Charlie on the Town

Crist and a former beauty queen are "a confirmed item" — at least in some newspapers

To borrow a phrase from one of our governor's political heroes, here we go again.

The Florida media was awash last week in reports that Charlie Crist, Florida governor and bachelor, is romancing a former beauty queen who starred on the gross-out TV program Fear Factor and will soon vye in a reality show for the title of "America's Hottest Mom."

You can't make this stuff up.

Oh, wait. Of course you can.

It's true that the governor has been seen out in public with 36-year-old Palm Beach County blond Kelly Crosby Heyniger. But the two biggest newspapers in the state have taken it a bit far. This past Tuesday, the St. Petersburg Times reported that it was "official: She's the governor's girl."

The Miami Herald followed that with an article headlined: "Gov. Crist's girlfriend is Palm Beach mom." The newspaper went on to speculate whether Crist, a Leo, would be compatible with Heyniger, a Cancer, on an astrological basis.

If anything, the articles were a sign that it was a slow news week. And they shouldn't be taken seriously (as if). The whole story looks like just another media creation to bolster the idea that Crist is a man's man rather than, well, a man's man. He has presidential aspirations, after all.

This time, though, it might have been the woman who engineered the publicity. Looks like Heyniger, a prodigious self-promoter, is behind the recent news blitz.

Before I further debunk the stories, let's make one thing clear: I'm not saying Crist is gay. Rumors have abounded about it, and he's denied it. There are no stained blue trousers. He's Sphinx-like in that regard, the Ryan Seacrest of politics.

Last year, I wrote about two male GOP staffers who boasted to witnesses that they'd had, or were having, romantic relationships with Crist. The future governor personally told me it wasn't true and said he'd never had sex with a man.

Not exactly the kind of questions I like asking, but it was a valid topic. Crist belongs to a political party that condemns homosexuality, after all. And, for hypocrisy's sake, he supported an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage and was against allowing homosexual couples to adopt.

Since moving into the governor's mansion, however, Crist hasn't been playing much to the hate-mongers on the right. In fact, he scolded the Republican Party recently for giving money to antigay groups. He's done things that can only be described as left-leaning, like championing the right of felons to vote on machines that have verifiable paper trails.

In a word, he's been decent. And that is taking away not only the motivation but the justification for writing about this stuff. But then you get what you had last week. There's something so obviously fake about these recent dating stories that I feel obligated to bring some reality to the table.

So I'm going to tell a tale that I dug up several months back while looking into the "Crist Is Gay" dossier, supplied to me via phone by a shadowy political mercenary.

One rumor that has been floating around for years but never reported is that Crist was a regular during the early 1990s at the Green Iguana Bar & Grill on Westshore Boulevard in Tampa. The Green Iguana is known as a popular haunt for the gay crowd, especially during late-night hours.

It's owned by Rick Calderoni, a wealthy Tampa native who also happens to be gay. The story, according to the mercenary, was that Crist and Calderoni socialized at the Green Iguana and even went on trips to Key West together. Making the scenario more intriguing is that a gay club run by Calderoni was tied to a drug-money-laundering investigation in 1997, according to the St. Petersburg Times. He was charged with no crime at that time, but two years later, feds arrested Calderoni on a charge of laundering marijuana profits.

I couldn't determine the disposition of that case prior to publication, but it doesn't appear he was convicted, since there's no newspaper record of it and he's still running the Iguana (it's usually not easy to keep a liquor license if you have a drug-related conviction). His lawyer at the time said Calderoni was guilty only of "naively helping a friend."

Attempts to interview Calderoni were unsuccessful. But I did speak with former Green Iguana bartender and longtime Calderoni friend Lovie Hudson about it. I had been told she knew all the details. I should have known better.

The 45-year-old Hudson confirmed that Crist and Calderoni were friends and that the future governor frequented the Iguana during the early 1990s, when he was a freshman state senator.

But she said she never saw any indication of Crist's sexual orientation one way or the other. "I would have no idea," she says. "I think he's a very friendly guy, and I think he's friendly to people of all types."

She adds that, even if he were gay, it wouldn't have been a topic of discussion at the Iguana because the bar "is supportive of that lifestyle and would accept it and protect it."

Hudson says that Crist drank moderately but never to excess in her presence. "I never saw Charlie do anything inappropriate," she says. "He was always a gentleman."

And that, good reader, is illustrative of what it's like trying to solve the mystery of Charlie Crist. Always right there on the edge but never crossing over.

The hard-learned moral of the story is that it's wise to be skeptical about any story regarding Crist and romance, whether it be of the gay or straight variety.

You wouldn't know that from the media onslaught last week during which it was reported that Crist and Heyniger are a "confirmed item."

The really funny thing is that, if you actually read the small print under the headlines, you realize that neither Heyniger nor Crist has ever said publicly that they are an "item" or that their relationship, whatever the heck it consists of, is exclusive in any way. Reading what has been said, in fact, indicates they aren't and it isn't.

The coverage of Crist's latest alleged romance started with Palm Beach Postgossip columnist Jose Lambiet's scoop in February that Heyniger was seen out in public with the governor and that, at one point, she was rubbing his back "like a wife."

"I guess you could say we're hanging out, for lack of a better term," Heyniger told the newspaper.

The story came out just six weeks after his inauguration, which was attended by a St. Petersburg banker named Katie Pemble. You might remember the name; it was Pemble who played the role of Crist's "girlfriend" throughout the campaign. The mainstream media — I'm looking your way, St. Pete Times — ate that up without irony or skepticism as well.

But after he was sworn into office, Pemble suddenly disappeared. Apparently, the gig had wrapped. Then Heyniger showed up. During the past few months, Lambiet has reported a couple of more Heyniger-Crist sightings at the Cucina restaurant in Palm Beach. In March, he wrote that a "spywitness" told him there was "no heavy canoodling" between the two "but beaucoup eye-to-eye contact."

The following month, the columnist wrote that Crist left Cucina "through a back door while Heyniger stayed on to party."

There's a serious clue: No man who is even semi-serious about a woman is going leave by the back door while she parties into the night. It just doesn't happen.

The Lambiet stuff was all good clean fun, but the dam broke on the affair last week after Heyniger gave an interview to the ABC affiliate in West Palm Beach, WPBF (Channel 25). During the televised chat, the former Mrs. South Carolina said in her Southern accent, "I enjoy his company and I think he enjoys mine too. But I don't like to project."

Translation: They haven't been intimate. If they had, she wouldn't need to "project." She'd know.

The TV interview turned to rumors that the governor is gay, which WPBF illustrated with website displays of stories that were published in New Times last fall. She bravely ventured that the rumors weren't true.

This is nothing against Heyniger. The woman is pretty, charismatic, and wildly ambitious, all traits valued by most Americans. To get on Fear Factor, she sent the show videos of herself eating a live earthworm and having live lizards crawl out of her mouth, a stunt that reportedly scared the bejesus out of her young kids.

She's also a self-professed tomboy. When she went on Fear Factor, a psychological test found that she was 78 percent masculine. (Add your own punch line here.)

In other words, she's the perfect hetero-front, also known as a "beard." Even the content of the Herald story seems to put the lie to its premise that they are boyfriend and girlfriend. Heyniger, for instance, told the newspaper that she sees the governor about once every two weeks.

That sounds more like an occasional prop than a girlfriend.

She also told the Herald, "We have good conversations."

Yes. Conversations. Endless, mind-numbing, horribly frustrating conversations.

Crist, for his part, is wisely staying mum on the topic. He told the Associated Press last week only that Heyniger is "a lovely person," which echoes his Ned Flandersesque take on Pemble in the Times last year: "She's a wonderful lady. I think the world of her."

And that echoes his initial denial that he's not gay, during which he said: "I love women. I mean, they're wonderful."

C'mon, is the guy even trying to convince us? I don't think so. And that's what makes the media's confidence on reporting about his "girlfriends" even more perplexing.

In the old-fashioned sense, it's like they want to believe in fairy tales.

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