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It is a glorious southern California afternoon—that is the word, at least, from people who have been outdoors in the last seven hours. I am in a grimy corner of Studio City, in a hangar-sized studio that has been tricked out to resemble a cross between the 1988 Republican national convention and the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Around me, shrill children have taken up the chant, "Ice, Ice, baby." It is June 23, my third and final day on the set of the television show American Gladiators. I fear for the future of the republic.
The children chant not for the mousse-abusing, formerly renowned rapper Vanilla Ice, but for Lori Fetrick, a.k.a. Ice, the show's most physically formidable female Gladiator. Fetrick has washboard abdominals, 24-inch thighs on which you could crack walnuts, and the purest tackling form I have seen since the NFL season ended five months ago. Earlier, I had sat riveted as she savaged contestants in Powerball. With continued fascination, I looked on as referee Larry Thompson stopped the action to eject Ice's teammate Blaze—the sculpted, fearsome Sha-ri Pendleton, a former All-America triple jumper at the University of Nebraska—for planting a forearm in a contender's neck.
These women make Thelma and Louise look like Ginger and Mary Ann. I wonder if Pentagon mossbacks opposed to women in ground combat have seen this show. Would they care to explain to Ice or Blaze, to their faces, precisely in what ways they aren't up to the job?
Everyone, it seems, has at least heard of Gladiators, the syndicated, hour-long weekly show featuring folks from all walks of life competing against handsome, maximally muscled, minimally clad men and women in contests with oddball names like The Maze, Hang Tough and Atlasphere. The show, which started its third season in September, runs on 175 stations, and its producers hope to build on its regular viewership of 6.5 million.
That shouldn't be a problem. Gladiators is approaching a kind of cultural critical mass: David Letterman can be counted on to make occasional snide references to the show. Arsenio Hall announced his intention of quitting his talk show job to pursue his true vocation—American Gladiating. Mattel, the toy company, is spending nearly $15 million to produce a line of Gladiator action figures. Sports agent David Fishof reports that several of his clients—including Cincinnati Reds pitcher Randy Myers and former New York Giants special-teams player Phil McConkey—have begged him to get them on the show.
Exactly who is tuning in? The show is most popular among males between the ages of 18 and 34, due largely to the fact that the female Gladiators are extremely fit and clad in excruciatingly tight uniforms. The show, which airs on Saturday afternoons in many markets, has also attracted a growing audience of children, who see the Gladiators as flesh-and-blood superheroes.
Cash prizes are at stake, but the contenders aren't in it just for the money. This season's 24 male and 24 female contenders were selected through tryouts in four cities from a pool of more than 10,000. "We're not looking for good athletes," says Dan Goldberg, the show's event producer. "We're looking for great athletes." Once selected, the 48 finalists are flown to Los Angeles for the tapings, which take place in June and July.
Who are these Gladiators, these vascular, hair-sprayed human caricatures? Many were good college athletes who couldn't make it as pros or, in the case of the women, had no professional sports options. All are serious bodybuilders. Jim Starr, the congenial but hard-nosed Laser, was a Montana State linebacker and Mr. Montana who played on the L.A. Rams' 1987 strike team. Dan Clark, a.k.a. Nitro, started two seasons at defensive tackle for San Jose State. Galen Tomlinson—Turbo—was a concrete-company vice-president in Fallbrook, Calif., before auditioning for a Gladiator slot two years ago.
Much is at stake. Not only do they have what Michael Horton, the aging but still menacing Gemini, calls "that superhero Gladiator image to uphold," but they also are graded. The show's producers keep meticulous records on the Gladiators' performances. Those who threaten to become pushovers won't be back the following season. No one takes dives; outcomes are not rigged. "It's fiction," Horton says of pro wrestling. "We're fact."
The competition may be authentic, but little else about the Gladiators is as it seems. A few of their physiques—not just the guys'—shout: pharmaceutically enhanced! The Gladiators aren't tested for steroids, but the show's producers comfort themselves with the knowledge that most of the Gladiators are bodybuilders who must submit to testing at competitions. Their tans, so handsomely cocoa on television, turn out to be a weird off-orange in real life. "They come out of a bottle," confides a public relations person. The show's blonds all seem to have had their hair bleached at the same salon—it has a frosty metallic glint found nowhere in nature. Faux, also, I am told by the same catty publicist, are the curves of one particularly well-rounded female Gladiator.