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[The Strip Sense]

Terry Fator claims he was being controlled by his ex-wife; was he?

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Terry Fator and ex-wife Melinda
Photo: Virginia Sherwood | AP

To hear the 45-year-old singing ventriloquist tell it, until quite recently he was a dummy. He had several puppet masters, but he reserves a special enmity for one in particular. The press—including me—have portrayed his ex-wife as a victim, but Mirage headliner Terry Fator wants us to know otherwise.

“The issues that were happening in my first marriage were happening for years before,” he said last week, more than two years after leaving Melinda, his wife of 18 years. “I mistakenly thought success would fix those issues, and it made them even worse.”

Fator dumped Melinda just as his Mirage residency began and wed his 22-year-old onstage assistant the day after his divorce was finalized in November 2010. In doing so, he seemed to be a walking show-biz cliché, the one in which a new celebrity trades the spouse who stood by in the fallow years for a younger and previously unattainable model.

Now the presumed cad says there was more to it, and in the process he has unraveled the feel-good story that won the hearts of America’s Got Talent viewers as well as the Vegas media. Melinda, a key part of Fator’s lore, was cast as the only one who believed in him and the rock that supported him through years of empty theaters and county fairs.

His new story: Melinda was a self-aggrandizing, hen-pecking control freak who alienated him from his family and refused to bear him children. He remained married because his Christian upbringing prohibited divorce, but once he became successful he also became empowered.

Terry Fator and Taylor Makakoa at Carrot Top's fifth-anniversary celebration at the Luxor on Dec. 20, 2010.

Terry Fator and Taylor Makakoa at Carrot Top's fifth-anniversary celebration at the Luxor on Dec. 20, 2010.

“When I wrote my first book, my ex-wife went through it and got really angry with me because I didn’t give her enough credit for enough stuff, so she edited it,” he said. “When you’re stuck in a marriage ... I was like, ‘Well, I might as well make this look good because I’m unhappy but I’m stuck.’”

Melinda Fator, unsurprisingly, has a different account. While she declined to provide a detailed response, she insisted that she didn’t edit his book for anything other than grammar and spelling, and that an argument over children “never happened.” She said she was unaware of his intense discontent until he demanded a separation.

“He’s playing the victim card, and that’s not right,” she said. “He is trying to play off all of his decisions on everyone else and try to not take responsibility for anything.” (Hear both Fators and judge for yourself on the newest episode of my podcast at thestrippodcast.com.)

Terry Fator cops to some of that, though he only cops to being guilty of permitting it to happen. He complained about being controlled not only by his wife but also by “handlers” who directed his career and the content of his show after his AGT triumph in 2007. He also called himself “too big of a wimp” to assert himself. His handlers, he said, pushed him to do more sexual humor than he was comfortable with and encouraged him to try divisive political jokes in a gambit to be provocative. (He didn’t name anyone, but Fator split with post-AGT manager John McEntee in 2009 and settled with him out of court last fall.)

There’s a contradiction, though. Fator claims that his handlers both pushed him to be Vegas-edgy and warned him that leaving Melinda could alienate his fans. You’d think if they wanted him edgy, having him single and cavorting with a young, hot babe would be just the ticket, right?

It’s hard to know what actually happened, especially when Melinda Fator’s response to several accusations was: “He knows the truth; I know the truth; he knows I know the truth. So whatever he chooses to put out there is his business. I’ve never bad-mouthed him in the press. I will not bad-mouth him in the press.”

That certainly is the high road. And to be fair, it must be noted that I spoke with Terry Fator over the phone. It sure sounded like his voice, but I wasn’t there to see whether his lips moved, so who knows?

That’s the trickiest part of interviewing a dummy.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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