Believe It or Not, Now the Critics Say That Pia's Zadorable

updated 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Tonight, Pia Zadora, every comedian's favorite 97-pound punch line, makes her Carnegie Hall debut as a singer. But that's not the most stunning fact of the evening. The most stunning fact of the evening is that the staid venue is almost sold out—nearly 3,000 seemingly normal people have shelled out up to $22.50 to hear a woman whose career, so far, makes the Titanic look like a brilliant success. What are these people doing here? "She's such a lousy actress, I want to see if she's a better singer," says one. "I saw her movie Lonely Lady, and it was so trashy, I loved it," gushes another in a left-handed compliment. "She never performed before and suddenly she's at Carnegie Hall," says a third. "Why?"

Inside, on a stage that has played host to Rubinstein, Heifetz, Callas and Garland, 5'2" Pia, 29, steps into a spotlight and begins to sing. She belts out a sultry rendition of Come Rain or Come Shine. Skeptics in the audience begin to sit up. She torches through The Man That Got Away, and the audience forgets it's watching what one movie critic called "one of those fabricated personalities with a rich husband and a tiny talent." Before the curtain drops, Zadora gets a standing ovation for her finale, I Am What I Am.

A standing O? For Pia Zadora? This may be the most remarkable comeback since Dempsey climbed back through the ropes to flatten Firpo in 1923. For years everyone from movie critic Vincent Canby ("She looks like Brigitte Bardot recycled through a kitchen compactor")to Johnny Carson ("She's the next Rula Lenska") has mined her image for comedic ore. Not that Pia didn't ask for it. What with posing nude in Penthouse and emoting fitfully through such R-rated film hoots as Butterfly and The Lonely Lady, even Pia admits she was rapidly becoming "the Queen of Sleaze."

Having flopped at movies, she turned to music. Late last year she released Pia & Phil, an album of nightclub standards recorded with the London Philharmonic. She also began giving concerts in Europe, where her American reputation hadn't preceded her. Then last November came the litmus moment, when Pia performed at the Beverly Theatre in L.A. "I knew I was walking into the lion's den," she recalls. "I knew that night would be the beginning—or the end. If I flopped, they wouldn't even book me at the Carnegie Deli." Leonard Feather, a respected L.A. Times music critic, gave Zadora a rave. "She has it all: the range, expert intonation, a sensitive feeling for lyrics," he wrote. "The poor little rich girl finally has it made." It was, he concluded, "a musically impeccable evening." Zadora says she was so shocked that she checked the Times the next day to make sure the paper hadn't run a retraction. "I went with no prejudices," says Feather, who stands by his review. "The reason she's not achieving acceptance," he theorizes, "is her husband's wealth."

He is Meshulam Riklis, 62, a billionaire who financed both Butterfly and Lonely Lady as star-making vehicles for his wife. When Pia won the 1982 Golden Globe award as Best New Star for her performance in Butterfly, Hollywood was flabbergasted—and rumors circulated that Riklis had used his wide influence to sway voters. Butterfly, after all, had not yet been released, and Pia's competition that year included Kathleen Turner, Howard Rollins and Elizabeth McGovern.

"My husband did pay for a lot of things," says Pia. "But they didn't help me. You just can't thrust something on the public is what I've learned." She would have liked to have appeared in better films, but "no one offered me Kramer vs. Kramer or Frances, and I wanted to work," says Zadora. Though stung by the critical venom, Pia says she understands it. "I couldn't even argue because I knew the films were lousy. I didn't blame the critics for panning them."

Perhaps surprisingly, Zadora's singing credentials are very much in order. She began at age 6, studying voice with an aunt who was a soprano in the New York City Opera. At 8, she won a music scholarship to Juilliard. As a child, she sang in such Broadway hits as Fiddler on the Roof and Applause, and later, as a small-time cabaret act, opened for Tiny Tim in Florida.

Not all critics have echoed Feather's enthusiasm, but most have given Zadora's singing a thumbs-up. Even mixed reviews would be a breakthrough for a woman who says she had only one thought with which to console herself during her years as a national giggle. "I felt awful sometimes," she says. "But I always knew I had at least one thing going for me—everybody knew my name."

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