In retrospect, it makes sense that the producers of the newly released movie Tuff Turf newer thought to check Catya Sassoon's age before she began working. Even though this was her first feature film, the svelte, 5'8" model handled her role as a 16-year-old streetsmart Los Angeles gang member with frightening ease. "It wasn't that I was keeping it a secret," Sassoon scoffs, patting her sculpted coif. "I'd put down my birthdate and I'd been getting paid. But when I got back after a two-week break in Mexico, they were furious to discover that I was underage—15—and that they had to hire a social worker to be on the set." Sassoon was teed off too: "It didn't work out at all. I don't know where that woman was coming from, but I've never been treated like that in my life."
Catya's father, beauty expert Vidal Sassoon, could have warned the social worker that his daughter rarely minds her elders. The hard evidence: At 14 she left high school and home to work as a model and last year, at 15, made Tuff Turf and got married. Says her mother, Beverly (who was divorced from Vidal in 1980), "She's wild and crazy and stubborn. But then we all are. We're a strong-willed family."
That's putting it mildly. Wills of tungsten steel would probably bend to young Catya's budding ambition. Raised in Beverly Hills with her younger sister and two brothers, Catya fell naturally in step with her parents' glittering lives. "I did some modeling with my mom when I was a kid," she says offhandedly. "I did fashion shows and talk shows." By the time she reached freshman year at Beverly Hills High, Catya found that homework and pep rallies hardly suited her. "I'd sit in English class and I'd think, 'I could be making $500 an hour modeling and here I am not learning anything.' I was getting B's and C's. I just hung out with my friends—mostly guys—and had fun. I was pretty advanced with boys. There were a lot of them, but nothing serious."
Despite her parents' protestations, Catya abandoned high school to model in New York City. She moved into a group apartment and signed with the Prestige Agency. "It was sheer hell living there with 12 girls fighting for one of the two available showers every morning at 6," she recalls. "Everyone stole everyone's makeup. I was the youngest. The rest were in their 20s."
Uncharacteristically, Sassoon reacted like a normal 14-year-old: She called Dad. "I didn't have any money," says Catya. "Who has money at 14?" Dad came to the rescue by moving his daughter across the street into her own penthouse apartment. "I worked my tail off every day trying to make it up to him," she says. "I enrolled in Professional Children's School, but I didn't exactly attend. I'd show up, leave and go watch other models at work." It paid off. Within two months Catya became one of New York's top junior models, with a $10,000 two-month shoot scheduled in Japan.
Practically on the eve of her departure, plans changed. At an Easter party in Palm Springs, Sassoon met Luca Scalisi, then 18, the son of an Italian movie producer. "He was just one of the guys to me," she recalls. "But afterward we kept seeing each other in L.A. One night at the Hard Rock Cafe he asked me to be his girlfriend." So much for Japan. Catya began work on Tuff Turf and convinced her parents to name Luca as her guardian so he could replace the on-set social worker.
Shortly thereafter, at a Los Angeles family dinner party attended by Catya's father and his new wife, Jeannette, Scalisi popped the question in old-world style. Says Catya, "In the middle of a conversation Luca turned to my dad and said, 'I'd like to ask for your daughter's hand in marriage.' Dad almost choked on his fork. He looked at us with eyes as big as marbles. When we got home he talked to us about financial survival. Then he said, 'The only way you're getting married is in a Jewish ceremony, and it will be at my house.' "
The formal wedding before 250 guests took place last August. "We could have argued with her about leaving school and getting married until we were blue in the face," says Beverly Sassoon. "But we knew Luca was good for her, a stabilizing factor."
Settled in their one-bedroom Art Deco apartment in L.A., the teenage newlyweds plan to prep themselves for Hollywood. While Scalisi enters USC this month to study film, Sassoon prepares for her next role, as a newscaster, in a movie called The Spoilers. "I have a feeling I'm going to go farther in the film business than either Brooke Shields
or Christie Brinkley," she says. Her immodest assessment of her own appeal: "I think I'm more of a Meryl Streep." As she lounges back on a couch, dressed in a black leather blouse with matching leather pants and boots, Catya Sassoon adds firmly, "And I'm not going to quit until I become the household name of the '80s."