Tricia Erickson arrives for lunch camera-ready. Her black Corvette convertible left securely in the hands of valet parking, she walks into a dark Washington hotel restaurant. Tall and thin, with a spray of blond bangs, Erickson wears a gray linen suit with a blousy belted jacket, big shoulders and a skirt that just covers her knee. "Yeah, I know skirts are getting shorter, but this is business," she says. A diamond dangles from her neck. Her red-lipped smile is closed, sphinxlike, as though to hold in all the secrets. Tricia Erickson has lots of secrets, a number of them on the front pages these days.
After weeks of long-distance hand-holding to Miami, Erickson has reached an agreement with Donna Rice, the femme who was fatal to Gary Hart's presidential ambitions. Erickson, whose modeling agency represented Rice in 1982 and Fawn Hall until recently, will be representing Rice in future projects -- magazine stories, photo layouts, TV spots, motion picture packages -- and will work with literary agent Richard Curtis to weed out the best book deals for her client. Erickson and Rice met in New York the other day and closed the deal over a three-hour lunch.
"Our agreement is that I will handle her through this crisis situation ... as soon as she's stopped being exploited." Erickson is vague about the specifics. She does say Rice has been made an offer for "millions of dollars to do a book and a movie" and that Playboy and Penthouse have shown interest in photographing Rice "with her clothes on." In addition, her client will be interviewed by Barbara Walters on "20/20" June 18. No offers have been turned down so far.
Ericksonknew Rice only briefly in 1982 when Rice moved to Washington to sell real estate while pursuing her acting career. "She was a sweet, sweet girl," remembers Erickson as her lunch -- liver and onions -- arrives. "And she's the same now." Although Rice had a photo composite -- sort of a business card for models -- printed up with the Erickson Agency, she moved back to Florida before being booked on a job. "No, Fawn and Donna Rice never worked together," Erickson says. "Fawn was with the agency then, but I'm sure they didn't work together."
As though she has listened to her own advice -- given to hundreds of would-be local models who have walked into her McLean talent and modeling agency -- Erickson has made the most of every feature. Her big brown eyes are outlined to look even wider, the long nails are an unmarred, glossy red.
It was Erickson, describing herself as a "very close friend of Fawn's," who released pictures from Hall's modeling portfolio and did the talk show circuit three months ago (with Hall's permission) when Hall became the Iran-contra pinup girl. Erickson, who was a shopping pal as well as an agent, says Hall needed her advice when her name turned up in the news. "Because she did not have any experience with the media," Erickson says.
Scandal Management Crisis is the word that keeps coming up in Erickson's conversation. She says she's developed an expertise in handling "victims" of scandal. Last month she started a new division of the Erickson Agency -- the Crisis Management Division. "I'm not just saying scandals," Erickson says in her matter-of-fact way. "I'm saying anything to do with personal tragedy or personal conflict, that could upset their professional careers and would leave some of these bloodthirsty pressmongers to descend on these people like vultures ... I would like to protect them," she says. "Gary Hart should have had me. He wasn't handled right either ... Or Lee Hart."
Erickson left a message on Rice's answering machine on May 9, the day after Gary Hart's withdrawal from his race for president, and Rice returned the call. Erickson has been advising her "as a friend" since then. It was Erickson who told reporters that Lynn Armandt had taken the snapshot from the Bimini boat trip that later appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer.
At first Rice went her own way. She chose to do an article with Life magazine, for which Erickson says she was paid "next to nothing -- I think she got $4,000, and she should have gotten $25,000 for that. The Life magazine thing was against my advice ... " Distressed by the Enquirer story, which showed Rice seated on Hart's knee, Erickson decided, "If she doesn't do something in the next few days her marketability will be gone."
"She should have had one person that she trusted to be a liaison, to get the right information out to the press. Because if you don't, they go to your aunts, sisters, cousins, mother, nieces, nephews, neighbors -- whatever -- to get the wrong information," Erickson complains. "Everybody has deep dark secrets -- none of us are free of it. It becomes an issue of loyalty."
She thinks the rumors start when the truth is not told. Had Erickson been handling Rice right from the start, more good things would have come out, she says firmly. "I'm not a miracle worker ... There are some things you can't stop. But ... some of it just isn't anyone's business."
What advice is she giving Rice?
"She is an actress and has always been an actress. I would like to see her continue to do it, not to let this get her down. I want her to keep on plugging. To come back fighting." She lightly pounds her fist on the table top.
"Donna plans to go back to work and normalize her life," Erickson says.
Back to her job selling pharmaceuticals for Wyeth Laboratories, to which she's already returned?
Not necessarily, says Erickson. "As an agent I would say, 'I want you to take this role in a movie. I want you to take this fashion layout. I want you to be successful and to make money.' "
Although Erickson says her advice to Hall was given freely, in friendship ("I have not made a dime off of Fawn"), she says that now "there's no doubt that people associate Fawn with me, or me with Fawn. I mean that's a given."
Crisis Time The crisis division is the fourth division of the Erickson Agency. Started in 1982 out of its founder's small Alexandria apartment, the agency now handles 3,500 clients, including models and such other talent as former beauty queen Nancy Thurmond (Mrs. Strom) and three of her children. Its casting division places extras in movies shot in Washington, such as "Heartburn" and "Gardens of Stone," and in TV shows such as "Scarecrow and Mrs. King." That division also handles industrial and government movies ("that boring stuff," says Erickson). There's a fashion division, a children's division for performing kids, the Crisis Management Division and two more divisions in the works: Great Bodies and Big Beauties.
Erickson attributes her business drive to a troubled past. Wed at 19 in Idaho Falls, Idaho, after a sheltered Mormon upbringing in Wilmington, N.C., and a year at a small Mormon college in Rexburg, Idaho, Erickson (ne'e Patricia Kay Shingleton) says she had a miserable marriage.
"My whole world was shattered. And I said, 'Forget this. I'm going to make it on my own,' " she says. "I was still nursing the baby when I returned to Wilmington. I couldn't find a job there that paid more than $3.50 an hour. I came to Washington because I have two kids and I wanted them to go as far as they possibly can. I was never going to put myself in the position of being dependent on anyone again as long as I lived. And I haven't," she says.
Her two sons stayed with her parents in Wilmington while she worked as a ticket agent for Piedmont Airlines at National Airport and then at a head-hunting firm in Tysons Corner. There she learned about negotiating contracts and sales motivation while modeling part time. She worked for 18 months as director of sales for the Cappa Chell Model Agency before starting her own agency.
These days, she says, work "sometimes goes until midnight ... I have a lot of black-tie dinners ... I think that's one of the reasons I've done as well as I have -- I've met the right people and through going to these functions you do network."
But there'll be no resting easy once the scandals subside. She'll direct her energy to her next project -- the Great Bodies competition. This summer 16 of Washington's best bathing-suit models -- one-third male, two-thirds female -- will be chosen for a color poster. If she had Fawn Hall and Donna Rice in bathing suits would they make it on the poster?
Long pause. "I think Fawn would," Erickson says finally. "I don't know, I think they'd both have a fighting chance."
Her advice to young models now includes a little personal crisis prevention: "I hope it doesn't happen to anyone, but it seems that models travel in circles where they do meet politicians, movie stars" -- circles, in other words, where they could land in the headlines.
The cases of Hall and Rice, she says, amount to object lessons in the need to guard against the exploitation of old modeling photos. Erickson strongly urges securing old negatives so they cannot be reprinted.
The temptations to sell a picture are great. "With a Rice or Fawn Hall, pictures could sell for a minimum of $2,000 to $25,000 per photo. That one picture on the front of the Enquirer alone could have sold for as high as $25,000." Although professional photographers who release photos of models without authorization can be sued, a friendly amateur like Lynn Armandt, who takes a picture, owns it. She can't be sued.
Erickson's draconian solution: "Never ever, ever let anyone -- a friend, a pal, an uncle -- take a picture of you and keep the negative. Photographers are like vultures. If they have a photograph they'll sell it."