By Q Bomb
For a while, Cindy Barlow was a household name. Her story caught the fancy of the tabloids, who ate up the tale of a blueblood from a prominent family who was busted for running a prostitution ring. It helped that single, 32-year-old Cindy was glam - slim, pretty, blond hair bobbed, classy-looking and dressed to the nines.
When she walked away with a slap on the wrist, it looked like she had it made: she already had a TV contract for her memoirs, and she was on everyone's guest list, lunching with celebrities and society notables and flitting from one cocktail party to the next and on into the night life. She was an excellent storyteller, and was expert at holding court at parties, a champagne glass in one hand and an hors d'eourve in the other.
I met her two years later, when she was promoting her book. I was writing for a local paper in Sacramento, and she was doing the whole book-tour thing, an endless series of hotel rooms and luncheons and chatting with strangers. She was obviously tired, but she clearly enjoyed the attention.
The first thing I noticed (being the kind of guy I am) was that she looked thicker than she had on television two years ago. Not heavy, just a little sturdier than the willowy figure we'd all seen on the magazine covers. I took her to the best Italian restaurant in Sacramento, which maybe isn't saying much but I figured an East Coast girl would appreciate the effort. We sat down to lunch, and she smiled pleasantly but without feeling, and ordered a glass of white wine, a Caesar salad and, after some hesitation, a plate of fettucine alfredo.
We chatted pleasantly over lunch, as I pumped her for observations about the book and the book tour and her life as an icon of illicit sex. "It's not all it's cracked up to be, you know," she told me in her firm, deep, newscaster-style voice. "The money from the book deal and the TV movie will keep me supported for a while, but with all the legal bills, I'm hardly going to be rich. And there's a certain lifestyle people expect you to keep up." (Or that she expected to keep up, I thought.) "And it's hard to find any kind of work when people associate you with prostitution."
With mischief in mind, I waited until she had her mouth full of fettucine to ask her about reports and details in the book about how she'd kept her girls on strict weight limits and took fines out of their pay if they gained even three or four pounds. She nodded, gulped down the mouthful, took a sip from her second glass of wine, and confirmed that she'd had weigh-ins if she thought anyone was putting on weight. "We had a certain image to cater to, and if a girl wasn't going to meet that, well, I just didn't have room for her." I asked if she'd ever had men ask for bigger girls. "Big breasts, absolutely. Heavier girls ... no, we didn't do that, and I guess the men knew it. There can't be that many men out there who like heavier women, anyway. Wasn't a market worth my time to serve." She took another bite.
After that, her name kept popping up on the society pages, but no pictures. I was only mildly intrigued as of yet, but still. Two years later, after the TV movie came out, I saw in the papers that the glamorous Madam had taken a job working the front desk in a fancy health club. I was disappointed, wondering if my instincts about her had been wrong, if she was workout fanatic now, but there was another note six months later saying that she was complaining again that she couldn't get a job. I figured the health club had been ... not a good fit.
Six years into her life as a celebrity, I saw an item on our gal Cindy in TIME magazine, about her persistent threat (obviously an ongoing publicity stunt) to expose the contents of her 'little black book.' The TIME photo had her in a red suit with a short skirt, lying sideways on a couch. I was excited as I scanned the picture closely, and the evidence was clear: her legs were rather thick now, her once-slim hips extra curvy, and there was more than a hint of a double chin. She had to be carrying a good 15 pounds now, at least, that weren't there back when her face and her legs were all over the TV. Would there be more to come? I worried that I might not see it as she sank further from public view, and that she'd be more likely to slip from view if she got fat. No more 'glamorous' after all.
I had underestimated Cindy Barlow. A year and a half later, I discovered that the just-turned-40 ex-madam had decided to reinvent herself - giving advice! She was traveling around, giving seminars to women on why men cheat and how to win them back. And she was packing in the crowds, from the very types of women whose husbands her business used to cater to. I had to go see, but there was a problem: no men allowed, so I couldn't do the story myself. I had to lay it on thick to convince my editor to let me bring a new recruit - a woman fresh out of college who was writing obituaries - to attend and take notes while I waited outside, so I could write the story (and get a good look at Cindy, who I arranged to interview afterwards, after reminding her agent that I'd had a good rapport with her six years ago). I told my editor that the tag team would be a good learning experience for Tracie, the recruit.
We got to the location, a conference room at a local Days Inn, and were set to start at 8pm. I didn't see Cindy come in, so I was pacing the threadbare carpet, dying with anticipation, when the seminar ended. My reporting 'partner' came bouncing out, but no Cindy. I pumped her for information quickly, before we were to meet Cindy in the hotel bar (I was praying it was well lit). I was thrilled, silently to myself, when she mentioned what Cindy said about her appearance: "People ask me if I'm pregnant. I'm not pregnant. I'm fat. I used to weigh 125, and men turned their heads when I walked by. Now, they look right past me, and that hurts." A far cry from her dictatorial regime of weigh-ins, but Cindy still stressed the importance of staying thin - she told the women at the seminar that they had to stay slim to keep their husbands from cheating, and she blamed her own single condition in part on her weight. "I guess those who can't do, teach," Tracie remarked wryly. She clearly didn't like Cindy and didn't think much of her for gaining weight, either.
After checking the hotel bar to make sure she wasn't there, Tracie and I waited outside the entrance - the lighting was better, and I wanted a good look. I wasn't disappointed. After about ten minutes, Cindy Barlow sauntered around the corner, munching on a chocolate bar. "You'll have to excuse me, I'm starving after that speech back there. Let's go get something to eat, shall we?" I wasn't going to argue. Looking her over, I could see why Cindy got asked about being pregnant - a lot of the recent weight had gone to her waist, giving her a distinct belly that pushed out beyond her breasts. She was wearing a black wool maternity-style dress (remember, it was February) that draped over her figure - it was a big change from the suits and silk blouses she used to favor, but it didn't really do much to hide her expanded figure. Not only did she have a belly, but her hips, so curvy in the TIME photos, had moved upwards and now met the belly in the back to form big love handles. Her legs were thicker all the way down - I could see that even her ankles had gotten fat and there was a roll of flesh sticking up where her poor feet were crammed into a fancy pair of heels. She was still glamorous, perfectly made up, not a hair out of place; I could understand why many men didn't turn their heads at her bloated figure any longer, but it surprised me that she couldn't find some male admirer who was enthusiastic (or at least tolerant) about her fleshy expanses.
We sat down at the hotel restaurant - another comedown in the world from the fancy places she'd been dining last I saw her. She scanned the menu, holding it in her pudgy fingers (her wrists, like her ankles, had a little roll of flesh that dimpled as she moved her hands). She wavered, but ultimately ordered a cheeseburger. "I don't know what it is, but those seminars always make me hungry - I had dinner before I spoke, but here I'm eating again. Very unladylike, I know." She patted the sides of her stomach, which was bulging outward all the more since we sat down, with both hands, and I leaned forward, trying unsuccessfully not to be too obvious about it. She lowered her voice conspiratorially: "I've gained almost 50 pounds since my trial. It's not any one thing, I think, I just eat out too much and can't seem to say no. It's terrible being heavy, I can't find a thing to wear. And the men - well, no offense, but like I tell my seminars, men are like dogs, they live and die with their instincts, and their instincts tell them not to waste their attentions on a woman with my figure. I turned 40 last month - fat, 40, single, and out of work except for these seminars. I had a party with my girlfriends and we had a great time, but they all went home to their husbands, I went home with a doggie bag with half a chocolate cake in it. And that didn't last to the morning."
I reassured her, as inconspicuously as possible, that she still looked great to me, and we talked about other things with her seminars and life on the road - she was blunt, blunter than her reputation as a blueblooded etiquette maven would lead you to believe. She was going to be on the radio later in the week, with a local conservative talk show host who had just announced a deal to go national and was running a weeklong set with a variety of guests. "He's getting so much airplay right now, and if there's one thing I've had to learn, there's no bad publicity, just publicity." I managed to get her help to be in the studio audience.
The radio show was funny, not least because the host, whose politics should have led him to denounce her and line of work, shamelessly flirted with Cindy. He was a big heavy guy himself. And she ate it up, and more impressively ate it up in the fashion of a woman who is used to it, not as an older, heavyset woman who didn't get many dates any more. But then, self-assurance had always been her strong suit.
I tried to stay in touch and saw her again for lunch a month after the show, when she was in San Diego. She was wearing a loose short-sleeve shirt with big red and white horizontal stripes and a tight tan skirt that hugged her belly and thighs in front and her hips in the back. For all her preaching about sex appeal, Cindy walked like a businesswoman, not a siren, but her aggressive strides only made her belly shake all the more as she walked. She ate with calm gusto again, methodically demolishing a plate of chicken cordon bleu and a slice of cheesecake. It was obvious that fine dining was still her biggest weakness. We said goodbye, and I didn't have illusions that this would go anywhere: I was starting a new relationship and she was getting busy with a new business venture, a line of large-size clothes with her famous name on them; she stressed again how hard it was for women her size to find nice clothing. I wished her well, and hoped to see more of her again.