April 28, 1986 12:00 PM

Tia Carrere, an exotic-looking 19-year-old actress, and Steve Sarich, her 35-year-old manager and live-in boyfriend, sit on the floor of their sparsely furnished Hollywood apartment eating dinner. Tia picks at her steamed broccoli. She is near tears. “I can’t sleep nights,” she says pleadingly. “For the first time in my life, I wake up more exhausted than when I went to bed.” Adds Sarich, “Gloria Monty is behind this. She wants to punish Tia. She wants to hold her up as an example.”

Monty is the executive producer of General Hospital, and what she’s behind is an attempt to keep Carrere under contract to the soap. Seven months ago, when the ex-fashion model (born Althea Janairo in Hawaii) joined the show as a Chinese-American college student, the writers began giving Tia as many as six scenes a day. Three months later, her plot line and role evaporated to just a few lines a week, reducing her pay to as little as $359. Though her agreement with ABC forbids her to appear as a regular on any series other than Hospital until August 1988, she auditioned for the A-Team. Cast on the last show of the season as the Vietnamese daughter of a U.S. Army general, Tia began dreaming of a regular role on the nighttime series next season.

According to Sarich, Tia offered to do both Hospital and A-Team, following the example of Emma Samms (who juggled The Colbys and Hospital for several weeks). But Monty refused, Sarich says. Tia then went to bankruptcy court, claiming she has more than $50,000 in debts that she can’t meet without a prime-time salary (The A-Team paid her $7,500 for her week’s work). If the petition is granted, Tia will be free of the ties that bind her to ABC.

That’s a big if. “This is a sham bankruptcy, and we intend to prove it,” says Skip Miller, counsel for ABC. The network has launched a $1.1-million lawsuit against Sarich and Tia’s lawyer and agent, claiming that Carrere’s bankruptcy action was undertaken “in bad faith and done for the sole purpose of circumventing the ABC agreement.” The suit adds that debts listed by Carrere are “overstated and not genuine.”

To be sure, Tia’s debts will not inspire kids to give up their milk money. The list includes $2,600 to Patsi Beattie, who Sarich says is a close friend from whom Tia bought “an heirloom ring,” and $12,400 to Sarich’s father, who Steve says made “personal loans” to Tia. The largest debt—$27,500—is the amount Sarich claims Tia owes him. “Over the past two years,” says the former swimwear manufacturer, who met Tia in 1984, “I’ve loaned her a lot of money.” If he isn’t repaid, Sarich, who once managed aspiring singer Kenny Rogers II, claims melodramatically, “We’ll be reduced to eating brown rice and plankton.”

Chimes in Tia, “The last few months have been pure hell.” Even her fellow actors, she says, have shunned her. During her last visit to the Hospital set (she stopped working on the soap April 2), she says, “There was a lot of gossip. Sometimes they didn’t realize I was there, and they said things like, ‘Who does she think she is? She’s got to pay her dues.’ ” Argues one Hospital co-star, “In a town like this, burning bridges is anything but wise.”

Carrere may come to agree. The A-Team’s ratings have plummeted, and NBC has yet to say whether it will reappear next fall. Still, one way or another, Sarich expects Tia’s career to blossom. After all, he says, “She’s sweet, caring and a real pro.”

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