One Monday afternoon in the middle of a summer heat wave, the 68-year-old Los Angeles lawyer and feminist provocateur Gloria Allred arrived at the Friars Club in Midtown Manhattan for lunch. The club’s dining room—home of the roasts, thick for decades with comedians from Broadway and the Catskills—is a fussy, overly decorated place, with mincing waiters wafting through, but in Allred’s personal mythology it looms large. In the ’80s, she filed a gender-discrimination complaint and became the first woman permitted to lunch there. (She brought cameras, and Henny Youngman, in his decline, wandered outside to denounce her.) Then she filed another complaint, this time to win women access to the Beverly Hills Friars Club’s sauna, where members were accustomed to steaming in the nude. In addition to cameras (which charitably remained outside), she brought a tape measure: referring to the dangling penises, she sang the old Peggy Lee lyric, “Is that all there is?” This is Allred’s favorite story, and when she tells it, smirking, you catch a glimpse of the young woman scrappy enough to beat Henny Youngman at his own game.
The line between Allred’s ideology and her stunts was short back then, and easy to trace, but it has since grown more convoluted. Allred has been a legal and media figure in Southern California for more than a quarter century, working mostly on discrimination and sexual-harassment cases: she helped carve out protections for rape victims, and the suit she filed on behalf of two same-sex couples seeking to marry eventually led opponents to launch the Proposition 8 campaign. In September, Allred helped alter the shape of the California gubernatorial race when she announced that her client Nicky Diaz Santillan—GOP nominee Meg Whitman’s former nanny and housekeeper—would be filing a claim against the candidate for unpaid wages. But over the past few years, Allred has earned a new level of fame—and a measure of public derision—for representing a remarkably long list of fringe celebrity figures, many of them women with grievances against more-famous men, and winning for them an unlikely 16th minute of fame: the Spice Girl Mel B, suing Eddie Murphy for paternity; an aggrieved ex-girlfriend of Shaquille O’Neal’s; the Octomom, Nadya Suleman. She represents at least two of the women with whom Tiger Woods had affairs—a porn star and a nightclub hostess—and also the golfer’s kindergarten teacher, who claims a story the athlete has told of suffering racist taunts from fellow students is “untrue, absolutely untrue.”
The political themes in these cases can seem faint, and some critics have wondered whether Allred is extending the claims of feminism into an arena— trash culture—where they do not fully apply. (In the span of two weeks this fall, she was satirized on both Glee and Saturday Night Live, a rare pop-culture twofer.) The iconic Allred client these days is a woman who has been attracted to the candle flame of celebrity and then burned by it. “They’re human beings who have been very damaged. You take Joslyn James, for example,” Allred told me. (Joslyn James is the screen name of Veronica Siwik-Daniels, the porn actress who had a three-year affair with Woods.) “She had given up her career, as an adult porn star, a film star, because he had asked her to. Because he couldn’t stand the thought of her being with anyone else. And he told her she was the only one other than his wife.”