Actor John Travolta arriving for the Goldene Kamera 2011 awards of the Axel… (Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty…)
It was billed as a "shocking tell-all" and a "world exclusive," but the National Enquirer's March 26 cover story landed with a thud. TMZ, Page Six and other major players in celebrity gossip ignored the article in which a masseur claimed John Travolta offered money for sex.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article used the term "masseuse"; it should have said "masseur."
Five weeks after the issue left the checkout aisle, a DUI attorney from Pasadena put the anonymous masseur's tawdry tale in a lawsuit and it became an overnight pop culture sensation, topping Google News, trending on Twitter and meriting a segment on "Good Morning America." Another anonymous accuser joined the suit, and Travolta found himself in an embarrassing spot just as he was preparing to promote a new Oliver Stone movie.
The case imploded this week with the accusers voluntarily dismissing the suit. What remained were questions about how a small-time attorney with financial problems and a desire to boost his legal profile got the case in the first place and why a sloppy and inaccurate court filing was able generate so much unwanted attention on an A-list star.
Travolta's attorney, who has repeatedly called the allegations baseless, said he suspected the National Enquirer played some role in connecting the Texas masseur with Okorie Chukwudimm Okorocha, the Pasadena lawyer.
"I don't know how you would pick Okorie Okorocha out of a phone book," said Martin Singer, the Hollywood power player whose clientele includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen and Sylvester Stallone. He said he had assigned a private investigator to look into Okorocha.
A spokeswoman for the Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., did not respond to questions about the tabloid's involvement. Okorocha initially said in a telephone interview that he did not recall how he got the case. Moments later he said the Enquirer story was brought to his attention by a stranger at a farmer's market and that by coincidence the masseur contacted him via email two days later.
"That's a little surreal, right?" he said. Pressed about a connection to the Enquirer, Okorocha said he and an editor from Radar Online, an American Media gossip site that posted a dozen exclusive stories about the scandal, attended the same church and he considered her a "family friend," but insisted she had not played any part in the masseur retaining him.
The editor, Jen Heger, disputed his account of a relationship in an email, saying she was "not aware of ever meeting Okorie Okorocha," had never attended church with him and had not heard his name before the Okorocha suit. A lawyer for AMI subsequently sent Okorocha a letter demanding that he "refrain from making any further statement or suggestion that you have a personal friendship with Ms. Heger or any other person at Radar."
Hours later, Okorocha sent an email to The Times, copied to the AMI attorney, disavowing his previous claims: "I do NOT know anyone associated or employed there. I have no personal relationship with anyone there at all. I apologize for the harm I caused."
Okorocha approached Travolta's representatives last month in an effort to settle the masseur's grievance privately. An attorney since 2003, the 36-year-old Okorocha had one previous brush with celebrity when he was accused of trying to broker the sale of a sex tape featuring Verne Troyer, the actor who played Mini Me in the "Austin Powers" films. Okorocha's normal caseload was sexual harassment and wrongful termination claims and DUI defenses, work that didn't make for big headlines or paychecks.
Okorocha often worked for free as a DUI expert for other lawyers in hopes they would throw him some business, he wrote in a court filing in March in an ongoing child custody dispute with his ex-wife. In recent years, he slid into debt. He filed for bankruptcy last summer, declaring an annual income of about $70,000 and debts of $1.2 million.
Okorocha said that when he approached Travolta's camp, he didn't demand a specific amount of money: "I never threw a number out there. I didn't even say 50 cents."
It's not unusual in Hollywood for celebrities to avoid bad press by paying off individuals making salacious claims, even if they dispute the allegations. Okorocha said he expected that was what would transpire with his client, but "there was some miscommunication."
"I gave [a Travolta attorney] a deadline and I said, 'We need to have something by a certain day. We're not going to wait around forever.' I think somebody was on vacation or dropped the ball," he said.
Singer confirmed the negotiations occurred and that Okorocha provided a draft copy of a suit, but said he wasn't involved until late in the process because Okorocha initially contacted another law firm that handles Travolta's business matters.