Looking for a little sympathy

Times Staff Writer

Tabloid staples Denise Richards and Dina Lohan have their faces near the cultural bullhorn and are ready to scream and shout for your attention.

Richards, an actress probably better known for her nasty divorce from actor Charlie Sheen, and Lohan, the mother of troubled actress Lindsay Lohan, are both launching "reality" series on E! Entertainment Television today that chronicle their personal and professional battles. Though different in scope and tone, the plea from both women is the same: "Don't believe the hype -- believe us, because we are just like you."

Top executives at E! are banking on the pair to be the latest stars in the cable network's cavalcade of reality shows centered on infamous celebrities such as young scenester Kim Kardashian ("Keeping Up With the Kardashians"), who gained notoriety because of the release of a sex tape she made with former boyfriend Ray J.

"In this era of television, you have to make some noise," said Ted Harbert, president of E! Entertainment. "We're going after a mostly female audience, and the quiet little quality program trying to get attention out there has it real tough. At E!, we're competing for people's water cooler time, for people's Starbucks time. Anyone that wants attention better have their bullhorn out."

Claiming to be victims of snarky journalists spreading vicious lies, "Denise Richards: It's Complicated" and "Living Lohan" gives them the platform to fight back. "I want people to see the person I am, not the person they read about," said Richards. "We want to defuse all the rumors," declared Lohan.

The mercurial personalities downplay their more colorful shenanigans in hopes of revealing a more relatable, human side on the shows. The programs have been tailored to resemble a traditional scripted series and are meant to be a flip side to shows with fictional TV families such as the Huxtables of "The Cosby Show" or "The Brady Bunch."

Spotlighting these celebrities has been a key component in the network's ratings growth in the last few years, particularly among female viewers, Harbert said. More than 30 million viewers cumulatively watch the network each week, E! executives said.

However, Richards and Lohan may face a tougher time in the E! stable when it comes to generating viewer sympathy and understanding. Their promotional tours have been marked by hostility as they have been repeatedly challenged about their respective agendas during tense interviews.

Lohan in particular was defensive and combative in an interview with The Times, especially when asked about Lindsay Lohan and if she would ever appear on the series -- something producers still have not ruled out.

The mother of the troubled young star labeled a question asking whether Lindsay was the most famous member of the family as "silly."

"It's a sweet but naive notion for these stars to feel that exposing their lives to the so-called sunlight of reality will improve their reputation," said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center for entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School. "The audience is looking to confirm what it already feels -- they're looking for the train wreck. It's foolish to think that this exposure will cleanse and repair public relations injustices."

"Denise Richards: It's Complicated" portrays the actress as a hardworking single mom as she interacts with family and friends inside her lavish ranch-style home, returns to the dating pool and grapples with grief over her mother's recent death from cancer.

The actress shows off her love of animals (she has pet pigs), displays her prowess at swearing, and tells a girlfriend with crude terminology that she is attracted to men who are generously endowed.

In "Living Lohan," though the series is ostensibly about Dina Lohan, the shadow of Lindsay looms. The elder Lohan seems more calculated in her series mission than Richards and largely sidesteps concerns about Lindsay, whose once-promising acting career has been damaged by alcoholism, stints in rehab and reports of unprofessional behavior on movie sets.

Painfully aware of widespread accusations that she contributed to her daughter's downfall, Dina maintains that "Living Lohan" will demonstrate that she was not to blame for her daughter's troubled life and that she is at heart a dedicated mother fiercely protective of her children. The series includes Dina's younger daughter Ali, an aspiring singer she is also managing. Ali at one point declares that her older sister is her role model.

Dina Lohan views her series as a way to counteract the flood of negative publicity about her family.

The tabloids have "pretty much trashed my entire family," she said. "Things need to change. If we can get to a position of power in a couple of episodes, I would see that as a good change. There's a way we can use this to our advantage."

Meanwhile, Richards maintained to The Times that her main purpose in doing the show was to address accusations that she was a "husband stealer" and "a gold digger." The actress became tabloid fodder once again in 2006 for an affair she had with Richie Sambora, the then husband of her "best friend," actress Heather Locklear.

"I've kept quiet on all these issues," she said. "It's been very difficult for me. But I'm a single mom, this is my livelihood. I need to set the record straight on who I really am."

She added that although her children are shown, they are not featured extensively. She rejects criticism that she is exploiting the children: "My children are a huge part of my life, and every reality show has children in it."

Television executives behind both shows believe both celebrities will connect with viewers and gain newfound sympathy and respect.

"Denise has handled herself gracefully and with poise," said Eliot Goldberg, executive vice president of production for development at Ryan Seacrest Productions, which produces the Richards and Kardashian projects. "She says that everything that can be written about her has been written, and now she wants to handle it honestly."

Added Jeff Jenkins, one of the executive producers of "Living Lohan": "What we want to do is show people the whole picture. Then they can be the judge."

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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'Living Lohan'

Where: E! Network

When: 10:30 tonight; moves to regular day, Sunday.

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

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'Denise Richards: It's Complicated'

Where: E! Network

When: 10 tonight; moves to regular day Sunday.

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

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