February 29, 1988 12:00 PM

It’s practically an article of faith (and certainly of experience) that every miniseries must have its tramp, and in NBC’s Noble House this week it’s Tia Carrere who plays the good time that’s been had by all. While boardroom jockeys Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin fight for financial control of author James Clavell’s fictional Hong Kong, it’s up to Carrere, 21, to provide the requisite flash of trash. She plays Venus Poon, a sometime harlot, sometime starlet who eventually becomes the soy toy of a grotesquely fat opium trader, Four Finger Wu. Venus dies a spectacular death, as her type often does, buried alive in a gigantic mud slide while making love to her Buddha-bodied sugar daddy.

The image will be remembered, as will Carrere: She has the kind of looks that go to the head like plum wine. Attribute that to her Filipino, Chinese and Spanish ancestry, though her name—she was born in Honolulu as Althea Janairo—apparently was not sufficiently exotic. “I changed it four years ago when I started acting,” says Tia, raising her voice above the sound of sawing and hammering. (The Hollywood building in which she rents her studio apartment is being renovated.) “I changed it [with a slight spelling alteration] because people say I look like Barbara Carrera.”

Besides beauty, Tia also has the internal components that seem obligatory for acting—”insecurity,” she says, “and low self-esteem.” The causes are twofold. When Carrere was 12, a job offer took her parents and sisters (Audra, now 19, and Alesaundra, 11) to Samoa. Tia was left behind with her grandmother in Honolulu, where her parents felt the schools were better. Her mother and sisters returned three years later, but without Dad. Her parents divorced, and her father married his secretary. “The divorce hurt because I had always been my father’s little princess,” says Tia. Though she phones her dad, Alexander, a banker, every couple of months, “it’s sort of a love-hate relationship, because I still blame him for messing things up. But maybe if it weren’t for the divorce and the separation from my family, I wouldn’t have this urge to perform. They say performers are always trying to get the love from an audience that they never got at home.”

Lana Turner-style, Carrere’s career started in a Honolulu grocery store. An elderly couple approached her while she was shopping and said she’d be perfect for a movie their son was making. They were actually on the level. At age 17, Carrere starred in Aloha Summer, a prattle-of-the-sexes film that had a little trouble getting a distributor. It’s finally being released this week, on Feb. 26. Still, Tia had her Screen Actors Guild card and was ready to head for L.A. “She was very determined,” says her mother, Audrey, a computer supervisor at a Honolulu bank, “though I was kind of leery because of her age.”

Mom’s apprehensions were justified. True, Tia started off well enough, modeling in Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan and getting a regular role on General Hospital. But her boyfriend at the time, says Carrere, began manipulating her life and career. According to her, he urged Carrere—against her wishes—to file a news-making suit against General Hospital two years ago claiming the show was bankrupting her by not letting her take a role on The A-Team. She lost the suit, got tired of what she calls her boyfriend’s “emotional abuse” and dumped the guy. “I thought he had this professionalism about him,” says Carrere, who left GH when her contract expired last year. “But, boy, was I wrong. He just steered me wrong.”

In contrast, Tia thinks everything is right about her new relationship with Stephen Caffrey, 25, who plays Lieutenant Goldman on CBS’ sit-Nam, Tour of Duty. The two met in August, when Carrere guest-starred on the series as Caffrey’s love interest. During rehearsal he asked her to go for a walk on the beach after work. “I thought that was really sweet,” she says. “Nobody has ever asked me to go for a stroll on the beach before. He wasn’t hitting on me. He was just so sweet and innocent and nice about it.” He’s a far cry from the gentlemen Carrere used to encounter on the beaches—”those guys who come up to you with a pipe in their mouth, gold chains around their neck and a parrot on their shoulder and say, ‘Wanna touch my bird, baby?’ ”

Her career also seems to be taking wing lately, though in some curious flight patterns. If you think perishing in a mud slide with a fat man is a bit out of the ordinary, consider Carrere’s recent appearance on Circus of the Stars, in which she spent her entire segment lying on a bed of nails, or on The New Hollywood Squares, in which she soaked in a square that had been turned into a hot tub. And that was just a warm-up. Tia’s up for a role playing “a Japanese-Italian private eye” in a new series called Murphy’s Law, she says. “If you don’t behave, she karates you with pasta, she whips you with spaghetti.” At last, a role that lets her use her noodle.

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