Mama Pia

updated 07/10/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2000 01:00AM

When Pia Zadora and her family moved into their three-bedroom house in Malibu last year, "we were coughing and our eyes were burning," says the 45-year-old actress-singer turned full-time mom. Advised by an organic-environment consultant, "I did some air testing, and things were way off the charts. It was the paint, the varnishes, the formaldehyde. So I baked it! I put the heat all the way up, put in electric heaters. Some people bake cakes. I bake houses."

Back in the '80s Zadora was better known for turning up the heat on movie screens as the gold-digging sex kitten in the 1982 B-movie Butterfly. The role won her the best new star Golden Globe the next year, beating out Kathleen Turner (Body Heat) and Elizabeth McGovern (Ragtime) and kicking up a storm of controversy. Critics accused Zadora's multimillionaire financier husband, Meshulam Riklis, of buying the award by wining and dining the Golden Globe voters—a charge they both deny. "So the acting wasn't all that great," Zadora says, "but the category [eliminated in 1984] was not for best actress, it was for someone who had the most charismatic presence. Those people voted for me."

Still, the skepticism—and an ill-advised nude layout in Penthouse—soon put Zadora on filmdom's least-wanted list. So she focused on music, with much better results. Her critically acclaimed 1986 album of Broadway standards with the London Philharmonic, Pia and Phil, "turned around my career," she said. She opened for Frank Sinatra in Vegas and garnered stellar reviews for a solo show at New York City's Carnegie Hall.

But then music was always her first love. The only child of violinist Alfons Schipani, who died in 1987, and costume designer Nina, Zadora began voice training at 5. At age 8, she made her Broadway debut opposite Tallulah Bankhead in Midgie Purvis. Immersed in the theater, Zadora shied away from the other kids in her neighborhood in Queens. "They played out in front and she wouldn't join them," says Zadora's mother, Nina, now 67. "She'd sit up in her room looking at scripts. She'd spend all her time looking at herself in the mirror, trying on clothes and putting on makeup. She was more comfortable around adults."

When she was 17 and appearing in a play in Columbus, Ohio, Zadora met Riklis, who is 31 years her senior, at a performance. "She was a dynamo," Riklis, now 76, recalls. The feeling was mutual. "He rescued me in a lot of ways and guided me into adulthood," she says. "I never thought much of our age difference." They married four years later, in 1977, and had two children, Kady, 15, and Kristofer, 13.

For almost 20 years Riklis financed Zadora's career, and she stood by him through bankruptcy and prostate cancer. But, she says, "one day, I woke up and looked at my life and said to myself, 'What is wrong with this picture?' And I realized I spent much of my life being programmed. I was a pseudo adult at 8. There was a price to pay for that lost childhood." When she and Riklis divorced in 1993, neither was bitter. "I didn't even need a lawyer," she says. The exes remain friends, living just a mile apart and splitting car-pool duties.

While separated, Zadora met her second husband, independent film director Jonathan Kaufer, now 45, at a party in Malibu. It wasn't exactly love at first sight—"I had her confused with Leona Helmsley," Kaufer says with a laugh. "You know, that vision of poodles sitting in the lap of a rich matron"—but they've been together ever since. And when Zadora, then starring on Broadway in the musical Crazy for You, suffered a miscarriage and decided to retire from the spotlight in 1996, Kaufer supported the decision. The family moved back to California, where Zadora now spends her days raising her kids and keeping her household organically sound. Three years ago the couple added a son, Jordan, to their brood. "I don't miss show business at all," says Zadora. "I've been there and done that. I appreciate the stability of a home life."

Julie K.L. Dam
Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles

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