Whores Galore
Ho'in Hollywood

Unpack your thigh-high pleather boots and break out the fishnets: The hooker is back in fashion. After a celluloid resurgence in the '90s, when Oscar honored both Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) and Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential) for plying the world's oldest profession, the whore is back on her back, only this time she's walking a new beat: the small screen.

See also...
... by Kat Giantis
... in the Dirt section
... from October 21, 1999

Two new TV shows (and one returning) are using hookers as part of story lines. With the networks getting more risqué and Armani-clad execs bandying about the word "edgy" like a mantra, the hooker is proving an effective way to illustrate the moral standards -- or lack thereof -- of a show's cast of characters.

Take Fox's bleep-fest Action, which stars Illeana Douglas as former child star turned high-priced escort Wendy Ward. While Wendy may not be your typical Hollywood hooker with a heart of gold, she at least has a heart, unlike the rest of the people populating Action.

We first meet Wendy after she propositions producer Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr) outside the premiere of his new movie, Slow Torture. He invites her to watch the film with him, and later, when Peter's obsequious minions praise the production, fearful that they'll lose their jobs if they speak the truth, Wendy tells him exactly what she thinks: It sucked.

When prissy Stuart, Peter's president of production, asks who Wendy is, Dragon replies, "She's my prostitute."

Stuart sneers, "She's your whore?"

Peter snaps, "No, she's my prostitute. You're my whore."

The obvious moral is that everyone in Hollywood is for sale if the price is right; Wendy is simply honest about it.

Speaking of price, another lesson learned so far this TV season is that prostitution is extremely lucrative. Unlike her street-corner counterparts, Wendy is making money hand over, er, fist. When Peter offers her a development job at his company, he promises to pay her double what she's currently making. When Wendy informs him she's earning more than $200,000 a year, Peter advises her to keep a few regular clients.

High-priced hooking has also punctuated the first few episodes of NBC's The West Wing, as White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (former amateur porn video star Rob Lowe) unwittingly spends the night with a $3,000-a-pop pot-smoking pro (Lisa Edelstein).

In Action, Peter doesn't try to reform Wendy's hooking ways (she continues to share his bed as part of her job description), but on The West Wing, Sam compares being an escort to alcoholism -- a problem that must be, er, licked.

He embarks on his own little mission to rescue the hooker from "the error of her ways," even though her wicked ways afford her a stylish apartment and tuition to law school. Says an admiring colleague of Sam's reform efforts, "There's something commendable about his behavior." That's to say, more commendable than having a one-night-stand with a woman of questionable reputation he meets in a bar.

But not every TV hooker has a moral to illustrate or a lesson to teach -- some are just an excuse to tell lewd jokes and show off a bodacious honey. Take Norm, the ABC mid-season replacement once known as The Norm Show.

Luscious Nikki Cox, Internet goddess and one-half of the oddest showbiz couple ever (she's engaged to less-than-luscious comedian Bobcat Goldthwait), appeared in the show's pilot episode as Taylor, a prostitute that Norm Macdonald, as a hockey player turned reluctant social worker, must save from a life on the streets.

When he discovers that she's quit her low-paying but court-approved pizza parlor job to take a better-paying gig at a sleazy massage parlor, Norm's initial reaction is to have her give him a rubdown. Later, when he learns his job is on the line unless he finds her more suitable work, he tries to turn her around by telling her, "Look, Taylor, I don't think you understand: You're a huge whore."

Now a series regular, Taylor is working as a receptionist in the social services office, where she serves as eye candy for Macdonald's core male audience. Again, it's selling sex, only this time it's for advertising dollars.

Julia Roberts earned an Oscar nomination for playing a pro in the 1990 blockbuster Pretty Woman, as did more recent big screen whores Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) and Sharon Stone (Casino), proving definitively what most actresses already knew: In Hollywood, you have to sell yourself to get ahead. In other words, if ratings-deprived Action survives (it's being yanked off the air during November sweeps), look for Illeana Douglas on the podium at next year's Emmys.

Kat Giantis writes about popular culture, even though she lives in Seattle.