You'd think that the life of Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy Playmate of the Year and co-host of MTV's dating show, Singled Out, would be one long beer commercial, filled with good friends! poolside high jinks! windsurfin'! Instead, to hear her tell it, McCarthy's life has been more like a Jackie Collins novel.
As these novels invariably start out, McCarthy's early years were happy ones. The second of four look-alike sisters, she was raised in a "very middle, middle class" Polish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. She remembers her tightknit block as "the kind you see on TV where kids play kickball on the street." Dad was a steel-company foreman who worked two other jobs to put the kids through school; Mom was a hairdresser. Jenny, a bubbly, outgoing girl, naively thought she was going to attend the neighborhood high school with all of her friends. Her parents had other plans: Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, a moneyed, ultraconservative Catholic girls school across town. McCarthy, bearing the cross of being pretty and blue collar, was immediately shunned. "Let me tell ya, it was like Cell Block H," she says. "I'm not trying for sym-pathy, but as an example, for your birthday, the girls would decorate your locker and put Dunkin' Donuts inside. Well, every birthday I would miss school. Everybody knew it was my birthday, and nothing would be there." Occasionally, McCarthy's classmates would enlist male friends to call Tony, her boyfriend. "They'd say, 'I fucked Jenny last night,' " says McCarthy, whispering the F word. Or the girls "would take my maxi pads out of my purse as a practical joke and tape them all over the school and write my name in lipstick in the middle of them."
An eternity passed, and it was time for graduation. "I remember walking up to get my diploma," says McCarthy, "and there was no applause except my little mom and dad. I wanted to say, 'I've been nothing, nothing but nice. I've given you my heart, and you've given me... coal.' "
Free at last, McCarthy headed for Southern Illinois University. After two years she ran out of money and tearfully returned home to work in a Polish grocery store, "slicing meat and smelling like a big Polish link." "I've got to get out of here," she thought. She tried local modeling agencies. "There's no way you will ever model," said one rep. "You look like you work in a bar." Dejected, McCarthy started for home. Now what? "I was walking down the street," McCarthy says, "and I looked up."
The Playboy building.
Fifty guys, 50 girls. It doesn't sound like many people. Yet in the Los Angeles studio where the first shows ofSingled Out's third season are being taped, the room is seething, boiling with kids. They're here to compete for a date with a member of the opposite sex, known as the Picker. To do this, they will answer various up-gross-and-personal questions and perform such stunts as belly dancing and butt-cheek basketball.
Commandeering this ship of fools is 23-year-old Jenny McCarthy. Blond, blue-eyed and suffused with the energy of a 2-year-old in critical need of Ritalin, she is the perfect host of Singled Out. As she puts it, "I'm not trying to be a supermodel up there. In fact, I make a complete jackass out of myself." She yells her lines. She mugs for the camera in a way not seen since Uncle Miltie. She pummels the male contestants. She's superapproachable, creating the illusion that shemight even date you!Yes, she may be a babe, but she can also hoist a coupla Red Dogs with the fellas.
Jenny McCarthy is poised to take her place in the thin blond line of teen fantasy objects that stretches back at least as far as Jean Harlow. MTV may cast her in a sitcom. She's fielding movie offers. A recent Internet tally reveals that McCarthy is No. 2 on a list of the people whom users want information about. Pamela Anderson Lee is No. 1 Madonna is No. 6.
Onstage a not-altogether-healthy energy is building as a sideburned announcer, standing next to a board marked Body, Nose, Hair Length, Intelligence, Commitment and Body Hair, further riles up the twitching, hooting contestants. "Remember to be very animated!" he says unnecessarily. "So! We have a new thing called a redemption ticket! Can I have six guys stand up!" A group duly rises – among them a Teva-sandaled surfer dude, a recently goateed Hootie fan and a sullen cool guy with an interesting sunglasses-on-baseball-cap ensemble.
"OK!" shouts the announcer, pointing at one guy. "You won the ticket! Even if you're not happy, be happy! Everybody say, 'Make believe!' "
"Make believe!" they shout lustily.
"Then you come over here," says the announcer, "and Jenny McCarthy's going to be there to greet you!"
A deafening cheer goes up.
Off to the side of the stage, McCarthy, wearing high heels and shiny blue rubber pants, is chatting with her co-host, stand-up comedian Chris Hardwick. Soon she'll kick off the show in the middle of the Pit, surrounded by the aforementioned 50 guys. "Usually they're crowded around me and pressing up against me," she says, "and it's so hot. You'll feel their eyes undressing you. They'll fart. That has happened so many times."
McCarthy, who has a fear of public speaking, remembers her first time in the Pit: "I was scared, and because I was so polite, they were abusing me. I realized I had to stand my ground. I said, 'Listen, move your ass before I kick it.' Then they respected me and didn't abuse me anymore – like push me or make fun of me." Once, however, McCarthy was closed in on and felt up by many hands: "I was saying, 'Security! Security!' into the microphone." She says the recent gay version of Singled Out was very... freeing. "It was so nice not to feel that pressure," she says. "The guys all wanted to be reincarnated into me." She pauses. "Although from the girls I got the same vibes as guys."
Understand that the reason most people are here is that it is fun. Only about half of the winners actually go on dates. ("Yesterday a girl was about to face her date," says McCarthy, "and she was whispering, 'Is he cute? Just tell me if he's cute.' I said, "Well, he's really sweaty.' ") After 130 shows, only 13 couples are still dating.
Basically the kids come to gaze at McCarthy, glom freebies and schmooze. "I gave my card out to a few people," says Michael, 23. "I came here because of the positive energy, everybody laughing and, well, Jenny."
"On this show, the big question is, 'You havin' sex with Jenny?' " says Hardwick, who in all probability is having sex with his girlfriend, Jacinda, from the London cast of The Real World. "That or, 'You havin' sex with contestants?' Next comes, 'What are you, gay?' Or they refer to Jenny by using a pronoun. They'll say, 'Hey! Can you hook me up with some of that?' As if she's a shipment of crank or something."
The editor at Playboy eyed McCarthy. "Usually you send in pictures," she said. "No one has come up to the office before."
"I talked to her for 15 minutes," McCarthy says, "and she said, 'Why don't you take a Polaroid?' Three days later, I'm Miss October 1993. "Turn-ons: guys on Harleys, daredevils, men who aren't afraid to cry or show their emotion Turnoffs: bullies, steroid monsters, guys who give you their business cards and say, "Call me, babe, I can make you a star."
McCarthy steeled herself for the reaction to her new career. First she had to inform the parents. "She was scared to death," says her mother, Linda McCarthy, a vivacious woman with a frequent laugh. "She wrote us each beautiful letters saying how happy she was with her childhood. That's a side of Jenny nobody sees. She's got this big ol' heart." Nonetheless, the news took some adjusting to. "But my husband and I said, 'We'll support her.' At least she wasn't in Penthouse. We knew she was using it as a steppingstone. As well she did."
When word of Jenny's achievement hit Chicago, the townsfolk were slightly less understanding. "To show you how prestigious my school was," McCarthy says, "when the city found out I was in Playboy, every 10 minutes there were special news reports. It was hell. I was O.J. Simpson in Chicago. There was a huge protest in the city." Anonymous callers informed McCarthy that she would burn in hell. News cameras surrounded the grounds of Mother McAuley. "I look at the news," says McCarthy, "and I see my principal and all the nuns screaming at the news cameras, pushing and hitting them to get out of the school. They would interview the young girls coming out of McAuley, and they'd say, 'She's a slut.' I have aunts and uncles that are priests and nuns that I don't talk to anymore because of it."
A furious McCarthy went on the air: "I said, 'The Catholic religion says never cast stones.' I'm like, 'All of you people, why don't you look in the mirror and judge yourself? I didn't hurt anyone. You watch, Chicago! This is a steppingstone! Because I will be back, and I will have made it.' "
My philosophy: Live it up but don't do anything you'll regret when you're 80. Ambition: to succeed in TV Land.
McCarthy's House (1 br, deck, fplce) sits right on the beach near Malibu. Parked at the end of its sun-dappled walkway is a shiny black Mercedes coupe. It is not McCarthy's, however. She has a red Mitsubishi 3000GT that she got for winning Playmate of the Year. It is Ray's. They recently moved in together. You see – and there is no easy way to put this – Jenny McCarthy has a boyfriend.
"Hi!" McCarthy calls. She stands in the doorway. She wears a giant blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the Pepsi logo – standard TV-celebrity graft – as well as black leggings, white sneakers and sunglasses, which are perched jauntily on her head. At her feet snuffles JoJo, a chubby, amiable bulldog named after McCarthy's sister Joanne. A television is always on, and the phone is constantly ringing. It is being answered by an unseen Ray. The muffled sound of wheeling and dealing comes from an office near the doorway. Ray is also McCarthy's manager.
Angels in different forms are scattered throughout the house. "I'm totally addicted to angels," McCarthy says, picking up a glass one. "My mom gave me this. Glass of water?" She opens the fridge, which contains only condiments (the freezer, only french fries, buffalo meat and vodka). McCarthy is open and friendly. Her favorite joke: Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead. Her favorite pickup line: "I was in this bar on spring break with my girlfriends, and I was drinking my beer with a straw. This guy with a Long Island accent comes over and says, 'Yo, why do you got a straw in your beeah?' " She danced with him all night.
Today, away from the cameras, McCarthy is calm – serene, even: "People don't see this side of me. They don't know I read, like, 800 million spiritual books. Lately I am just really getting into a lot of spirituality." She crosses the hall to the bedroom, which is surprisingly modest: a Lucite makeup table, a large bed with a tasteful earth-tones bedspread and a book, Journey Into Oneness: A Spiritual Odyssey, on the bedside table.
"I don't really go out much at all," McCarthy says. "But there are times when I'm like, 'I gotta get out.' Then we go to Vegas, and we'll gamble." She turns toward the office. "Vegas, honey, maybe next weekend?"
A 40ish man with a deep tan and a passing resemblance to Ted Danson zips into the room. Ray Manzella has managed Suzanne Somers, Vanna White, Pamela Anderson Lee and, as of two years ago, Jenny McCarthy. "The Hard Rock casino in Vegas is so cool," he says. "You have Led Zeppelin chips, Janis Joplin chips. In the room, they have rock & roll channels that are insane. At the opening we had a ball." McCarthy and Manzella live quietly – ordering pizza, watching movies. "I turned her on to Bond movies," he says. "And old Goldie Hawn films, because I think she's the Goldie Hawn of the future." He leaves to take a phone call.
"I've been going out with Ray for about a year," McCarthy says. He has the qualities she looks for in a man: "sense of humor, mature in thought, no game playing, a strong spirit. And Ray doesn't care what people think. People in this town go to restaurants and act really stuck up, where we'll be in a fancy restaurant and he'll start singing really loud. And ever since we got to know each other's souls and stuff, there's been no age gap."
Shockingly, McCarthy has basically had three boyfriends in her life – one of whom she was engaged to. "I'm the worst person to tell anybody how to date," she says. It seems that McCarthy leads a fairly simple life. "When I'm feeling fiesta-ish, I'll have a Long Island," she says. Otherwise, she goes to church, she reads Journey Into Oneness, she calls her mom.
McCarthy's mother clearly adores her daughter: "Jenny was always high-spirited, just a sweet little thing. She always made everybody laugh. And she always had a real pretty quality about her." Once she put her daughter in a "cutest baby" contest: "She didn't win, and I was, like, shocked. I was like, 'Where are their eyes?' " Turns out they picked "some little boy in a train engineer's outfit," she says disgustedly. "I should have put her in a costume. I mean, he was a year old, and he was bald."
McCarthy's mom remembers the day her daughter joined the MTV family. "I was happy, my gosh," she says. "Very, very happy. That meant that she wasn't in the Playboy anymore."
The day the October Playboy hit the stands, McCarthy packed up a U-Haul and drove straight for Los Angeles. Soon after she arrived, she was crowned Playmate of the Year. This may sound like champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but here is the reality: conventions, signings, store openings, nonstop traveling ("Fly coach to France for dinner with some stupid guy, then dinner in L.A. with some other stupid guy") and, finally, "learning how to deal with feminists." Still, she says, she owes Playboy: "They taught me the work ethic." McCarthy even briefly lived at the Playboy Mansion, but it is no longer the garish fun house peopled by the likes of James Caan and Barbi Benton. "Now it's very '90s, very calm," McCarthy says.
"Jenny is a very special lady, and we're proud of her," says Hugh Hefner, phoning from said mansion. "She has that special spark. She's very much into children. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, yeah. She did a series of library readings to children out here in Los Angeles in the weeks before the press thing." Hef adds that readers aid in determining the Playmate of the Year, "but the final choice is made by Mr. Hefner, not the readers. It's not the People's Choice, heh-heh. It's the Academy Awards."
After McCarthy finished her Playmate of the Year duties, she began a round of TV and film auditions, whereupon she learned a few more lessons. For example, the meaning of the term casting couch. "I thought it meant a big fluffy couch that you sit on," she says.
"I would get into auditions," McCarthy says, "and these assholes" – she whispers this – "would tell me to stand up and take my clothes off. These are high people in the industry that I will never name. They would say things like, 'You have to have dinner with me in order to make it in this town.' "
After three months of such meetings, McCarthy landed an audition for Singled Out. Not without a struggle. She's a Playmate, they said. We don't want her, they said. She persisted. "I go to the audition," McCarthy says, "and there were just hundreds of girls that were complete... duplicates... of me."
McCarthy has a day off today, so she'll do a bit of kick boxing on the back deck of her house and read through some scripts. Already, she has appeared in a film, this spring's Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. "I played Christopher Walken's private nurse," she says. "He played a paraplegic strapped in this chair. He was strapped in the whole day for two weeks." Besides acting, McCarthy had other duties. "Sometimes he would say, 'I have an itch.' I'd have to scratch him off camera."
Manzella enters the room and reminds her about a future project. "What I've come up with," he says, "is Jenny McCarthy's Cool Summer Hits, which is going to be a two-CD compilation of bona fide summer hits from the '60s, '70s and '80s – two CDs, 12 songs each."
"Summer hits," McCarthy says. "'California Dreamin'.' Sorry, Ray."
"I like when you interject," he says. "It shows the passion and dedication. We're also going to have Jenny in a yellow polka-dot bikini poster with the two CDs for $19.95. The TV campaign is going to be her driving a car with a Priscilla Presley beehive – 1960s."
"I change the channel, then I go into a different era," McCarthy says. She is lounging on the floor. "That's what's making me pumped on it, because it's cool."
"So we're going to have a contest," says Manzella. "If you go to Music land and you're one of the first 25 people there or whatever, you get yellow polka-dot sunglasses. Coppertone may crosspro-mote. Whoever wins, Jenny will host a Labor Day party at your house.
"The reason I like this," he continues as McCarthy watches him, smiling, "is that I've sold through my business about $2 billion of product on television globally. I'm not trying to be obnoxious – I'm just saying I have experience."
McCarthy nods and says, "He's the czar."
"All generations will appreciate this music," Manzella says, turning toward McCarthy. "The whole family comes up to you. You're innocent, you're feel-good, you're approachable, you're campy." He grins. "We have much more ambitious plans. Right, Jenny?"
McCarthy's hair whips around the inside of Manzella's Mercedes as she heads down Highway 1. She's making her near-daily pilgrimage to her favorite spiritual bookshop in Venice to get a copy of Journey Into Oneness for a friend.
"I love L.A.," she sighs. She drives with her left foot up on the seat. "Every day when I drive around here, I completely envisioned this and being here."
Inside the store, there is the usual array of New Age tchotchkes: candles, dream catchers, crystals. The customers are of the frizzy-haired cat-lady variety.
McCarthy heads for a table piled with helpful books: your Deepak Chopras, your Marianne Williamsons. She picks up The Celestine Prophecy: "This just opened my heart and made me realize, 'Try to love a little bit more.' When I try to console people and tell them words of wisdom that I've learned, a lot of people feel so much better. Some people say, 'Shut the hell up.' I just send the love and think, 'Someday you'll see.'"
Of course, McCarthy has to keep focused on more earthly concerns – like her career. In August she'll appear as a "big-time actress, like a Pamela Anderson actress," in The Stupids, a comedy starring Tom Arnold, and she's shopping around for other roles. "And I'm talking about a sitcom," she adds, "but I can't go into it."
McCarthy, who wants to break into comedy, tries to avoid bikini roles. "I turned down The First Wives Club," she says. "My role was a dumb girl who was fucking this guy basically for a part. That's not the way I want to come across." She pauses, then raises an eyebrow. "And you know who got the part after I turned it down? Elizabeth Berkley." She nods. "That just goes to show you."
Clutching a scented candle, McCarthy walks up to the counter to order Journey Into Oneness from the Spicoli-like clerk. He eyeballs her as the fog around his head momentarily lifts.
"Hey," he says, "are you on Baywatch?"