When She’s Bad, She’s Better

A conversation with cult movie queen Pia Zadora, Hollywood starlet and Rat Pack survivor

If anyone knows how to get a kick out of life, it’s Pia Zadora. The singer/actress started in showbiz at age 7 on Broadway, then moved on to Hollywood in her 20s, where she specialized in movies that were widely talked about, if not exactly well-received. Then Zadora remade herself as a serious singer, recording with symphonies and touring with Frank Sinatra. “Every night before I went onstage, he’d take me by the hand and look me straight in the eye and give me a three-word pep talk: ‘Don’t screw up,’” she recalls.

Today, she performs on weekends at Pia’s Place inside Piero’s, keeping the Rat Pack style alive, but she still looks back fondly—and humorously—on her starlet days. Zadora’s 1983 film The Lonely Lady, an outrageous tale of a screenwriter who “fucked [her] way to the top” in Hollywood, is being rereleased on Blu-ray. Panned at its debut, the movie has since become a camp classic in the vein of Showgirls. Through marriages, divorces, being a sexpot, being a mother, accidents, heart surgery, fame, infamy, Frank Sinatra and John Waters, Zadora has stayed upbeat. What’s her secret? “Alcohol. Like, the Piatini, my signature drink [at Piero’s],” she laughs. “One ‘tini makes you happy. Two put you in the mood for love. Three will put you in the drunk tank at Metro. And after four, you will be bragging about your degree from Trump University.” Zadora spoke to Vegas Seven about Hollywood, Las Vegas and what makes a bad movie good. (Her responses have been edited for narrative and clarity.)

“It’s coming back to haunt me! But I’m proud of The Lonely Lady, because here it is, over 30 years later, and people are still talking about it. Think about it: Do you remember who won [the Academy Award for] best picture that year? No. But 33 years later, it’s a cult classic on Blu-ray. People are not going to forget Lonely Lady.

“I knew that it sucked when we watched dailies—I’m Polish, but I’m not completely stupid. I had my acceptance speech prepared for the Razzies the minute we wrapped, ’cause I knew we were going to get Razziful nominations. The whole thing was ridiculous. … The director, he was a little unhinged. He came from a horror movie background. And I guess he decided to continue on that route with The Lonely Lady. It was just a combination of elements that came together to make one of the best worst movies ever.

Everett Collection

The Lonely Lady

“I had the Golden Globe [for new star of the year for 1982’s Butterfly] on my desk at that point. I really didn’t care: No matter how many times they wanted to take it away from me, I’m not giving it back. That was my little thing, the Golden Globe. And that year, I was often mentioned in the same sentence as Meryl Streep. People would say, ‘That Pia Zadora, she’s no Meryl Streep.’ How many Razzies does she have? [Meryl] won multiple Oscars, but not any Razzies—which is probably why we got called for different parts.

“I made a movie with Telly Savalas. It goes by two names, Fake Out and Nevada Heat. I didn’t really find my footing in that movie. There were some scenes that were fun to do. … It was a night shoot, so we shot all night at the Riviera. I was exhausted. And the film was weird. I hate to say it: It was too good to be campy, but too bad to be good.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on the cover of Filmfax magazine.

“Look, my first film was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I didn’t really get off to a good start, you know? People were rooting for the Martians to win! But I was 7 years old, so what the hell? I made good money, and I got to keep the doll. Then that movie came back to bite me in the neck too, because I don’t think people really would have looked at it twice if it was a normal Christmas movie—so what, Martians? But, whoa, it’s Pia Zadora, the cult queen!

“The truth is, there are two movies that I am proud of. One of them is The Naked Gun 33 1/2 and the other is Hairspray. Naked Gun is a really funny movie. It gave me the chance to make fun of myself, which I love to do … in a good way. Hairspray was a whole different animal, because John Waters had done an interview with me for American Film magazine, and we had hit it off.  There is a whole chapter of me in John’s book, [Crackpot]. He also asked me to play Deborah Harry’s daughter in Hairspray, but I was touring with Sinatra around the country and I said, ‘John, I would love to do it, but I can’t. But I will come if you want me to do a cameo in a couple of days.’

“So I went to Baltimore. I was between concerts and I said, ‘OK, so, what do you want me to bring?’ He said, ‘Just come.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean? I have to, you know, have the right look.’ He said, ‘You are going to be a hippie.’ I said, ‘John, I am a sheltered girl from Queens. I don’t know hippie!’

“So he took me to downtown Baltimore. We went to this crazy hippie, weedy shop. He bought me bongos and a getup, and introduced me to Ric Ocasek, and there was Ricki Lake and Divine sitting in the middle of the street in 107 degrees. And we just felt somehow connected, chained together. The funny thing is, my daughter, who is an adult now, was in preschool at the time. When I would go pick her up, all the mothers would say, ‘Our kids are big fans of yours. … They walk around the house saying, ‘Let’s get naked and smoke!’’ Perfect. Now I know I’m never going to be president of the PTA.

Las Vegas New Bureau

Wolfman Jack and Pia Zadora

“I love what I am doing now. I say things happen for the best. If you don’t think that way, you will be institutionalized, because life throws you curves every time you turn around. If I had done great with a film career, I wouldn’t be doing what I love the most, which is singing and telling stories.

“I’m really the last living Rat Pack kid—I was a baby when I was with Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and all the guys. I started back in Las Vegas in the ’80s. I was lucky enough to be here when ‘the boys’ ran the town, and now the corporations took over. So I experienced both, two different eras in Las Vegas that I was able to be a part of. Now, I’m with the guys who were with Sinatra, so I do that kind of stuff. People come here and go, ‘Wow, this is great, this is vintage, there is nothing like this.’ So we are keeping that alive.”