THE FIRST LADY OF ROCK & ROLL
by Patricia A. Farrell, Ph.D.
The evening news program I included a series of brief interviews with prominent women in TV broadcasting. Most of them attempted to play it softly, as Roberta Flack might have sung, when asked about sexism in TV broadcasting. Interesting that it's broad..casting.
Conspicuous, by her absence and refusal to be interviewed, too, was Barbara Walters, the daughter of a Brooklyn night club owner who made it big on TV. Well, maybe we shouldn't blame Barbara. Where was Leslie, Katie, Deborah, Oprah or Diane? All of them take home hefty paychecks thanks to TV and none of them, despite their millions in contracts, faced the camera to tell it straight. I had the experience of talking to one woman who would, but only to me and she, too, kept the lie alive when interviewed for comment.
Is there discrimination against women in TV? Do they get the same pay and the same perks as men? And are they forced to sleep with the executive equivalent of a lounge lizard?
I met Alison Steele, the first lady of rock & roll and an inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, one evening in spring 1995 when we were booked to appear on an ill-fated late-night talk show, Last Call. It was one of the three Brandon Tartikoff failures on which I've guested. I don't think I have any fatal effect on Brandon's shows, but it is a chilling coincidence that all three have done a deep 6.
The topic of the show was people who work at night and I, as the psychologist, was to provide words of wisdom and whimsy for the audience and hosts; one of them was Stuttering John of Howard Stern fame. John is a nice enough guy, but he isn't ready for a talk show host stint at this time—or maybe any other. He went from intern at Stern to frequent brunt of barbs to mike-in-your face interviewer with an attitude at premiers and press events. In addition to Alison and me was a stripper-com-law student who worked in John's favorite late-night strip club. She did a special routine for the camera before the taping and threw around a bit of silicone in the process. The young lady found me very annoying, indeed, when I asked if she foresaw any difficulty with the morals clause in the lawyer's licensing law.
When I asked the question, she flew into a snit and threatened to walk. John got very upset, his inexperienced co-host motioned me to let them handle it and they promised to cut the offending comments out. The young lady was mollified and sat back in her kittenish pose.
I'd heard, at the last minute, that the famous Alison Steel, the Nitebyrd who took her radio listeners on a nightly fantasy trip, was to be on the show and I was really impressed. They made me up, tossed my hair to look like I was going to pose for a salad substitute and I was being led to the set when we stopped in a hallway to meet her. The lady glided in the passageway. I don't think I've ever had such a sense of that before.
Her hair was reddish brown, full and sort of wild. On her hands she had sleek, long leather gloves and, when she was introduced to me, she took her glove off before she shook my hand. The lady impressed me. I told her it was the mark of a "gentle person" and, unfortunately, I hadn't encountered many lately and I was surprised. She just looked at me. There wasn't any condescension or sharp comment, just a look that said, "I know." I had met a lady in the most unlikely place.
We went to the set, did the show and afterward, she lingered at the edge of the stage, wanting to hear more about my ides about stress and its effects on the immune system. I thought she was being polite and I was complimented that she didn't jump into her limo that was waiting outside. She had to go to work, but she said she enjoyed meeting me and hoped she'd get a chance to talk again.
Alison Steele told me she had liver cancer and she was convinced that her job and the discrimination she had to battle in the industry had caused it. She was a victim of her fame and she freely admitted it. Alison told me that she had created the nighttime slot and then found herself like the proverbial bird in the gilded cage. Strange, and ironic, therefore, that she should have been the fabled Nitebyrd who despite her power to inspire her listeners was impotent to break out of the cage of night.
I don't remember what it was that caused us to begin calling each other in the last months of her life, but I do remember the sobbing message on my answering machine. I called and I felt helpless. Yes, psychologists feel helpless, too, and especially so when we see that someone is suffering so. Alison cried that she was afraid to die.
Alison wanted to try holistic medicine because multiple surgeries hadn't worked and her doctor wanted to operate again. She'd been to Lenox Hill Hospital more than she wanted and, each time, she told me, she had to tell the radio administration that she was taking a vacation. Alison hadn't had a vacation in years because each of them was really a stint for surgery or chemotherapy. It had left her feeling drained and had ruined her hair. The night of the show she wore a wig and she said, "I looked like an old hooker."
We talked about her career and how it had begun with the station wanting to do something that would increase their listener base. The idea was to have "girl" disk jockeys and Alison was the only one to survive the shake-out. She positioned herself as the sexy voice that could soothe all those lonely night hours for the lonely men in her audience. They loved it when she played "Knights in White Satin."
The effect it had was reinforced on the night I had met her. A stagehand, eager to find another job because he knew he was on a sinking TV program, asked her if she could help. Then he said, "Would you play 'Knights in White Satin' for me?" Of course she would, and she jotted a name and phone number down on a piece of paper for him and told him to call and say she'd recommended him. She didn't know the man from Adam, but she was trying to get him a job, knowing that she couldn't do as much for herself. The station had found their star and kept her in that late night slot, no matter how much she wanted to get into the day slots.
Alison wanted a day slot because she felt her body was being too stressed with the rigors of the nighttime slot. The station wouldn't move her. They also wouldn't pay her what she was worth. As I recall, she got scale, which is a major slap in the face for someone with her fame. She couldn't fight it, she had to quietly accept it and accepting it meant that she knew she had no chips with which to bargain. Leaving was out of the question. She needed her medical insurance.
I heard Alison say something I thought I would never hear a super star say. She told me she had to keep her night job because she was too old to get anything else and she needed the health benefits. No longer the fresh young face, now a woman with terminal cancer, Alison Steele, the woman who made evening fantasies for countless men, needed her health benefits. That's all it came down to. She lived in fear that she would lose it and she couldn't afford to pay her medical bills.
Yes, Alison Steele, by her own admission, was broke. The IRS was pursuing her and snapping up every dollar they could gets their hands on. Alison couldn't afford to keep herself as she needed for her profession. Cosmetic surgery was beyond her reach and no one was coming forth with the $10,000 she needed for a face lift. If she could get one, she felt she might have a chance.
We talked about alternatives to her radio show and how she might go into other professional areas where she could make money and not be exhausted. Alison, who had a marvelous voice dripping with honey, had done one commercial voice-over and I thought it was the logical place for her to go. Look how well Sally Kellerman, the woman who does all the Hidden Valley Ranch voice-overs does, I told her. She agreed, but she didn't have an agent and didn't know what to do. I wasn't an agent and Alison didn't have the strength to find one herself. Everything was at a standstill.
I began reading a book on holistic medicine and I sent a copy to Alison. Quietly, she told me she was seeing a holistic physician who had forbade her to drink milk or eat milk products, "but," she said, "I always feel better when I eat a baked potato with sour cream with my steak." Weekends in the Hamptons with friends helped give her some enjoyment in her life. I don't know how much they knew about her illness because I suppose she wanted to keep this painful secret.
Shortly after we had met, I sent an orchid plant to her and she loved it. Why did I send an orchid? Despite popular belief, orchids look delicate, but they are very hardy and I wanted to send a message of strength to her.
"Do you like cats?" she'd asked. Yes, I told her. If I wanted one, she had a store in Manhattan where she and her sister sold Siamese and Persians. Another sister raised orchids and Alison was going to call her to ask what she should do to care for her plant. That sister, she said, had been married to the actor David Janssen and she had a wonderful penthouse apartment in California. I sensed a bit of wistfulness in her voice as she said it.
I heard from Alison off and on for the next four months and then, around July, I didn't hear from her and I wondered if she'd gone into the hospital for more surgery. We'd talked when she was having chemotherapy and still going to her job, sick to her stomach, every night. The chemo left her feeling wrecked, but she had to work, she needed the health insurance.
In September, or was it October, I heard on the radio that Alison Steele had died and I knew why I hadn't heard since the summer, she was in the hospital using her health insurance.
I called her sister in Manhattan to express my condolences and to tell her what a remarkable woman Alison had been. She thanked me and said Alison had nice things to say about me, too. I was glad because I wanted to be helpful in some way to this woman who was a victim of her fame; a victim of the system that "doesn't show discrimination."
I'd asked Alison once if she'd been discriminated against because she was a woman. Her answer was quick and in the affirmative, but she told me she'd never tell anyone because she needed her health insurance. It all came down to that; she needed her health insurance.
So, Barbara, Deborah, Leslie, Diane, do you all need your health insurance?
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