In 1987, a 29-year-old Donna Rice Hughes suited up in head-to-toe denim to shoot a TV commercial. It was nothing new for the actress and pharmaceutical sales rep, then known as just Donna Rice. After all, she booked her first television spot, a Pizza Hut ad, in the ninth grade.
She had worked on “dozens” of national and regional commercials, and appeared on One Life to Live and Miami Vice. But then again, by 1987, Rice Hughes wasn’t known for her acting career.
Rice Hughes’ late twenties had torpedoed into a media firestorm after The National Enquirer published a cover photo showing the former pageant queen sitting on the lap of Gary Hart, a Democratic frontrunner in the 1988 presidential campaign.
In the wake of a tabloid feeding frenzy, Rice Hughes quit the marketing gig she loved. A Folgers ad shot where she played a young wife, shot before the scandal, was pulled from stations. To put it bluntly, as Rice Hughes did to The Daily Beast, “I had no source of income.”
So when reps from a then-unknown denim line called No Excuses got in touch with her agent, Rice Hughes felt it was time to button up her size zero jeans and get to work.
Rice Hughes wasn't alone: Marla Maples, Joan Rivers, and Monica Seles also donned the jeans, while Paula Jones and Nicole Brown Simpson’s sister, Denise, became non-jeans wearing figureheads for the brand too.
“I agreed to do a commercial, not as an endorsement deal, but as an actor and a model,” Rice Hughes said. “At the time, doing a TV commercial was consistent with my career, and therefore seemed to be one of the only offers coming in that was not exploitative of my situation.”
“Also, the name No Excuses seemed to work for me, as I had decided to take responsibility for my own choices and my own mistakes, while others involved in the 1987 situation avoided personal and professional responsibility,” she added.
Rice Hughes enjoyed filming the 15-second commercial. “I loved acting,” she said. “We basically ditched the script and I did improvisation, which I enjoyed.”
But the end result, where the camera grazed up Rice Hughes’ acid wash-clad leg as she lounged on a chaise, before delivering the line, “I make no excuses; I only wear them,” felt cheap to the actress. Columnists across the world had much to critique, too.
“Far be it from me to judge Miss Rice in matters of the Hart, but to parlay her notoriety into quick little TV tricks is the sort of Madison Avenue behavior you generally run into only after dark—like from the lady with the red spike heels on the corner of 53rd Street,” the critic Bob Garfield wrote of the spot in his Ad Age column.
“I wasn’t happy with the finished TV spots because they added sexy music and panned my body with the camera, making the commercials more provocative as opposed to fun and campy,” Rice Hughes said. “I had many opportunities to make millions of dollars [after the Hart scandal], some legitimate and others exploitative; this turned out to be exploitative, not by me, but by the company. I regret it.”
Rice Hughes also claims that No Excuses leaked news of the campaign to the press, labeling her as endorsing the label when all she wanted to do was act in one commercial.
“I had not wanted my name to be involved, which in hindsight was naive,” Rice Hughes explained. “I wanted to be taken seriously and regain my credibility and reputation, which was shattered at the time. I also wanted my pain and trauma to count for something bigger than me. So yes, I eventually went underground to heal.”
After nearly a decade out of the spotlight, Rice Hughes emerged as an early internet safety advocate. She is the CEO of the organization Enough Is Enough, where she has worked for 25 years.
Joan Rivers succeeded Rice as a No Excuses spokesperson with the undeniably Rivers quip, “It was a tossup between me and Lady Di. I guess the real princess won.” Monica Seles and Marla Maples followed in double-denim suit, with the latter’s 1990 ad debuting months after being named the “other woman” in Donald and Ivana Trump’s contentious divorce.
Maples would eventually marry Trump after languishing in Page Six hell for four years. One No Excuses shot finds Maples doing her best earth mother in a field of flowers, throwing tabloids into a trash can. “The most important thing we can do today is clean up our planet,” the copy preaches. “And I’m starting with these...”
Later, No Excuses donated $500,000 to both Paula Jones and Nicole Brown Simpson’s sister, Denise, as publicity stunts. (Neither Jones or Denise Brown posed for campaigns.)
“I see this as an opportunity to take an unfortunate situation and turn it into a positive action,” Jones told Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who described the Rockefeller Center press conference as “real life [racing] past satire.”
Neil Cole owned No Excuses, which later licensed more apparel, shoes, and perfume before fizzling out in the late ’90s. “We wanted to do something very similar to the Calvin Klein, Brooke Shields commercial at the time,” Cole said, referencing the 1981 standard-bearing ad for sexy jeans, where the young actress purred, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”
“I don’t know if these spokeswomen were trying to make a political statement, or maybe they considered it female empowerment. It was a different time,” Cole offered.
Dari Marder was 22 years old when Cole hired her to be No Excuses’ director of advertising and public relations. Her job often included press-training models, standing by them while they spoke to cameras, and shutting down reporter questions that didn’t relate to denim.
“Frankly, a little bit of controversy at the press conferences didn’t hurt us,” Marder admitted. “I still to this day wonder at these women for their bravery. I’m happy they did the ads, and I’m proud of them. I was invited to Marla’s wedding [to Donald Trump], she was that happy and pleased with how the campaign turned out.”
Marder doesn’t remember Donald Trump palling around on set with Maples, though she has a “vague recollection” of the then-developer looking over her contract. Cole said his family were tenants at Trump Tower “during the early days.”
“You can go really far with [advertising] jeans,” Jon Bond, who worked on the commercials when he led the agency Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, said. “It’s not BMW or a pharmaceutical product. It’s just friggin’ jeans, so no one gets hurt.”
But, Bond insists that No Excuses “gave these women a voice and a platform. They were a part of their story now, whereas they felt like they were exploited when they were just in the press or the media.”
No Excuses was equal-opportunity in the snark department; though the brand is most famous for its Rice Hughes connection, Cole also hired industry legend George Lois to create ads for WWD that also lampooned errant men.
He called it the “No Excuses Award of the Month,” dedicated to the principle that “to err is human, but to take the heat and make no excuses for it is divine.”
The publishing mogul Malcolm Forbes threw himself a lavish 70th birthday party in Tangier that boasted an 880-plus star-studded guest list. Critics called the fête a bacchanal, unnecessary display of wealth. Lois’ cheeky copy read that Forbes won his honorary No Excuses Award, “For feeding 800 hungry people in Africa.”
Forbes called Lois when the ad ran, and Lois’ receptionist nervously put the call through. “I said, ‘Malcom, you got a problem with the ad?’” Lois remembered. “He said, ‘God no, is there any way you can get me 880 reprints?’ It was a scream.”
Lois had no qualms parodying the misdeeds of the stupidly rich (or stupid and rich) like Leona Helmsley, Dan Quayle, and the execs of Exxon Valdez post-oil spill. “If [Exxon] sued me for that, that would have been great. I would have loved that,” Lois laughed. “They almost destroyed the Alaska coastline.”
No Excuses may be no longer, and even after a long career as a child's safety advocate Rice Hughes still says the campaign “haunts” her. She would not go back and do it again if given the chance. And yet, she still owns a pair of size zero No Excuses jeans.
“I believe I saved a pair,” she said. “[I’m] not sure where they are now. They were cute and fit great.”