As longtime Houstonians know, Lisa Malosky has been a media trailblazer since joining Channel 2 in 1991, as the first female sports anchor in Houston and going on to host the Houston Rockets studio show. She also covered college football and the WNBA for several networks.
But for all Malosky’s accomplishments in “serious” sports, her most memorable, certainly wildest and wooliest, role was hosting the runaway hit show American Gladiators for two seasons in the early ’90s.
A two-part documentary on the American Gladiators is airing this month on ESPN as part of its 30 for 30 series. The documentary also is streaming on ESPN+.
American Gladiators aired seven seasons debuting in 1989 and quickly becoming a global sensation. The sports-entertainment show pitted everyday contestants against musclebound superheroes with names like Gemini, Malibu, Thunder, and Ice in perilous games including Joust, Powerball, the Gauntlet and the Eliminator.
Basically, it was like watching your neighbors get the daylights knocked out of them by genetic freaks with biceps the size of bowling balls.
Sure, on TV it was all fun and games (until somebody gets their block knocked off), but behind the scenes the show was a tangle of deceit and greed involving a former Elvis impersonator who stole (let’s say took credit) for the idea of American Gladiators and didn’t mind stabbing his best friend in the back.
Malosky is all over the documentary. Since she lives only a few blocks from me, just over the border into Southside Place, it wasn’t hard catching up with her.
CultureMap: So how does a weekend sports anchor in Houston get to host one of the most popular shows in the world?
Lisa Malosky: They came to Houston, to The Summit back then, to have tryouts. I did a story for Channel 2 about them looking for new competitors for the show. So I got out there and did a couple of the events, you know, that’s what we do, reporter involvement. I remember doing the event where contestants had to slam dunk a ball into a cylinder while dodging the Gladiators.
Anyway, I shot the ball like a basketball and it happened to go in. (It wasn’t a fluke shot – Malosky had been a star hoopster at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.)
A month or two later, I got a phone call at the station. It was from the American Gladiators. I thought they were looking for footage we shot at the tryouts. No, they were looking for me.
Samuel Goldwyn, the studio boss, saw an interview I did on PBS about being a female sportscaster and how Title IX had affected my career. The American Gladiators were looking for a new host for the 1994 season and they wanted a female. That’s what got the ball rolling. I called my agent and we went off to Los Angeles for an interview. That’s how I got the job.
CM: You continued to anchor sports at Channel 2 during those years. How did it work – did you use your Channel 2 vacation time to tape American Gladiators?
LM: Channel 2 let me take the month of June off. I went to Los Angeles and we taped the entire year’s worth of shows during that one month. We taped two shows a day. We’d work four days, then have a day or two off, and then work four more days.
CM: Raise your right hand. How much of American Gladiators was fake?
LM: It was absolutely real. None of it was staged, 100-percent swear on the Bible. Clearly there were times when the Gladiators lost their temper, but no one got hurt.
I never witnessed anybody trying to hurt someone intentionally. I remember if someone knocked off a Gladiator in Joust, I felt sorry for the next contestant who had to face that Gladiator.
CM: Who were your favorite Gladiators to hang out with?
LM: I have to be honest with you. I approached this job like I did my sportscasting job. Which is that I didn't fraternize with the people I covered and that's the truth. I didn’t spend much time with them, but I would say that Siren made the biggest impression on me. She was the young Gladiator who was deaf. I enjoyed her because she was just lovely and kind and sweet. Laser was a really good guy. He's a former football player from Montana State. We're Facebook friends now.
CM: American Gladiators reruns played for years after it was canceled in 1997. Did you get residuals? Was there a Lisa Malosky action figure?
LM: Ha! Maybe I should check to see about that action figure. Sorry, no residuals.
CM: So what are you doing now? How do you follow a phenomenon like American Gladiators?
LM: I have my own video production company, Lisa Malosky Productions. I work mostly with nonprofits, doing videos for their galas and websites. It’s extremely gratifying work.