updated 10/16/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 10/16/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Back in the public eye after years as a civilian, Newmar still knows how to flaunt her leonine appeal. But this time around, as demonstrated in the cheeky hit To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, her allure has taken on a strange twist. While many men have wanted to have her, the movie's cross-dressing protagonists want to be her. In To Wong Foo, three madcap transvestites—Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo—are so smitten with the divine Miss N. that they swipe her autographed photo from a Chinese restaurant and set off on a crosscountry trip to compete in a drag gala in Los Angeles. "She has become the patron saint of drag queens," says Swayze, who remembers "drooling" over Newmar as a teenager. "She is everything you'd want a woman to be."
Newmar, who makes a brief cameo in the film as a presenter at the contest, is at a loss to explain her enduring magnetism. "I can't see myself as others see me," she says. In Manhattan last month for the premiere, she was amazed when she was besieged by fans outside the Four Seasons Hotel. Wearing a cat suit and six-inch heels, she was surrounded by at least 60 admirers, many of them under 30, who had become devotees after catching Batman on Nickelodeon.
According to drag artiste John Epperson (known as Lypsinka), a friend since he modeled with her in a 1992 show by designer Thierry Mugler, Newmar's best feature is her languid demeanor. "She has this spaced-out character," he says. "It's not an airhead thing at all—it's just ethereal."
As it happens, though, Newmar's life of late has included plenty of grit along with the ether. In 1981, six months after her only child, John, was born with Down syndrome, Newmar, then 48, separated from her husband, lawyer John Holt Smith, now 54. (Neither will discuss the breakup, and Smith, who lives in Los Angeles, no longer visits the child.) Then, at the age of 2, John lost his hearing to meningitis. Devoting herself full-time to her son, who now attends a public school in L.A. known for educating disabled children, Newmar left acting and supported herself with income from the successful real estate business founded by her mother, Helene, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl. Since then, Newmar has taken her son on several trips around the world. "I can't bear for us to be separated," she says. "Sometimes people say, 'Oh poor you, it's such a tribulation.' " And I go, 'Wrong!' Johnnie lights up my life."
With two younger brothers, Newmar herself was the child of intensely devoted parents. Father Donald Newmeyer, a former football player, later coached at Los Angeles City College, while Mom bought up Hollywood properties. Growing up in Los Feliz, an affluent section of L.A., she was encouraged to be artistic by her mother ("The piano lessons, the dancing lessons—I loved them all," she says) and at 18 landed a job as a staff choreographer for Universal Studios. The next year she won a major role as Dorcas, one of the kidnapped brides-to-be, in 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Once in New York City, she was a sensation in a string of Broadway classics, Silk Stockings, L'il Abner (she played Stupefyin' Jones) and Guys and Dolls. But it was TV that helped cement her status as a vaguely eccentric vixen. Although she was a cult hit as Catwoman, her favorite role was in CBS's My Living Doll (1964-65), as Rhoda the (exceedingly cultured) Robot. Programmed to fulfill the wishes of her owner, played by Bob Cummings, she was also a master of Chopin on the piano and danced to Stravinsky's Petrushka.
Pursued by western writer Louis L'Amour (to whom she was briefly engaged) and Warren Beatty, Newmar married Smith, a lawyer she had met at a Hollywood party, in 1977. "Like nearly every female," she says, "I thought I'd get married and that would be it for life." After selling her Manhattan penthouse, she joined him in Fort Worth, where she became a housewife. The couple relocated in 1979, after Smith took a new job, and eventually bought the Craftsman-style two-bedroom Brentwood home where she and John still live (and where their neighbors include O.J. Simpson). As for postdivorce romance, Newmar says, "A man in my life? Well, there would be, could be, should be. If I were on my toes a bit more."
Despite her recent high-heeled appearance in New York City, though, that doesn't seem likely. An atavistic creature who dislikes the noise and hustle of the '90s, Newmar refuses to answer the phone after 6 p.m and spends most of her time tending to her garden—brimming with begonias and fruit trees—or dancing" and taking long walks with John. "Life has become a learning experience, and he is my teacher," she says. Although she still occasionally models for Mugler alongside models half her age like Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, she insists she has no desire for a comeback. "I'll only work if something delicious comes along," Newmar says firmly, "or if a darling friend asks me to flutter my wings."
JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles