The setting is a louche L.A. club where disaffected young moderns are sipping Stoli, watching an arty sex show and languidly cruising for a night's company. Actor Rob Lowe has his choice of astonishing-looking women; that night, he takes home not one bedmate, but two. After thrashing about with his brunet partner, he hops out of bed, naked, to saunter into the bathroom. The blond, reaching out to caress her companion, pipes, "I'm next."
To those who saw the pornographic home video that set off a firestorm around Lowe last summer, this scene from his new movie, Bad Influence (see review on page 12), may seem ironic, if not exploitative. Lowe, as the satyric sociopath Alex, co-stars with James Spader (who made his own mark as an impotent voyeur in last year's sex, lies, and videotape) in the thriller. Bad Influence is less graphic than the tape of Lowe's real-life menage, but the parallels are unmistakable: Alex uses a video camera to record a sexual encounter that later proves as embarrassing as it is self-destructive.
Released March 9, Bad Influence was written two years ago; it was shot in L.A. last summer, during the height of the scandal that broke when a segment of Lowe's low-life video was leaked to the press. He was beleaguered by reporters and slapped with a civil suit by the mother of one of his playmates (a 16-year-old Atlanta area girl whose performance was not part of the widely seen tape). He kept his silence as yet another segment of the pirated tape, showing Lowe cavorting with an unidentified "Justin" and "Jennifer," was becoming an underground classic. While Lowe was discussing the fine points of his Bad Influence character with director Curtis Hanson, Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein was doing a brisk mail-order business with a clip featuring an impressive closeup of a naked, fully aroused Rob. For a Brat Packer who was trying to recast himself as an artiste-slash-activist, it was humbling to realize that America had seen his moon-white backside moving in monotonous rhythm atop a moaning female. "There's no way that you can know how embarrassing it was," he says now. "No matter what adjective I choose, it would be trivializing it."
With his return to public orbit—besides Bad Influence, he's hosting Saturday Night Live on March 17, his 26th birthday—Lowe is giving his side of the story for the first time. "Rob knows that a lot is riding on this picture," says its producer, Steve Tisch. "If it doesn't work, I think his career is uncertain."
"I'm real nervous," Lowe admits. "Normally I'd just go off to Hawaii and say, 'Phone me with the grosses.' This time I'm going to be counting heads in line."
On the legal front, things seem to be going Lowe's way. In November his lawyers paid an undisclosed sum to Jan Parsons and her father, John (a retired Air Force major who won custody of Jan after he and his wife divorced in March 1989). Although the suit lodged by Jan's mother, Lena Wilson, is still pending, Lowe's Atlanta lawyers argue that its legality is questionable, since Wilson and her daughter are estranged and Lowe has settled with Jan. After a July meeting with Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton—who chose not to prosecute him for taping a sexual encounter with a partner under 18—Rob agreed to do 20 hours of community service, speaking at prisons and halfway houses and in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
For her part, Rob's young video co-star is working hard to protect her privacy. According to Pam Guest, Parsons's attorney, Jan is now going to school and living with her father, and she has no interest in courting the sort of fame that descended upon her last summer.
Rob Lowe's slide into tabloid hell began on July 17, 1988—the night before the Democratic Convention opened in Atlanta. After a party given by Ted Turner, he made a fact-finding tour of the self-consciously hip Club Rio on Luckie Street, accompanied by friends Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson. He was led to a roped-off alcove where clubgoers could cruise by. Among those who caught Rob's eye was Jan Parsons, a then 16-year-old who worked as an assistant at a flashy Marietta, Ga., salon.
Parsons, a small-boned brunet who was wearing the briefest of outfits, had come to the club with Tara Siebert, a 22-year-old receptionist who was known at SuperHair Three-13 as Jan's lover. As Lowe remembers it, "I was introduced to Jan, and she introduced me to her friend Tara. They both seemed like nice enough people to me." When Rob returned to his suite at the Atlanta Hilton & Towers that night, both Jan and Tara were with him.
With his lawyers still facing off against Jan's mother, Lena Wilson, Rob is chary about discussing what happened in the hours that followed. He denies going to bed with Parsons. But he doesn't dispute the fact that he videotaped his guests in bed or that they knew the proceedings were being recorded for posterity. "There was never any question," says Rob. In fact few of those who knew Lowe were shocked when the videotape surfaced later: Its star had long since earned his reputation as a satyr, and he was hardly the first to have recorded his sexual exploits on tape.
The evening's only surprise came when the romp was over. While Rob was in the bathroom, Tara and Jan disappeared—along with some cash and the minicassette from his video camera.
Although Jan and Tara did tell friends about their night with Lowe (and troubled themselves to duplicate the tape they had lifted), they have said precious little about the ménage. Jan's mother (then beginning a divorce and custody battle with John Parsons) weighed in with her own response. After discovering the tape, she went straight to Athens, Ga., attorney J. Hue Henry. In January 1989, Henry sent a letter to Lowe informing him that Parsons had the incriminating video and planned legal action. Lowe and his lawyers dug in their heels. Appalled by Henry's tactics (which included sending a letter to Tom Hayden concerning his appearance in the tape—at a Braves game with Lowe), they charged in court documents that his threats were extortion. A judge later dismissed their charges.
On May 12 Henry filed a personal injury suit accusing Lowe of using "his celebrity status as an inducement to females to engage in sexual intercourse, sodomy and multiple-partner sexual activity for his immediate sexual gratification, and for the purposes of making pornographic films of these activities." Rob heard the news from his Los Angeles attorney while attending the Cannes Film Festival. "I immediately thought of the Bette Davis line—'Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night,' " he remembers.
Not for a moment, however, did Hollywood treat him like a pariah. When the story broke on CNN, Lowe attended a dinner party in Cannes given by Dino De Laurentiis. "I was nervous," he says. "I didn't know what to expect." After dinner his host and half a dozen other cigar-smoking moguls took him for a walk on the beach. As Lowe tells it, they pledged unwavering support and pointed out that everyone from Errol Flynn to Sean Penn had endured public embarrassment.
When Rob woke the next morning, the tabloids were on the phone. After putting them off the trail by pretending to be his own secretary ("Mr. Lowe is in meetings all day"), he jumped up to answer a knock at the door. Instead of the room service waiter, he was greeted by "three photographers and a reporter blasting away with strobe lights," he says. "Thank God I wasn't stepping out of the shower or something."
Retreating to L.A. that day, Lowe was besieged as soon as he returned to his four-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills. Enclosed by a high wall and equipped with a sophisticated security system, the house (where Lowe keeps a collection of modern art) is a sleek fortress with a pool, basketball court and a view of downtown Los Angeles. Camera crews kept a 24-hour watch over him for days on end. At 6 A.M. they would ring his buzzer to ask for interviews, and they photographed every last person who entered the house—"everyone from my best friends to the gardener to the delivery people," he says.
After four days, Lowe slipped out the back and crawled on all fours down the steep, brush-covered hillside, crossing a neighbor's yard to a dead-end street, where an assistant picked him up and drove him to a friend's house. "Going down the cliff, I felt like I was invading Nicaragua," says Lowe, who spent the next few days at the friend's house. "I just had to get some breathing room."
Lowe stopped reading the papers or even watching TV. "I had an inkling of what was going on," he says. "I just didn't watch it. I went so underground that my frame of reference dealt only with the upcoming film. A lot of time, I didn't know what day it was."
Through it all, Lowe was bolstered by friends like Emilio Estevez and producer Cassian Elwes and his wife, Priscilla—who came to his house with food and (non-blue) videos—and by his parents, who leapt to his defense. Chuck Lowe, a trial lawyer in Dayton and wife Kay (Rob's stepmother) were dismayed by the tactics used by the opposing lawyers. "It was a shakedown as far as I was concerned," says Chuck. "I can't imagine that mother subjecting her young child to the exposure that has followed. And I'm appalled by the lack of professionalism on behalf of the lawyers that were engaged opposite Rob."
"We weren't embarrassed by [the incident]," adds Chuck. "I'm worldly enough to know, or at least suspect, what goes on in people's homes."
Mother Barbara Wilson, a writer who is married to a Malibu psychiatrist, urged Rob to defend himself publicly. "She said to me, 'Why don't you tell what really happened?' " he recalls. "I told her, 'What I don't need is to whip up the media frenzy.' My biggest fear was that people would judge me by false or misleading headlines."
"I think he was a lot more hurt by it than he at first wanted to admit," says Ally Sheedy. Lowe agrees. As the weeks went on, he says, he began to feel the pressure: "There's only so much abuse anyone can take before their confidence is shaken. When it was bad, I would call my manager, and he would tell me it was like a mild anxiety attack. He'd say, 'Everything will work itself out.' "
Stephen Stills, a close friend who met Lowe on the celebrity political circuit, says that he was "furious" with Rob when the story broke. "I nearly killed him," says Stills. "It was such an incredible lack of judgment. But nobody's got an exclusive hold on bad judgment. Anybody in our racket knows that this is just around the corner for them if they're not really careful. I just told him to duck and weather the storm and wait until his next work."
When Lowe did venture back into the world again, he found that his colleagues were similarly supportive. In early June he was sitting with producer Brad Wyman at a private bar called On the Rox, when he was spotted by Jack Nicholson. "He came over to me and put both hands on my shoulders, and he looks at me with that one eyebrow up, and says in that voice, 'Hey kid, what's new?' " says Lowe. "I broke up."
These days Rob is keeping a relatively low social profile. The man once seen with Princess Stephanie and Fawn Hall and Nastassja Kinski appears only occasionally at hot spots like the China Club. His favorite haunts are the L.A. Forum, where he catches most Lakers games, and the running track at UCLA, where he works out four or five mornings a week. He has a sense that he is no longer invulnerable and that time takes its toll on even the prettiest face. "The whole thing sped up the aging process," Rob says. "I now have a few lines around the eyes to prove it."
Inquiries about his private life are met with polite evasions. He says that he is not involved with old girlfriend Melissa Gilbert (although they see each other as friends) or with anyone else, and that he is not prepared to discuss the ethics of taping one's intimate encounters. "I don't have time to sit and judge somebody else for what they might do in their bedroom," he says with exasperation.
Lowe's own hot topic is How I Have Become a Better Person Through Adversity. "I've learned the importance of admitting when you have made a mistake, when you have been wrong or made bad judgments," he says. "And I learned that you must accept the consequences of your actions. That's part of being the man that I want to be."
For now, at least, it seems Hollywood is buying the line. After the West Coast premiere of Bad Influence at Westwood's Mann Plaza Theatre, Lowe rose from his aisle seat and nervously awaited the verdict of his peers. Through the sleek crowd came the tall, spare-looking Charles Winkler, a director whose father, Irwin, gave the world They Shoot Horses Don't They? Winkler locked eyes, then hands, with the anxious Lowe. "Hey, Dude," he said. "Welcome back."
"It's good to be back," sighed Rob.
—Michelle Green, Jack Kelley in Los Angeles, Joyce Leviton in Atlanta
- Jack Kelley,
- Joyce Leviton.