Seven o'clock on a Wednesday evening, in the cocktail lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel on South Doheny Drive. Tonight, and every night, the lounge is packed with the entertainment industry's elite. The high-visibility personality of the moment is Robert Duvall, at a table near the rear of the room. Who's he with? I don't know, a couple of guys. God, he looks old, like Redford. Why doesn't he have some work done?
Another demographic glides among the elite. Their bodies are tanned and toned; sprayed-on ensembles cling to their curves. Thin chains of gold and silver dangle provocatively around their hips, below bared expanses of hardened bellies; tattoos adorn their ankles and shoulder blades. Their rich manes glisten with supernatural highlights; glowing cheeks sparkle with body glitter. An equally impressive number of them can be found in the cocktail lounges of the Peninsula, the Regent Beverly Wilshire, the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Beverly Hilton and Raffles L'Ermitage. For Beverly Hills is, quite simply, the most powerful bimbo vortex on the planet.
They come here by the thousands from all over the world, each making the pilgrimage with dreams of winning fame and fortune, not through their own accomplishments or talents but through those of the men to which they will attach themselves. Their role model is Darcy LaPier, the Bill Gates of bimbodom, a former Miss Hawaiian Tropic who merged with one millionaire husband after another until she was able to retire--upon the death of her last conquest, Herbalife mogul Mark Hughes--as one of the wealthiest widows in the United States at age 35. For these women, the man becomes the career goal. The ultimate achievement is to stand on an altar with a rock star or movie star, an A-list director or a studio executive. For in that moment, when his strong jaw parts to reveal a sparkling Colgate smile and he slips a Harry Winston 12-carat diamond on her finger, all of his power, charm, fame and wealth will be conferred upon her.
Precious few manage to make it into a Beverly Hills mansion for more than a night or two--the field is fiercely competitive. After a year or two in cramped studio apartments, saving every penny from jobs as waitresses at Nic's Restaurant & Martini Lounge or sales clerks at Fred Segal so they can afford a few hot outfits and the $10 drinks at the Four Seasons, some begin to consider going after the short-end money until their Mark Hughes comes along.
For the men, particularly those who touch down in Beverly Hills with tens of millions of dollars, as Norm Zadeh did, the bimbo vortex can be a marvelous thing. After striking the mother lode as a hedge-fund manager in the go-go '90s, Norm came to the hills of Beverly to live out the Bachelor in Paradise dream--a fantasy, however brief, of every American male who's leafed through Playboy to see Hugh Hefner frolicking at the Playboy Mansion. Norm made his dream a reality by founding Perfect 10, a skin magazine with a twist: all of its models are 100% natural--no silicone implants.
The venture hasn't made Norm rich. Perfect 10 has thousands of readers, compared to Playboy's millions. But Norm already was rich; he isn't in it for the money, he's in it for the lifestyle. Perfect 10 has turned this unassuming, short, thin, bald, self-described former "nerd" into a nationally recognized sex symbol. He has been featured in national magazines, newspapers and on the "Howard Stern Show," where he inevitably appears with Perfect 10 girls draped on his arms.
Of course, an essential element to the Bachelor in Paradise lifestyle is the mansion--a vast playpen within which the bachelor, like Hef, can frolic. So Norm erected the Perfect 10 Mansion, where, as shown in the magazine, nymphets play Frisbee inside the 16,000-square-foot palace or volleyball in the pool, or wash Norm's car.
Always among the girls is diminutive Norm, beaming a wouldn't-you-give-your-right-arm-to-be-standing-where-I-am-right-now grin.
Norm's public relations woman, Eileen Koch, arrives at the Four Seasons cocktail lounge a little after 7. She is in her mid-50s. Her bleached-blond hair is long, with bangs dangling over her lined forehead. Her thin aerobicized body has been shoehorned into a pair of expensive stone-washed jeans and her white blouse is open at the neck to expose her freckled cleavage. She's got large, twinkling eyes, animated hands and a coquettishness that must have been quite bewitching.
She explains why "Normie"--who's running late but will be here any moment--is her all-time favorite client. Normie is just the most fantastic, marvelous, warm, sensitive, caring and generous client you could ask for.
Then the fabled man is here with the 1998 Perfect 10 Model of the Year, Ashley Degenford, on his arm. He wears tight black pants, a short-sleeved black shirt and, on his long nose, a pair of large thick-lensed aviator-style glasses, the kind that used to be fashionable in the '70s. His eyes dance about the lounge as Eileen makes the introductions, and then, with the barest suggestion of a smirk, he introduces Ashley.
She has the face of a young Katharine Ross. Her skin and hair are Polynesian brown, her Venusian form explodes from a jumpsuit that looks as if it were measured for a Barbie doll. She smiles as she exchanges greetings. "Shall we adjourn to the dining room?" Norm suggests. "It'll be easier to talk there."
He proceeds across the lounge with Ashley on his arm, her hips swaying. A flabbergasted hush falls over the lounge as all eyes, even those of Duvall, focus on Ashley. No one, not even Sir Anthony Hopkins himself, could command such attention from this crowd.
Is Norm embarrassed at creating such a spectacle? Quite the contrary, he will later insist. "I kind of like it. Particularly when it's a big handsome movie star scratching his head and thinking, 'Who is this guy? I'm the star!' "
At the table, Norm continues to play the star by ordering vintage champagne for the entire party. Jennifer Snow, another Perfect 10 model, arrives. She has the bleached-blond, hair-sprayed mane of a Las Vegas cocktail waitress--which she is, in the baccarat room of the Venetian Hotel. Jennifer wears a Vegas tan, designer jeans and an aqua pullover blouse that also displays her cleavage. She has a high nasal voice that sounds remarkably similar to Judy Holliday's famous caricature of a dumb blond. She apologizes for being late--the traffic at this hour is unbelievable. Norm smiles coolly and says he'll forgive her this time.
An array of appetizers arrives. The girls dig in ravenously as Norm launches into a series of dissertations, one segueing seamlessly into the next, on topics that interest him: Internet and insurance fraud, the federal deficit, stock market investment strategies, the drug war and the American economy. One reason he founded Perfect 10, he explains, was to create a forum for expounding his views on important issues. And expound he does, through the appetizers, the salad, the soup and halfway through the main course. Norm doesn't make eye contact as the words flow on and on. He is completely engaged with himself, fascinated by every nuance of his insights.
The women's faces go slack, their eyes glassy, but Norm doesn't seem to mind that his elaborate philosophical constructs form an unbreachable barrier between him and his guests. In fact, you sense that's the point--he'd rather keep people at a safe distance. But that doesn't mean he wants them to drift away altogether. After consuming mounds of incredibly rich gourmet food, Ashley settles back against her chair's burgundy-striped satin upholstery, her eyelids drooping like those of a sated lioness as Norm's words flow over her. "I also predict, and I think that's in my next article, that because the Japanese have done such a great job in the past . . ."
Without warning, Norm's eyes slash through his aviator glasses at Ashley. "If you're bored you can sleep." Ashley bolts upright, her eyes brightening as she pumps fresh fascination into them. Norm smiles in an attempt to dismiss his anger. "I'm just kidding," he says, resuming his monologue, "because the Japanese have done such a great job in the past at beating us on copiers, TVs, cameras and everything else, they're gonna beat us in computers eventually. . . ."
Norm's wisecrack was a warning shot, and Ashley, Jennifer and Eileen heard it loud and clear. Like a team trotting out after halftime, they redouble their efforts, leaning forward with expressions of enthusiasm. Whenever Norm pauses, they leap in with excited affirmations: "That's sooo true, Normie!" "I never looked at it that way before." "What a provocative insight." "I hope you write about it in your next column." "Oh, you should, Normie, you definitely should!"
After dessert, Norm pursues another favorite theme. "There's a funny thing about women," he muses. "Fortunately for us not-so-good-looking guys, they don't care that much about looks. In fact, some Perfect 10 models only feel comfortable with really ugly men . . . because they are insecure or whatever and they don't like good-looking men. Now let me ask Jennifer Snow a question, although she's been known to be with internationally renowned models. Is a man's appearance incredibly important?"
The tawny skin of Jennifer's high cheekbones tightens. "Norman, you're gonna make me sound shallow. When I first meet a man, yes, appearance is very important. I look at him and he has to be handsome. I think: big, handsome, tall."
Ashley and Eileen exchange apprehensive glances. It's clear from Norm's tempered-steel smile that this wasn't the answer he was looking for. "But the guy could be unattractive," he gently persists, "but have a sense of confidence or something. It's not really a physical thing. He doesn't have to be, like, 6-3."
Jennifer laughs. "Well, he does."
Norm sets his coffee down and sits back, the smile still fixed there, his eyes like two hot diodes behind his thick glasses. Jennifer catches Ashley's warning gaze, at last realizing that she's committed a faux pas. "No, but wait, I have to say this," Jennifer says. "Once I get to know the person, once I develop a friendship with him, and I believe that that's what I was trying to say about you, Norm, is that you're so sweet and you're so kind and you are so giving, but you are self-confident and self-assured and you don't expect anything. And I think that's where a woman feels comfort with you, and then she starts falling in love with you because she's so comfortable, and then she starts to see who you really are. So it doesn't matter what they look like at that point, but you have to get past that point, I think."
Norm decides to accept this rambling apology. "Well, I still believe--and I don't think she contradicted me--I still believe that the looks side of it is not particularly significant at all. I think young girls go for the power and the age and the security."
Eileen nods enthusiastically. "They go for the intelligence."
Oh, yes, and there's one other thing they go for, Norm remembers. Money. Lots and lots of money. In fact, it wasn't until he became a multimillionaire that his love life turned around. "First I had to get the money to get the girls. Sorry to put it so bluntly."
Ashley smiles and nods. "That's the bottom line, guys."
It took Norm a long time to learn this simple lesson. Forty hellacious years of nerdiness wondering why he was such a failure with women. Then he finally realized: It's the money, stupid.
The waiter pours more coffee and Ashley plucks at a false eyelash, trying to fight off the cellular ache of fatigue as Norm strolls down a circuitous memory lane, recalling his epic journey to this table. . . .
His father was Lotfi Zadeh, a world-famous mathematician and computer scientist who wrote a landmark research paper on fuzzy sets, which provided a basis for programming computers with linguistic instead of numerical variables to create artificial intelligence systems that would more closely approximate the workings of the human mind. Lotfi was a certifiable scientific genius but a reluctant and remote father--if his son is to be believed.
A recent issue of Perfect 10 featured a photo of Lotfi paying a visit to the Perfect 10 Mansion. Father and son stand side by side, and clearly they sprang from the same gene puddle: identical in height, both bald with huge frontal lobes and thin chests. Lotfi drapes a paternal hand around his boy's narrow shoulders, presenting the image of a proud and nurturing dad.
But this is not the man Norm remembers from childhood; his descriptions of his father seethe with venomous resentments. When Norm impersonates his father talking to his mother about their son, Lotfi refers to his boy not as Normie, Norm or Norman, but as "the idiot," the appellation Jerry Lewis gave to the spastic, emotionally regressed nerd he played in movies while Norm was growing up. "Look at the idiot," Norm will imitate his father saying in a typical anecdote, "watching TV again. Can't you talk to the idiot? See if you can get the idiot to go outside. Why doesn't the idiot try reading a book for a change?"
Yet when asked if his father really called him an idiot, Norm's eyes drop and he admits softly, "No, but I knew that's what he was thinking."
He may not be far off the mark, for Norm's mother, Fay Zadeh, told a reporter from Barron's, "My husband meant well, but he couldn't give his son the affection that a child expected. Therefore Norman has insecurities."
Norm craved his father's approval. He graduated from high school at 16 and entered UC Berkeley, where his father was chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering. He must have won some measure of respect from the old man, for at 17 his father allowed Norm to review papers that Lotfi was writing for academic journals. Yet what Norm remembers most keenly are the stinging moments of disapproval. "Dad didn't like me watching television. He'd walk in on me watching TV and say, 'You're gonna be a garbage collector when you grow up. You stink!' "
Grammar school provided an escape. He hadn't yet fallen behind the size of the other boys and was a fine athlete on the playground--an ace at kickball, dodge ball and relay races. He had a full head of brown hair. And girlfriends? Ah, the memories. "I used to brag that there were 42 girls in fourth grade and I had 42 girlfriends," he says.
Ashley leaps into a momentary silence. "He was the most beautiful little boy you've ever seen, if you see his fifth-grade pictures."
Norm's eyes snap back at the recollection of the cataclysm that drove him from that Eden. "Dad had a semi-sabbatical at MIT. I had to leave my incredibly popular situation." He was yanked out of school and enrolled in a private school in Cambridge, Mass. Norm had to skip from seventh to eighth grade to gain admittance. He passed the necessary tests and threw himself into his studies, earning straight A's. How did his father reward him? "I was just reaching puberty and my dad said, 'You know, the idiot is actually not doing that bad. Let's leave him here.' "
Lotfi had to attend to some duties at Berkeley and wanted Fay to come with him. But he didn't want to take Norm out of school again--so Lotfi arranged for his son to stay with an MIT professor and his family to finish the school year. "After the first three days I could sense this family didn't want me around," Norm explains. "I'm sitting there and I have to stay with them for four months, so I went from being an extrovert to an introvert right during puberty."
Four months later, he returned to California, but he was stuck into high school classes where everyone was a year older. No matter how hard he tried, he was never able to get back in sync with his peers. "I was a complete outcast. I did not go to any high school dance. It was brutal."
Before relating each anecdote, Norm says, "I'll tell you another cute story." But they are never cute; they always turn out to be another installment in his adolescent parade of horrors. The time he got drunk to work up the nerve to ask a girl to a dance, only to be turned down. Then the first time he tried to make out with a girl. "It was a complete fiasco. And she married somebody else the next week." The very next week? In Norm's mind, that's exactly what happened.
Beneath his self-loathing, a hatred built up for all of the beautiful ones who had grown taller and stronger; for his father, whom he felt had abandoned him; for the world itself that never made a place for him. And so he began to seek vengeance, in crafty, covert ways such as poker. He had his father's facility with figures and easily outplayed most of his contemporaries. With a deck of cards, he lured them onto his turf. Wanna play for money? How much you got on ya? He stripped them of their allowance in one sitting, and when that was gone he took their Playboys.
Playboy! As he leafed through it, he discovered the long-forgotten lane to paradise. Others had managed to get there. The parties at the Playboy Mansion with Robert Culp, Tony Curtis, Clint Eastwood, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Cosby and Peter Lawford sauntering in pajamas through supple tangles of long-legged Bunnies, shaking it up on the dance floor, prancing through the gardens, and always by the end of the evening plunging into the mists of the grotto. And hovering above them was Hef, in a silk bathrobe with pipe in hand, an airbrushed Dionysian demigod, smiling beatifically at what he had created.
Hugh Hefner perfected the bachelor in paradise lifestyle, but he certainly didn't originate it. A long procession of starlets made the pilgrimage to Charlie Chaplin's boudoir, and John Gilbert and John Barrymore threw legendary orgiastic parties. Howard Hughes developed the assembly line approach when he bought RKO Pictures in 1948. The dashing multimillionaire/aviator had already dated virtually every major female star in Hollywood, but now he had the machinery of an entire movie studio at his disposal to funnel a steady stream of ambitious lovelies to his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. All he had to do was dangle a contract in front of their fame-hungry eyes.
Hefner could not hope to match the scale of Hughes' operation, but Hefner refined the conceit into a complete way of life. He showed millions of American men that it's possible to build a self-enclosed pleasure dome, a realm of pure sensual delights, intoxicating tastes and textures, charismatic friends and endless frivolity.
By the century's end, Playboy had acquired a certain respectability, thanks to a rash of raunchy magazine imitators and the hard-core pornography pumped into American homes via cable and satellite, which made Hef's fare look staid by comparison. The Playboy corporation had become a valued source of tax revenue for the city of Beverly Hills and a prominent civic booster that sponsored jazz concerts and cultural events and made sizable contributions to local charities.
Hef deftly repositioned himself not as a crass exploiter of women but as a patron of the arts and a champion of feminist causes, sponsoring a series of television documentaries on landmark women such as Frances Marion, the most prominent screenwriter in silent movies. To assure that he did not become too respectable, Hef showed up at the documentary's premiere in Beverly Hills with a pair of 22-year-old bleached-blond twins, Sandy and Mandy Bentley. Hef told reporters that Sandy and Mandy had allowed him to "see life afresh through youthful eyes."
For nNrm, the road to Eden was far more arduous. He wandered for years, eking out a living as a college professor and part-time backgammon hustler. He had thrust himself into every venue he could think of to meet women: bars, discos, singles groups, personal ads, even folk dancing classes--but girls stared coldly back when he asked for their phone numbers, telling him he was too needy, too emotional, too cerebral.
Then, on a visit to Beverly Hills, he had a divine revelation. He was hovering on the edge of the dance floor in the Beverly Hills Pips discotheque and backgammon club, which was owned by Hefner and real estate broker Stan Herman. Writhing on the floor were the most amazinglicious women. And all of them were dancing with guys who were 20, 30, even 40 years older.
Then it hit him. Women love movies where the heroine falls for a penniless painter or writer. But what women really wanted, what they were really after, was not sensitivity, romance or a hard body. No, they were after one thing and one thing only: moolah. They wanted the men who drove up in Rolls Royces, Jaguars, Ferraris and Mercedeses, the men with stock portfolios thicker than the Los Angeles telephone directory.
This revelation did not disgust Norm; it came as a relief. Now he understood the rules; now he knew what he needed to do.
In 1990, Norm registered as a broker and investment advisor and began raising money for hedge funds. His superb grasp of numbers allowed him to take full advantage of the biggest economic boom in American history. By the mid-'90s he was managing more than $159 million and earning average annual returns of 29% and a personal income of more than $9 million a year. He bought a house on Shadow Hill Way off Coldwater Canyon Drive for $1.7 million, and at long last the great drought came to an end.
"After I started to go to strip clubs, my whole relationship with women changed," Norm says. "There is no better way to meet good girls." It was a stripper who inspired him to start Perfect 10. She had tried out for Playboy and been turned down. Norm knew why: She didn't have implants. They'd taken America by storm, and Playboy had begun using more and more silicone-enhanced models. Norm considered it an outrage, this pressuring of young women to deform themselves and put their health at risk for a fashion fad. His admiration for Hefner curdled. "Playboy has damaged many, many women by foisting upon them this vision of ideal beauty," he says.
He decided to turn his anger in a positive direction. The concept of Perfect 10 was born.
He hired photographers and editors, made deals with printers and distributors and recruited young women from top modeling agencies. How much did it cost him? That depends on what day you talk to Norm. He told Los Angeles magazine that he sank $1.8 million into the first issue, then later he told U.S. News & World Report that he had invested $2.8 million.
Today he claims to have invested more than $20 million in Perfect 10 since its inception. (Norm's claim that the magazine has a circulation of 100,000 seems suspect, considering it's difficult to find on many newsstands.) Whatever he's spending, it's a sweet little write-off, and one that provides many ancillary benefits. Such as having a former Playboy Playmate show up at his door to audition for a photo spread. The memory of it causes him to erupt in a high-pitched cackle.
Of course, the capstone was the Perfect 10 Mansion, which he built in 1997 on seven acres at the top of San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Park, one the world's most exclusive subdivisions. His neighbors include Vanna White, Magic Johnson, Roseanne Barr, Rod Stewart and Sylvester Stallone. The other homes are traditional European in style--Tuscan villas and French country manors. Norm chose something radically different: a 16,000-square-foot postmodern bone-white modular mansion with 25-foot ceilings and glass walls in rooms that look out on lawns, a pool, tennis courts, a heated waterfall and the surrounding hills. It's the antithesis of Hef's moldy old English castle.
To enter the house, you must drive through a stainless-steel gate that looks like the pod bay door of an intergalactic starship, then walk across a slab of cement to a monolith of beveled glass that serves as the front door. As you approach, the door swings open automatically. Norm greets you with a Perfect 10 girl at his side. She wears long brown hair, khaki combat pants and a long sweatshirt. Norm's in his usual uniform of a black buttoned-down shirt and black pants, with one flourish: a pair of peach-colored loafers. He leads the way into the hollow rooms, footsteps echoing, and comes to a stop outside a glass-walled transom that leads to another wing, where a camera crew is busy with a Perfect 10 shoot. Crew members wander past with pieces of equipment and the vexed expressions of those under a deadline.
A photographer approaches Norm with some Polaroids, which serve as a rough sketch of the portrait. "Yeah. I like the outfit and I like the look," Norm says. "I like the makeup." The photographer hustles off.
Blond, olive-skinned Nickie Yager passes through in jeans and a simple pullover. "So I'm seeing you tonight, OK?" Norm calls out.
"Yeah," she says, flashing a smile. "Seven."
Later, Amber Rangel wanders in, carrying several postal packages. She has dark brown hair and wears tight slacks and a T-shirt, but no shoes. Norm's eyes fasten on her painted toes. "Look at my little Amber's feet."
"I don't like my feet."
"You have the most beautiful feet in the world."
She giggles. "Thank you."
"I mean, anybody who has feet that cute has to be a nice person. No, seriously, there is not a mean molecule in that body."
Giggle. "Thank you."
"Monika Zsibrita had these feet that were all kind of shmushed together and I never liked her feet at all, and sure enough . . ."
This is a more in-depth exploration than Amber feels comfortable with. She picks up the packages. "Have to go mail these suckers."
"OK, babe," Norm smiles. "Have a good weekend."
He sighs dreamily, then reflects on his newfound ease with les femmes. "I have a confidence now. I'm confident that I'm gonna do OK . . . I think I have a much better understanding of what turns women on and what worries them. I'm in a position now where they're at my mercy. They're calling me; I'm not calling them. It's not that I'm playing hard to get. I'm just too busy to almost care, and that's attractive to girls."
So is the fact that Norm offers them financial aid. How many is he actually supporting? "Probably about seven . . . actually eight that I'm supporting right now. Some are Perfect 10 models, some are not. I give them enough money to live because they are not making it with whatever they are doing."
Norm Zadeh has achieved what so many men have wished for, and yet a worm wriggles in the apple. He's still bedeviled by the world beyond these bleached-white walls, a world that refuses to recognize his accomplishments, to finally accept and approve of him. People continue to betray and say mean things about Norm, and it cuts him to the quick. The latest articles in Forbes and Barron's, for instance. The Forbes reporter called him a porn peddler. A porn peddler! When he doesn't even do the kind of graphic stuff that Playboy, let alone Penthouse and Hustler, smear all over their pages. "I'll show them pornography," he bitterly vows, "if they want to go on some of these Web sites . . . that's pornography!"
What really galls him is the way the Barron's writer played amateur psychologist, trying to imply that something in Norm's childhood warped his relationships with women! Outrageous!
Norm seems sincerely unaware of how he circles back to childhood traumas again and again in his nonstop stream-of-conscious monologues, all but drawing giant yellow arrows to follow. The other subject that Norm circles back to is Hef. And he circles back now, launching into a wrathful denunciation of his former idol that seems a little out of proportion with his alleged crimes.
He points out that Hefner admitted to experimenting with bisexuality in the context of group sex in the '60s and '70s. "That's a long time to experiment with guys if you're surrounded by beautiful girls," Norm says with glee. "I personally think that Playboy is a scam, it's a facade. He doesn't really like women; he actually likes men. The reason I say that is because he has done many things to degrade women."
As you walk back through the airplane hangar of a house toward the front door, Norm falls quiet. "I did not intend to build the house this big," he says at last. "I wanted like eight to 10,000 square feet, but [the homeowners' association] wouldn't let me because they were afraid it would diminish the look of Beverly Park. It just kept growing and growing. I live here all alone. I feel lonely a lot . . . ."
He sighs and shrugs. "Still, it's nice to have money so you can enjoy life." And then in a confidential tone: "I just built it for my dad. Just to tick him off."
His angry laughter echoes through the great chamber.