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Cybill Shepherd: Midlife Isis

By G. Von Dare

Like the Egyptian goddess Isis, Cybill Shepherd was first known for her beauty and her ability to melt men into puddles of gibbering desire. She is one of the few actresses to have made the transition from glamorous young ingenue to seriously attractive middle age. Add her intelligence, humor and intensity as a single working mom, and you have quite a woman. As the California spokesperson for the new, fun image of Mercedes-Benz, she reveals an even more surprising side of her self — speed demon in a ball gown.

A phone rings and I answer it. An office phone, angular, drab, charmless. Hello — and there's that voice. Tangy as an orange. Intelligent, full of energy and opinions, but also simple, vulnerable, and shy. Mostly it is straightforward. Guileless. Amused. A voice used to saying what it means.

The voice sounds just like Cybill Shepherd because it is. She talks to me as though we were old acquaintances. She doesn't hedge, doesn't hype. This woman is quoting Aristotle and Zen philosophy in a celebrity interview! There's so little of the me-me-me "star" syndrome that I'm instantly intrigued, flattered, relaxed.

At 48, Shepherd is no longer the icy blonde maiden. She's still gorgeous, to be sure. But now she concentrates on quality. On doing work she likes and believes in, on experiencing the full cycle of a woman's life. What a concept. She has said that she likes to think of herself as a Christian who worships a Goddess. Because, "If you make God a man, you make man a God."

Shepherd was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn. She didn't really have aspirations to be a movie star. Southern women are expected to be beautiful, but also quiet and demure. Scarlet O'Hara was the exception, not the rule. Although Cybill liked sports early on, she also adored music and began singing with her church choir at age eight. Today, on her latest album "Talk Memphis to Me," her voice is brash, bright, flexible and she plays its strong upper register like a shimmering jazz trumpet.

As a teenager, Shepherd concentrated on sports and singing. But her rapidly developing beauty made her the target of animosity from her peers. She went her own way.   

"I was 'bad' from the first second I was on the screen in "Last Picture Show." All the parts were like vicious murderers of men, destroyers of men. This real fantasy that men have. All the things that I never was but had a horrible fear of being. From an early age they said, oh she's gonna be a killer; she's gonna break hearts when she grows up."

At age 16, a friend suggested that Shepherd take voice lessons, and she did. At the same time, a second cousin urged her to join the "Miss Teenage Memphis" pageant. "I just never had any confidence. I never thought I could do that. So, she filled out the application for me and sent it in. And I won.

"I did consider trying out for a little theater in Memphis. But my best friend Jane had tried out and gotten a rejection letter, so I thought, 'she's as funny as Carol Burnett, so if they rejected her, I'll never make it.' So I didn't even try out."

Eventually, she found herself in the high-powered world of fashion modeling in New York. As a woman with a real figure, she has made some trouble. She said in an article in Ladies' Home Journal that, "Designers don't like breasts and hips because they make bumps in their clothes." For Shepherd, modeling was a way to make a living. It put her nearer her goal of that time, which was to live and study art in Florence, Italy.

In 1971, her life changed forever. Peter Bogdanovich, a film buff and critic turned director, spotted Shepherd on a magazine cover and desperately wanted her for the part of Jacy Farrow in her breakthrough debut film "The Last Picture Show." She was an instant hit, an instant star. A year later, Neil Simon convinced Elaine May to use Shepherd as the lead in his "Heartbreak Kid." Her film career was off and running.  She also had a new lover in Bogdanovich.

Shepherd speaks warmly of Bogdanovich as her lover and mentor, but the rest of their collaboration was not as successful. Both "Daisy Miller" and "At Long Last Love" were box-office disasters. Shepherd moved on to other film roles, including her iconic performance in the powerful "Taxi Driver."She swears to this day that she has not seen the ending of "Taxi Driver." She doesn't like violence. Good for her. In the late '70s, despite her strong performances, roles became hard to get.

She likes to quote Orson Welles about this time in her life, saying he once told her that, "I started at the top in this business and have been working my way down ever since."

Expanding her horizons, Shepherd turned to live theater. She starred in a wide variety of material including "Shot in the Dark," "The Seven Year Itch," "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," and other comedies and dramas. She also created a cabaret act for herself. Her singing was a delight to her, but critics were less kind. She took it in stride.

Then came "Moonlighting," featuring Shepherd as one half of a man/woman detective team with Bruce Willis. "Moonlighting" was a landmark program — especially on conservative network TV — that allowed its female star to be smart, sassy, and independent. The program was wildly popular and made a thorough comeback for Shepherd. However, the very success of the show led to difficulties. There were rumors of tension on the set, fights, egos raw and bleeding. As the program progressed through its four-season arc, the character of Maddy Hayes that Shepherd liked so much in the beginning began to change for the worse. Maddy became less assertive, more dependent on men, and finally married a man she met on a train in the last episode. Shepherd loved the show, but was glad to be out.

After "Moonlighting" established her as a TV star, Shepherd worked on many TV projects. She did TV movies including "Baby Brokers," and the mini-series "The Long Hot Summer," to name just a couple. She also executive produced, co-wrote, and starred in "Memphis," based on the Shelby Foote novel September, September.

In the mid '90s, she put together the very funny "Cybill," a sitcom that's frankly autobiographical and based on her life experiences in show business. Like the character she played in "Cybill," the real Shepherd is a twice-divorced, working actress, single mom grappling with middle age. In exploring the elements of her own life, Shepherd has generated some funny shows indeed--the one where she played opposite a little pink pig (not unlike "Babe") was especially delightful.

Shepherd is still a working mom who loves her children and is determined to give them a good life. Her oldest daughter Clementine is in her late teens and, like the younger Cybill, is a beauty. Zack and Ariel, her 10-year-old twins, get a lot of attention. Like everything she does, Shepherd takes motherhood seriously. She even took a welter of criticism for breast feeding her twins on the set of "Moonlighting," but she did it anyway.

What may truly surprise you is that Shepherd is such a car person. A few years ago she took competition driving lessons at the Jim Russell Racing School. She actually qualified for a racing license in Formula Ford. Like a miniature Indianapolis 500 race car, the Formula Ford packs its semi-recumbent driver into a tight, streamlined body while the suspension and racing tires battle with the wind. These cars may not do 200 mph, but they're real racers nonetheless.

She was about to drive in the Toyota Pro Celebrity race, which is part of the Long Beach Grand Prix weekend. Suddenly, at the last minute, something warned her off and she withdrew.

Her most visible, and delightful, connection to the American motorscene is her current role as spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz in Southern California.  For those who have not seen the ebullient billboards or the series of delightfully engaging ads, Shepherd in her persona as Movie Star and off-the-wall independent modern woman, shops for a Mercedes-Benz, against a charmingly overmatched salesman. Many of the commercials feature Shepherd taking the trembling salesman for a high-speed demo drive, including leaping the car over bumps in the road or careening along while vocalizing the "Ride of the Valkyries." Smart, funny, hip, and more than a little tongue-in-cheek, these commercials epitomize the new, fun-loving image that Mercedes is cultivating.

Interestingly, Shepherd was on board with Mercedes before it was on board with her. She first bought her Mercedes years before the spokesperson gig started and she drives the car for all the right reasons. Other cars in her personal fleet are a Volvo, a Bronco, and a motorhome. All vehicles with a practical personality. If our cars tell a lot about who we are. Cybill Shepherd comes off as a person who likes to drive, but has safety and reliability as her major concerns. Two items which define the desires of a majority of women car buyers today.

As her biological clock ticks off the final years of her 40s, Shepherd is a heck of a woman by anyone's standards. She keeps herself in shape by practicing good nutrition — she actually likes to eat but controls what and when. She works out in a home gym in her garage and slams her aggression into a punching bag in her living room, conveniently located next to a grand piano. She rides a bicycle around Encino — unrecognized in the winglike crash helmet. And she meditates to relieve stress and to know herself better.

In a recent issue of People magazine, Shepherd talked frankly, you might say bluntly, about menopause, a subject many women still keep in the closet. Shepherd left her doctor speechless when she declared that she'd rather have an orgasm a day than hormone replacement therapy. Now, she's reading books on the subject and taking it as it comes. So far the hot flashes (she called them "power surges" on the set of "Cybill") have been low in number and not a huge bother. She eats a diet that delivers calcium and gets some phytoestrogen from soy and tofu.

After a long career with many ups and downs, Shepherd is still out there, scrappy, sassy, sexy ,and with a fine head on her shoulders. Intelligent and remarkably expressive, she not only starred in "Cybill," but was an executive producer for the show. That meant taking responsibility for casting, scripting, mounting, and taping the show, as well as the intricate process of editing and getting the finished tape past network censors who imploded at the word vagina.

Shepherd is happily ensconced at her home in Encino, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, with three children and long-term man, Robert Martin, a composer and arranger who wrote the music for her TV show. Although Shepherd isn't looking for marriage right now, they make beautiful music together. In fact, Martin provided most of the instrumental tracks on Shepherd's latest CD, "Talk Memphis To Me."

Never one to sit still, Cybill is currently on a worldwide tour for her new autobiographical book, Cybill Disobedience. She continues to search for quality movie scripts and interesting TV projects. She's happier, it seems, and more content than ever, despite an unknown future.

Envied as beautiful young girl, provoked and gossiped about in her career as an actress, and undervalued as a singer, Cybill Shepherd is still smashing and savvy as a grown up woman. As a mid-life Isis, she makes one heck of a role model. Now, if she just wouldn't drive so fast.....