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.