When the mail came, Bruce and James divided the world. James took the international post to one room, and Bruce, the domestic to another. One built a pile of pictures, the other, a pile of checks, and in this way, they separated supply from demand and the women from the men.
"We import and export everything else," Bruce was saying. "Why can't relationships be one more item?"
Then he found a fat check for $752.34, which meant that some old boy had bought El Maximo, the package deal. Bruce shouted out the news, and just to share, James came shuffling in with a sample of the new stock -- a photo of some faraway female in a thong bikini. She was perhaps half James' age, but she was grinning, and they were leering, and both parties looked open for business.
"There's not enough bikinis," Bruce grumbled, though it seemed to his visitor the catalog was full of them. That's only the front page, he said, and to prove his point, the former accountant turned to his adding machine.
"Let's say we get 50 girls a day (clackety-clack) times 25 mail days a month (clackety-clack), times every three months that we publish (clackety-clack). That's 3,750 girls minimum, every three months! And the swimsuits, I only get 50."
He seemed to think it was quite sad. He tells the women that full-body photos are better than face shots, but the shame of it is, some women don't obey. This makes his job rather difficult -- kind of like trying to trade horses that won't open their mouths.
"We're in sales," said Bruce, simply. "Girls in bikinis sell."
On the evening news in early July, the television screen was suddenly engorged with the image of an obese man, his hair carefully tended, his gold chain sparkling and his lower lip still pouting, even when he was trying to be sweet.
It was Bruce T. White himself, proprietor of T.L.C. Worldwide Inc., speaking somberly for his industry:
"It's just an unfortunate human circumstance," he said.
This was in reference to the busted marriage of Svetlana Kravchenko. According to the Harris County Sheriff's Department, her picture appeared in the catalog of Club Prima, one of Bruce's competitors. The owner couldn't confirm this -- he files his women by their numbers, not their names -- but possibly Kravchenko's desires were as simple as those expressed by MS-310, a buxom blond in the current catalog: "I want have husband from U.S.A."
Following a correspondence, Kravchenko arrived from the Ukraine with her two young daughters in January 1994. Whether Manuel Castaneda kissed her then is unknown, but according to the sheriff's department, the Galveston emergency-room doctor did begin beating her. Allegedly, Kravchenko's new husband also showed nude photos of her to his acquaintances and offered her to them for sex; injected her with testosterone to make her sexually aggressive; masturbated in front of her children; and after she protested, stabbed her around the eyes with a fork.
"Goddang, it's disgusting," said Castaneda's lawyer. He was talking about what he believes is a foreigner's plot for a green card.
Whatever the case, the romance was a real sweetheart of a deal, and several days after Castaneda's arrest in late June, the television news crews were still buzzing over it. Bruce had little time on the air, but he managed to say that mail-order clients aren't all losers who can't get a date. It's just that "they have a problem meeting the type of person they feel comfortable with," he said, which was his delicate way of saying that American women will no longer accept their natural roles as mothers and homemakers. "They are so belligerent, angry, selfish and confused," he writes in his catalog, and it's they who are to blame for the disintegration of the family, and thus, for everything from declining morality to the national deficit.
In short, the females have become feminists, and the mail-order bride business has been reborn to serve a different product to a different kind of customer. In the last century, its patrons were pioneers, men who sent off for women because there simply weren't any women around. Now, the men are typically divorced, Bruce said. "They might have pooch bellies, might be losing hair," and because their countrywomen have gone to pot, they buy the addresses of the most beautiful women from the world's most depressed regions. Two thousand men a year, by one estimate, are finding life partners this way.
"Don't delay," reads Bruce's catalog. "Generally the lady you meet will be younger, prettier and more appreciative. Imagine all of these traits in a woman, without the attitude!"
The case of Svetlana Kravchenko did not reflect the industry broadly, Bruce told the TV reporter, and it did not seem to have affected him deeply. "An unfortunate human circumstance," he had called it. He might have said the same thing about his own broken marriage.
Any time you're in the mail-order business, you deal with a lot of strange people," said vice president James Smith. He doesn't give out T.L.C.'s address and was surprised to receive a visitor.
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."
For $100, T.L.C. will mail your photo and specifications to 1,000 eager Latinas. You don't have to wear a swimsuit; the listing is one page of postage-stamp mug shots, many men staring out with dead eyes and no smiles.
Their addresses are on the back. When you try to call, sometimes the men don't answer their phones. From Arkansas, a woman called to say her husband is out of town, but he'll get the message -- she'll make sure of that. In Florida, another woman said her husband had died, but that the number must be wrong, because they were married for 60 years, and the one thing he didn't need was a wife.
The men became, when they answered, a repetitive lesson in how a publication can target a demographic. A salesman in Oklahoma said his American ex-wife had given him hell -- "more of that women's lib stuff and which one of my rights did you violate today." A divorced engineer groused about women buying into "all these feminist ideas." And in Arlington, Texas, another salesman said the mail-order business offered some wonderful deals:
"You can get Miss America, because they just want to get the hell out of Russia or wherever."
From Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, Jeffrey Burnett, a retired trucker, said he had never married an American woman, and maybe he should give them a try. But it was getting kind of late, he said, since he was 59, and ladies his age "tend to spread out and get fat and heavy and ugly." It was better, he thought, to stick with younger, foreign women. Not too long before, he had concluded a relationship with a lady from the Philippines 24 years his junior. He got her pregnant, and angry, too, and she began screaming at him -- he didn't know why -- and eventually, she left. Burnett had no idea where his wife and child had gone, and he wasn't looking.
"Same as like a car, you can get a lemon sometimes," he explained. "I guess the lesson, if there is one, is to stay away from Orientals."
None of these men did Bruce White intend to stand as typical T.L.C. customers. For that purpose, he gave the name only of Brian Korzenowski, a 39-year-old San Antonio insurance executive.
Korzenowski's first wife had been ten years younger, and when she grew up, she grew independent and walked out. He had gone shopping, therefore, for a woman who wouldn't do that again, a woman with "not a lot of body fat, with big hair -- very exotic-looking. Someone who could dress up, and at the same time, be a good mom for my son."
He shopped the bars but found no such creature, and when he saw the T.L.C. ad in a singles magazine, he signed up and began writing letters. Before long, in late February, he decided the thing to do was to take a T.L.C. tour.
"I knew they offered a quality product," he explained. "I'd seen the video."
Barranquilla, Colombia, is little more than a large industrial city, but Korzenowski wasn't disappointed. "My approach was, 'This is not a vacation,' " he said. " 'This is a business trip.' "
He had with him a diamond engagement ring; his jeweler back home told him it could be returned if the proper finger weren't found within 60 days. Korzenowski was optimistic that first evening, as he looked around the ballroom. There were women of all sizes and complexions, a dozen of them for every man. "Whatever your desires," he said, "the variety was there."
His correspondents were nice ladies, but the "quality" of others was such that he quickly put them on his B list. Finally, through a glass partition, he spied the package he wished to marry. She was wrapped in a white dress to accentuate her "natural tan." She was fit and feminine and exotic-looking, and she was very excited to see him.
They had lunch the next day, and prospects only improved. Korzenowski likes going to the beach, and he learned, amazingly enough, that she did, too. Two days later, when the tour left, he stayed behind. "You can never spend too much time" choosing a wife, he said. But ten days were enough, and on that tenth, he fetched out his standby diamond, dropped down on his knee and made her a proposal she didn't understand. After he had stumbled through it in Spanish, she began to cry, and that evening, through an interpreter, he cleared it with her parents.
He's still trying to clear it with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but with the help of T.L.C.'s "Marriage and Spousal Immigration Assistance Kit," Korzenowski hopes that by August, he'll have Ingrid by his side. They still can't communicate very well, but she's down there getting ready, watching American TV, and Korzenowski is sure language won't be a problem.
"This doesn't have to do with words," he solemnly said. "It has to do with feelings."
Mail-order brides and the men who love them remain a very small group. Consequently, mail-order companies tend to fight with one another like starving dogs.
You'll hear that the ladies of one region are better than another because they're Catholic and don't care for divorce, or conversely, because they're atheist and don't mind it. "Beauty pageants," one company proclaims, "are the national pastime of Colombia." Another company has anointed itself "an international humanitarian agency," out to make a profit, of course, but also to help poor countries and single mothers. And on the World Wide Web, yet another service offers a game that seems to speak for the industry: match the nude body with the head and get a free gift.
Or forget the head -- who needs it?
The owners of these companies tell stories about one another that range from not answering the phone to drunkenness and prostitution. Over the Press' fax machine, a message arrived that could have become a novel. The name of the company and the owner were printed at the top, and beneath it, the charge read:
"Brought a Russian girl to the U.S. and beat her -- she left to go live with topless dancers."
All of this came by way of a reporter's inquiry into T.L.C. The questions led eventually to Miami, where Mark Bodiford said, "There's a lot of bad feeling between us and T.L.C." You can read about it every now and then in his International Friends catalog.
Bruce says T.L.C. was started when two amigos saw an opportunity no one was exploiting. Bodiford disagrees, and says Latin America was International Friends' turf first. Whether Bruce's Cancun tale is true or not, Bodiford is pretty sure the two amigos started their company by sending secret agents into the ranks of International's customers. In this way, T.L.C. acquired a catalog format to copy, and the addresses of dames and dudes to entice away.
In the June 1992 International listing of men, there's the smiling face of Bruce's sidekick, James Smith, who was 48 at the time and was looking for a traditional Latin lady no younger than 18. Nearby, Bodiford believes, were the photos of two more of Bruce's friends. And at the bottom of the page, to fill space, there was a handsome mug of Tito Gato, a gray tabby.
According to Bodiford, most of the men in the listing, and Tito Gato as well, later received T.L.C. brochures offering to help them find Latin mates. Many of the ladies who wrote Bruce's friends were enlisted into T.L.C., Bodiford believes, as were other women who originally appeared in the International catalog.
By that fall, James had found his Martha through International Friends, and Bruce, a man named Julian Flores and Houston policeman Chris Sherman had married, respectively, the sisters Gisela, Diana and Miriam Bucardo. T.L.C. was evidently still short on stock, however, because the following spring, in the first edition of T.L.C.'s catalog, Martha and Miriam were offered as marriageable ladies.
Gisela's application, meanwhile, was received by International Friends three months after her marriage. As Bodiford said, "She's fine!" and after her photo was published in the winter of 1993, she probably attracted a lot of suitors. Her husband replied to each one.
"Thank you ... for writing Gisela Burcardo," Bruce White began, misspelling his wife's last name. "I am writing to you for three reasons. 1) To thank you for the sincere cards and/or letters you sent to my wife 2) To wish you good luck in meeting your spouse through an International Correspondence service, and 3) to offer my magazine/services in addition to others subscribed by you before."
I was an innocent virgin when he married me," Gisela told her divorce lawyer.
She arrived in October 1992 and began missing her family immediately. When Bruce was at work, which was most of the time, Gisela was alone in the house, and when he was home, they were unable to speak. If Bruce had something to tell her, he would call his secretary and have her translate over the phone. In this way, they lived together as husband and wife. Gisela said no one told her about contraception, and she became pregnant in that first month.
Bruce had an extensive pornography collection that he insisted on showing off, she testified. She told her lawyer that he drank from seven in the evening to three in the morning and often shouted at her. He wouldn't let her attend English or driving classes, or go to church. He called her "primitive, stupid and useless." He told her to fold those catalogs, get to work.
"He required total obedience to his wishes," she recounted to her lawyer, through an interpreter. "If I did not obey him, he said he would return me to Honduras."
In August 1994, when Bruce left for a business trip to Panama, Gisela says he left with the threat that he would bring home another wife. She believed him. She sold her clothes and shoes; Bruce told the court she took his high school class ring and his $3,000 coin collection. Gisela bundled up her year-old daughter and left the land of the free to return to Honduras.
She might have stayed there, too, but just after Christmas, as she told her lawyer, a BMW stopped before her home on Calle Agua Fria. In the front yard, an 11-year-old cousin was watching young Angela, and two men jumped out of the car, knocked the cousin down and took Angela away. Gisela said she received a call from Bruce after that, and he told her he'd beat her up if she didn't surrender Angela's passport.
Eventually, Gisela followed her daughter back to the United States, lived with her sister and endured a long and bitter divorce. With a generous helping of her lawyer's English, she concluded finally that Bruce T. White "makes his living from the belief that women are inferior to and exist for the sole purpose of serving men and their needs, and have no independent reason for existence."
Because of this, he should not be granted custody of their daughter, Gisela argued. Bruce, in turn, contended that deficiencies he had overlooked in a mate could not be ignored in a mother: limited English, a poor education and extremely limited job skills.
Gisela was cleaning hotel rooms at the time. In the end, she agreed that he would be the better parent. Bruce was granted custody of Angela, and Gisela received a settlement of cash.
I still say your story's down there in divorce court," Bruce had said, early on. "I even got the title: 'Pimps, Whores and Payoffs.' "
But he was talking about the court itself, and when he discovered his divorce was becoming a subject for this story, the angry man became angrier. He seemed to believe that since it was his life, he owned the details of it. When he realized he had lost control, he tried frantically to get it back.
Behind the bars of his office one sunny day, he looked more pinched than usual as he pointed to a chair in the center of the room and told the reporter to sit down. There were two video cameras aimed at the chair, and "this is a way of protecting ourselves," he said. So was the piece of paper Bruce pushed across the desk. "Affidavit," it read at the top, and it was clear that if the reporter wanted an interview, he would have to solemnly swear to report the truth.
Bruce snapped a photo as the document was signed.
Afterward, he offered a reminder that the phones were ringing off the hook, and "it's hard to say how much business we're missing." Alas, it truly was an unprofitable time. The only discovery that day was that Bruce was hungry again for a woman and thinking of raiding the stock. But he remained civil until later, on the phone, when he was asked about the relationships of a relationship dealer. He wouldn't talk about his divorce, and hung up before hearing his competitors' accusations.
"Goddammit, it's no one's business, stupid!" he said. "What part of that can't you understand? This interview is over!"
Last New Year's Eve, during a party at Chris Sherman's condominium, Gisela Bucardo found another man. There were maybe half a dozen cops sitting around, waiting for their Latinas to serve them beers, but Gisela wasn't under contract, and neither was a 37-year-old construction foreman, and the two of them found a need for each other.
Gisela and Brad Voskuhl were married February 17 in Las Vegas. They live now in a small Seabrook apartment with a television, a couch, a table and a bed. On a hot Saturday in July, Gisela's father, the coffee farmer, was there, too, a small, weathered man gazing mutely at the game of golf. He's traveling now on a one-year visa from daughter to daughter, and Brad gets a kick out of threatening to throw away leftovers and watching him devour everything.
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Quietly like a statue, Gisela was sitting beside her father. The question was, why do American men go south for their brides? She said nothing.
"Tell him what you tell me, baby," answered her man. " 'Because the women are better looking.' "
Brad seemed very pleased with his wife, and he began praising her pedigree. "They're very loyal," he said. They let you make the decisions. Also, they're fun. Gisela likes to wrestle and tease, and every now and then, she'll come up with "funny ha-has, which kind of surprises you." And when it comes to going out, since she's done so little of that, Brad said, "I can train her to what I like," like maybe watching golf.
Gisela smiled and got up. She was done with Bruce and now had Brad. She put her hands around his bicep; he kissed her on the forehead. "I love a lot Brad," she said, and she was happy, too, not to be cleaning rooms at Holiday Inn anymore. She'd made a deal she could live with.