She could easily have passed for a member of Junior League in her proper pink Chanel suit, Chanel flowers, Chanel chains and Chanel bag.
But this was no Junior Leaguer; it was Liza Minnelli, and she was working the room, so to speak. The "room" was the cosmetics department at Robinson's, Beverly Hills, where the entertainer made her department store debut on behalf of Metropolis, the new Estee Lauder men's cologne. Minnelli signed a one-year contract for an undisclosed fee with the cosmetics company last fall.
For precisely one hour ("just the amount of time a person can smile and talk to customers," an Estee Lauder executive explained), Minnelli, barricaded by a phalanx of security guards, sat behind a table adorned with white flowers and signed a stack of 8-by-10 glossies for a stream of fans.
She even seemed to enjoy it. "They usually say they like your work and they appreciate your whole family," she said afterward.
Before being whisked off to Chicago, which would be followed by Houston and Dallas, where she would do more fragrance promotion in time for Father's Day, Minnelli asked her assistant to search the store for flannel nightgowns ("that thin flannel"). Then she tried to explain why she was doing what she was doing.
The celebrity perfume connection is a strange thing, she conceded.
"It is startling until you think about it," she said, lighting a cigarette. "Isn't it basically people in the perfume business going to a celebrity to help them sell it? So then it makes sense, because it means money. It's very American, isn't it? It's so American, I like it actually." She laughed.
Indeed, celebrity is one concept the daughter of the late Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland understands well. She grew up with the glow of the klieg lights and learned to accept them.
"You go to Europe and they have royalty and we don't, but we made up for it," she explained. "We invented the original American art form--the movies--and its stars became our national treasures." She is comfortable with her notoriety, she said, "because I understand it. And I have no choice whatsoever."
So when Estee Lauder personally called her and said: "I want the energy and the life of the city and I want you to help me," she quickly said yes.
"I've known Mrs. Lauder since I was 18," Minnelli said. "We met in the south of France at a party. She's been kind of like family to me. I so admire her. She's what America means to me in a certain way. In a sea of men, there's this terrific lady who started in her kitchen and grabbed life by the shoulders and marched right on."
Minnelli said she hopes her contract will be renewed at the end of the year. Although her Metropolis television commercial has already aired, she has yet to pose for print ads to be photographed by Victor Skrebneski.
The singer said she would have declined Lauder's offer, however, had she been asked to promote a woman's scent.
"There's too much competition. It seems like the market is just swimming with them. Elizabeth's perfume had just come out," she added, referring to Elizabeth Taylor's Passion. In fact, some fragrance companies have offered her the opportunity to release her own signature scent, but she isn't tempted. "Maybe in 20 years. Not right now. There are some other things to do.'
The Success Angle
You might say what "Wall Street" is to movies, Metropolis is to cologne. It is portrayed in promotional literature not in terms of sex appeal or virility but as possessing "the irresistible possibility of success." The words competition, ambition and power appear in the company's rather unpoetic press release.
"Good cologne on men is wonderful," Minnelli said. "Wearing it shows they've put forth an effort for a woman. I think it counts."
She recalls that her father always wore Caleche, and she associates her mother with the scents Je Reviens and Jolie Madame. Her husband, sculptor Mark Gero, wears Metropolis. "I say that truthfully," she smiled.
Minnelli--who claims she wears Lauder's White Linen herself--doesn't go in much for the pampering treatment. Her look--the short spikey hair, long heavy lashes and red lips--has never really changed.
"I've got a weird face," she allowed. "I've tried to change, but it doesn't suit me. It's almost like I'm too busy to worry about the mirror."
At 42, she doesn't have time to visit spas and, when she's not working, wears minimal makeup. But she does swear by Retin-A, the anti-wrinkle drug.
"Oh it's wonderful. I started using it three years ago. People keep saying, 'Your skin looks so pretty,' and it helps. And I drink a lot of water. I think the best thing you can do is stay clean, in all senses."
And she doesn't just mean her pores. Four years ago, Minnelli went public when she was treated for Valium dependency at the Betty Ford Center. When Minnelli heard that her friend, designer Calvin Klein, announced he was checking into a drug and rehabilitation center and credited her and Elizabeth Taylor as inspiration, she said: "I feel great. I'm extremely proud of him for telling other people, because he can help many people.
"The public thinks that people like Calvin and myself are untouchable, that they have no problems. They do have problems. My problems are just as mundane as anyone's in this store, anyone's (anywhere). The feelings are the same, the facts are different."