By LAURIE WINER
New York Times
On a May morning in Los Angeles, a beautiful, somber woman sat to the left of the lawyer who would present her case to a room of about 75 reporters, photographers and camera people. "We are here today because another alleged victim of Roman Polanski's sexual predatory conduct has come forward," the lawyer explained, her face set in a familiar, concerned frown as the cameras whirred. "Charlotte Lewis, of London, England, who appeared in Roman Polanski's film Pirates, alleges that she was victimized by Polanksi when she was 16 years old."
For the lawyer, Gloria Allred, if not for her client, this was not an unusual morning. Over the past three decades, Allred's face has appeared with remarkable regularity as - depending on one's perspective - a feminist avenging crusader or a deluxe ambulance chaser catching a ride on the latest tabloid scandal.
"Other victims should come forward to talk to law enforcement or to talk to me," urged Allred, who was sitting atop a Yellow Pages directory to make her 5-foot-2 frame more visible.
It is in this large white room with its clear view of the Hollywood sign that you may have seen Allred sitting next to one of Tiger Woods' alleged lovers, Veronica Siwik-Daniels, just as in earlier days she had famously sat alongside Amber Frey, the former girlfriend of convicted murderer Scott Peterson; the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman; the aggrieved ex-girlfriends of Charlie Sheen, Shaquille O'Neal and Dodi Fayed; an aspiring singer named January Gessert, attempting to make it clear that she played no part in the breakup of Kim Kardashian and Reggie Bush; Woods' kindergarten teacher, Maureen Decker, repudiating an often-repeated tale that Woods was the victim of racial epithets as a young child; and a host of women whose faces loop through TMZ.com, Us Weekly and People.
A quick trip through YouTube will also yield a Technicolor parade of other cases with which Allred has associated herself, including, most recently, that of Debrahlee Lorenzana - the nicely endowed woman with a penchant for fitted suits whose appearance seemed to upset her bosses at Citibank.
As cameras clicked and reporters scribbled notes, Lewis, with Allred looking on supportively, said she had come forward after the alleged offense to "make sure justice is finally done and that Polanski gets what he deserves."
Polanski is under house arrest in Switzerland, waiting to see if he will be extradited to the United States over a 1977 case in which he was charged with raping a 13-year-old girl; he pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor but fled the country before final sentencing.
Lewis would later describe Allred as "a terrier," explaining that she hoped to affect a judge's ultimate sentencing of Polanski in that 1977 case with her own story of what she said happened to her in 1982. She decided to hire Allred after reading her 2006 book, Fight Back and Win.
Two weeks before that press conference, on a much quieter Los Angeles morning, Allred, who turns 69 this week, sat at the same extra-long table, impeccably turned out, as she always is - this time in beige pants and a beige jacket, a silk scarf with splashes of red and black, gold earrings and a gold chain around her neck. Her short hair was neatly streaked and coiffed, her skin impressively youthful and her makeup careful and judicious. She is small and trim, though she does hardly any exercise. "Fighting injustice keeps you young," she said.
Allred's definition of injustice is sweeping. At this point in time she is in the news for assisting Rachel Uchitel and Siwik-Daniels (perhaps better known as the adult film star Joslyn James), two of the many women who have emerged in the life of the prolific golfer Woods. "Whatever number you have read is probably right," Allred said. (The National Enquirer reported 121.)
She also recently represented Vanessa Lopez in a suit against the basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, and accompanied Kate Gosselin's brother, Kevin Kreider, and his wife, Jodi, as they testified during an emotional Pennsylvania legislative hearing on child-labor laws.
But the overwhelming majority of cases handled by her 10-lawyer office, Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, involve workplace discrimination and wrongful termination, and Allred has handled many heart-wrenching cases that don't make the tabloids.
There is also no question that her high-profile work has helped to make it one of the most well-known litigation firms in the country. Michael Maroko, Allred's law partner of 35 years, said he first noticed her in class at Loyola law school; she was the student who was always challenging the professor.
"Whenever I go to a dinner party," he said, "someone inevitably asks me, 'Who is your PR person?' We don't have a PR person. In 35 years we've never paid one penny for PR. Gloria just has an ability to handle the mishegas. She can face 150 cameras as cool as a cucumber."
If today it sometimes seems as though Allred is living in the nascent feminism of the 1970s, so, in a way, are many of her firm's less visible clients: women (and men) who have been sexually harassed or fondled at work, girls who've been molested, or female prison inmates forced to wear handcuffs while delivering their babies. Those who support Allred argue that cases like those of Lorenzana and Citibank fit into this galaxy - but with tabloid glare, notoriety and guaranteed publicity thrown into the mix.
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and law professor at Fordham University, sees Allred as what he calls "a moral attorney," which he defines as someone who takes on a case without any thought for her own reputation or even whether she's going to win or lose in the courtroom.
"She represents people whom we might not want to go to lunch with," Rosenbaum said, "and she ruffles the feathers of people who think lawyers should confine themselves to the courtroom. She takes on issues that are too messy for the courtroom. Some people think it's salacious, what she's bringing into the public square. She's in effect saying: 'I move the ball out of this arena and take it into this arena. Being a quiet, demure woman will get this case nowhere.' "
The first thing to understand about Gloria Allred is that she does not care what you think about her relationship to the media. If you search for any sense of embarrassment or shame, such as you might feel if your name were a late-night punch line for any joke regarding overly tenacious lawyering, you will not find it. It doesn't exist. Her relationship to the media is like Oprah Winfrey's to money. It is uncomplicated, and you are free to project onto it whatever you like.
Recently, comedian Chelsea Handler spoke for those who feel less than sympathetic toward Allred and some of her clients. "I understand Gloria Allred is an attorney, but if all she's concerned about is women who are wronged, there are plenty of women with regular jobs in the Midwest that nobody has ever heard of who have been cheated on by their husbands," Handler wrote on her blog. Earlier, on her late-night talk show, Handler had been even more explicit: "She's the worst. She's the worst. Talk about setting the women's movement back a hundred years."
Whatever your response to her style, it is indisputable that Allred has carved a place for herself in popular culture. Her name popped up in an April Saturday Night Live sketch involving a high school student, played by Justin Bieber, who warns his amorous teacher, played by Tina Fey, that he's "going to call Gloria Allred." In the current issue of Harper's Bazaar, Allred is photographed dressed in armor as a modern-day Joan of Arc.
When a crew from the CBS entertainment news show The Insider came to Allred's midtown Los Angeles office one afternoon last month to ask her why she had taken on Siwik-Daniels' case, Allred spoke without a note of reticence: "These women have no money, no power. There are very serious consequences when women are not empowered. Humiliation, depression, poverty."
She put on her do-not-mess-with-me face. "It is very frightening to feel alone when you are standing against a rich and powerful person and all his attendant helpers," she said. "It's dangerous out there. It's the Wild West. People come to me to tell them how to manage the maelstrom. And the defense" - here she allows herself a little smile - "the defense just hopes the woman doesn't hire Gloria Allred."
At ease in Malibu
On a recent spring Saturday, Allred was wearing a classic fuchsia St. John pantsuit as she greeted me at her weekend place in Malibu, Calif. The house, which came furnished when she bought it eight months ago, is one of those spaces that, when you step inside, makes you feel as if you are floating on the ocean, which in fact can be seen from every window. She has added very little to her new home, which includes bedrooms for her daughter and two grandchildren, aside from family photos and a painting or two.
The open kitchen looked little used; Allred confirmed that suspicion. She did take cooking classes when she was married to her second husband, the former lawyer William Allred, but those days are long gone. They divorced in 1987 after 19 years of marriage, and she will never remarry, she said. "I'm not interested in dating. I like being with my own best friend, me. Certain women, particularly older women, cannot believe I like going to a social event by myself. But I do."
Allred's daughter, Lisa Bloom, joined us for lunch at a restaurant up the street from her mother's home. She is attractive, fit, vegan. Like her mother, she is a lawyer who frequently represents clients whose lives intersect with the famous. At the moment, she is representing Lindsay Lohan's father, Michael Lohan, who is trying to force the celebrity into a drug treatment center.
Bloom was explaining her mother's worldview. "She is deeply offended when someone in power takes advantage of a woman," she said. Her mother joined in: "My work is not about popularity contests. It's not even about justice. Justice would be that they had never been raped or abused or fired."
This seemed like a good moment to bring up the subject of a three-point calamity that shaped the young Allred. She was a divorced single mother by age 21, left without child support. At 25, when she was working as a teacher at Jordan High School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, she was raped while on vacation in Mexico. As a result, she underwent an illegal abortion that landed her in an intensive-care unit, where, while almost bleeding to death, a nurse told her, "This will teach you a lesson."
"I originally thought it was my own bad luck," Allred said. "Eventually I figured out there was something systematic in the way women are treated."
Allred returned to the subject of her work: "Some women fought very hard to get us our rights. They were vilified at every turn. So now we are here to reinforce those rights, to protect those rights. Women can't enjoy equal opportunity if they are sexually harassed at work." Whether or not she plays out her cases in front of the cameras, Allred - who said that "most cases that we take are on a straight contingency" - sees the media as part of the message.
"The concept of fairness is always culturally defined," she said. "Even here, where we think we are such an advanced nation, people advise women to grin and bear harassment in the workplace. I say, 'Do complain.' It's only going to get worse. We have rights so that we don't have to go like beggars with cups in our hands asking for mercy. We have to be heard in the court of public opinion as well as in the actual courts. Silence is the enemy."