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- June 02, 1986
- Vol. 25
- No. 22
There Is Sizzle on TV (Donna Mills), a Hot Line for Gossip and Rafts of Trivial Pursuits for the Days Ahead
As you succumb also to the lure of mindless summer reruns (and you know you will), zap to Knots Landing's Donna Mills. As the racoon-eyed, dizzyingly deceptive Abby Cunningham Ewing, Mills, 41, is prime time's standard-bearer for fun trash. Fun because Mills's brand of haute bitchiness—perhaps more so than any of her conniving TV peers—has you hanging on every icy slam, cringing at every lie, sizzling with every seduction.
At first glance she looks like just another one of those TV blondes, the ones with hair that has more tease than a cornerful of Times Square hookers. But Mills, who just ended her sixth season on the show and earns $40,000 per episode, dispenses her brand of trash with class, with flair and with the conviction of a Bible Belt evangelist. "Donna exudes a bad-little-girl quality that enables her to get away with murder," says Knots producer Lawrence Kasha. Mills is proud of her contribution: "It's better to be on a show that delivers good trash than dishes out bad trash." Precisely.
Just after dawn a housekeeper leads the way through a 16-room mansion in L.A.'s Benedict Canyon into Mills's bedroom. There, she reclines alone behind the white linen curtains of her king-size four-poster bed. "I'm a mess," she says with a yawn as she emerges in a faded red football jersey that reaches her knees. Her hair hangs in knots and she is an hour away from applying her "glamour makeup" at the nearby marble vanity table that could fill five cosmetic counters. Still, she is a knockout. "Abby wouldn't be caught dead in this getup," says Mills, laughing. "She wears expensive silk outfits to bed. After all, that's where she earned them."
Mills came to the show six years ago in an attempt to spice up the Dallas spin-off and its ratings. "Without Abby," says one co-star, "the show would be pretty bland fare." She began getting more on-air time and petty jealousies flared. Now, things on the set are civil. "I've never seen her play the star," says Ted Shackelford, who plays Gary Ewing. There is no disagreement about her sultry looks. "Donna," says co-star Michelle Lee, "has the kind of beauty that sometimes intimidates women."
There is good reason to feel threatened. Mills just signed a $1.1 million contract with Fabergé the company once represented by Farrah Fawcett and Margaux Hemingway. "I go shopping with every female star from Dallas and Knots Landing," says the shows' designer Bill Travilla, "and Donna is the only one who stops traffic on Rodeo Drive. She has the best tush in Hollywood." Mills, however, doesn't flaunt what mother nature gave her. "I'm not one of those teasing types who leaves herself open for come-ons," says Mills, who won't even flirt. "Once men get up close, they figure out that I'm just plain Donna and the fun is over."
A better reason why men keep their distance is Mills' on-again, off-again beau of seven years, Richard Holland, 35 and the ex-husband of singer Chaka Khan. A onetime rock guitarist and advertising agency exec, Holland now describes himself as a writer-producer. Last November he moved into Mills's $1.5 million home, the first time they have lived together. "I never met a man who was worth giving up my privacy for before," says Mills, whose former flames include movie executive Allen Adler and actor Vic Vallaro. Notes Holland: "We decided to try living together and remodeling at the same time. Not too bright."
Mills and Holland call their relationship "turbulent," and it has nothing to do with what color to paint the den. Sometimes charming, sometimes sullen, Holland is forever lazy. "I'm not as driven as Donna," he says. "I could go for three months without moving." All of that fuels whispers around town that Holland is along for the free ride. "Some people treat Richard like he was nothing," Donna scoffs. "They hand him my umbrella and expect him to run off and put it away." Says Holand, "I've taken to telling them where they can put it."
Mills, whose tough-as-nails soap star act disappears with her makeup, is fanatical about keeping her 104-pound, size-4 frame svelte. Her high-protein diet rarely includes red meat, and she never eats after 6 p.m. Hypoglycemia keeps her away from sugar, which can trigger mood swings. "If I have two Snickers bars I contemplate suicide," she says. She drinks no alcohol, and exercises vigorously. "If I don't look good, I can't stop in the middle of a scene and tell millions of viewers that I had a busy week and couldn't exercise," she says.
Mills was born Donna Jean Miller in Chicago, only daughter of the now retired head of Union Oil's market research division and a dance teacher. She planned to emulate her mother, Bernice (who died nine years ago), and by 5 was studying ballet. But she began performing in plays in high school and decided to study drama. In 1965 she enrolled at the University of Illinois but, never one for serious studying, dropped out before her final exams. She found stage work in Chicago before moving to New York in 1966. She was a Broadway understudy and then got her first taste of trash to come: acting jobs on the daytime soaps Secret Storm and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.
Later, she packed up for Hollywood and found herself in a guest spot on TV's Dan August with Burt Reynolds. "He was a real cut-up," she recalls. Burt, who happened to be great friends with Clint Eastwood, suggested Mills for the part of Eastwood's terrorized girlfriend in 1971's Play Misty for Me, her first film credit of note. "I liked Clint, but he was not the funny, outgoing man that Burt was," she says. After the cancellation of her short-lived sitcom, The Good Life, in 1972 (she and close pal Larry Hagman played domestics), Mills accepted practically any role that came her way. Those that did called for wilting female victims, and soon she was a specialist. "It got to the point where I had been raped and maligned by virtually every leading man in Hollywood and I hated it," cracks Mills. "I tried to convince the writers that most women would take action in a crisis, not melt like an ice-cream cone."
Mills proved that point in 1980 when, after a year of virtual unemployment, she "launched a major campaign for the role of Abby. It was a ticket out of my victim period." Though the producers tried to brush her off as not their type, she insisted on reading for the role. It worked. After all those years as a victim, the bitch mode felt great.
Now she has her priorities where she wants them: Work comes first, everything else comes second. She expends her maternal instincts on Holland's 7-year-old son, Damien. The boy lives with mother Chaka, but Mills keeps a room for him and he stays with her when the singer goes on tour. As for children of her own, Mills is in no rush. "Some women can do it all," she says. "They can have a child and be back at work the next week. I would need to dedicate myself to a child, and I just don't have time."
While the rest of the world relishes her in reruns this summer, Donna's work life is in fast forward. She's putting the final dabs on a video on how to use makeup ("I get thousands of letters from women asking me for advice"), due out this fall. But a bigger, and perhaps more fitting project, is Encounters, the TV movie she is now producing. Mills plays a neglected housewife living out her sexual fantasies. "Honey, this girl isn't into affairs, she's into highly imaginative one-night stands," says Mills. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that some of the white-hot TV trysts may have come from Mills' own daydreams. "A couple of the fantasies are mine, but I'll never tell which ones," she says coyly. Once again, Donna will deliver a wickedly trashy role that has as much lasting value as a tube of half-used mascara. Then again, who would want it any other way?
Beach Blanket Bounty
"When I made love with another woman," writes French director Roger Vadim, 58, in Bardot Deneuve Fonda, "I talked to Jane about it. With time I went further. I brought home some of my conquests, sometimes even into our bed.... Jane seemed to understand." Ex-wife Bardot and longtime paramour Deneuve are less charitable about Vadim's juicy kiss-and-tell memoir and are suing him for invasion of privacy. Vadim says the book sets the record straight about his years with the movie queens. But that was not his only motive. "I helped them to make millions in the movies," declared Vadim. "I don't see why they would mind if I make a tiny bit myself." As for the inflatable beach creatures at left—a six-foot Godzilla, a nearly eight-foot-long giraffe and alligator—you have to supply those yourself. They sell for up to $30 and have one big advantage over humans: You don't have to rub their backs with sunscreen.
The voice on the phone is young, male and eager: "Hi, this is your secret snoop with your daily dose of gossip that's too hot to print." What follows is 60 seconds of seamy Hollywood dirt. Called "Phonetalk," the hotline is six months old and based in L.A., although owner Lee Aronsohn, 33, is threatening to take it to other cities soon. That is, if he isn't run out of L.A. first. Aronsohn isn't worried about slander, claiming that "truth is an absolute defense." Besides, he adds, "there's nothing being presented that's not being generally discussed within most circles in this town." Among Phonetalk's trashier tidbits provided of late by his network of informants: A certain prime-time soap star discovered that two of her male lovers had fallen for each other, and now she directs their lovemaking; a TV-network newsman likes to dress like a woman at home; a star of a TV detective series has such a serious cocaine problem that he's broke despite his thousands per week salary. And just think, says Aronsohn, "that was a slow news week."
Neiman-Marcus is hardly a bastion of punk fashion, so when androgynous model Jaymes Bennett sashayed onto the runway in a fur wrap for a recent fashion show, there was a horrified gasp from the affluent patrons. "They use me to shock people and grab attention," concedes Bennett, 22, an L.A. model. With six-inch heels and six inches of wig on top of his 6-ft. frame, he does indeed shock. "I don't consider myself a drag queen," Bennett has said. "It's hard for people to understand that I'm a man who wears makeup. I do look like a woman but they know I'm not." Bennett has show business aspirations and has recorded a version of Grace Jones's I Need A Man. "I sang it at the Circus Disco for the Miss Gay Los Angeles contest," he has bragged. "I came out in this pink lamé dress and everyone died. They couldn't believe it—my voice is kinda deep."
Chances are Prince Andrew and Fergie won't be drinking from this commemorative wedding mug, but you can if you have $1.50 and move fast—which is exactly what Britain's entrepreneurs did, once the royal engagement was announced. (Caveat emptor: The workmanship is so shoddy that red clay can be seen through the glaze.) The proliferation of similarly dubious wedding memorabilia (pencils, T-shirts and even a perfume dubbed "Fergie—a Fragrance of Today") flaunted guidelines set by Her Majesty's government requiring that royal souvenir items be of "good taste." Apparently, this is one cup that runneth away.
What's nine inches long, comes in five flavors and is guaranteed to make your mother retch? A Goelitz Gummi Pet Rat, of course, the absolute finest in trash food. "Everybody says they're gross but then they end up buying three or four," reports San Francisco candy store owner David Peterson, who peddles the rats for $1.29. In Miami, the squishy critters can be found in matched sets and are sold as Miami Mice. In Marin County the rats are packaged and sold with brie. The gelatin like rats are part of a zoo of edibles thought up by California candymaker Herman Roland, the man who supplies President Reagan with those infamous jelly beans.
Every Sunday night some 11 million Brits belly up to the telly to watch Spitting Image, an outrageous half hour of satire that makes Saturday Night Live look like kiddie hour. The principal players are latex, puppet like caricatures of such global personalities as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Muammar Gaddafi. A favorite target, naturally, is the royal family, whom co-creator Peter Fluck, 45, calls "this strange dumpy family that is idolized by a nation." No one, not even the Queen (especially the Queen!) is safe from savage lampooning. The producers hope to invade the U.S. this summer with a television special. As for feedback from Buckingham Palace, Fluck says the royal family "pretends it doesn't know what the show is.... But what it has seen it doesn't like."
The titillating advertising copy for The Ladies Club, a sort of Death Wish for women that's opening nationally in July, says it all: "Men who attack women have two big problems. The Ladies Club is about to remove them both." Ouch. The film opens with the gang rape of a female police officer. In the hospital she is befriended by a female surgeon (how convenient) whose young daughter had been raped and killed. With the help of other rape victims, the women track down the culprits and behave in a most unladylike way. The movie, whose notable stars include Diana (Mommie Dearest) Scarwid and Karen (Jagged Edge) Austin, ended up being so trashy that it might explain why the female director listed herself under a pseudonym.
She wanted the tired, the poor, the huddled masses—but who said anything about this junk? Lady Liberty's two-year, $30 million face-lift will be celebrated on her July 4 centennial, and the all-American kitsch machine is already in full throttle. It's estimated that more than $400 million worth of some 800 souvenirs licensed for the occasion will be sold through April 1987; roughly $25 million of that will go to the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, which has already taken in $8 million. Not all of the souvenirs are trashy: There are such items as a $5,000 limited edition grandfather clock and a $10,200 Liberty motorcycle. But some of the paraphernalia is truly tacky: sunglasses ($3.95 for the pair, above), silk boxer shorts, University of Liberty T-shirts and key-chain charms in neon colors. Who could live without one?
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