TV/Critic's Notes (Cable)
‘Deal or No Deal’ Gets a Revival, but Should Its Bevy of 26 Models?
By Lara Zarum, The New York Times
- Dec. 9, 2018
Game shows are as old as television, and for as long as they have existed, producers have decorated their sets with beautiful women who don’t say much but just might make your dreams come true.
Perhaps nowhere has that format proved more tenacious than on CNBC’s “Deal or No Deal,” which returned for a new season Wednesday after a nearly 10-year hiatus, and features 26 female models in matching high heels and short, skintight dresses. It’s a formula that helped make “Deal” a prime-time hit when it debuted on NBC in 2005.
That was 13 years ago. But in 2018, as the culture continues to grapple with the way women have been disregarded and sometimes abused by Hollywood and its machers, “Deal” and shows like it raise an awkward question: Is this a convention whose time is up?
Series like “Deal” encapsulate the paradox of the modern game-show modeling gig: On one hand, it offers a stiletto-heeled foot in the door for many young women who aspire to careers in entertainment — Meghan Markle and Chrissy Teigen, among others, got their starts on “Deal or No Deal.”
Vanna White, who has been turning letters on “Wheel of Fortune” since 1983, has shaped that gig into a long, multifaceted career. “I’ve turned what I’ve been a part of for 36 years into other things, and I don’t feel any lower than Pat Sajak,” she said, referring to her male co-host. “I feel equal to him.”
On the other hand, it is unclear whether those advantages are worth the broader message it may communicate in the wake of #MeToo
“I do feel it’s a bit tone deaf,” said Nicole Martins, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington who focuses on media and body image. “These women are used as eye candy, and it reinforces the idea that these women should be appreciated for how they look.”
Things have changed since the days of “Barker’s Beauties” on “The Price Is Right,” named for the show’s older male host, Bob Barker. Yet, despite profound changes in television, hot girls in heels holding and gesturing to objects have remained a staple of contest programming.
The earliest game shows, like the popular 1950s program “Queen for a Day,” featured models posing in fur coats and gowns and holding prizes next to wide grins. Carol Merrill, the model on the original run of “Let’s Make a Deal,” from 1963 to 1977, said she grew up watching shows like “Queen for a Day.”
“I’d see the gals and they’d be holding the products close to their faces and smiling into the camera,” she said, “and I really never knew their names.”
That began to change while Merrill was on “Let’s Make a Deal.” That show’s host, Monty Hall, said her full name each time he called on her, making her the first game-show model to become a household name. Although Merrill didn’t wear a microphone, hearing her name over and over piqued the audience’s curiosity.
“We got letters saying, ‘Can she talk, even?’” Merrill said. In response, the writers planned a kind of gag for the show’s 2,500th episode: Hall asked Merrill a couple of questions, and Merrill finally spoke. And spoke.
“I talked and I talked, like I am now,” she said, “and they went away to a commercial and they came back and I was still talking.”
For as long as game shows have existed, so has the tendency of many to reinforce gender stereotypes. Early entries like “Queen for a Day,” “Supermarket Sweep,” and “Missus Goes-a-Shopping” confined female contestants to the role of homemaker, competing to win a cart full of groceries or a new baby crib. Invariably these shows were — and for the most part, still are — hosted by authoritative men in suits.
Elana Levine, a professor of media studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied the sexualized role of women in American television, sees the persistence of the game-show model is a bow to nostalgia. As these programs reboot for new generations, the models are a comfortingly consistent feature.
“But game shows are about winning money or commercial goods, and the figure of the spokesmodel is very much part of that,” Levine added. “She’s kind of on display as another product.”
On “Deal or No Deal,” that display is ostentatious. At the top of each show, its host, Howie Mandel, greets the throng of models: “Hello, ladies!” The women reply in singsong unison: “Hi, Howie.” Each “briefcase girl” holds a case containing a dollar amount between $1 and $1 million, which she reveals at the contestant’s request.
The models themselves often have a more positive perspective, and their role is generally more evolved than it once was. In the revived version of “Deal or No Deal,” they interact more with the contestants than in the previous version, and when they speak, their full names and Twitter handles appear onscreen.
Mahogany Lox, a model on the revival, said the producers encouraged the women to be themselves. A singer and a D.J. (her grandfather is the Motown founder, Berry Gordy), she released a single last month titled “No Deal.”
“They want your personality to shine and for you to connect with the people,” she said.
Game-show fixtures like Merrill and White helped popularize the idea that a TV model could be more than just a pretty face. Officially, White is Sajak’s co-host on “Wheel of Fortune.” But she faced derision early on for the perceived simplicity of her job.
“I was put down quite a bit for that in the beginning,” she said.
That role has been a mostly silent one. (When White published a memoir in 1987, she called it “Vanna Speaks!”) But White has used the visibility to her advantage, building her status as a public personality and pop-culture icon. That has included lucrative spokeswoman gigs for companies like Spring Air mattresses and Lion Brand yarn, which designed White — an avid knitter — her own line.
Historically, the game-show-model format has exposed glaring inequalities, both onscreen and off. Kathleen Bradley, who in 2014 published a memoir about her experiences on “The Price is Right,” became the first long-term African-American game-show model when she was cast — in 1990.
But despite her 10-year presence on the show, she and her fellow models were never offered proper contracts, working week-to-week. “Price” and Barker were accused of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination in multiple lawsuits in the 1990s. (Barker has denied the accusations.)
The former “Price” model Gwendolyn Osborne-Smith said there was a sea change in the dynamic between host and model when Drew Carey replaced Barker in 2007. She recalled being present during an interview when Carey was asked what he wanted the models to be called, now that they were no longer “Barker’s Beauties.”
“And he said, ‘They’re not mine,’” Osborne-Smith said. “‘They’re their own people, and you can call them by their names.’” The models felt freer to be themselves during interviews after that, she said.
By 2010, the models of “Price” were wearing microphones on set — with Carey, they became more like a sitcom ensemble, bantering with the host and the contestants. In 2012, the show hired its first male model, and it now has two regular male models, James O’Halloran and the former N.F.L. player Devin Goda.
Bradley said she welcomed the changes. “They have incorporated the models much more into the show, which is great,” she said. “I like how they have them speak.”
Mike Richards, the executive producer of “Price is Right,” said his biggest challenge was to balance respecting the tradition of a long-running series with making a show that felt current.
“I’ve been on the show 10 years now,” Richards said, “and everything we’ve done is threading that needle, whether it’s changing the set, the lighting, the prizes, new games, redoing old games, how the models and the announcer are used. We the producers don’t take any of it for granted.”
Levine, the Wisconsin media professor, argued that the tradition’s value was not self-evident.
“This is the way game shows have been for a long time,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not still really sexist, and really troubling that this is the way for a young woman to establish herself.”