A local strip club says it unwittingly used Catherine Zeta-Jones’ photo on its Web site, but she’s suing anyway
Kent Wallace relaxes into his computer chair wearing comfy blue fleece pants, a baggy, white T-shirt and brown leather loafers. His desk, in the back of the hollow garage on Reno’s notoriously sleazy Fourth Street, is surrounded by pictures of scantily clad women, and the screen saver on his computer displays a swimsuit model gazing into the back of the large, dark enclosure.
Wallace, the spokesman for the Spice House, a topless cabaret in Reno, finishes up business on his cell phone.
“Yeah, Macy, you got it. See ya tonight, baby.”
With a slight grin, confident and satisfied, he hangs up the phone.
“That Macy, she’s great,” he says.
Ahhh, just another day at one of Reno’s many bustling topless cabaret bars: girls, booze and party people.
But life isn’t so peachy for Wallace right now. He and the Spice House have been sued by Oscar-winning actress and T-Mobile spokeswoman Catherine Zeta-Jones. The suit resulted from some unauthorized pictures of Zeta-Jones that were placed on the Spice House Web site. The lawsuit says that Zeta-Jones has never been to the Spice House before and she does not want her “highly valuable image and persona” to be used to endorse a topless cabaret.
The self-proclaimed Cheers of Reno’s topless cabaret scene would seem an unlikely target for a Hollywood icon to target in a huge lawsuit.
“She is like a double D, and we are just B cups,” Wallace says, drawing a vivid analogy. “They have unlimited resources to use against people.”
He even went so far as to create a new word to describe Zeta-Jones, her lawyers and their corporate attack on an independent establishment: “Cashists.”
“Fascists oppress through might; cashists exploit through money,” he says.
The saga began, Wallace says, when the Spice House’s Web designer found the picture on a German Web site that contained “royalty free” graphics, which are supposed to be pictures that have been approved by photographers and models for free use. Pictures of celebrities seldom appear on sites like this one, Wallace says. Unfortunately, Zeta-Jones didn’t give her permission to use the photo.
Wallace claims the Spice House had no idea the picture was of Zeta-Jones. He says that, when he heard about the suit, the Web designer immediately removed the photo from the site, and within an hour of receiving the complaint the Spice House offered an apology to Zeta-Jones and her attorneys.
Spice House officials thought the situation had come to a close.
Not so fast. Soon after, the Spice House received a phone call from Zeta-Jones’ attorneys requesting to see the club’s insurance policy. A red flag went up. Days later, the club was sued and sued big. Zeta-Jones and her lawyers leveled nine complaints of up to $75,000 each. The complaints include damage to Zeta-Jones’ reputation and exploitation of her image to make money.
Wallace doesn’t seem as worried as he might be.
"[They need to go to the source if] they’re going to get anything out of this,” Wallace says. “I don’t think there is a judge in the country that would give this one a chance.”
He says the Web site that originally published the photos, www.soft-ware.net, removed the picture immediately, rendering an investigation of the German graphics distributor difficult. That claim, though, is difficult to substantiate since, while there are some clip art images on the site, there appear to be no celebrity photos of any kind.
So the weight falls on the Spice House. Wallace became caught up in it when the New York Post, in an Oct. 26 story about the lawsuit, incorrectly referred to him as the owner of the club. He, too, was then included in the suit. Wallace said further investigation by Zeta-Jones’ attorneys proved that he should not have been a target, and his name has since been dropped. As public relations coordinator, Wallace is an independent contractor, with other clients such as the Kit Kat Guest House near Carson City; adult film stars Sunset Thomas and Rebecca Love; and Reno Ring LLC., which is a local group working to bring big-ticket boxing back to Reno.
“I am not even on the Spice House payroll,” Wallace says. “I was totally blindsided by this.”
But he says that it was an honest mistake, and the Spice House shouldn’t be sued. The photo showed only the actress’s face and some of her hair. Wallace doesn’t believe this would be the way to engage a real celebrity-recognition marketing scam.
“We were looking for an icon of a pretty face, not one that was recognizable,” Wallace says. “That was the only real purpose of the picture [the Web designer] chose.”
If the plan has been to use a celebrity face, Wallace says, they would have chosen someone with a little more sex appeal. “If we wanted to use a recognizable image, why not use Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson?” he asks. “Catherine would be pretty far down on the list.”
Even better, Wallace says, they could have used Sunset Thomas, the princess of porn. She has done television and radio promotion for the club in the past and has said she would do more for the club if they requested her service.
Dancers at the Spice House have met the lawsuit with a dose of humor. One of them, the aforementioned Macy, recently took the stage name Ta-Ta Jones because of her physical resemblance to Zeta-Jones. The enterprising young woman has become a hit at the club since taking on the new alias. One customer spent more than $300 for private dances with her one night. Wallace says Hustler magazine recently picked up the story and is going to run a feature layout about Ta-Ta and the lawsuit.
“This will really launch Macy’s career,” Wallace says. “Larry Flynt [founder of Hustler Magazine] is the champion of the First Amendment.”
Although the recent publicity has shot the Spice House into the limelight, Wallace doesn’t foresee increased business compensating for the pending settlements. How many people are going to travel to Reno to see Ta-Ta’s ta-tas?
“Business has increased, but things like this are a novelty,” Wallace says. “If the Spice House were a brothel, all the press would be fabulous, but who is going to come to Reno when there is a topless bar in every city in every state? People just won’t drive from all over the country to go to the Spice House.”
The biggest source of confusion for Spice House employees: How did Zeta-Jones and her attorneys find the image on the Spice House Web site? None of them were available for comment, but as Wallace notes, the site gets only 600 views on a good week.
“That is the million-dollar question,” Wallace says.
This isn’t the first time Zeta-Jones and hubby, Michael Douglas, have filed such lawsuits. According to a Feb.11, 2003, report from CNN World News, the couple filed suit against British celebrity magazine Hello! for printing unauthorized photos of their wedding in the magazine. The couple sued for the magazine for $831,000 but won just $24,250. Also, a BBC News report dated Nov. 12, 2003, said that Douglas and Zeta-Jones sued media outlets that reported she was on the Atkins diet.
Despite the fact that Zeta-Jones could cost Wallace and the Spice House hundreds of thousands of dollars, he admits he will always have a place in his heart for the actress.
“I love Chicago,” Wallace says, “but I am kind of a Broadway guy. I just saw Zorro again, too."