Tuesday, 9 October 2012

"Right from the start, I was with all the best people"

We at Dolores Delargo Towers have always worshipped the wonderful Régine - irrepressible nightclub impresario, society hostess, singer, dancer, showgirl and gay icon. I have - inevitably - featured her over at Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle before (here and here); but she is overdue her own place in the Museum of Camp, methinks...

For your delectation, here are some extracts from a magnificently camp tribute to the lady herself by Naomi West in Elle magazine last April, on the eve of Régine's appearance as Solange LaFitte in Stephen Sondheim's Follies in Washington DC:
Jet-set chronicler Robin Leach once remarked that reporting from Paris [in the mid-70s] was a breeze: "You'd just go to Régine's every night and wait for the princesses to file in."

In their day, the clubs operated by indomitable proprietress Régine Zylberberg (known simply as Régine) were peerless after-dark destinations. "She quite simply invented nightclubbing," Karl Lagerfeld has said. Now 81, the woman who helmed 23 clubs in locations from Kuala Lumpur to Rio claims to have little interest in reliving her decades as "Queen of the Night," as she was once christened by the New York Post. Still, as she sits comfortably beneath the red crystal chandelier in her apartment behind Paris' Hôtel Plaza Athénée, glitzy recollections spill out in lively broken English. There was the time in 1976 when guest of honor Mick Jagger was refused entry to the newly opened New York Régine's for wearing sneakers and no tie. The time John Wayne came to the original Paris location during the making of The Longest Day: "He said to me: `You are the Régine?'" The time she danced all night with Gene Kelly, then spent the next 15 days with him. "Yes, we had private relations," she confirms in her throaty purr.

In a loose, dun-color Jean Paul Gaultier sweater, with no visible makeup, her signature red locks an unbrushed thicket, Régine presides regally over her objets brash and beautiful: a one-off Régine Barbie doll, dressed in turquoise and gold lamé; an enormous leonine-haired portrait of her, painted by the wife of actor Daniel Cauchy. Fresh from eight days of early bedtimes at a strict spa in the Tyrol ("To lose weight, I have to pay," she says), she does not look her age. This is partly due to plastic surgery, to which she has freely admitted, partly to lifestyle (she's a lifelong non-drinker and non­-smoker), partly to attitude. "For me, to have 81 years is very young," she says. "When I have good health and good energy, there's no reason to stop." Indeed, she has no intention of doing any such thing. Though her portfolio of clubs is down to one, in Kazakhstan, which opened in 2007, she remains a consultant to the still-hip Paris Régine's on the Rue de Ponthieu, where she puts in guest appearances.

Richard Mortimer, the club promoter behind the roving London bacchanals BoomBox and Ponystep - where the average attendee is some 24 years old - recalls, "When I ran my party in Paris, she came down one night. The whole place was saying, `Régine's here, Régine's here! How did you get Régine?' She wants to be involved, to know everything that's going on."

The fetes kicked off in 1953, when 23-year-old Régine took a job as a hat-check girl at Whisky à Gogo, one of Paris' first popular postwar clubs. The entertaining, curvy redhead was promptly dispatched to a neighboring restaurant to attract its playboy clientele, including Prince Aly Khan and Guy and Edmond de Rothschild. "Right from the start," she says, "I was with all the best people."

Fed up with brokenhearted lovers playing the same record five times in a row, she recalls, "I take off the jukebox and I put two machines together and I was the first disc jockey." Suddenly, the Whisky clientele was dancing to records rather than live bands or the jukebox - and, to hear her tell it, the Disco was born.

With the financial backing of the Rothschilds, she opened the first Chez Régine on rue du Four in 1957. It was a simple basement club next to the restaurant La Pergola; unable to afford banquettes, she decorated with park benches. For three months before it opened, she placed a sign outside nightly that read "Disco full" - a trick the party crowd couldn't resist. "In the boring 1950s, it was the only funny place in Paris," declares Lagerfeld. "It was the place to be. I was there every night and often went directly [from there] to work at Balmain, where I was an assistant then."

The draw was Régine herself, exuberantly clad in Madame Grès or, later, Saint Laurent, teaching her guests the hula-hoop, the cha-cha, the merengue. She tangoed with Charlie Chaplin and showed the Duke of Windsor how to do the twist. "She was a devilish dancer!" photographer Jean-Paul Goude has said.

"What made the club different was her, this very bubbly, tiny, welcoming woman buzzing around," says British interior designer Nicky Haslam, who cohosted the opening of her short-lived London club with a ball for Andy Warhol. "She was quite strong meat, not at all bland." Hugh Allen, manager of New York's El Morocco, another legendary venue, put it memorably in Newsweek: "She also has four of what most men only have two of."

Actor and aristocrat José Luis de Villalonga once dubbed the Paris Régine's "a leper colony for the overprivileged." Nowhere else would you see Salvador Dalí, Françoise Sagan, Brigitte Bardot, Maria Callas, and Yves Saint Laurent mixing with visiting Hollywood luminaries such as Audrey Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, and Ava Gardner. As Régine puts it, with a shrug: "People with no names come to see people with names." But she insists that her crowd did not only comprise those who could afford the membership fees - which hit the $1,000-per-year mark in the 1980s - and the exorbitant drink prices. She says she also introduced new blood, including the then-unknown Lagerfeld - as long as the candidates had sufficient personality. "I was generous," she declares. "If people have no money, that's not important. The people who have money have to share with the ones who have not - if they are amusing."

Today, as countless scented candles flicker on her coffee table, she attempts to pinpoint the essence of her success. "I have a big instinct. I am very quick to judge," she says. Suddenly one feels, with a shiver, what it must have been like to stand on the wrong side of Chez Régine's infamous peephole. "It's easy to know who you put in the VIP [area] and who you put in the Sibérie," she says, giving a low laugh. "Some people ask me, `Why am I in the Sibérie?' And I say, `Because it's your place.'"
Regine is indeed a remarkable woman, and to add Broadway to her list of achievements when most people would be planning their comfortable retirement is impressive.

I do wish Follies had crossed the pond...

Régine Zylberberg (born 26th December 1929)


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