You’re a nobody if you’re not famous, and Linda Pendergraft is not a nobody. People stop her on the street. Strangers call. Sometimes she even feels that special something known to great leaders and lunatics: the pull of destiny.
Once Ms. Pendergraft was a stripper in New Jersey. Once she worked for Senator Arlen Specter. Once she was on welfare. Now she looks into a camera and talks and talks and talks. Turn on the TV late at night, and there she is, talking. Her public access show, Our Soul: Journey to Know Thyself and Love , has aired 244 times since 1992.
Ms. Pendergraft, 40, is beautiful, with thick red hair and a great body. She spends about 90 percent of her camera time blabbing away. She spends the other 10 percent dancing around naked. It is riveting television. When she talks, she talks about love, happiness, sex, fame. She says things like, “So be happy, please, for yourself, and maybe go light a candle.” You find yourself staring back at her, and you can’t bring yourself to change the channel. She’s so watchable. So mind-numbing. And at any moment she might get naked.
Now, nearly 60 years after regular TV broadcasting began, the world is divided between the celebrities and the nobodies. And who wants to be a nobody? Not Ms. Pendergraft, and not any of the others who appear on the 1,500 shows airing on Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s channels 16, 17, 34 and 69. Public access TV allows any citizen with a camera to circumvent the celebrity gatekeepers and get a quick hit of instant fame; Ms. Pendergraft is trying to take full advantage of this urban folk medium. Her moneybags boyfriend-high-definition television pioneer David Niles, 47-pays a lot to produce her hours and hours of New Age ravings.
The Soliloquist at Home
It was noon and she was wearing a denim shirt, jeans, black boots. There she was, with two Siamese cats, deep in the Trump Tower apartment she shares with Mr. Niles, who pays the rent. She wanted to go out, but all morning he had been watching TV in the bedroom.
She seemed to drift away and started talking the way she does when she’s on TV: “They say the time of the individual is over in this country, and I think it’s just becoming. People are walking up to me on the street more than ever. I’m real. A lot of men want to meet me … I believe that people will come out to hear my words some day. The masses already love me … Trust me, I feel destiny. And sometimes I cry. I say to David, ‘Why do I feel like this? Why can’t I go back to being a regular person? I’ve already made it-look at who I am!'”
Ms. Pendergraft grew up in northeast Philadelphia. She remembers a toy train whizzing around a Christmas tree. Then her mother and four siblings left her alone with an alcoholic father. He looked like Errol Flynn, but one day he took a knife to her mother’s portrait. She made it to 16 and escaped the neighborhood. Now she has a view of Central Park, and fans and detractors.
“Really intelligent people watch my work,” she said. But there are problems. “I don’t feel I’m growing,” she said. She indicated the boyfriend in the bedroom. “When you live with someone, you live with them totally. He’s having his own life, so it’s hard.”
She was asked to describe herself. “Five foot 10. Full lips. Big eyes. Beautiful skin. Nice hair. And very shapely. I maintain what the spirit has given me. Can I tell you the negative? I can be a real bitch.” She directed her voice to the bedroom: “Hon? Do you think I can be a real bitch?”
“You can be, intentionally,” Mr. Niles said. Then he walked in, smoking a thin cigar, looking like a mogul in a screwball comedy.
What was his first impression of her?
“He thought I was insane,” Ms. Pendergraft said, laughing.
“I looked at her. I listened to her a little bit and I thought, Either this is the world’s biggest lunatic, or she’s really got something going on.”
Mr. Niles was flipping through the channels and froze when he saw her for the first time, one evening in 1993. Six months later, they began working together. To get her more airtime, Mr. Niles started a second Linda Pendergraft show, the clean and crisp Magic Window , which is shot digitally, in high definition, at a cost of up to $100,000 an episode. It airs Thursday nights at 11 on Channel 16; her other show airs Sunday nights at 1:30 A.M.
Mr. Niles blew cigar smoke into his 2,500-square-foot pad. “She’s got potential. Her show has the potential of nearly a million people. She’s got the potential to do a lot of things. She could easily become a psychic, a healer, a dominatrix-a whole lot of things! She could talk about anything, whether it be farting, to penises, to whatever. It just comes out of her and it’s funny .”
But Ms. Pendergraft was looking sad, over there by the cats.
“You know,” she said, “I haven’t been wanting to do anything. The spirit has, like, left me or something. I feel like I’m just all alone. That’s why I’ve been crying.”
Time to go out. On the way out the door, Mr. Niles tried to clarify his early interest in her: “This was not a ruse of a TV guy trying to get an attractive lady into the studio.”
Outside, Ms. Pendergraft cheered up a little. As the couple walked past Carnegie Deli, they were discussing what they’d seen on public access.
“One night I was sitting there, and a guy was screwing another guy in the bath tub,” Mr. Niles said. “It was really, really, really over the top.”
“Oh, I saw a show where a girl was giving a guy a blow job,” Ms. Pendergraft said, “and every time he pushed his penis in her mouth, he farted.”
He gestured toward a building across Broadway: “The Ed Sullivan theater, which I used to own,” he said. “I sold it to CBS. I renovated it and delivered it to Letterman.”
They passed a strip joint called Legz Diamond. A man bumped into Ms. Pendergraft and bolted into the peep show next door. “That’s amazing,” she said. “For a one-second thrill!”
“He saw you,” Mr. Niles said, “and said, ‘Uh-oh, I know where I’m going!'”
Ms. Pendergraft spotted an acquaintance of Mr. Niles’ outside the Studio 54 building, where she tapes her show.
“You didn’t tell me she was going to be there. What are you doing to this girl? Mind games. Mentally fucking one another.”
“Linda,” he said, and the subject was dead. Or maybe just postponed.
They went inside, but Ms. Pendergraft wasn’t in the mood to tape a new show. In the control room, she was asked about the episode in which she blew up on the air-the time she looked into the camera and said, “Where are you people, you weak fucking imbeciles! I hate you! I hate you for your weakness! You’re weak! Most of you live between your belly buttons and your knees.” That outburst contrasted sharply with her usual spiritual cheerleading. Yes, she remembered it.
Mr. Niles walked in with another cigar and sat down next to her.
“What was I talking about that night,” she said, “when I said ‘you fucking imbeciles’?”
“You were talking to a segment of your population which looks at you like a piece of flesh,” he said.
In her Philadelphia schooldays at a Catholic school for girls, Ms. Pendergraft remembers getting blamed for a lot of stuff she never did, like the nude photo of Burt Reynolds they found in her bed. She remembers nuns going berserk. One of them chased her down the hall and tried to cop a feel.
After high school, she was on welfare for over a year. Then she went to work-at the Social Security Administration, at a textile company, at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin , and, from 1981 to 1983, as an aide to Senator Specter. She moved up fast in his office, from receptionist to computer programmer to caseworker. She liked Mr. Specter. “He was very gentle with me,” she said. “Like he would never throw a seat across the room if I was around, because I would start to cry.”
Then it was on to Mississippi for a stint in a law firm. Then the days as an exotic dancer making $3,000 a week in New Jersey. The club was called the Harem. She used the name Silky. She found a rich guy in the trucking business. After their first date, he bought her a brand-new Chevy Impala. “A nice one with spoke wheels and everything,” she said. She lived in his mansion and traveled with him to Peru, New Zealand and Mexico.
But she left the trucking magnate in 1991 and came to New York. To raise money, she sold him back all the jewelry he had given her for $100,000 and set herself up in a $250-a-week women’s residence in Gramercy Park. She bought a camera, started shooting her first public access soliloquies in her room. She took acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, but hated it. “The acting schools I went to, they’re more dysfunctional than dysfunction,” she said in one broadcast. She hasn’t given up. “I want to be an actress,” she said. “The Arnold Schwarzenegger as a female of the future.”
She moved into Mr. Niles’ 53rd-story apartment in 1995. She has a love-hate relationship with the Trump Tower. At one point, she called it “heaven.” Then she was reminded of that Page Six item in the New York Post from a year ago, wherein a fellow Trump Towerite called her “not exactly the caliber of person you’d expect to find living here.”
“Listen, I call this place Egoville,” she said. “These rude people! Don’t they ever have sex or they wish they did?” But she added that Donald Trump himself talks to her in the elevator: “He always mentions something about my clothes or something. He said, ‘Nice jacket.’ I said, ‘It keeps me warm.’ The last time I saw him, he acted like he didn’t know me. I wanted to say, ‘You know goddamn well I live in this building!’ He took on a war with the wrong person! You know, my show is on the air-maybe he didn’t like that I have attention, too.”
‘A Goddess, Not Christ’
From a telephone call to Ms. Pendergraft, a few days after the interview:
“Do you identify with Christ?”
“I would call myself a goddess, not Christ…”
“Are you a narcissist?”
“I love myself, but I’m not narcissistic. My life is very important to me. I am the center of my universe, but I’m not narcissistic. Or you can say I have the messiah complex. I think I’m a winner. I could meet rich men. I don’t have a problem meeting men, believe me. Looks are like having a million dollars in the bank.”