. Ugly scars from the operations prevented her from ever again wearing her trademark swimsuits.
Then this past October, Pennington received a hit of another sort. After 29 years of handing off the microphone to host Bob Barker at the start of more than 6,000 shows since its 1971 premiere, Pennington was dismissed immediately following the Oct. 19 taping (which will air on Wednesday), without so much as a handshake from Barker.
"He never said a word," says Pennington, whose final appearance Wednesday will have no mention of her departure. "My manager called Barker the next day and left a message, but he never returned our call."
Barker, who today celebrates his 77th birthday, says he did return the call--but only after Pennington signed a settlement, forbidding her from discussing details of her dismissal by Pearson Television, the production company that had assumed ownership of the show that Oct. 19.
"[Pearson] did not want me to become involved in any way," explains Barker, saying that he left the studio prior to the firing of his longtime girl Friday. "But on the very day Janice signed the agreement I left a message on her answering machine and told her that I wanted to explain why I had not called even sooner. And she has not returned my call."
The amicable relationship between Barker and Pennington on the show, as it turns out, was just another Hollywood illusion. Pennington says the two had barely spoken since this past summer, and fellow on-air assistant Kathleen Bradley, who was dismissed the same day as Pennington, blames Barker for their firings. While all parties involved have conflicting stories to tell, whichever way you look at it, all the behind-the-scenes bickering and ugliness boils down to one real-life contest no one can win: aging and physical change, coupled with the institutionalized insecurity of show business.
Walking into the dining room of the Regent Beverly Wilshire, dressed in silver hoop earrings, a form-hugging black turtleneck and tight black leather pants (which no doubt would drive animal rights crusader Barker nuts), Pennington looks years younger than 58. And with good reason. To maintain her all-important youth, Pennington has undergone several cosmetic touch-ups through the years.
"I've never gone in and had a head-to-toe sort of thing," says the model, explaining that the show's year-round taping schedule--with only a six-week summertime hiatus, prevented any radical overhauls. "What I've done is gone in and had, like, the bags taken care of under my eyes. I've had little sections done--a little brow lift or a little something lipoed from under my chin. When I had a real hard time losing weight, I had some lipo on my body. I'll go in every week for facials. And I go to the dermatologist and get light peels. It's been about maintaining myself, but it's not as easy to maintain your weight as your body gets older and goes through changes."
For Pennington, who also exercises daily and watches what she eats, her commitment to maintaining her youth was an act of self-preservation. Bradley believes she and Pennington were fired because of depositions the women gave (countering Barker's statements) while under oath in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former colleague Holly Hallstrom, who claimed she was fired in 1995 because of weight gain. Though Hallstrom's original lawsuit was thrown out of court, her lawyers are planning an appeal.
"Bottom line, it's retaliation," says Bradley, 49, who calls Barker "a lonely soul."
"He was upset because my truth and his truth were different. If I [hadn't] had to testify, I would still be a Barker's Beauty."
"That is totally unfounded," counters Barker, who also serves as executive producer and will celebrate his 30th anniversary with the show in September. "This was not my decision."
Both Pennington and Bradley say they were given no specific reason for their dismissals. Syd Vinnedge, the Pearson senior vice president who informed the women they were no longer needed, would only characterize the changes as part of a long-term plan the company has to revitalize the show.
Pennington says Barker "basically stopped talking to me after the deposition that I gave in July. After that it was never the same. We spoke on the air, but that was basically it."
"I certainly didn't stop speaking with [Janice]," says Barker. "Any time I saw her I told her 'hello' or told her how good she looked." Barker even objects to the term "fired" in reference to the women's departures. "Janice was not fired; she was never hired," he says.
In literal terminology, he is correct. Throughout their runs, Barker's Beauties were never given contracts but were rehired on a week-to-week basis at salaries well below that of other long-running TV personalities. At the time of her exit, Bradley, a 10-year veteran of the show, was being paid $2,000 to tape a week's worth of hourlong episodes. "We were so underpaid for what we did on that show," says Bradley. "People think we have so much money."
No On-Air Chance to Say Goodbye
Although Pennington and Bradley have handed out thousands of cars, campers and grandfather clocks through the years, there will be no fabulous parting gifts for either of them. Barker says business and legalities prevented any on-air goodbyes.
"At the time that they left," explains Barker, "we were not able to say what they were going to do because the Pearson company made what they have described to me as very generous offers to them to join Pearson and participate in an international models special [referred to by different parties as "Models Inc." or "Model of the Year"] that they were planning."
Pennington, believing no such special would ever materialize, rejected the contract, insisting instead on a settlement. Bradley, more confident in the offer's legitimacy, was considering accepting the offer, though she remains skeptical.
Barker says the models' abrupt exits were unfortunate--especially for longtime fans, and says he would consider inviting Pennington and perhaps Bradley to join him on next year's anniversary special. "Now that [Pearson] has [worked out a settlement] with Janice, I'm sure we'd be happy to blow up the balloons."
Vinnedge adds that "as soon as everybody's happy," the show will "get Janice and Kathleen and do a real nice send-off: goodbye, we love you and good luck." Neither woman expects this will ever happen.
The fact that all four of the classic Barker's Beauties--Pennington, Hallstrom, Bradley and Dian Parkinson (who quit in 1993 after 18 years on the show, waging an unsuccessful sexual harassment suit against Barker, with whom she was having an affair) were marked by bitter scandal does not faze Barker. "It had nothing to do with the show or with me," he says. "It was all in the minds of the women."
In May, Barker may be gone as well if Pearson opts not to renew his contract for a 31st year. "It happens to all of us," says Vinnedge, who himself was reduced from executive to consultant status soon after he dismissed the models. "Bob feels that at the right point we will make that transition."
Asked how he would feel if he were dismissed in the same manner as Pennington and Bradley--without a chance to say goodbye to fans, Barker says, "It would not concern me in the slightest. I would be grateful for the many years that I've had on 'The Price Is Right' and walk away a completely happy man."
And what sort of man is Barker? "He's the best host," Pennington says, diplomatically pointing to her former boss' popular on-screen persona. "He excels at what he does." As for the Barker none of us gets to see--the man away from Showcase Showdowns and Plinko chips, the model gracefully steps behind her nondisclosure agreement, whispering, "That's not for me to comment."
* "The Price Is Right" can be seen weekdays at 10 a.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).