LOS ANGELES -- Until her June 27 arrest on child molestation charges, Paula Poundstone lived two lives, mutually exclusive and in evident harmony.
She was the comedian who could pull in $15,000 playing small theaters and corporate dates, work that earned her about $750,000 a year -- a conservative estimate, says her manager.
Poundstone, 41, was also the woman who, as she entered her 30s, trained to become a foster mother, opening her home to disadvantaged and disabled kids. She cared for her first foster child, an infant born to a drug-addicted mother, in 1993, during production on her comedy-variety TV series the Paula Poundstone Show. At the time of her arrest, Poundstone's brood included three adopted children, one of whom has cerebral palsy, and two foster kids, age 2 to 12.
But on June 27, Poundstone acquired a third identity -- a celebrity accused of molesting her kids.
Late last week, her personal manager confirmed that Poundstone was in a Malibu alcohol rehab facility when she was arrested, adding that the comedian had recently "come to a realization that there may be a problem with alcohol, and that she needs to do something about it."
In a statement released Monday, her attorney, Steven Cron said: "It is my belief that Paula's drinking problems clearly had a bearing on the allegations that led to her arrest. Nonetheless, after having had a chance to study the details of the case against her, I remain convinced that she is not guilty."
Poundstone is charged with lewd acts with a girl under 14 and child endangerment.
The arrest has made her personal life news. Unlike other entertainers, say her defenders, Poundstone never sought to publicize her role as a parent. She adopted kids before Rosie O'Donnell or Calista Flockhart made them seem like a celebrity accessory, and she took in hard-luck cases without martyring herself as a Westside Mother Teresa.
Two of Poundstone's children attend Santa Monica's McKinley Elementary, a public school with a concentration of low-income kids. Poundstone isn't known as a drop-'em-off-and-speed-away mom.
"She's shy, so you can't just break into conversation with her on her own," says Miriam Billington, a McKinley mother and Parent Teacher Association president whose children befriended Poundstone's. "But once our little kids started talking, and we started talking as moms, that's the role she's so comfortable in."
In the information vacuum surrounding the case, friends and acquaintances mostly pour out heartfelt stories of Poundstone's tireless altruism toward needy children. But in the accumulation, it is difficult to get a sense of the person underneath.
Poundstone's image was problematic for network suits. Wearing signature tie-and-vest ensembles, she projected an asexuality that became a running joke among her friends and in her act. It wasn't a matter of being gay or straight -- she simply wasn't interested.
"I don't have sex because I don't like it," she once joked. "I'd have to marry a Mormon so someone could cover my shift."
It seems creepy to note such jokes now, given Poundstone's predicament. But the lack of sexual context in her routines has dogged her career. Female comics deal with a double standard: They have to define their sexuality onstage or risk perishing in a male-dominated business. Some comedians create confrontational identities (Roseanne's domestic, angry goddess, for instance), while others, like the now openly gay Ellen DeGeneres, come out of hiding when the coast seems clear.
To her credit, Poundstone invented a character on stage that bypassed the issue. She wasn't brash, but she wasn't fragile, either. Mostly, she was in control as she told the audience about every uncontrollable thought.
Comics are bred to be quick on their feet, but few have confronted the audience Poundstone did when she emerged from a Santa Monica jailhouse to the dawn of her newfound fame.
With the cameras demanding a response, Poundstone, wearing a baseball cap and looking very much like someone who'd been detained for several hours, forced a half-smile and uttered one sentence about the case: "I have faith that the truth is the right thing."
Paul Brownfield is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.