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Discrimination Lite

Star power, not pregnancy, was the issue in firing of actress

December 24, 1997

This newspaper has been a forceful and consistent defender of women who have faced real and pernicious job discrimination because they became pregnant or, in some cases, just because they might become pregnant. Regrettably, it still happens: Women are pulled off assembly lines, taken out of the running for corporate posts, demoted, denied promotions or fired from jobs they can ably perform whether pregnant or not.

Lawyers for actress Hunter Tylo cast her as part of the same aggrieved group: another expectant mother callously shoved out of a job because of her pregnancy. It's tempting to view the nearly $5 million in damages a Los Angeles jury awarded her Monday--close to double what she sought--as just compensation for blatant workplace discrimination. Yet to do so trivializes the federal and state laws that protect pregnant women against employer discrimination.

Tylo's case, which defense lawyers say they will appeal, was a Hollywood contract dispute. Her appearance helped win her a part as a scheming seductress on the TV show "Melrose Place," and the producers dismissed her because her pregnancy evidently violated a clause in her contract that prohibited a "material change" in appearance. Tylo's lawyer, Gloria Allred, skillfully turned the case away from contract issues, fixing it on whether pregnant women can still be beautiful and sexy. Of course they can. At least nine on the 10-woman, two-man jury had no trouble agreeing on that question. But it's entirely beside the point.

The 34-year-old actress, now appearing in a daytime TV series, was dismissed from "Melrose Place" in March 1996, one month after she disclosed her pregnancy. Tylo claimed she could still play her vixen role, noting that "Melrose Place" and other shows had continued to use pregnant actresses by disguising their condition.

But sex appeal is not the same thing as sex discrimination. While the latter is properly barred by state and federal law, sex appeal is in the eye of the beholder--in this case, the show's producers. To suggest, as Allred did in one television interview, that Tylo can be compared to civil rights icon Rosa Parks is as absurd as it is insulting to those who fight real discrimination in the workplace.

Yes, a visibly pregnant Tylo could play a temptress. But the show's producers had a right to seek a particular look for Tylo's character. That license does not amount to discrimination against a pregnant woman. The discrimination in this case was the kind that isn't illegal: determining who is a star and who is not. The star of "Melrose Place," Heather Locklear, became pregnant and producers fully accommodated her through the use of creative camera angles, props and body doubles. Producers apparently decided newcomer Tylo wasn't worth the trouble. That's not pregnancy discrimination, that's Hollywood.

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