Interview With The Vamp
Morgan Fairchild transformed herself from a shy Dallas girl to the evil queen of eighties trash TV. Now she’s the dastardly diva of a new daytime soap, and we’re happy to report: The bitch is back!
Here she comes, straight down the middle of the sidewalk on New York’s Columbus Avenue, her body wrapped in a faux leopard coat and her feet in heels high enough to give normal women a nosebleed. Only five feet four inches tall and maybe a hundred pounds, with hair like spun sugar and a little rump about the size of a grown man’s hand, Morgan Fairchild is such a spectacle that even the most jaded New Yorkers stop dead in their tracks to take her in.
“Oh, honey, thank you,” she purrs as I open the door for her at an Italian restaurant. She takes a seat by the window. People outside pretend to study the menu posted by the front door so they can keep staring at her. When the waiter arrives, Fairchild lifts her pointy nose, lowers her eyelids halfway over her pale blue eyes, and gives the waiter her world-famous look—the one that is simultaneously bone chilling and sexually thrilling. Trust me on this. If you are a male, and you are the recipient of “the look,” you don’t know if she’s going to slit your throat or drag you off to bed.
“I’ll have a Coca-Cola,” says Fairchild. “With a straw.”
The waiter just stares at her. I stare at her. Half of New York seems to be staring at her, which is baffling, because this is exactly the kind of woman New Yorkers are supposed to despise: a high-maintenance blonde, a glitzy glamour queen, a television actress who looks as if she came from—yikes!—Dallas, that city of hair spray and pink Escada outfits.
Dallas, of course, is exactly where she came from. In the same way that Sissy Spacek of Quitman reminds us of every small-town Texas sweetheart we have ever known and Farrah Fawcett of Corpus Christi has been our symbol of the wholesomely sexy campus beauty queen, 46-year-old Morgan Fairchild has spent almost three decades representing the chic, dangerous vixen from the city.
After being introduced to the American public in the early seventies as the college-student-turned-murderess Jennifer Pace Phillips on CBS’s daytime soap Search for Tomorrow, Fairchild has played a variety of high-class vamps and tramps, sirens and supershrews, trollops and hot tomatoes. In the eighties you couldn’t turn on a prime-time soap without seeing her staring coldly at a rival or getting undressed with another woman’s husband. And just when you thought television was moving on to a new generation of Melrose Place-style hussies, Fairchild made a splashy return, accepting a million-dollar offer from ABC to appear as media mogul Sydney Chase on a new daytime soap, The City, which premiered earlier this year. In the promo for the show, she is seen stepping out of a helicopter as the announcer says, “Give us your poor, your tired, your wretched,” to which Fairchild, dressed in all-white Versace, snaps, “And please get them out of my way.”
So far, her work on The City has landed her some of the best reviews of her career. The New York Times called her “smart, gorgeous, and of course venomous if need be.” The review added that she had created a character in Sydney Chase who was likely to become “a heroine for the Contract With America crowd.” With her dazzling collection of underwear, Fairchild can still play a sex kitten better than women half her age. But there is no doubt that her most significant contribution to American acting is her ability to act like a bitch. You know the kind of woman I’m talking about—haughty, conniving, and completely self-absorbed. In other words, those certain women you always find around the most exclusive shopping areas of Dallas and Houston.
“A bitch?” says Fairchild, pulling her pursed lips slowly away from her straw. “Oh, I never view the characters I play as mere bitches. I view them as, well, complicated.”
You see, she understands this woman better than the rest of us. In the world according to Fairchild, the bitch is an unappreciated species who looks dangerous because she refuses to be victimized. She also can see right through manipulative adversaries, especially men, in a way a “good” woman cannot. “There’s a certain feminist approach in bitchiness,” Fairchild explains in a thoughtful deconstruction of the genre. “If she gets kicked, she’s going to kick right back.”
When Fairchild was growing up in the Lake Highlands section of East Dallas, she gave no hint that she could ever master the role that would turn her into such an enduring small-screen diva. She was the daughter of a Texas Instruments engineer and a high school English teacher. Her real name was Patsy McLenny, and she was so chubby in elementary school that classmates called her Fatsy Patsy. In the fifth grade, when she was too shy to read her book report out loud, her mother took her to acting classes to help improve her confidence.
By high school, Patsy was getting regular work at a Dallas theater company called Theatre Three. Most important, she slimmed down, blossoming into a beauty with a lion’s mane of blond hair. She did some modeling (she soaked in a Lucite bathtub for a Neiman Marcus catalog), and she was Faye Dunaway’s stand-in during the filming of Bonnie and Clyde. By then, she had already recognized that she had this innate ability to stir men’s fantasies. Warren Beatty, who played Clyde, took her to lunch and to dinner (“But never to bed,” she said in one interview).
At seventeen, Patsy married a Dallas music promoter. But the brief marriage was such a disaster that she wanted not only to change her life and get as far away from Dallas as she could but also to change her name. Soon, Morgan Fairchild arrived in New York, where the writers of Search for Tomorrow gave her the opportunity to kill her lover’s wife. By 1977 she was off to Hollywood to further her career. She was immediately cast as the villainous sister in a television movie called The Initiation of Sarah. A disappointed Fairchild told the producer, Charles Fries, that she wanted to play the nice sister.
“Let me explain something to you,” Fries told Fairchild. “I can get an ingenue anywhere. But a good bitch is hard to find.”
The movie was a hit, and Fairchild was on her way to the Prime Time Prima Donna Hall of Fame. “I’ve been told it was either my pointy nose or my slit-eyed look,” she says. “But for whatever reason, everyone cheerfully told me that I looked like a bitch. And all this time I thought I looked like a cheerleader.”
In 1981 Fairchild was cast in NBC’s Flamingo Road as Constance Weldon Carlyle, a lawyer who spent the entire season doing dastardly things to her adulterous husband, who had married her for her money. Fairchild was so in tune with her character that she began bringing her own teddies from home to wear on the show—her version, apparently, of Method acting. “Constance was always flouncing around having a hissy fit about something,” she says.
Okay, Meryl Streep she was not. But Fairchild was so convincing as a steamy seductress that Donald Wildmon, the Moral Majority’s television critic, called Flamingo Road “the rottenest show on TV.” She later starred as a ruthless but foxy modeling agent in Paper Dolls and then as a foxy but ruthless attorney in Falcon Crest. While it became commonplace for professional women everywhere to roll their eyes at the sight or mention of Fairchild—I remember Dallas women saying she had done nothing but give Dallas blondes a bad name—there were plenty of women who secretly loved watching her. Through her television shows, she also let them try on the spiteful, catfighting personality to see if they liked the fit.
Almost everyone who meets Fairchild away from the camera is shocked that she is not the character she always plays, which is perhaps the ultimate compliment to her talent. Even though she unashamedly poses for photographs in fishnet hose and black bustiers, she is not a vamp constantly on the prowl. She has spent nearly a decade with one beau, silver-haired film producer Mark Seiler. She makes a point of being considerate of others: After dinner, she stops to ask her doorman about his head cold. She doesn’t smoke or drink and she says she has never taken a puff of marijuana. In a comment that is certain to someday land her in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Fairchild leans toward me and says, “I’m about as Baptist as you get in Hollywood.”
In the mid-eighties Fairchild made changes in her public image. She became an AIDS activist and a fundraiser for liberal Dem-ocratic causes. She was so impressive on a Nightline episode about AIDS that the producers invited her back. She says CNN’s Crossfire repeatedly tried to get her to debate Charlton Heston, one of the film industry’s most outspoken conservatives. “I told them I had no desire to participate in celebrity mud wrestling,” she says. Still she continues to have an impact on American politics—or at least her hair does. Three years ago, when the hair-impaired Hillary Clinton was in Los Angeles, it was recommended that she visit the celebrity stylist Cristophe. It so happened that Cristophe had just given Fairchild, his longtime client, a new, shorter haircut—and when the first lady arrived, he decided to give the same cut to her. “Here I was, believing I had this new, dangerous look,” Fairchild says, “and suddenly Hillary’s got it.” She sighs. “So much for danger.”
In the past few years, Fairchild has received favorable press for her amusing guest shots on such network sitcoms as Cybill and Friends. She admits she would love to have her own comedy series, but for now, with The City, Fairchild is playing her signature role, a woman with too much money and too little love. Pat Fili-Krushel, the head of ABC’s daytime division, once said, “When you hear ‘Morgan Fairchild,’ you know what you’re getting. She is a business.” Indeed, ABC basically wrote her a fat check and gave her a dressing room. She brought everything else, including nineteen trunks from Los Angeles filled with her finest size 2 designer outfits, everything from Gucci to Thierry Mugler. “I know I am here to be glamorous,” she says. Although a makeup person and a hair stylist are available to help her primp, she tends to do most of it herself. On the day I’m with her on the set of The City at the ABC studios on West Sixty-sixth Street, she takes two hours to apply makeup and fix her hair, which is back to its longer, feathery length.
“You do this every day before you go on camera?” I ask.
“Well, of course,” she says icily, making me realize I have asked a very stupid question.
By the time she is finished studying herself in the mirror, Fairchild has turned into Sydney Chase—beautiful, distant, and disdainful. She’s in complete control, dependent on no one. She’s about to leave the dressing room, but suddenly she turns to stare again at the mirror. It is as if she can sense the slightest imperfection. She touches a couple of frosted strands and says, “There, now my hair is not too nesty.”
The truth is that The City has yet to make its mark as a great soap opera. Many of the show’s characters were originally seen in another ABC soap opera, Loving, which was set in a small Pennsylvania town. But after years of bad ratings, the producers, in a stroke of either brilliant or deranged inspiration, had a serial killer terrorize the town, knocking off most of the characters. Those who were left moved to a building in the SoHo area of New York, which is owned by—ta-da!—Sydney Chase. According to the impossible-to-follow story line, Sydney was a poor college student in love with a bearded musician, until she was swept away by a media titan named Jared Chase. They married, and then he died, leaving her in charge of the empire. But then it’s discovered that he hasn’t really died, and he comes back to divorce Sydney, and then Sydney learns that her adopted son just might be her real son, who she thought had been stillborn, and so on and so on.
Fairchild clearly loves her new role. After years of playing what she calls “campy, over-the-top eighties bitches,” she says Sydney Chase is the first great television bitch of the nineties. “She’s not one-dimensional, and she’s not pampered by men, which is what characterized all the eighties bitch roles,” Fairchild says. “This character has worked hard and she’s smart and, while she’s maybe not the warmest person on television, she’s got a vulnerable side to her that I think is important.” Fairchild understands this kind of character so thoroughly that she ad-libs during filming. In one episode she was only supposed to smile when her former bearded musician lover, back in bed with her, says, “Nothing can be better than this.” But Fairchild raised her pencil-thin eyebrows and added sardonically, “Oh, no, there’s all these pieces of furniture we haven’t tried yet.” The line was left in. “Believe me, there’s a greatness in what she does,” says Catherine Hickland, another blond actress, who plays Fairchild’s rival on The City. “Every time she walks onto the set, you are drawn to her. You want to see what she’ll do next.”
And here she comes now, in a fire-engine red dress and matching high heels, glancing quickly at her script, tossing it aside, and then taking her place on the set beside the man playing her husband, actor Joel Fabiani. In this scene, they are at a party, swapping insults. He asks her what she wants from him.
“Aside from having you off the planet, not a solitary thing,” she says.
Later, she hands him a drink and tells him he’s lucky that she hasn’t added a cyanide capsule to it. “You think you’ve backed me into a corner, that I’m a little desperate now,” she says to her husband. “And maybe I am. But desperate people can do desperate things.”
These are, without question, some of the worst lines I’ve ever heard in my life, and I’m a little embarrassed for Fairchild. Give the woman something better to say, I want to shout. She’s a national treasure. She’s the bitch supreme.
But Fairchild is not finished. After her speech, she lowers her eyelids. An enigmatic Mona Lisa smile plays across her lips. Then she opens her lips slightly and gives the actor…the look.
The actor just stares at her. I stare at her. Beside me, all the stagehands are staring at her. “Tomorrow she’s supposed to scream and throw food,” one of the stagehands whispers to me. “God, I can’t wait to see that.”