By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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On a little street called Randwick near the Loop and 290, T.L.C. Worldwide is a small gray slate house with bars on the windows. Inside, Hispanic women were hastily stuffing envelopes as Bruce White was quickly opening others.
"Very few people are mature enough to accept what I do here," he said. American women don't like it because they don't like competition, and many men are spiteful because they don't want others to marry women better than their own.
It's a delicate situation. Bruce did some more calculations and figured that his time is worth about $200 an hour and that a story in the Houston Press would require at least three hours. Why should he do it? An ad is cheaper, and he could control the content.
"The bottom line is, I don't have anything to gain from it, and I have something to risk," he said curtly.
It took months of coaxing. Even when he finally agreed to sit for a story, he wouldn't go all the way. He never let himself go, never got lost in the moment. There was so much Bruce White would not discuss that in the end, the reporter could understood nothing so well about him as how frustrating it must be to deal with women who don't disrobe on command.
"When I come into this office, I have my game face on," he said. "If you don't see my sensitive side, to me, it's not the end of the world."
Bruce came to Houston from West Virginia in the early '80s, another recently graduated opportunist in search of opportunity. In 1986, he became a certified public accountant and claims to have worked on a contractual basis until 1992, when he took a job with Enron.
At the time, he was devoting much of his life to his body ("I was benching almost 450 then," he boasted, "all natural, no steroids!"), and at a gym called Better Bodies, he met James, a real-estate appraiser. There, as sometimes happens to regrettable results, two bodybuilders put their brains together and discovered common philosophies.
James had been divorced, but not by choice. "No way," he said. "It ended so she could seek her own identity." And Bruce, he was fed up with having to open doors for women who competed with him on the job. Unfaithful women were also a recurrent problem.
"Let's just say I dated a bunch of losers," he said, "and it just so happened, James and I dated dueling losers. In other words, it fixed us both as far as dating American women."
In the back of each catalog now, there's a photo of Bruce and James in giant sombreros -- "Two Amigos," it says, in Cancun. As the story goes, that vacation in December 1991 changed their outlooks forever. They discovered women with "natural tans" who seemed to have "traditional values." And judging from the way these women reacted to the two amigos, James wrote, they "did not seem to have hang-ups on age, appearance or material possessions. We realized then that women's lib had not yet infected all societies."
When they came back, Bruce founded something he called Neomahn Inc., which he said was a men's rights organization but which he listed in court papers as the parent company of his new T.L.C. Worldwide. The letters don't stand, after all, for "tender loving care" but for "The Latina Connection." Anyway, something had happened within Bruce White, and he had begun to love women again, at least in the way a big man loves food.
"I say go where your heart lies," he declared. "If you like Oriental girls, go with Oriental girls. If you like light skin and light hair, maybe Russians are the best. But I think the most variety lies in Latin America, where the girls range from vanilla white to dark chocolate, with honey and everything else in between."
In 1993, Bruce left Enron. With catalogs and videos and group tours, T.L.C. would become, by White's estimation, the largest vendor of Latin-American women in the country. In magazines ranging from National Review to Penthouse to the Houston Press, T.L.C. would go on to spend in 1995 roughly $20,000 a month in advertising, according to court records, and to receive from its men, in the same period, more than $42,000.
But all of this was in the future in August 1992, as Bruce White prepared to make his first deal. He was running ads in Central America, looking for women to sell, when he received a photo of a coffee farmer's daughter. Two weeks later, a letter arrived in the village of Danli, Honduras, and Gisela Bucardo learned that Bruce White wanted her for his own.
In one photo from that time, Bruce is standing atop a Honduran mountain, lean and smiling, with a cold drink in one hand and curvy Gisela in the other. That was in September, when he met her for the first time and married her. She spoke no English, and he, very little Spanish. She was 18, he was 32 and it was, as he wrote in his first catalog, "the smartest, most rewarding experience of my life."