By People Staff
June 12, 2006 12:00 PM

When Tameka Jacobs first started opening suitcase #21 on Deal or No Deal, she found the idea of working alongside 25 other models in slinky dresses and high heels daunting. But it didn’t take long for the ladies to bond. “We’re all close. We go to dinner, bowling or out on the town together,” says Jacobs. “I’ve got 25 new sisters.”

It’s not surprising that Jacobs, 26, views things through the prism of family. In 1983, when she was 3 years old, she made national headlines by being at the center of a racially charged custody battle. After being born to a drug-addicted mother, Jacobs spent three years with her white foster mother Mary Brown. But when Brown tried to adopt Jacobs, who is part white and part black, Jacobs was taken by California’s San Joaquin County officials, who followed an unofficial policy that black children should be raised by black parents. Brown battled for years in court, and even testified before a U.S. Senate panel on adoption issues, but never regained custody of Jacobs, who was eventually placed with a black family in California’s Bay Area.

Her adoptive parents sheltered her from her past, but Jacobs eventually tried to visit Brown in 2001, only to discover that she had died several months earlier. “I just wanted to say thank you,” says Jacobs. “I wanted to hear stories, see baby pictures, that sort of thing.” Later reunited with her birth mother on The Montel Williams Show in 2003, Jacobs was dismayed to find the woman still led a troubled life; since then they’ve had only sporadic contact. While it’s been hard to find closure, Jacobs has been positive about the experience, even speaking to adoption advocacy groups. “There’s no healing in anger,” she explains.

Now Jacobs, whose dream is to work as a veejay on MTV, spends her work hours smiling for the cameras and trying not to trip down the stairs when it’s her turn to open the suitcase. But the best part of the job? “The downtime,” says Jacobs. “After our numbers are picked, we go backstage and scream our heads off: ‘Deal! No deal!'”