The ‘Follies’ women: ‘I am a special specimen,’ says Regine


Regine at the Kennedy Center. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 3, 2011

Fourth in a week-long series profiling the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim stars

When the asteroid Kardashian crashed into the planet, the notion of pure celebrity became extinct. Since then, there’s been no quick-and-dirty way to measure true renown, true longevity, true fabulosity in the hierarchy of female fame. No way except for one: the ability to reach and retain first-name-only status.

Cher, for example. Also, Madonna. And Oprah, Hillary, Bjork and Beyonce. Lindsay (Lohan) is trying, and failing.

It is the realm of few, and rarely these days is Regine classified among them — even though, in 1953, she chucked the jukebox in her tiny subterranean Parisian club and replaced it with two turntables, thereby inventing the first discotheque and starting an evolution that enabled Studio 54 and spawned temples to disco, house and hip-hop.

Going dancing this weekend at some fancy club with a brand-name DJ?

Regine calls herself the first DJ. Thank her for the idea.

This may be a grandiose estimation of her nightlife legacy, but grandiosity is her art form. She is, after all, the “Queen of the Night.” The woman who taught the Twist to Sophia Loren and the Duke of Windsor. The singer who Frenchified “I Will Survive.” The discriminating hostess to Andy Warhol, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Brigitte Bardot. The onetime empress of a worldwide circuit of nearly two dozen clubs.

“I am a special specimen,” says Regine, 81, skinning the paper wrapping off a straw. She’s settled in an armchair under a flock of white-orchid blossoms in the Chinese Lounge of the Kennedy Center, midway through a day’s rehearsal for “Follies,” in which she plays the fashionable Solange La Fitte.

Her lips are plump and cushy, like a miniature version of a plush banquette on which Mick Jagger would’ve sat at her New York club at the Delmonico Hotel in the ’70s. Her voice is sibilant, seductive, almost guttural, but warmed by a syrupy French accent that gums up her English grammar.

“There is not two Regines,” Regine explains, on a tangent about the Perfect Night Out. “There will never be. The young people like to be with me because I am funny, I am crazy, I go dancing, I am out every night. There’s a few people with the joie de vivre, the generosity — they come in the room and immediately the room go crazy. That I am.”

The perfect night out, she says, requires bold-face names who mingle, amusing young upstarts who aspire, and a masterful hostess who nudges them toward each other.

Born Regine Zylberberg in Belgium, she waited out World War II in a French convent, then waited tables at her father’s cafe in Belleville, then took over the cellarlike Whisky a Gogo in 1953 in Paris. She opened her first Chez Regine club in 1958 and set the gold standard for exclusive partying. The empire spread over three continents. It was a nonstop party of the privileged through the ’60s and ’70s.

Times and tastes changed. Just two clubs still bear her name — one in Paris and one in the capital of Kazakhstan — and she plans to perform at the latter in six months. She’s hoping her 22-year-old granddaughter will eventually star in a musical based on her life, maybe titled “The Duchess of Chutzpah.” She’s planning a big event in Paris in the next two years, but won’t say exactly what it is.

“I don’t stop,” Regine says. “I’m immortal. You know — like the vampire.”

Her solo number in “Follies” is “Ah! Paris,” a globe-trotting ode to fine living, with lyrics that always boomerang back to the majesty of France.

Which is fitting. Regine was relaxing in St-Tropez when she was offered “Follies.” After a lifetime of running her own show, Regine decided it was time to join an ensemble. She’s never thought of herself as a smart businesswoman anyway.

“I think the money has to be spent,” she says. “It’s what I’m doing. I’m a sickness buyer. What we call that? It’s a term. I have to buy everything.”

A shopoholic?

“Yes,” she says. “I don’t care. I’m in Chanel? I buy Chanel.”

For a shopaholic, she is remarkably unadorned, save for a single ring crusted with diamonds that belonged to her mother. Hidden under the ring is a thin, tarnished silver band — a gift from the designer Diane von Furstenberg, who frequented her club in Paris when she was in her 20s, Regine says.

That’s all. Accouterments are extraneous.

“I do not need it,” she says, pattering out of the lounge, back to rehearsal. “I am a jewelry by myself.”

More from The Post’s series profiling the Sondheim stars:

Bernadette Peters: Pairing up again with Sondheim

Elaine Paige: ‘Still Here,’ in ‘Follies’

Jan Maxwell: Her ‘Follies’ philosophy? Bring it on

Regine: Bringing grandiosity to ‘Follies’

Linda Lavin: At 73, still a Broadway baby

Terri White: ‘Who’s That Woman?’

Rosalind Elias: A celebrated mezzo-soprano

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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