Tom Gliatto
May 28, 2001 12:00 PM

On her first reporting assignment for E!’s Wild On in August 1999, Brooke Burke headed to Buñol, Spain, for the annual La Tomatina Festival, a splat-happy event in which a crowd of some 30,000 people bombard each other with tomatoes. “It’s the largest food fight in the world,” says Burke with a laugh. “And let me tell you, tomato acid burns the eyes.” The night ended with the revelers, sloshed from time-outs at local bars, tearing each other’s shirts off. “Eight men tried to rip mine off,” she says, more proud than offended.

Which is exactly the right anything-goes attitude for Wild On, a six-nights-a-week late-night travelogue aimed at viewers who think of the world as one big spring-break blowout. In the past two years Burke, 29, has done some adrenaline-raising stunts, including fighting off crocodiles in Jamaica and standing on a skyscraper ledge in New Zealand. But the real reason for Wild On‘s success—it’s E!’s No. 2 late-night show, just below Howard Stern—is Burke’s intrepid exploration of international nightlife. She has hit the dance floor at a disco in Uruguay, gone hot-tub hunting in Aspen and reported on teeny-bikini fashions in Rio. To critics who complain about too much skin, she concedes, “It’s definitely there.”

And if not there, then in Playboy, where the former model poses nude in the May issue. “She oozes sex appeal,” says Lou Maggio, the swim-wear executive who recommended her for Wild On in 1999.

But Burke’s walks on the wild side only go so far, since her constant travel companion is still wearing booties. Despite assignments that keep her on the road 10 days a month, she hasn’t spent a night apart from daughter Neriah in the 14 months since the little girl was born. “We’re a package deal,” says Burke, at home today in the two-story Mediterranean-style house in L.A. that she shares with Neriah’s father, Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Garth Fisher, 43. “She goes wherever I go.”

Fisher is resigned to seeing his family fly off week after week. “I miss the baby,” he says. “When I see her toys, I miss her more.” But he doesn’t fret as much as Burke’s mother, Donna Hatounian, 52, a software-company saleswoman in Tucson. Though Neriah stays with her nanny in hotels while Burke works, “where they go can be scary,” says Hatounian. “Brooke has to worry about mosquitoes.”

Actually mosquitoes are the least of Brooke’s fears. “I’m horrified of lobsters,” says the crustaceaphobic Burke, who refused to handle one on a dive in Belize. “And shrimp and lobsters are the cockroaches of the ocean.”

The Hartford, Conn., native’s first major journey was at age 2, after her parents divorced. Her mother then married mechanic Armen Hatounian, relocating from the Northeast to Tucson with Burke and her sister Kimberly, now 32 and a computer saleswoman. Sidelined by a back injury, Armen was the one who stayed home and raised his stepdaughters. “I consider him my father all the way across the board,” says Burke, who’s not in touch with her biological father, George, an aluminum-siding salesman.

A tomboy, she was the only girl on her school’s flag-football team. Then a talent scout steered her toward modeling. She won a pageant sponsored by Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion and at 19 headed to L.A., where she posed for Frederick’s of Hollywood. “But I modeled the church dress with a high neck,” she points out. “The conservative stuff.”

Burke plans to wear an equally demure gown at some future date when she and Fisher wed. “We just have to find the right beautiful spot,” says Burke. And, of course, the right menu. Shellfish, be assured, won’t be on it.

Tom Gliatto

Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles

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