It’s hard to believe that Lulu, who’s enjoyed a steady career that began several years before making her screen debut at 18 in 1967’s “To Sir With Love — for which she sang the hit title song — should only now be making her American club debut. But that she is, at B.B. King’s on February 16 (237 W. 42nd St., 8 p.m.; bkingblues.com).
“I’m getting back to my roots,” she told me. “I’ve had a very long career, and when I was young I did some songs I didn’t really like but my producers would say, ‘This is gonna be a big hit.’
“I was really influenced by American gospel and soul, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, black American music. That rinky-dink pop stuff didn’t sit with me, but now I’m in control and will sing songs I love like ‘Oh Me Oh My’ and ‘Shout,’ which was my very first hit.”
Lulu was cast in “To Sir, with Love” when her manager’s sister heard about a casting call for kids and her name was put forward. “I was on tour with the Beach Boys, and the director [James Clavell] came backstage. He had kind of an attitude, saying, ‘You’ll have to change the color of your hair. I don’t like red hair.’
“I didn’t really care about being an actress — music was my first love — and I said, ‘Well, sod you. If you’re gonna have me, you’re gonna have me the way I am. And I got the part. He was very smart, trying to get something out of me and that’s how we worked, him talking to me behind the camera to get a reaction from me.
“My manager was very smart, insisting that I had to sing the title song. I was desperate, though, because they sent me all these rubbishy songs. Columbia, the releasing studio, also had a great publishing company with writers like Burt Bacharach, but they didn’t put any effort into it. So I sat down with a friend and we got the melody and then called Don Black, the lyricist of ‘Born Free,’ who wrote the marvelous lyrics which actually paint the picture. They said, ‘Go ahead and record it,’ but my producer didn’t like it much, gave me only four strings for the orchestra, and he refused to put it on the A side of my single. I was in tears, but the American deejays featured it on the radio, so it all was meant to be.
“It’s not a song you can sing easily without any music, not an everyone-can-join-in kind of song. It’s more of an art song, really, but perfect for the scenario. When I did it on ‘American Idol,’ I thought, ‘If I have to sing it the way I did at 15, I’m gonna shoot myself. It’s gotta be done differently.’ That season, Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart were so amazing, so I called Barry, whom I’d met maybe once.
“He was so gracious. He said, ‘I’d love to rearrange it, but I’ll have to sit with it until something comes to me.’ ‘How quickly can you do that?’ I asked. ‘Well, I usually need some time. What, you want it yesterday, huh?’ ‘Yes.’ So he calls back the next day with it — a kickass arrangement. I love the note at the end and the key change, just perfect!”
Lulu also sang the theme for the Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun”: “I think that song is very camp now. ‘He has a powerful weapon/ He charges a million a shot!’ I can’t sing that without laughing because of all my gay friends. Of course, I didn’t think about it when I was recording it but now it makes me laugh [cackles hysterically].
“I think I do have a large gay following. I’ve been called very camp myself, darling [laughs]. But really and truly, gay men are the leaders. We all get on the train later. Gay men set the style, create the fashion, make the music a success. That’s just how it is.”
In 2000, Lulu was given the Order of the British Empire (OBE): “Prince Charles gave it to me, and I always felt a special connection to him, both born in the same month and year. He was casual and extremely charming. As soon as I walked up, he said, ‘So it’s true. You do keep that picture in the attic,’ and he said this is long overdue. I was able to actually say to him, ‘Sir, I’m glad it was you today and your mother took the day off.’
“They all make you feel comfortable because it’s very daunting. They tell you a few things when you go in, but it’s so organized. Someone is always at your elbow to move you forward or give a look to turn left, very discreetly done. Versace lent me a beautiful coat. I don’t really borrow very much, I usually buy it if I like it. But Versace is one of the big companies that don’t rip it off your back, one of the most generous, which might be why they got into some financial trouble. Donatella was always extremely generous.”
Lulu’s appearances on “Absolutely Fabulous” added much to the show’s camp hilarity: “Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French were fans of mine and would have me on their show, and when Jennifer did ‘Ab Fab,’ she gave me more. The best thing about it is being at the first reading, sitting around the table. It is hilarious and nothing is in stone with Jennifer until she’s gone onstage. They rethink every five minutes, and it’s hysterical. You know, when you wet yourself laughing and can’t stop?
“Special moments? Well, the read-through is the thrill for me, but, of course, the line that everybody says is ‘Champagne for Lulu!’ I can walk into a store on Madison Avenue and someone will say that behind my back!”
Pia Zadora just wrapped up her New York club debut at the Metropolitan Room, giving her audience a sprightly touch of Vegas glitz with her song list of standards — and me a fun, juicy interview. She’s been something of a showbiz punch line ever since coming out of relative obscurity in 1981 to win a Golden Globe over Elizabeth McGovern, Howard Rollins, Rachel Ward, and Kathleen Turner. And yet, how many people could say they’ve acted on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead (in “Midgie Purvis,” directed by Burgess Meredith) and Zero Mostel and Bette Midler (in “Fiddler on the Roof”) before they were ten years old?
“When I found out I had been nominated for a Golden Globe, I didn’t even know what that was. My film ‘Butterfly’ had not yet been released, but the foreign press had come to see me in Vegas. I then realized what it was, and thought I’ll never win, I’m not going. But I did win it, and I grabbed it. I recently tweeted on Huffington Post: ‘Returned from LA, and it’s sitting right here in front of me — I’m admiring it and sipping a martini. They can’t take that away from me.’
“That gave me the guts to get out there again and say, ‘Hey, I’m Pia Zadora, and I started way back and didn’t just marry a rich guy [Meshulam Riklis] and win a Golden Globe. Another big misconception — the award was not Best Actress, it was Best Newcomer of the Year.”
With Riklis, the first of three husbands, Zadora moved into Pickfair, the legendary 56-acre Beverly Hills estate once owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks: “When we first got the house, I called John Waters [her director from “Hairspray”] and said, ‘What the hell?’ John said, ‘The first thing you gotta do is rename it. Call it Prickfair,’ and I thought, ‘Ok, now I can live there, ‘cause I’ve made it my own!’
“It was like walking into the Four Seasons Hotel in Naples, the ornateness and grandiosity of the layout. I never really wanted to live there, but my ex said we have to move in and we ended up razing it because it was basically falling apart. Jerry Buss [owner of the Los Angeles Lakers] had been using it as a party house.
“We had to redo it, a little overwhelming. Then I had the kids and was crazy, working all the time. I made the lobby into a softball field for my kids and upstairs into big play area, put swings outside, and made it work for us. We bit the bullet, yeah [laughs]! We had a disco with the crystal ball and sound equipment, and my girlfriends and I would be sitting at the bar at 4 in the afternoon, having wine, while the kids were dancing there. Oh, millions of rooms — Jesus, they never ended, I never even saw the whole place! It had guest buildings, with seven suites in them.
“There was nothing left from the original owners, but Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., walked through it and told us what happened where and how. I don’t know if you believe in celebrity ghost stories, but my kids said they were dancing around and heard some stuff. It seemed like there were spirits.”
Although Zadora loves her films “Crybaby” and “Naked Gun 33 1/3,” like John Waters, I adore “The Lonely Lady” — a delectably trashy cult item, in which she plays an aspiring screenwriter who is raped by a garden hose at one point — and I told her so: “Have you been to therapy [laughs]? I see what you’re saying, that it works because I was so committed to that part, with all that shit around me like the dialogue, which makes it a cult film obviously. Making it, I knew it wasn’t going to be great.”
Zadora now lives happily in Las Vegas: “Meshulam and I were married for 18 years. There was a 28-year age difference and we grew out of each other but remain friends. The second husband is always about trying to find yourself, coming out of a long marriage, on the rebound. I have a child with him and we still fight — but it’s all about the kid — but the third one is my soul mate, a cop. I had a stalker and he was the detective on the case. I went down and filed my report, we went on a first date and two weeks later were engaged. Now together ten years and the best part is he’s my own age. I had no idea that was legal!
“I have ADD and get stopped a lot for driving 95 miles an hour if the kids are late for school. The cop will say, ‘You’re going to jail,’ and I’ll say, ‘Ohmigod, I have to tell my husband!’ ‘Who’s your husband?’ And I pull out his badge and certificate. ‘Oh shit! You’re husband’s a cop? What’s his name?’
“And then I’ll run into the same cop three days later. ‘Oh, this is ridiculous!’ ‘Can I have one more chance?’ I’ll plead. ‘Okay, fine, because your husband loves you and you make him very happy.” What is he telling him? I have no makeup on, no coffee in me yet, who is he? I’d rather have the ticket!”