“When I see a girl onstage, I want my tongue to hang out and my body to quiver,” Riviera owner and business tycoon Meshulam Riklis told People magazine in 1981.
The then-57-year-old was discussing how to best flaunt the sex appeal of his then-25-year-old then-wife, singer Pia Zadora. Determined to make her a star, he put her onstage at the Riviera … and instructed Bob Mackie to make her costumes skimpier. Describing her as “very prudish,” he told People how he convinced her to do a nude scene in the softcore incest film Butterfly, directed by his friend Matt Cimber. Zadora’s breakout role as a nymphette earned her both a Golden Globe and a Golden Raspberry, for best and worst new star, respectively. (Enduring scuttlebutt alleges that one of those two awards were “purchased.” Can you guess which one?)
Fast forward nearly 10 years. Riklis and Cimber have a hit TV show on their hands, but it doesn’t feature Zadora: It's G.L.O.W.: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The syndicated program, which ran from 1986 to 1990, featured the best excesses of the ’80s: glitter, spandex, big hair and some now truly cringe-worthy stereotypes.
Thanks to a 2012 documentary and new Netflix drama G.L.O.W. (starring Mad Men’s Alison Brie, with comedian/podcaster Marc Maron as a fictionalized Cimber), the campy wrestling phenomenon is back on the pop culture radar.
All accounts say that by 1990, G.L.O.W. was a phenomenon, with thousands of people lining up to see live tapings. Riklis, who financed the enterprise, used the show to advertise his many holdings, from makeup brands to the Riviera. In fact, during the first two seasons, the wrestlers lived and filmed at the Strip casino (they moved a few miles east for the last two seasons). But if you don’t remember seeing these outlandishly dressed women at the clubs, that’s because they abided by strict curfews.
According to the documentary G.L.O.W.: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, Riklis pulled funding at the height of the show’s popularity. He gave no warning or explanation. The cast didn’t even get a chance to say their goodbyes.
Nearly 30 years later, the question remains: Why would he do that? It seems so out of character. Here’s a shrewd businessman with Montgomery Burns-level wealth who had no qualms about spending vast sums in support of beautiful women’s careers. The G.L.O.W. cast numbered about 60 performers, divided into two camps of “good girls” and “bad girls.” Seems like a dream come true for a guy like him. Why stop the glitter train?
One theory is that despite the show’s popularity, it simply wasn’t that profitable. Riklis had experienced money problems in the past, and using the show to promote his own ventures would limit advertising revenue. So he might have just run out of funds. But wouldn’t he have at least attempted to capitalize on his investment before pulling the plug?
The other theory is that Zadora became jealous and made the classic ultimatum that all young trophy wives must eventually make: It’s either me or 60 younger acrobatic lady wrestlers. If this theory is true, credit must be given to Riklis for choosing his wife (although they did divorce three years later). Zadora didn't respond to a request for comment. However, the documentary makes a strong case for this being true, even showing an old gossip article about an affair between Riklis and a GLOW wrestler. The most damning clue: The wrestler’s name is redacted. G.L.O.W. protects their own.