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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Power and Prestige in a Puff of Smoke

September 29, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Everywhere you turn, it seems, women are smoking cigars. In clubs, on magazine covers, on television, in the movies. Cigar-smoking women have become so prevalent in the popular culture as to render themselves a cliche of the '90s.

A cigar is a sensual pleasure, to be sure, and one that has been known to men forever. But it's not just the smell and taste and feel of a cigar that holds such allure for women. There is something more going on here.

Cigars make a gal feel like a guy. But more than that, they make a gal feel like a guy when he's misbehaving, engaging in just the slightest bad behavior. And more than that, they evoke a certain goofy separatist stance in a woman. They are insincere shorthand for a sentiment that might be expressed like this: Men. Who needs 'em? Not me, I've got my cigar.

For proof, I would offer as Exhibit A the promotional photo for the hit movie "First Wives Club." Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn sit on a pedestal, brandishing stogies.

Then there are the examples from three NBC sitcoms, all of which featured on season openers cigar-toting women in various states of heartbreak or dislocation.

There was "Seinfeld's" Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), her feet on an executive-size desk, a cigar clenched between her teeth, after her boss, the catalog guru, lights out for Burma leaving her in charge and in over her head.

On "Friends," the lovesick Monica (Courteney Cox) nurses a heartache after ditching her boyfriend by caressing and sniffing her ex's abandoned cigar.

And in the new sitcom "Suddenly Susan," a drunken Susan (Brooke Shields) falls off a bar stool, cigar in hand, after abandoning her fiance at the altar.

Finally, for all you highbrows who don't believe it's a cultural phenomenon until the literati say it is, there was last week's New Yorker cover drawing, with a woman looking so lasciviously at her cigar that readers must have wondered exactly what sort of post-prandial activities she had in mind.

Men. Turns out we do need 'em. We just don't want to let them know we need them.

*

At this point, I must pay the obligatory lip service to those who are appalled to be reading about cigars in anything other than a surgeon general's warning. Indeed, the research shows that cigar smokers have a higher incidence than nonsmokers of some of the diseases associated with cigarette smoking, but the levels are far, far below those of cigarette smokers.

And I grant you, it is a detestable experience to sit downwind of a cigar smoker. Now that I have been tutored by an expert in the art of the smoke, all I can say is, the next time I light up a cigar--and there will definitely be a next time--I will take pains to be courteous to anyone who feels defiled by my secondhand smoke.

*

Last week, I lit up a light-bodied Royal Barbados under the guidance of a former screenwriter named Mark Estrin, who runs the cigar shop owned by Wally's Liquor in Westwood. When Estrin took over cigar buying at Wally's, he was selling about $500 a month of product out of a closet-sized humidor. Last summer, he oversaw the opening of the free-standing Cigar Box next door, which is now selling about $80,000 a month in cigars and accessories.

"This is something that's bigger than you and me," Estrin says. "You've never seen anything like the passion these people have for cigars."

Ah c'mon, Mark. How about their passions for ending hunger or achieving world peace?

"Nope."

I wasn't expecting to enjoy the smoke nearly as much as I did. But because I am a creature of commercialism, because I am the kind of person, for instance, who felt sophisticated the first time she smoked a cigarette because that's how I was supposed to feel, a lit cigar between my lips made me feel . . . Trumpish. I wanted to buy and sell a few companies, maybe fire my boss. And I was thirsty for a snifter of something well-aged and expensive.

"I used to think a woman would want something little and mild," Estrin says. "But now she wants something big, something strong."

He paused. I lifted my cigar to my lips, gently puffed and squinted through the smoke at him. I was ensconced in a solid chair. He was crouching at my feet. I felt powerful.

"Holding a cigar in your hand is like holding a scepter," Estrin says, "a magic wand."

I bore that in mind when I got home. I held a cigar and barked a few orders. After getting no response, I made dinner and did the dishes.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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