NEW YORK (Associated Press) - It went viral as the ultimate example of being punished for circumstances beyond one's control: a woman who said she was fired from her banking job because she complained that her male colleagues called her bodacious figure a workplace distraction.
Then – after the tabloid headlines, the TV interviews, the New York Times column – came the disclosure that the buxom banker who said she couldn't help the way she looked had, in fact, helped it a lot, through a series of cosmetic surgeries she had extolled on reality TV.
When Debrahlee Lorenzana asked state human-rights officials on Monday to investigate her claims against Citibank – which the bank denies – her story had already become a crucible teeming with touchy subjects: sexual harassment, women's workplace fashion, society's obsession with beauty, Americans' mixed feelings about publicity-seeking. It's a morality play for the YouTube era.
But as commentators ranging from legal analysts to comedians debate whether she's a novel form of discrimination victim or a gold digger trying to cash in on male attention she courted, the 33-year-old single mom at the center of it all says she's unbowed and trying to teach corporate America a lesson.
She followed the bank's dress code and tried to do her job, she says, and so what if she strove to look – in her own words – like a Playboy model?
"There's nothing wrong with that," Lorenzana said at a news conference Monday. "One thing has nothing to do with the other."
Then she went off to work at her new job at another bank, dressed in a yellow sleeveless top, a form-fitting ecru skirt and tan stiletto peep-toe pumps.
Lorenzana isn't the first woman to take legal action over workplace dress requirements; famous examples include a Nevada casino bartender who unsuccessfully sued after she was fired for refusing to wear makeup. But many such cases revolve around claims that the woman was pushed to look more like a sex object – not less, as Lorenzana alleges.
Her claim that she was dressed down by bosses who said she was too alluring to wear turtlenecks or pencil skirts seized the cultural moment because "it just sounded so sort of 'Mad Men'-esque," said Brenda Weber, a gender and cultural studies professor at Indiana University, referring to the AMC television series that often dwells on masculine privilege in a 1960s advertising firm.
It's no surprise the frenzy only intensified after the revelation of Lorenzana's plastic surgery, Weber said.
In a culture that cherishes ideals of genuineness and meritocracy, "there's this sort of stripping of her authenticity that then, in an American context, we really sort of dislike," she said, but "it doesn't mean that we're not fascinated."
Lorenzana began working at a Citibank branch in September 2008, in a job soliciting and opening up new accounts for businesses, according to her new complaint to the state Human Rights Division and a lawsuit she filed last fall.
Managers soon began hassling her about her work wear, saying she looked "too distracting" for her male colleagues to handle, her lawsuit said. When she pointed out that some co-workers wore more revealing clothes than she, a manager told her that "your body is very different from them" and that because the others "are short or fat, it's OK for them to dress like that," her human-rights complaint said.
She complained repeatedly to Citibank human resources officials and was transferred to another branch. After what she calls a deliberate campaign to keep her from meeting performance targets – including by giving her an out-of-the-way desk where customers couldn't find her – she was fired in August, according to her complaints.
Citibank, part of banking giant Citigroup Inc., says poor performance was the sole reason for her firing, and that the bank is confident it will prevail in the legal fights.
"Her current attempts to gain personal publicity are as transparent as her legal claims," Citibank spokeswoman Natalie Riper said in a statement Monday.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, is headed for arbitration. The human-rights complaint will trigger a separate investigation that could ultimately lead to a ruling from an administrative judge. The agency declined to comment Monday.
The alternative newspaper The Village Voice first wrote about Lorenzana's lawsuit June 1. Soon, fashion editors assessed her work wardrobe. Bloggers decocted the effects of beauty on the beholder and the holder. Newspapers from Canada to Florida weighed in, some calling the case a flashpoint for debate over workplace sexual harassment.
Within days, Lorenzana made the rounds of network morning shows. Times columnist Maureen Dowd examined her case in light of studies on societal responses to people's attractiveness. A panelist on NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" pronounced her predicament "the most flattering way ever to get fired."
Then the Daily News disclosed that Lorenzana – who had told the paper, "I can't help how I look" – had been featured in a 2003 Discovery Channel series called "Plastic Surgery New York Style" as she planned her fourth breast enlargement, to a size 32-DD.
"I know men have a fantasy of having a Playboy Playmate – that's what I want to be," she says on the show, noting that she had also had a tummy tuck and liposuction.
Lorenzana said Monday she was simply trying to restore her curves after breast-feeding, and that the show directed her comments. Discovery Channel representatives didn't immediately return a call.
The twist in Lorenzana's story only sparked more dissection of whether she was standing up for women's rights or setting them back.
In one of the most curious debates, National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill faced off against actor and radio personality Danny Bonaduce on CNN's "The Joy Behar Show," while Behar wondered aloud about whether women's enduring concern for their appearance marked a failure of feminism.
While Bonaduce lambasted Lorenzana as an attention-seeker, O'Neill says the banker shouldn't have been subjected to the kind of attention Lorenzana says she got.
"If a woman has breast implants, that really doesn't justify inappropriate comments," O'Neill said in an interview Monday.
As for Lorenzana, she said Monday that the saga has left her more media-savvy but not sorry: "I don't regret anything in life."