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Don't Like the Look? Get Over It

The real-life Erin Brockovich no longer cares what other people think about her unique style. She's happy to dress for herself.

March 22, 2000|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With her skimpy skirts, bulging bustiers and "cha-cha" heels, real-life toxic avenger Erin Brockovich is challenging conventional wisdom that dressing for success means wearing a power suit. Her signature sexy style, which she adopted as a teenager, has been both a tool and obstacle in her work as a researcher investigating ground-water contamination with attorney Ed Masry.

She is judged by movie critics--and in real life--by how she dresses. But would Brockovich ever dream of changing? Hell no. She is a woman of substance who always seems to be overshadowed by her love of short skirts. But now she's a poster girl for those who are tired of being dismissed as bimbos. Her personal style has clearly become her professional style, and she flaunts it.

"Certain days I'll come into work and Ed says, 'Brockovich has her war paint on,' because of the way I'm dressed," says the 39-year-old bombshell, who is played by Julia Roberts in the film that grossed just over $28 million on its opening weekend. "On days like that, I generally know there's going to be someone in my life, either from another law firm or on a case--usually a man--and I think it may give me an edge.

"This is an outfit I'd wear to work," she said Monday with the excitement of a schoolgirl. She emerged from her closet dressed in a pair of "dance pants" (black stretch pants that flare at the ankle), a scoop-neck pink spandex top with maribou-trimmed sleeves and a rainbow-colored choker necklace. "I always have a blazer in the car in case I need to look professional," she added.

Her style may seem even more flagrant because of the conservative legal profession. Yet Brockovich was never intimidated by her co-workers even when they complained that her skirts were too short. "I would never compromise myself."

Fingering a pair of turquoise slacks in an overstuffed closet in her stately, two-story Agoura Hills home with a swimming pool and personal gym (paid for with settlement money from the case), the 5-foot-9, size-5 Brockovich explained, "These are not really me. I tend to like classic colors--blacks and grays. I have to have a basic to work off of and then I'll throw in some color."

That dash of color could be red, faux-snakeskin, high-heeled boots or a blue halter top with midriff-skimming beads, pieces that would seem better suited for a disco than a deposition. "I do like a sleek business suit. But I don't wear the skirt with the jacket. I'll put a bustier and a jean jacket with it instead."

'What Matters Is What's on the Inside'

While others dress to impress, Brockovich dresses for herself. "If someone labels me by the way I dress, then I question whether I want to be friends with that person in the first place. What matters is what's on the inside," said Brockovich, who was an unemployed single mom of three when she went to work for Masry as a file clerk in the early 1990s. "That's what I liked about Ed so much. He was accepting of who I was the way I was. He was more interested in what I knew than what I had on. Had Ed forced me to change my clothes, then it wouldn't have been the right job for me."

Brockovich is comfortable in her own skin, but her confidence, she said, was a long time coming. "It took me a while. I just got to a point in my life where I was fed up. I had had it. I'd been pushed around enough," she said. "I started developing more self-confidence as I got older and just started accepting who I am. . . . I don't dress this way to put anyone on, I just dress this way because I like to."

Although she has gotten her fair share of glances, gawks, snickers and stares from men and women, Brockovich never considered changing her image for personal or professional reasons.

One of her toughest critics is her 15-year-old daughter Katie, who is less than thrilled when her mother shows up at school in cutoffs and cha-cha heels.

"I ask her, 'What is it that a mother has to be?' I don't think I dress like white trash or like a call girl," Brockovich said. "What is wrong with me feeling good that I can show off my legs? If I have on a see-through top, I always have on the appropriate bra."

She added, "I've had conversations where people said if you dress like that, you get what you deserve. I don't believe that," she said. "I think if someone ever touched me, I'd probably deck 'em."

One of the film's catch lines is a snippet of dialogue in which Albert Finney, who plays Masry, asks Brockovich how she is going to procure sensitive water board documents from the town of Hinkley, Calif.: "What makes you think you can just walk in there and find what we need?" he asks.

"They're called boobs, Ed," Roberts retorts.

While Brockovich admits she uses her provocative style in her research, she has never thought of the way she dresses as empowering.

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