When Make Up Boxed Out Makeup

For decades, Dr. Joyce Brothers was a household name. A board-certified psychologist, Brothers found fame and fortune through the media, not the therapist’s chair — she was a pioneer in popular psychology, bringing advice to the masses through her columns in Good Housekeeping magazine, via television talk show appearances, and ultimately, through her TV shows as well.

Brothers’ media career, though, didn’t get its start due to her expertise in psychology. Rather, it’s because of her success on the 1955 game show, “The $64,000 Question” — despite the best efforts of the show’s sponsors and producers. 

For about as long as television has been popular, so have TV game shows. But the history of game shows hasn’t been without controversy. In 1956, NBC aired a quiz show called “Twenty-One,” where contestants competed against each other to answer trivia questions. The first few episodes were poorly received as neither contestant fared well, and the show’s sponsor, Geritol, demanded producers make changes to create a more engaging program. So the producers did just that — by rigging the game. Favored contestants were provided with the right answer; unpopular winners were instructed to get questions wrong to let a more popular challenger continue to the next episode. When news of this spread, many other TV game shows were similarly accused of being rigged.

“The $64,000 Question” was one of the TV shows whose credibility was at issue, and for good reason: like “Twenty-One,” contestants were presented with often incredibly difficult questions, ones that hardly anyone could answer. But unlike Twenty-One, it was rare for a contestant to get enough answers correct to win the grand prize. In almost all cases, the contest wasn’t fixed, per se, but it also wasn’t all that fair, as American Heritage magazine explains:

When a contestant was fun, magnetic, or simply entertaining, the questions eased up a bit, or leaned toward the player’s specific expertise— not merely geology, for example, but volcanic geology. Likewise, when the producers wanted to end a contestant’s run on the show, they would pick out a far tougher question, flipping through possibilities written out on index cards, sometimes even while watching from the control room. If a contestant had worn out their welcome, the producer had an absurdly difficult question ready to ensure their exit.

And for Dr. Brothers, that was a problem — she wore out her welcome the moment she took to the soundstage. The issue: she didn’t wear much if any, makeup. “The $64,000 Question” was sponsored by Revlon, the makeup company, and their CEO, Charles Revson, took a very active approach to what he saw as his television production. To start, Brothers was given a set of sports categories to choose from, something that a woman, producers presumed, wouldn’t know much about. Brothers was not one to back down from the challenge. Her husband was a boxing fan so she chose questions from that category and began studying. She told Columbia University’s alumni magazine that she devoured everything she could about the sport: “My husband and I went to the publisher of Ring magazine and got every issue they’d ever printed. Then we went to the producer of the Great Fights of the Century films, and he lent us the reels. The show gave me six weeks to study, and I just read everything.” And she ended up getting question after question right.

Revson upped the ante — he didn’t like the fact that a woman who wasn’t a fan of his products was winning his game show. Brothers told Columbia that “Revson wanted me to wear makeup on the air. But I didn’t wear makeup. I didn’t want to wear makeup. So when I got to $16,000, Revson told the producers, ‘Get that [not very nice word] off the show.’” Revson, according to PBS, Revson directed his brother, Martin, who was the leading producer of the show, to put an end to Brothers’ win streak: “Martin Revson made it clear that he disliked her personality, looks, and clothing, and added that he also found her unbelievable as a boxing expert. [The producers] brought in Nat Fleischer, a boxing writer, to come up with the hardest of boxing questions to stump Brothers.” Specifically, Fleischer came up with a new line of questioning. Instead of focusing on the boxers themselves, who were in many cases legitimately famous, he’d have the show’s host ask Brothers’ about the referees. And she aced those, too. Here’s a YouTube video of one of the episodes she was in — if you fast forward to about the 12-minute mark, you’ll see her segment; it runs for about five to six minutes. You’ll note that the questions are almost entirely about the refs, and that Brothers got them all correct.

Brothers ended up winning the $64,000 grand prize, worth more than $700,000 today, and launched herself into the public spotlight. When a grand jury later investigated “The $64,000 Question” to make sure contestants weren’t given the correct answers, she was asked to testify, and she immediately denied being in cahoots with the producers (who, rather, tried to KO her). Per American Heritage, “the attorneys, along with members of the jury, peppered her with boxing questions. For six hours, she batted answers right back,” answering every question correctly.

Whether she wore makeup for her grand jury testimony went unreported.

Bonus fact: The 1950s quiz show scandal gave birth to “Jeopardy!,” according to Smithsonian magazine. In 1963, TV host Merv Griffin was thinking over ideas for a new game show when his wife, Julann, suggested he bring back the quiz shows she was apparently fond of, but Merv demurred, saying that the scandals were too fresh in the minds of audiences — you can ask a question, but many viewers would assume that the contestant was previously provided with the answer. Per Smithsonian, Julann pivoted, saying to her husband, “Well, why don’t you give them the answers? And make people come up with the questions?” and then provided the following example: “The answer is ‘5,280.’” Merv was able to deduce the question (“How many feet in a mile?”) The two went back and forth, providing answers that elicited questions, and the “Jeopardy!” format was born.

From the Archives: Why the Runners’ Up Prizes Aren’t in Jeopardy: Why you couldn’t win a diamond ring from Alex Trebek.