Your Cheatin' Art

H. L. Mencken said that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. Bobby Goldstein is a wealthy man.

The shameless culture that begat The Dating Game, Cops and When Animals Attack! has perhaps reached yet a new low with the off-network cult hit Cheaters. Goldstein is the co-creator and producer of the Dallas-based reality show about folks who fool around and their insignificant others.

The man who helped him bring the show to life is Tommy Habeeb, who plays the Cheaters host, Tommy Grand. Goldstein is the moneyman. Private investigator Danny Gomez is their hired gumshoe. Together, they fight crime. At least they would if adultery were still illegal.

It would also help if the cheaters the show claims to catch red-handed were actually cheating. Or dating.

The show is supposed to work like this: A suspicious lover contacts the show and tells them the object of his or her affection might be straying. They are interviewed on camera, usually at Cheaters' Dallas offices located on, of course, Lovers Lane. Staffers then decide whether to take the case. The show foots the bill for surveillance, which Gomez says can cost more than $10,000, in exchange for broadcast rights.

Detectives stalk and film the suspects at hotels, strip malls and restaurants. Cheaters has even set up cameras in suspect's homes right in front of their beds.

After enough footage is gathered, the cheatee accompanies Grand and crew to a "surveillance situation," usually the cheater on a date with the new flame. The show is built around the ambush-style confrontations that follow: illicit lovers surrounded by lights, cameras and gawkers as Grand damns the busted and consoles the jilted. The ugly rawness of love gone strange bolsters the show's claim to be "the realest of real TV."

But five twentysomethings say investigator Danny Gomez paid them $400 to act out phony scenarios that were presented as real on the show. They say they've sent many other people to Gomez at $50 per referral. Fake footage has been aired hundreds of times. Host Tommy Grand even brought some with him on a recent Maury appearance.

Goldstein says he got the idea for Cheaters in 1995. His concept was to take a fictional private eye and weave him in and out of real-life stories.

Goldstein, who grew up in Houston, made a pile of money as a lawyer and lost much of it in a 1998 malpractice suit when he had to pay a wealthy Dallas divorcee for misrepresenting her. Goldstein's legal career was over.

"I had a lot of fun as a lawyer, but once you get to the top of the practice of law, all you've really done is climb to the top of a big pile of shit," Goldstein says. "Getting into the entertainment racket is something I'd always wanted to do."

He was "closing up shop" in 1998 when a friend introduced him to Tommy Habeeb.

Habeeb had spent 20 years on the fringes of celebrity, including bit parts on Taxi and WKRP in Cincinnati. Habeeb liked Goldstein's idea of a film noir detective relating real stories of marital impropriety. Habeeb told Goldstein that he could have the show on the air within two years.

They formed a production company and filmed a 1999 pilot using actors, but station programmers turned it down.

Undeterred, Goldstein and Habeeb shot several episodes using actual cheaters solicited from classified ads. They hired Danny Gomez, a former police officer who had just started his own investigation company, to do the legwork.

A German company contracted for a season's worth of episodes, and U.S. syndication followed in fall 2000 -- with a few changes.

"When we got on in America, they wanted a straight magazine-style show," Goldstein says. The fictional detective angle was dropped in favor of a more conventional host, Tommy Grand.

The show's concept from the outset was a mixture of fact and fantasy, but somewhere along the road to national syndication, the temptation to use faux cheaters must have started looking sweet. Actors don't need to be tailed by Gomez for weeks on end. They don't present security risks, and they don't need counseling. They also tend to be younger and better looking than real cheaters, who often will not consent to allow the show to air their faces.

The bogus cheaters interviewed for this story say they've never heard of Goldstein and that Gomez stressed to them never to reveal to Grand or the camera crew that they were acting.

One of the actors, Michelle, met Gomez last fall. "What he told me was that some of the episodes are real, but...a lot of people didn't want to be on the show once they'd been busted, so they would do these ringer episodes to supplement the show," says Michelle, who asked not to be identified by her last name.

The show frequently airs her explosive segment, filmed outside a Dallas club. "I was thinking, 'This is so cheesy. I can't believe I'm doing this.' I'm so embarrassed because there's like 500 people outside watching me get reamed, and some girl saying I gave her a sexually transmitted disease."

Michelle recruited her friend Terry to appear on the show with her. Gomez said he'd create a story for them. Michelle didn't like what he had in mind.

"At first it was going to be two lesbians. I was like, 'God, no. You gotta come up with something better.' "

Gomez then changed the plot: Michelle would date Terry's "boyfriend," another ringer she describes as a "Metallica reject."

"The cheating stuff was filmed all black and white, like us at a restaurant or him walking me upstairs to my apartment. The guy [Gomez] was weird. He asked us to act like we're making out. I was like, 'Why don't I just get on my knees and give him a blow job? Would that be good for the show?...Dude, you're not going to pimp me out.' "

Michelle says Gomez then told her, " 'You need to take one for the team.' I said, 'No, really, I don't. I'm taking 400 bucks for the team.' "

Terry told Michelle that Gomez had instructed her to say, "This nasty bitch gave me an STD." Michelle was surprised again when the episode aired and they used her last name.

She complained to Gomez. "He's like, 'Don't be telling people it's fake.' I was like, 'I'm sure as hell going to tell people it's fake.' I don't want people thinking I was dating this Metallica reject and gave him an STD. God, it was bad."

It got even worse. Mr. Metallica did a follow-up interview saying he and Michelle had sex.

Investigator Gomez denies that he staged Michelle's or any one else's scenario.

"No, that doesn't sound accurate. If it was that, we could do ten episodes in ten days. I'm not gonna buy that. I think she's just probably pissed off because maybe she has a sexually transmitted disease." He says the show receives more than 2,000 inquiries per month and doesn't need to use ringers.

Gomez says Michelle's supposed paramour is "just a guitar player who likes to pick up women and sing a song everywhere he goes."

Michelle says Gomez set up everything, calling her to arrange to meet the guy at a coffee bar while Gomez filmed it. "So here I am outside Starbucks with this geek playing guitar, long-ass hair, and all I'm thinking is that these people don't know that there's a chubby Mexican [Gomez] in the bushes peeping at us."

Michelle says she knows several people who've appeared surreptitiously on Cheaters. "They've done a lot of fake shows. Their whole premise at first was, 'We've got to keep the show going, so we do a fake one here and there.' "

Mark, another Cheaters alum, says he was channel surfing one night and saw his friend Becky on the show. (Mark and Becky asked that their real names not be used because they're still getting money for referrals to the show.) When Mark next spoke to her, "I told her that I'd seen the show and that I didn't know she had a boyfriend." Becky told him she didn't. It was made up. She was paid.

After Mark interviewed with the show, Gomez called Mark later that night and told him to come to the studio the next night to meet Grand, then head out to confront the cheating "girlfriend" supplied by the show.

When Mark arrived at his confrontation scene, "Tommy shows me this film of her and this other guy making out. And then I go up there and yell at her and call her a bitch and all that. I'd never even seen her up to this point. When we were going over to confront her, I didn't know which couple it was until the cameras got around her."

Mark says Grand and crew offered sincere sympathy. "At the end we get out and Tommy says, 'Sorry it turned out this way, you don't really need her.' Then he told me there were a few titty bars right around that area where I could get my mind off her."

But Grand might have sensed something was amiss when Mark couldn't direct them to their destination -- supposedly his and his girlfriend's favorite place. Or perhaps the many cheaters who seem to prefer dining -- and kissing -- openly on restaurant patios, or who forget to close their hotel room blinds, might have tipped someone off that some scenarios are fake.

Grand and Gomez say some people might be using the show as a vehicle to get on television, but Grand doesn't believe Gomez would ever stoop to staging scenes, and Gomez insists that the $400 payments are solely for the right to air the person's image.

If Cheaters has a conscience, Habeeb is it. His signature black outfits belie what seems to be genuine compassion for the show's clients, many of whom are undoubtedly real and in real pain. "Everyone's had that empty feeling in their stomach, not knowing what their mate is doing," Grand says.

Cheaters, originally a Goldstein/Habeeb production, is now all Bobby Goldstein. Habeeb is strictly the host.

Goldstein was convicted in 1989 and given two years probation for securing and executing a document by deception.

When asked about claims the show uses ringers, Goldstein said, "That's interesting. I don't know. Dan Rather reporting that Gore won Florida comes to mind. No matter how many quality controls you put into place, I guess there's always some hanky-panky that could arise." He says his detectives have to sign an affidavit attesting to the validity of their investigation.

Goldstein said he would conduct an investigation into the allegations. Goldstein later said, "I mentioned it to Danny. He said he had a conversation with you about it. Not knowing anything else, I didn't really bother to spend any time screwing with it."

According to a Federal Communications Commission spokesman, there's no law or regulation against presenting acted-out scenarios as reality on television.

Independent stations that run Cheaters don't seem to much care if the show is authentic. Lee Aguiluv, program assistant for Houston's KNWS (Channel 51), says, "It really doesn't matter as long as people tune in to watch the show. That's all that counts." Aguiluv says the show brings the station "really good ratings."

Goldstein claims the show is now on in more than 90 percent of U.S. markets and is one of the top 20 syndicated television programs in the nation, a claim that proved impossible to verify.

Tommy Habeeb says his formerly stalled acting career has taken off, thanks to the show.

Michelle is not so lucky. Her segment has been rebroadcast several times. "I relive it every time they air that damn show. At work, people come up and say 'I saw you on Cheaters.' I make sure to tell them it's fake. I got paid to do it."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Scott Nowell