A camp icon reflects on Sinatra, John Waters, and Martians.
Connoisseurs of a certain French wine may remember Pia Zadora from her days as the glam spokesmodel for Dubonnet, but for regular mortals, she will forever be the sylphlike, cherub-faced actress with the uncanny knack for turning corny dialog, or an entire corny movie, into cult favorites. Although Zadora herself admits that ability has come back to bite her from time to time.
“It’s like I’m the queen of bad lines! But the truth is, ‘camp classics’ may be bad, but people enjoy them,” she says. “Camp films have to have certain qualities. The main one being Pia Zadora. If I’m in it, it’ll be a camp classic!”
First there was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, where a six-year-old Zadora, freshly plucked from her Broadway Baby days, fights for interplanetary peace. In Butterfly, she played Kady, a woman who knowingly and willingly consummated her Electra complex, a role that won her both a Golden Globe and a Golden Raspberry. And then there wasThe Lonely Lady, a 1983 disaster about a woman trampled by Hollywood (“I’m not the only one who fucked my way to the top”) now enshrined as a midnight-madness stand-by, with Zadora as a go-to for campy roles with hella dialog.
Which perhaps is why John Waters, who knows a thing or two about cult movies; nabbed her for the Beatnik Chick in 1988’s Hairspray. It was a bona fide hit that would 1) go on to inspire a Broadway musical and the 2007 version starring Queen Latifa and John Travolta, and 2) give Zadora even more zany lines (“Let’s get naked and smoke!”).
“John asked if I could do a cameo, and I said of course!” Zadora recalls. “He had asked me to play a bigger part, but I was touring with Sinatra that summer.”
As in Frank Sinatra. Who, after one particularly jaw-dropping opening performance pleaded with her to “warm the crowd up, not burn the house down!” (Yes, he said that; YouTube it.) However campy her movies are, they do not erase that Zadora, all five feet of her, has lungs of steel that not only demand respect of Old Blue Eyes, but helped win the International Duo of the Year Award in 1984 with Jermaine Jackson for “When The Rain Begins To Fall” over “State of Shock” by Mick Jagger and Jermaine’s younger brother, Michael. In 1985, Zadora was up for a Grammy; it took Tina Turner to beat her.
All of which Zadora, now 67, incorporates into her show Pia’s Place at Piero’s in Las Vegas. Overlooked by the portrait Andy Warhol did of her, Zadora embraces vintage Vegas while throwing in a bit of modern stardom.
“I sing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine;’ it’s one Sinatra always told me to do. It’s a great torch song. And then I show clips from the movies, I talk about starring on Celebrity Wife Swap, and I talk about all the stuff that I have done. People come there, and I mess with people. I make fun of them, but I make fun of myself. It’s like a party and I’m the hostess.”
Or, at least, she was. COVID-19 slammed the brakes on her and everybody else in Sin City. For a woman working since childhood, being forced to relax was like an out-of-body experience.
“I always thought that if I am not ‘doing something,’ I have no life,” she says. “But now, I don’t feel that way. It’s made me stop, take a breath, look around me and appreciate other things.”
Like having a resume listing theater, child star, Golden Globe winner, Warhol muse, cult movie icon, Sinatra protégé, and Dubonnet Girl. Hollywood may have written her off, but Pia Zadora proves you don’t need Hollywood to make it in Hollywood.
What projects are working on?
My CD “All or Nothing at All” just came out, but COVID has really crimped my style. Still, it’s made me stop, take a breath, look around me and appreciate other things. I can relax and cook. I’m doing all my stuff remotely, like pilates. I’m still taking care of my voice. It’s just kind of relaxing to be at home and sit in the backyard and read a book and get new recipes. I’m looking at new music when I do go back to work. My project now is myself and my family.
What do you do in your downtime?
Cook! Read! Vocalize! I torture my husband. Time with my kids, my youngest is 22 now. He’s self-isolating with us. I shop online. I try new looks and try not to gain weight. In my normal downtime, I used to go out. I did a video during the pandemic.
Where do you like to dine?
I like to dine at Boa or the Ivy in LA, and in Vegas there are some great restaurants at the Wynn that I like. I got there because locals don’t like to schlep down there. But I love Piero’s, that’s how I started working there; it was my favorite restaurant. I got chummy with the owner, and that’s how we connected. There’s a place in the Red Rock Hotel, the Blue Ribbon Sushi and T-Bones.
What are your favorite cuisines?
I don’t like to do gluten. I love eggplant parmesan with no breading, I love stone crab, I love a good New York strip. I eat pretty healthily. I like fish, but it has to be wild.
What are your favorite bars?
Piero’s. It’s the best drink in town and my home away from home.
What are your favorite drinks?
At Piero’s, it is the Piatini! They named it after me. It’s vodka, two onions with an olive in the middle, and a snifter of vermouth. It’s my favorite. But sometimes I like it with gin. I can sip gin for a while.
Do you prepare drinks at home?
I started drinking bourdon, and I have it with one of those big chunks of ice and a few Maraschino cherries and cherry juice. Woodford Reserve has the Chocolate Malted Rye that I really like. I go back and forth between the Piatini and the Woodford. My husband is really good at making Piatinis.
What’s in your home bar?
Everything, pretty much. The bourbon, gin, vodka, Bailey’s. Rum was my first love. I loved daiquiris, but they are a lunch drink, being sweet. At night, you gotta have the hard-core stuff like bourbon and gin. I always go back to the bourbon and gin.
Have you ever been a bartender?
No! I would drink it all before I served it. I’d be fired in a minute.