Pia Zadora: Back Again, and Standing Tall

by BeBe Sweetbriar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 7, 2011

Whatever happened to Pia Zadora?

That has been a question pondered by many for the past 15 or so years. The actress/singer whose career has followed the path of a yo-yo over the years is back with a new stage show, singing and dancing her way back into headlines and our hearts. We gays can sure relate to those who have been beat down and left for dead. Since the early 80s, Pia Zadora has starred in a string of what we will call bad choice films with "Butterfly" (even though it won her a Golden Globe), "Fake-Out" (aka "'Nevada Heat"), and "The Lonely Lady." It wasn't until John Waters gave her a cameo in "Hairspray" (19880 as a beatnik ironing her hair did the string end.

But what proved to be Zadora's saving grace was her singing. Her recording in 1985 of "Pia and Phil" with the London Philharmonic Orchestra silenced her critics and put her on tour with the late and great Frank Sinatra. But as you look over her career in show business, starting as a child performer in the early 60s, it has always been her singing that has made Pia stand out -- from her early days on Broadway, to touring with Sinatra and the singing the standards, and finding some success in the genres of rock and pop. Destiny's Child may have sung about it, but Pia Zadora is a true survivor.

Now she has resurrected her career with an upcoming appearance at San Francisco's Rrazz Room with her one-woman show. I had a chance to catch up with Pia and reminisce a bit over her showbiz history, and chat about the itch that brought back to the stage for another round of songs and dance.

A survivor

BeBe: It's been a long time since I have seen your name in the news or in the spotlight. As I was looking back, it has been 30 years this year since you won the Golden Globe for Best Female Newcomer (1982 - "Butterfly"). The 80s were a big thing for Pia. I remember a lot going for you going on during that decade. You were adored by your fans, even though the critics were not so kind. Was it difficult to juggle everything with such a dichotomous atmosphere?

Pia: Well, I am a survivor and I love a good fight. And the movies I did, except for "Hairspray," were pretty susceptible to criticism (laughs). I basically opened my legs and it happened. It's just the nature of my choices which I really didn't, and I'm not copping out at all, make my own choices during that period. I was very young, and I was very easily influenced. I was given opportunities and didn't think twice about whether they would back fire or not. That was the bottom line. So, I went full force ahead, and then had to a lot of damage control which involved my singing. When I started to sing again is when I really started taking people aback. It was like, oh my God, she can really sing.

BeBe: Your talent just shown through your song and dance for sure.

Pia: It was something I'd done since I was... I mean people didn't know I had it in my back pocket. It was my secret weapon. I starred on Broadway when I was 6 years old (1961, "Midgie Purvis" with Tallulah Bankhead). I come from a family of opera singers. I was the youngest daughter (Bielke) in "Fiddler on The Roof" (1964-66) and was in "The Sound of Music" and "Applause." That's where I started singing on Broadway.

BeBe: And of course, as you matured you did quite a wide range of material. You did some dance stuff, pop, and even the standards. What did you enjoy the most, or feel the most comfortable doing?

Pia: Right now, it's the standards because I think I'm at that part of my life where I can relate to them. And 15-20 years ago, I sang with (Frank) Sinatra, and I was exposed to that kind of music. I sang with Tony Bennett. He came on stage with me at the Supper Club and sang with me. I toured with Sinatra and heard that music every night. It just became a part of me. Although my mother claims she was listening to Frank Sinatra when I was conceived (laughs). And I said, 'he was in the room?' My mother was the biggest Polack ever. And must I remind you that I was a nominated for a Grammy back in 1984 for Best Female Rock Performance (song "Rock It Out"), which I loved doing at the time. The time I was doing the standards back then, I was thinking these were all corny songs because I didn't know any better. And now I am like I love these songs. So I guess I must be old and corny (laughs).

BeBe: Never!

Pia: I must be old and corny even though I have a John Waters' card staring at me on my board here.

Story continues on following page:

Watch this interview with Pia Zadora from 2000:

Working with John Waters

BeBe: Isn't he just a doll. What was it like working on "Hairspray" with him?

Pia: John is a crack-up. He did an interview for American Film on how we met. I'm in his book "Crackpot." We connected in a huge way. When he was doing "Hairspray," he wanted me to play the lead, the bitch, the prom queen, Debbie Harry's daughter in the movie. He sent my manager the script, and my manager said , "no, she's got to tour." He didn't always make the right choices for me, and I didn't know any better. But I love John, and I would do anything for him. So, I called him up and said I was in Philadelphia on this day, and in Boston that day, how about if I take a couple of days in between and I come and do a cameo. And he thought, okay great! He said you'll be a hippie. A hippie? I'm a little Catholic girl from Queens. I don't know from hippies (laughs). He told me to just come, and I became a hippie!

BeBe: And then went on to become one of the cult films of all-time.

Pia: It did! It's really funny because my daughter Kady, she's in my show (who is in her early 20s now), during that period (of "Hairspray") she was in preschool. When I would go pick her up from preschool, some of the parents would say their kids were big fans of mine and would walk around saying my line. Oh really!? "Let's get naked and smoke"? I'll never be the president of the PTA (laughs). Which I am now, by the way.

BeBe: See how times have changed and evolved... You have had such a wealth of experience in your career and your personal life. I don't know if you know, but one of the sayings amongst us gay people is that we say we would all love to comeback (reincarnate) as Pia Zadora! You know your life has always been fascinating. Never a dull moment. As with you, our community has always had a good fight in front of us.

Pia: For sure!

BeBe: Now what was it like working with Jermaine Jackson? You had a duet with him (from the 1984 film "Voyage of the Rock Aliens").

Pia: Yes. It ("When The Rain Begins To Fall") went number one over in Europe. We won the International Deer Award in 1985. That was very exciting because it was a really cool song. We did a great video and a lot of performances all over Europe. Jermaine was a crack up. I had to lead him around by the nose. He was like a little baby. We would go to these fabulous French gourmet dinners, and he was more concerned with his eating than a woman. I would eat all the creamy-filled stuff and he would say, 'no, no, no, I'm fasting'. Then he'd go home and raid the mini fridge. He was like a crazy, crazy little boy, but a lot of fun to be with.

BeBe: Anything in the Jackson family and their history is a little crazy, but wonderful.

Pia: Absolutely! We actually sang at the Pyramids in Egypt, the two of us. Kady was there, too. She had just been born. And Jermaine would carry her around. They all that we were a couple. They thought he was Michael Jackson and she was our baby. It was very confusing. We had a really good time with it.

BeBe: Now how long have you lived in Las Vegas?

Pia: Just moved here last summer.

BeBe: You moved from the Hollywood area or Beverly Hills?

Pia: Yes. Moved from Pickfair (former Beverly Hills mansion of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, in which Zadora and ex-husband Israeli tycoon Meshulam Riklis purchased in 1988 for $7 million, and after 20 years, Zadora sold for just shy of $18 million) to the Palisades because I wanted some better air (in 2006). And then moved to Las Vegas because I wanted a life. Really the story of moving back here, I married a detective (Zadora's third husband). He was a detective on Las Vegas Metropolitan Police when I met him about 8 years ago. When we got married, he moved to LA and we lived there for 5 years where he worked on the Sheriff's Department, but then he wanted to come back to Vegas and get back on the force there. It was time and we needed a change. We both came back to our roots by moving here. It was really a positive thing. And that's how I started my show! When we moved back, I got the fever again. I'd drive down the strip and see everybody's names up there. Went to see their shows.... with Frank (Sinatra) Jr., and Don Rickles and Jack Jones. All the people I had worked with. And they'd ask me to come up on stage most of the time and do a number with them. I had so much fun I said, hey, the hell with the housework. I'm going back on stage.

Loves S.F.

BeBe: And honestly speaking, Pia, I think Vegas is a Pia town. I can totally see the combination.

Pia: It does make sense. It's a very small community with a lot of people I used to work with. And it's like everyone knows me here, which is a really cool feeling. I feel like I am at home here.

BeBe: Let's talk about your show. After not performing for 15 years, you are back in the saddle.

Pia: I've been putting he show together for about 10 months. I got a few people together that I had worked with awhile back, like Walter Painter, who did my show "Too Short To Be A Rockette." He's won Emmys and did "City of Angels" on Broadway. My manager and I also got this very cool writer named John Max, who writes for (David) Letterman and Jay Leno, and wrote for the Oscars this year. He's very edgy and smart guy. And Larry Grossman, who has written several Broadway shows. So we got together and have been brainstorming on what to do and what not to do, and how to look and how not to look. So that took us about 3-4 months to put together, and then opened a show back in the winter in Boca Raton and Palm Beach (Florida) at two art centers... our first two performances to see what works and doesn't work.

BeBe: What are you calling the show?

Pia: "Back Again, And Standing Tall." It was based on that "Too Short To Be A Rockette" show that I did when I used to do a song "Good Things Come In Small Packages." We've removed the song from the show, so we may have to redo the title a bit, but I like it. Maybe it stands up on its own without that frame of reference. I don't know.

BeBe: I don't think you should sell yourself too short (no pun intended) as a name only recognized in Vegas. You've become a name recognized in many places. When I heard you were coming to the Rrazz Room here in San Francisco (June 8-12), I, as well as many people, were excited because we were wondering where did Pia go?

Pia: The last thing I did was when I did a Broadway stint when I starred in "Crazy For You," the Gershwin musical, for 6 months in 1995. Then I got pregnant and had a miscarriage, and then got pregnant again and had to devote myself to my little guy. My two big kids were teenagers at the time. I just did my mom thing for a while. Enjoyed it. Really enjoyed it. And just enjoyed being normal for awhile, and now I want to do what I want to do because I really, really enjoy singing and want to sing. That's a great feeling.

BeBe: It must be wonderful seeing Kady all grown up and also doing some of things mommy used to do with her singing and talents, and you are helping her showcase that.

Pia: That's one of my incentives. It's a huge incentive in this whole thing! Bringing her along and seeing her blossom. Being the role model and helping her, showing her. And she shows me a lot, too. She gives me a lot of support. It's a real big payoff for me.

BeBe: There's is nothing wrong with having spent 15 years in mommy-hood. That's being on stage enough right there!

Pia: You are right. It's a challenge.

BeBe: Well, the weather has been a little freaky here in San Francisco lately.

Pia: Oh I love the weather there. It's the best weather between New York and LA. I love the weather in San Francisco. The air is so fresh there. You know I did an album there with Narada Michael Walden ("Pia Z" in 1989). We worked in Tiburon in his studio. And I appeared at the Fairmont a hundred years ago before I was Pia Zadora, before anyone really knew who I was. I have also been at Davies Hall there.

BeBe: Well you have some history here.

Pia: I love San Francisco!

And like Pia, San Francisco loves a fight. It looks like Pia Zadora has a lot of fight left in her as she once again sings and sachets across the stage. San Francisco will be just one of many places this pint-sized dynamo will be leaving her heart!

Pia Zadora appears June 8-12, 2011 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. Www.therrazzroom.com.

Watch this 1988 clip of Pia Zadora singing "The Man That Got Away" at Radio City Music Hall:

Based out of San Francisco, BEBE SWEETBRIAR is the Omni Present Drag Chanteuse. As an entertainer and hostess, BeBe can be scene every week hosting and performing at countless events and parties in the San Francisco. One of the few drag personalities to sing live while performing, BeBe has literally graced every notable stage in San Francisco, bridging many gay sub-community gaps. She has also been the opening act for Destiny's Child Kelly Rowland, "Ugly Betty's" Alec Mapa and Dance Diva Kristine W. Adding recording artist to her list of performance accomplishments in 2008 with the release of her first single "Save Me", Ms. Sweetbriar will soon release her fifth dance single in 2012 called "Show It Off".. As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media's next short film series, "Con-tin.u.um" to be released in 2012.