IN THE BACK SEAT OF MY RENTAL CAR, FARRAH FAWCETT began taking off her clothes. “You’re not going to look, are you?” she said, giggling like a teenager.
“Oh, no,” I replied from the driver’s seat.
“I bet you can see me through those little side mirrors,” she said, her words nearly muffled by the sound of zippers and the rustle of cotton.
“Oh, no,” I said, my fingers involuntarily clenching the steering wheel. “Oh, no, no, no.”
It was early evening in Los Angeles—the setting sun was spreading across the sky like a great cracked egg—and there I was, chauffeuring around the ultimate Texas bombshell and the foremost sex symbol of my youth. I had no idea where we were going; all she would say was that she wanted to take me on an adventure. “Get ready,” James Orr, who directed her in the 1995 comedy Man of the House, had warned me. “She is charming beyond comprehension. She’ll completely take control of you.” “I don’t know what it is about her,” added her best friend, Nacogdoches native Alana Stewart, the ex-wife of George Hamilton and Rod Stewart. “But she still has this ability to make all of you guys simply giddy.”
Of all the great beauties who’ve come out of Texas, Farrah Fawcett stands in a class of her own—even at fifty, a milestone she reaches the first week of February. She remains so much a fixture in the public imagination that all you have to do is mention her first name and everyone knows who you’re talking about. By all rights, she should be the kind of nostalgia-addled celebrity who is the answer to a trivia question: Other than a single season on the TV show Charlie’s Angels back in 1976, her claims to fame have been, more or less in order, a poster she posed for in a bathing suit; a smattering of made-for-TV movies; a disastrous sitcom, Good Sports, that also starred her longtime boyfriend, Ryan O’Neal; and a few, well, estimable feature films. Yet her mystique only seems to grow. The December 1995 Playboy, which featured recent topless photos of Farrah, was one of the magazine’s biggest selling issues ever. As recently as last November, the august New York Times declared that Farrah had the most famous hair of the seventies—and maybe of all time: “Her feathered, high-lighted, layered phenomenon was a work of art that looked as if it had just come out of the sea and had been tossed by the wind into a state of careless perfection. Farrah hair was emblematic of women in the first stage of liberation—strong, confident and joyous—before the reality of mortgage payments and single parenthood set in.”
What was that again? Careless perfection? First stage of liberation? What is it about Farrah that robs just about everyone of his senses? And why does she remain such a force in American pop culture? The haircut worn by Friends star Jennifer Aniston was all the rage for exactly one TV season, whereas in malls and small towns across America, you still find women with Farrah hair. And why do men continue to be haunted by her allure? Last fall, at a party at the Governor’s Mansion following a University of Texas football game, I started asking about Farrah. Within minutes, there were eight guys around me swapping stories. When I mentioned that I was going to see her, their mouths dropped open like choirboys hitting high notes.
Actually, when I flew to Los Angeles, I wasn’t sure that I would get the chance to spend more than a few minutes with her. Her publicists—efficient women all, with voices frosty enough to chill the air—had advised me that Farrah was quite busy but perhaps would have time to meet me for a drink. They instructed me to check into the romantic Hotel Bel-Air, where rooms start at $325 a night. If time permitted, I was told, she would descend from her mansion, which is hidden in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, and grant me an audience at the hotel’s bar. Farrah has given few interviews in the past decade, and even then she speaks in only the vaguest terms about her life, including her fifteen-year relationship with O’Neal and their son, Redmond, who is now eleven. Personally and professionally, she prefers to stay out of the spotlight. Although TV executives beg her to act in their networks’ movies—a few years ago, when NBC president Warren Littlefield read a script he thought Farrah would like, he drove to her house and hand delivered it—she sometimes takes off nearly two years at a time.
Hollywood, of course, doesn’t quite know how to regard such an enigma, and the tabloids constantly suggest that dark things are taking place in her life. They’ve printed unconfirmed rumors that O’Neal beats her. They’ve published photos purporting to show horrific cottage-cheeselike lumps on her legs. They’ve alleged that she is a demanding diva who once spent $3,700 a week on a movie set for hair conditioner. “What’s amazing to me is that, after all her years of being famous here, very few people know much about her,” said her agent, Todd Harris of the William Morris Agency. “It’s almost as if no one can ever get past that hair and that smile. If only people knew what she was really like.”
As I sat in my hotel room, waiting for Farrah’s call, I doubted I would get to find out. She is always cautious around strangers, I had been told. She’ll never open up to a reporter. Then, at around four-thirty, the phone rang. “Oh, hi,” she cooed in a dovelike voice. She was in her car. “I’m headed that way.”
To understand the particularly singular nature of Farrah’s fame, consider her in context. She came of age in the mid-seventies, one of the silliest periods in American cultural history—it was the era of the Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever, WIN (“Whip Inflation Now”) buttons, and in 1976,