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A former stripper’s tale of woe brought tears to the eyes of Fulton County, Ga., jurors as they hit an Atlanta strip club with a $2.5 million verdict. Vanessa Steele Inman and her lawyers Mark V. Spix and William R. Reece III described dirty dealing in the 1997 Miss Nude World International Pageant at the Pink Pony in DeKalb County. Inman, who was referred to in court as “Ms. Steele,” claims club and contest promoters kicked her out of the pageant on trumped-up charges of cheating when she refused to submit to club owner Jack Galardi’s sexual demands. Galardi and club officials then slandered her to others in the nude dancing industry, effectively ending her career. If the contest had been fair, Steele thinks she could have won the Miss Nude World title. She says she salvaged ballots from the Pink Pony’s Dumpster that showed she had been doing well enough to reach the finals. After a weeklong trial before visiting Judge L.A. McConnell, six men and six women ordered Galardi, his director of marketing Jack Pepper and the Pink Pony’s parent company Trop Inc. to pay Steele $335,000 for tortious interference with a contract, $500,000 for slander, and $100,000 in attorney fees on Friday. Monday morning they socked the three defendants for another $1.6 million in punitive damages. The case is Inman v. Galardi No. E65732 (Fult. Super. verdict July 21, 2000). They also found that club and contest executives had violated Georgia’s beauty pageant statute by failing to disclose information about the pageant’s sponsors and failing to maintain a $10,000 bond to reimburse any contestant’s losses due to code violations. The verdict shocked both sides. At one point Steele’s lawyers had offered to settle for $100,000. The defendants never offered more than $8,000. When the jury returned with Friday’s verdict, Steele burst into tears. Some women in the jury box followed suit, smiling at her and waving shyly. Across the aisle at the defendants’ table, Pepper alternately glowered at the floor and the jury, punching a fist into his palm. Juror Lisa Kagan, 28, says she remembers the testimony that swayed her to Steele’s side. “The whipped cream,” she said. “I put a little star next to it in my notebook.” GOLF COURSE EPISODE Kagan was referring to testimony about the Pink Pony’s golf tournament, which took place during the weeklong Miss Nude World competition. Patrons can hire dancers as caddies for a $200 fee. The dancers then strip on nine of the greens, and sometimes putt or practice nude. “We bill it as a fun day in the sun, so to speak,” said Galardi South Enterprises Director of Operations Dennis Williams while being questioned on direct by O. Jackson Cook, the defendants’ attorney. The fun degenerated into raunchiness when Galardi demanded that the topless dancers line up and be squirted with whip cream, which he then slurped off while cameras flashed. Steele refused. Two days later, organizers kicked Steele out of the pageant for violating the rules. Juror Kagan said she was waiting for the defense to rebut the testimony about the whipped cream incident. “They never denied anything. That was a problem for them,” she said. Spix says there was little the defense could do. There were plenty of pictures of the incident. Steele also said that contest promoters encouraged contestants to run off with patrons into secluded, wooded areas of the course. And the club allowed patrons on the tour bus that transported the contestants — a bus conveniently fitted with couches and beds, she said. WEEKLONG CONTEST The golf tournament was just one event in a competition that lasts about a week. Steele said she paid $1,000 to enter the contest and spent about $10,000 on costumes. Though no prize money was offered, she said the title would have meant a lot to her career. HBO filmed a special on the pageant and OUI magazine planned a photo spread. Each night the women stripped at the club, and patrons rated the performances. According to Extravaganza Promotions CEO Samantha Jones, an auditor counted votes and determined who made the finals. Extravaganza promoted the pageant and contracted with the strip club to hold the event on its premises. On the stand, Jones said she never knew whether Steele had violated any rules. She just went by what the club told her. On cross by Reece, Jones said Steele must have violated club rules, since she didn’t think she had broken pageant rules. Jones compared balloting to that for baseball’s All-Star Game. Patrons can vote as many times as they like for their favorites, she said. She also admitted that the auditor for the votes is her partner in other business ventures. “You think that’s how Arthur Andersen does it?” Reece asked, incredulous. “Who?” Jones replied. “You think that’s Arthur Andersen’s idea of an independent auditor?” Jones replied she didn’t know. The jury cast only token blame on Jones’ company, however, awarding Steele damages of $100 for fraud. After court let out, Jones pulled out her checkbook and rifled through her wallet in search of large bills. “Can I just pay that in cash?” she asked, smiling at the lawyers. Her lawyer Harvey D. Harkness hastily advised her to put her wallet away. MARKETING DIRECTOR TESTIFIES Like Jones, the Pink Pony’s marketing director Pepper had a hazy recollection of what rules Steele might have violated. Pepper said he couldn’t remember exactly which rule Steele had violated. He hadn’t looked at the house rules in years. Spix pointed out that other contestants had broken house rules. Some used oil, wax and gels. Others had touched patrons in “off limits” areas. Was anyone else ever thrown out? he asked. “I’ve already answered that,” Pepper responded. “Well try again,” Spix said. “No,” said Pepper. Spix referred to Pepper’s demeanor on the stand Monday when he appealed to jurors for nine times the actual damages in punitive damages. “A real apology would have Mr. Pepper sitting in that stand and saying ‘I am sorry. This shouldn’t have happened,’” he said. He asked jurors to think of “the thousands of women Jack Galardi has access to who actually think that no means no.” If the Pink Pony is going to claim it is a legitimate member of the business community it should behave like one, Spix said. “Welcome them to the business community and say to them that the first lesson you learn in business is accountability,” he said. ‘GIVE US A BREAK’ Cook tried to generate some sympathy for his clients. He told jurors that they had already awarded Steele “a mighty amount of money,” and the company would have a hard time paying more in punitives. “In your enlightened conscience, please give us a break,” he said. “Give us a break.” Immediately after Monday’s finding, Cook said he will move for a new trial, to ask for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, to set aside the verdict and to renew his motions for a directed verdict. The verdict was contrary to the evidence, Cook said, and the punishment was extreme. He also noted that he would file an appeal. Steele, who now works for a cosmetics company in Pittsburgh, says the size of the verdict has her considering the possibility of starting a program to help others in the adult entertainment industry. Other women should know the limits of what they have to put up with from managers and promoters. “I think I might have to step back and take another look at the money and maybe do something for women with it,” she said.

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