Late one afternoon, singer Pia Zadora was cuddling her 11-month-old daughter, Kady, on the sprawling patio of her Trousdale Estates home. Kady was smiling, but her mother was frowning. While taking a hard, uncompromising look at her career, Zadora unearthed some things she didn't like:
"A lot of people think I'm a joke. I don't like being laughed at, I don't like being attacked. People think that when you're very rich, nothing can hurt you because you have all that money to comfort you. That's really a joke. Those vicious criticisms can hurt. I'm not some arrogant monster who's immune to getting hurt.
"So you get wounded and you lick your wounds and smile like it doesn't hurt, even though you're torn up inside. You go on with the show. That's show biz, isn't it?"
Zadora, 28, is a favorite target of the press, which mostly considers her an empty-headed, no-talent sex kitten who's the girl-toy of husband Meshulam Riklis, a superrich businessman more than twice her age. The media have been lambasting her ever since she won the Golden Globe award for best new actress of 1981 for an obscure movie, "Butterfly," charging that her husband bought the award by wining and dining voters.
Starring in "Lonely Lady," another disastrous movie, didn't help her image. Neither do those terrible disco and pop/rock albums she's been making the last few years.
Zadora craves credibility. In her quest for it, she's now exploring a new musical direction. Tonight and Wednesday at the Beverly Theatre, backed by an orchestra, Zadora is showcasing songs from her new album, "Pia and Phil (the London Philharmonic Orchestra, That Is)."
She's going after the market Linda Ronstadt tapped with her enormously successful "What's New" album in 1983. Zadora's new album features dreamy standards like "Embraceable You," "But Not for Me," "It Had to Be You," "East of the Sun" and "Smile."
Her manager, Tino Barzie, who used to work for Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey, nudged Zadora in that direction. He hired Robert Farnon, the great British conductor-arranger, to do the charts.
The album is a pleasant surprise. It turns out that Zadora can really sing. Her voice is strong and rich and far-ranging.
A good test of her ability is "The Man That Got Away," a tough song to sing because it requires emotional, high-pitched vocalism. As Zadora noted: "There's nowhere to hide with this kind of material. It's not loud rock music with bass and drums to cover mistakes; there's just soft orchestra music. If you can't sing, people know it right away. It's a real test of a singer."
Zadora was affable and candid, quite a surprise after all that gossip and those negative stories branding her as the stereotypic rich Hollywood phony.
"I try to be real," she said. "It's not easy sometimes. This is like Fantasyland. Look at all this."
She was right. The patio was surrounded by an elegant garden, a huge pool and a panoramic view of the city. "Luxury everywhere, inside and out," she said. "Who could ask for anything more? With all the money, I have everything I want. It's a struggle to keep your perspective in the middle of all this. So far, I haven't lost the struggle."
By then, her daughter was getting restless. Zadora summoned someone to take the baby inside.
Most people don't realize that Zadora, a New Yorker from a show-biz family, has an extensive theatrical background. She was on Broadway at 7, appearing with Tallulah Bankhead in the play "Midgie Purvis," and worked steadily in theater through her teens.
In the early '70s, at 17, she met Riklis, but didn't marry him until 1977. Using his financial clout, he's been able to boost her career. Though she's had a lot of success in Europe as a pop-rock singer, American fans haven't been impressed by her records. Zadora confessed that, with an exception or two, she hasn't been too impressed by any of the records either.
"Until my new album, nearly all of my product has been junk," she said. "One exception was 'When the Rain Begins to Fall' (a duet with Jermaine Jackson that was a hit in Europe). The media has had reason to knock me."
She's not fond of any of her movies either. "Lonely Lady," she confessed, is a particular embarrassment to her: "It's a real turkey. It was done very badly; it was directed badly. It's a camp classic, one of those movies that's so bad it's funny.
"I knew it was bad all along; I didn't want it to come out. I yelled and screamed. I wanted my husband to buy it, to buy the whole thing and hide it somewhere. That movie certainly didn't help my credibility problem.
"I feel like I dug my own grave and I'm struggling to crawl out," she lamented. "I also feel like there's people shoveling dirt on me and trying to keep me buried."