Gloria Allred believes there’s an epidemic of sexual harassment and discrimination against women in companies across America. “Grabbing women by the butt. Putting their hand down their shirt. Groping their breasts,” she says over dinner one night in New York, describing the cases she hears about all the time between bites of branzino, no butter. Allred’s compact, ageless body is sheathed in a melon-colored jacket that pops off a TV screen, and she barely blinks when she speaks. “Putting their hand up into their private, genital area. And grabbing,” she continues. “Forcing them to watch pornography. Taking them on business trips and making sure they come into their bedroom. Making promises that are never kept. It is truly revolting.”
Allred, 71, is a partner at the Los Angeles law firm Allred, Maroko & Goldberg and a self-described avenger for women’s rights. There’s no one term that captures exactly what she does: Part activist lawyer, part publicist, she’s an unavoidable presence on cable TV who provides a steady stream of material to gossip websites such as TMZ.com and Radar Online. There are few people whose voice on the other end of a phone line is as likely to strike terror into the heart of a politician or a general counsel. What drives her, she says, is the ongoing “tidal wave” of abuse committed by men in positions of power. That and attention, which Allred seeks out like a starving person looking for food.
She’s been involved in many serious civil rights cases, such as the 2004 lawsuit that led to the California Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry. But Allred is more commonly associated with her tabloid cases. She represented Sharon Bialek, the big-boned blonde who publicly accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment and helped put an end to his presidential campaign; at least two alleged Tiger Woods mistresses, whose revelations helped push the golf great into a two-year professional slump; and actress Jodie Fisher, whose accusations of sexual harassment against Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Chief Executive Officer Mark Hurd led to his swift and undignified departure from the company and a confidential settlement. Allred can be counted on to surface even in instances where there’s no obvious legal issue at play, simply because someone in the news wants to “speak out”—one of Allred’s favorite terms—and a dozen media outlets want to listen. In almost every situation, the pressure Allred brings to bear is the same: She has the power to summon the television satellite trucks.
One executive who worked on the opposing side of one of Allred’s cases says that he marvels at her business model. What’s most effective about it, says the executive, who did not wish to be identified because it could jeopardize future cases, is that boards of directors, executives, and celebrities will pay whatever it takes to make her go away. Even those sympathetic to Allred’s larger fight for equal rights find her polarizing: “She’s such a publicity hound, and people don’t think of her as a real working lawyer,” says Deborah Kelly, a partner with the law firm Dickstein Shapiro who specializes in employment law and who debated Allred over one of her cases. “I think it makes people cynical and trivializes the plight of the real victims of discrimination.”
Photograph by Brian Finke for Bloomberg Businessweek
The two faces of Allred—the earnest crusader and the tabloid queen—were in evidence on May 21, when she blasted out a news release to her formidable list of press contacts: “Can A Woman Be Fired Because She Is ‘Too Hot’ Looking?” Reporters and photographers converged on a conference room at the Omni Berkshire Place Hotel in Manhattan, and at the appointed hour, a nervous young man scurried in carrying a garment bag, a pink striped umbrella, and two ladies’ handbags. Allred and her new client hovered outside the door for a few beats as anticipation built among the reporters—what did this “too hot” woman look like?—and then made their entrance, marching down the aisle and clinging to one another like widows at a Mafia funeral.
Allred’s client was a curvaceous 29-year-old with bleached blonde hair and a clingy black dress named Lauren Odes; if the hoopla and flashbulbs startled her, she didn’t let on, instead staring vacantly into the distance as if she’d been instructed not to smile. Allred projected concerned seriousness as she explained that she had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces employment discrimination laws, on Odes’s behalf. She also made ominous references to “recordings” Odes had of her former boss at Native Intimates, a local lingerie wholesaler where Odes had worked in data entry. “We allege that she was fired for being too attractive,” Allred intoned. Odes then read her own statement, describing how her bosses had complained that she was distracting men in the office, instructing her to cover up in a red bathrobe.
“Can I have the black bag, please?” Allred asked. Her nervous male assistant handed up glasses of water and later several ladies’ outfits—a purple dress with ornamental zippers, a tunic with leggings—to display as examples of what Odes wore to work.
“Is it possible to say what is the size of your breasts?” a female camera operator shouted at Odes. Allred glowered. “We don’t think it’s relevant,” she said.
Odes’s case now sits with the EEOC, and it may stay there for months while the commission investigates her claims. But the story was on the cover of the New York Post the following day, with the headline “Rack and Ruin: I Was Fired Over My Big Breasts: Suit.” Native Intimates and every other employer got the message: If you pull out the checkbook quickly enough when confronted with a similar accusation, you might be able to avoid this kind of public-relations disaster—one more expertly engineered media spectacle in Allred’s relentless campaign against sexist pigs.
“I have seen so much that is so bad that happens to women,” Allred says over dinner, as she polishes off her fish. “Every time I think I’ve seen them all, there’s a new one. Some very intelligent men can be so successful in business, and so stupid in the workplace—so lacking in judgment, such risk takers. Exposing themselves and their companies. It’s incredible. Really incredible.”
There are two developments that made it possible for a figure such as Gloria Allred to become such a ubiquitous presence in the cultural ether. On the one hand, the equal rights movement and growing awareness of discrimination against women in the workplace put a damper on men-only want ads and the Mad Men era of secretaries getting their bottoms patted, and encouraged women to take legal action when they were treated unjustly. On the other, there was the explosion of cable TV, which created a limitless appetite for the kinds of sensational stories involving sex, violence, and scandal that Allred is well positioned to deliver. By having one foot firmly planted in each world, Allred tries to maintain a balance between two oppositional forces: half suffragette, half circus act.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended in 1991 to make it easier for employees to sue their employers for gender or race discrimination. That was also the year that Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, exploded into living rooms across America, prompting a public discussion about men and women in the workplace and what was acceptable behavior and what wasn’t. “Here we had C-SPAN-televised hearings,” says Jack Tuckner, a civil rights lawyer with Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sipser. “This person—ironically, he was head of the EEOC in Washington—was assisted by this beautiful young woman of color, and everything she was saying about him, that he was unqualified, he was a predator, that he told her what pornography he was renting, was put before the public.”
A year later, in 1992, a secretary named Rena Weeks filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against the international law firm Baker & McKenzie, alleging sexual harassment against one of the firm’s star attorneys. (One of the many allegations was that the high-ranking lawyer had dropped M&Ms into the front pocket of her blouse and groped her outside a Sizzler restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif.) Weeks was awarded $6.9 million in damages, later reduced to $3.5 million, and the case became a landmark example of what was going on in many offices at the time.
According to EEOC filings, the number of charges of sexual harassment that came through the agency went from 6,127 in 1990 to 15,889 in 1997, and charges of sex-based discrimination reached 24,728 in 1997 (they stood at 11,364 and 28,534 in 2011). “Sex discrimination continues to be a problem,” says Ernest Haffner, a senior attorney with the EEOC. Charges of pregnancy discrimination and employee retaliation—firing or demoting employees because they made discrimination complaints, among other things—have also gone up steeply. And while the number of sexual harassment claims filed with the agency has decreased since 1997, likely due in part to increased pressure on employers to address it, Haffner says it’s still a major issue. “Just in the past month I found seven cases dealing with sexual harassment where we settled,” he says. Because many cases are not reported or are settled confidentially, the EEOC statistics don’t show the full picture.
“I am a civil rights lawyer and a feminist,” Allred writes in her 2006 book, Fight Back and Win, which reads like a campaign memoir in its myth-making approach. “I am a warrior and a passionate advocate for the people I represent. For the past thirty years, I have been fighting on the front lines for victims’ rights.” She was born Gloria Bloom in a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, to a mother who stayed at home and a father who was a door-to-door salesman. She attended an elite all-girls’ public high school and later the University of Pennsylvania on a partial scholarship, where she met her first husband, Peyton Bray. They married, and Allred gave birth to her only child, daughter Lisa Bloom, an author as well as a lawyer with a taste for celebrity cases (“there was a lot of consciousness-raising,” Bloom says of her childhood). After divorcing Bray and completing college, Allred moved as a single mother to Los Angeles, where she worked as a public schoolteacher.
In 1966 she had what she describes as a “life-changing” experience that led to her decision to become a lawyer focused on victims’ rights: She was raped at gunpoint while on vacation in Acapulco. She became pregnant and underwent a dangerous illegal abortion in California, prompting her commitment to “assuring that abortion is safe, legal, and available.” She got married for the second time, to the well-off founder of an aircraft parts business named William Allred. (The two divorced bitterly in the late 1980s, around the time he was indicted on federal fraud charges, for which he spent time in prison.) At age 30, Allred started law school, graduating from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, where she met her two law firm partners, Michael Maroko and Nathan Goldberg. “The only reason I noticed her was because she stood up and was a firebrand,” Maroko says. “It’s amazing, she really hasn’t changed.” The three founded their practice as a plaintiffs’ firm focusing on civil rights cases in 1976.
Allred made a name for herself fighting to overturn the men-only membership policies at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills and the Elks Club in California; battling disparate pricing policies for males and females at a dry cleaner’s and a children’s hair salon in Los Angeles; and arguing that prostitutes deserved protection from being raped. A pixelated video of Allred shows her conducting a consciousness-raising “workshop” at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in Yosemite National Park in 1981. The young agitator sits cross-legged in the forest, a lady-Abbie Hoffman in blue jeans, mannish tan shirt, and helmet of dark hair sheared almost to her scalp. “I decided that you have to make a shock into the psyche,” she cries, recounting the graphic way she’d described childbirth to a judge in her battle for the rights of female prison inmates in Los Angeles County to give birth without being chained to their beds. “You can’t just wax academic or play nicey-nice. You’ve got to shock them into understanding these things!” Even then, she knows her M.O.: “What happens when they bring political pressure is you bring political pressure back and you bring in the media!”
After watching the outcome of the Clarence Thomas hearings with what she describes as “horror,” Allred took on the case of Senator Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican who was accused of sexually harassing many women who’d worked for him. She lobbied the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the allegations against Packwood, ultimately leading to his departure from the Senate in 1995. “There had already been enough lip service on the issue of sexual harassment,” Allred writes. “It was time for action, not words.”
In 1994 she became embroiled in the case that is probably most responsible for transforming the television news media into the 24/7 celebrity gossip machine it has become. Allred decided to advise Nicole Brown Simpson’s family through the O.J. Simpson “trial of the century,” which dragged on for almost two years. After that, there were cases (sometimes non-cases) involving rocker Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe; Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana; and actor Robert Blake. In 1997, Allred won $5 million on behalf of actress Hunter Tylo, who was fired from the show Melrose Place after its producers found out she was pregnant; on Fox News, Allred compared her to Susan B. Anthony.
As the years passed, Allred developed a reputation as more of a wrangler, while her partners, Maroko and Goldberg, along with seven other attorneys working at their firm, were in the trenches dealing with the more serious, less public cases. Allred calls herself the “triage person” at the firm, the one who can be airlifted in to provide a little star power in the courtroom or take on celebrity causes for free that serve as loss leaders for more lucrative ones. It appears to be a successful business model: Allred says that she and her partners have won more than $250 million for clients over the past 10 years, much of it through confidential settlements.
“We take all cases as a firm,” Allred says. “I may be involved for one stage of it, but not for another stage of it. It depends on the case.” As Moroko puts it: “She has multiple roles. She spends a lot of her time identifying issues that are interesting, and that she determines to be newsworthy, and then speaking out on them.”
“I watched her fight to become that public figure,” says Robin Tyler, a longtime Allred friend and a plaintiff in the California gay marriage case. “People say she’s too famous, but the fact is she’s attained a position where she can command the media, and people know she’s coming after them. I think it’s good.”
The standard procedure in a harassment case begins with a “demand letter,” which outlines the accusations in detail and offers the harasser, often a high-level executive, the opportunity to settle the whole thing quietly. It’s an art that Allred has honed over the years. In the case of Mark Hurd, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard who was accused of sexual harassment by an actress who was hired to work at company events, the letter was sent directly to him on June 24, 2010, and it read like a boardroom version of Fifty Shades of Grey: “Your hand brushed across her breast,” “You abruptly walked up to her, put your arms around her, looked her in the eye and looked like you were going to kiss her,” and other assertions were included in the eight-page document, which was unsealed by a Delaware court in late 2011. The letter paints a picture of a narcissistic executive who found a reason to hire a woman he found attractive and then used every opportunity to pressure her into an affair. An internal investigation conducted by the law firm Covington and Burling found that while no sexual harassment had occurred, Hurd had violated the company’s standards of conduct.
“It’s not just a letter that’s a paragraph, we take a lot of time,” Allred says, referring to her demand letters in general. “I’ve had women say, ‘I was in the office when he got your letter. … He turned red and white! He got so upset.’ Well, if you’re gonna do that, get ready to be accountable.”
Hurd sent his letter to HP’s general counsel and ultimately hired an attorney, Amy Wintersheimer Findley at Allen Matkins, to represent him. She was recommended by the company based partly on the fact that she was female and had experience with Allred’s law firm. Hurd admitted no wrongdoing but settled with Fisher for an undisclosed amount one day before his resignation from Hewlett-Packard. As is standard with a confidential settlement, Allred will not comment on the case.
In addition to forcing such resolutions, Allred developed a side business as an agent for some of her clients. According to Debrahlee Lorenzana, who sued Citigroup (C) for wrongful termination in 2010 and was briefly represented by Allred, the famous lawyer had her sign two documents when they first agreed to work together. One was a retainer agreement granting Allred’s firm 40 percent of any damages they recovered; the other stated that Allred would be representing Lorenzana in any media deals that came about as a result of her case and taking a commission—Lorenzana remembers the cut being 12 or 15 percent. Lorenzana had accused the bank of firing her for being “too hot,” and an article about her case appeared on the cover of the Village Voice. Allred pitched her as a potential subject to Playboy magazine, according to Lorenzana, although nothing ever came of it.
Lorenzana and Allred ultimately parted ways, less than happily; Lorenzana says that Allred and her co-counsel in New York urged her to sign a settlement agreement with Citigroup that didn’t offer her any monetary damages but would have prevented her from ever speaking publicly about what had happened to her. Lorenzana refused and continued to fight her case on her own in arbitration, where she eventually lost. Allred declined to discuss the circumstances of her withdrawal from the case.
On April 2, somewhere in between press releases subtitled “Attorney Gloria Allred Writes Open Letter to Rush Limbaugh” and “Girlfriend of Miami Cannibal Speaks Out,” Allred announced that she was picking a fight with Donald Trump. Trump’s Miss Universe pageant had disqualified Jenna Talackova, a transgendered Canadian, from competing because of a requirement that all contestants be “natural born” women. Allred took the case pro bono and led the fragile beauty queen through the churning waters of the New York media world, all while trading R-rated barbs with Trump through warring press outlets. “I don’t have a magnifying glass strong enough to see something that small,” Allred said at one point. “The world does not revolve around his penis.” She and Talackova were arguing to have the “natural born woman” rule overturned.
Backstage at The View, ABC’s (DIS) ladies’ chat show, Talackova’s publicist explained why they’d decided to call America’s most famous female attorney to help them: “I saw Gloria on Piers a couple of nights before,” said Rory Richards, of Rory Richards Inc., “and I thought, there’s only one woman who can take on Donald Trump!”
Allred had indeed been on Piers Morgan’s CNN show on March 23 for the full hour, and for the first time the interview was about her rather than one of her clients. Watching the exchange, the disconnect one experiences listening to Allred talk and then seeing some of the ridiculous things she does starts to make a strange kind of sense. When she isn’t busy defending the kinds of cases she takes on, Allred takes almost every opportunity to use the platform she’s gained to spout off about the fight for equal rights and empowerment. “I believe that women must have safe and legal and available abortions in this country, and I’m not going to be willing to go back to the days when states had a right to criminalize abortion!” she tells Morgan. “I can’t support any of those potential [Republican presidential] nominees … because they’re not willing to say that gays and lesbians should enjoy marriage equality. And that is an affront to their dignity!”
Allred says that she has no interest in romance, cooking, or any other leisure activity that people at her stage of life typically fill their time with. She barely eats, barely sleeps, and she won’t lay down her arms, ever. “I like to work the most,” she says, when asked what other things she enjoys in life. “The problems that women have don’t stop on Saturday or Sunday at 5 o’clock. They’re continuing. I only have a limited time on this earth, so I’m racing against the clock.”