Fifty-four-year-old Cybill Shepherd is boisterously opinionated, fearlessly outspoken and famously controversial. And the sassy, blonde, Memphis-born star, who first shot to fame in 1971's award-winning film, 'The Last Picture Show,' admits that while many people love her, others simply loathe her. "I've lived with it my whole life!" she says cheerfully.
Two and a half years ago, however, Cybill faced down cancer—a formidable foe, even by her standards. And suddenly, she didn't feel quite so invincible. She was downright terrified when a scaly patch on the back of her shoulder was diagnosed as a potentially deadly, non sun-related cancer so rare that it strikes less than one in five million people.
While surgery successfully removed her tumor and thankfully, the cancer had not spread, it was an awful ordeal. She'll need six-monthly checkups for the rest of her life and it's clear that the physical scar healed faster than the emotional ones. Today, however, Cybill is healthy and vibrant, rehearsing for a cabaret run in London's West End and with other things on her mind. Like looming empty-nest syndrome. Daughter Clementine, 25, recently moved to New York to pursue acting and twins Ariel and Zack are now age sixteen.
Settling into a reclining chair in her Cape Cod-style hillside home near Hollywood to talk to Hello!, she says that the cancer changed her and she is soaking up peace and solitude as never before.
Cybill's sexy image and past romances with notables like Elvis and Don Johnson notwithstanding, there's no man in her life these days. And with no nannies, husbands or live-in lovers to accommodate—only dogs, cats and the twins—Cybill recently downsized her home. She now lives in an invitingly unpretentious hillside house less than half the size of her former mansion. The lounge barely accommodates her grand piano, her office and recording studio joust for space in another room, and her wardrobe doubles as a vocal booth. Yet Cybill is in heaven. Her children, however, took a while to adjust.
"I don't have a tennis court, I have a ping-pong court," she explains, laughing. "I used to call this place the rabbit hutch. But I adore it. I'm happier than I've ever been. I finally have a house that suits me."
The garden is dominated by an enticing, sparkling pool and Cybill enjoys a stunning canyon view.
"It's a great sunset house," she says, explaining that she usually spends evenings alone here. "I rest and I like the silence and I like to watch the sun set and to be with my dogs and quiet. That's one of the blessings of singing: Silence is required to rest your voice. There's a reason why Gandhi did it once a week. It's good to shut up once in a while!"
Although Cybill meditates regularly, the peaceful image only goes so far. Words spill out at an amazing rate and even serious conversation is punctuated by peals of laughter.
She's hardly a total recluse, either, excitedly describing an upcoming Memphis weekend to celebrate her stepfather's 87th birthday. An outdoor fish-fry for 52 family members. (She owns a second, custom-designed house in Memphis.)
Creatively, cabaret is now Cybill's biggest thrill and she will perform her one-woman show at London's Soho Theatre Monday September 27th to Saturday October 9th. 'Cybill Disobedience-How I Survived Beauty Pageants, Elvis, Sex, Bruce Willis, Lies, Marriage, Motherhood, Hollywood & The Irrepressible Urge To Say What I Think…with Music!!!,' is a funny, ever-evolving mix of words and music. She also has a new CD, 'At Home with Cybill,' available via www.cybill.com.
Cybill's cancer scare hasn't been her only challenge in recent years. In 1999, just ten weeks after her TV show 'Cybill' ended after four years on the air, she had a life-threatening intestinal problem. Ultimately, it resolved itself without surgery. But within months, her musician fiancé and beau of 8 years (whose name she now prefers to omit), unceremoniously dumped her.
"A real comeuppance," she says. "I'd been dumped before, I'd had my heart broken before, but never quite like that. I always had a guy waiting in the wings, this time I didn't. I didn't really date or have a lover for a year which has never happened to me in my life."
Then, in November 2000, her beloved father's death from an aortal aneurysm devastated her. "I spent six months where I didn't leave my house, and I had as close to a breakdown as I've ever had," she says.
But it was her cancer that truly changed her life. "When I first heard it was cancer," she says softly, her eyes filling with tears, "that kind of thing, you just can't imagine. Anybody that's had it can imagine. It was so frightening, terrifying. I felt like I'd been knocked down, absolutely flattened.
"I actually went to this place in my mind of, 'Am I going to get to see my children grow up?' I want that more than anything. It was very upsetting. It was very upsetting to them. They were great. But they were horrified and terrified.
"It turns out, I have probably had cancer my whole life. I was born with a tumor there the size of a golf ball," she says, indicating the back of her shoulder, "and they called it a birth defect. It was cut off when I was two weeks old."
At age seventeen, doctors removed a brown mark in the same area that was neither malignant nor benign, just mysterious. Then, late in 2001, Cybill noticed that the area had started to feel scaly. After a quick biopsy, Cybill received an unforgettable telephone call: "My dermatologist said, ''Well, the bad news is, you have an extremely rare form of cancer.Dermofibrosarcomaprotuberance. The good news is it grows very slowly. The bad news is, it tends to return.'"
On the plus side, she did not need chemotherapy and the cancer, while rare, has only a 10 percent mortality rate. Cybill always finds something to laugh about and now it's the comfy adjustable queen-size bed she bought for after the surgery and squeezed into her bedroom alongside her king-size bed.
"It was wall-to-wall bed!" she laughs. "I wanted my children to feel they could be near me. They began periodically just taking turns spending the night with me in my bedroom, which I loved. When you almost lose your mother, it's traumatizing."
Slowly, she told friends about the cancer. For Cybill, "finding out who your friends are" meant learning who would come and really spend time with her. "It's important, I think, when you have cancer and you are alone," she says.
Having cancer also changed her view of plastic surgery for vanity's sake.
"I think that's why I haven't had it yet," she says, "because I've had to have it twice of necessity. (At age six, she almost lost her lip after a run-in with some barbed wire.) This last tumor was the size of a squished baseball. It wasn't attached to my spinal column so I was very blessed. But an incision in your back is incredibly difficult to heal because anything can pull it open."
Afraid to talk about the cancer publicly and still haunted by the idea that she might not live, soon after her surgery, Cybill flew to London for some cabaret dates. Her doctor was not amused but she's convinced the work helped heal her. "You say, 'What's worth doing?'" she explains. "We have limited time. We don't know how long we have! Every day is so precious. My children are so precious. That's why I turn down anything professionally that's not great. I don't ever want to produce and star in a television series again, life is too short. I'm glad I did it though, I'm proud of the work."
Now Cybill's life is more about saying "no" than "yes"—be it to mediocre jobs or mediocre men. She even turns down offers of work on Broadway.
"Why should I do Kiss Me Kate when 10,000 people can do it better?" she asks. "I want to do the things that only I can do. Or I'd rather be with my close friends, with my loving children.
"You know who I do best? Me! I've got better and better. I wouldn't continue doing it if I didn't think I was good at it. I have a grand time with a live audience, I just adore it."
Somehow, she translated her fear of performing live into excitement. "I said, 'Why am I doing this? I don't have to do it for money.' The answer came instantly—because I'm alive. To not do this means I'm dead, that's how important it is."
Much as she would one day like a love relationship, men have never been a lower priority.
"Not many people approach me," she concedes, "and I could be out there more but I'm just not right now. I'm going through a very important kind of change about solitude. With the children at this age you're lucky to grab them and see them."
Her motherly pride is evident when she describes Clementine's starring role in a new independent film, 'Last Goodbye.' "She has one particularly mind-blowing scene with Faye Dunaway," she says. "Clementine is brilliant and beautiful."
Typically realistic, however, she admits that coping with teenagers can have its moments.
"Clementine was the guinea pig," she explains, "And I've already been through this journey into teenage years where they can drive, have boyfriends and girlfriends. It's very challenging to both child and parent but it's also a very special time. I try to become a better mother every day and try to listen more."
At 5' 8" tall, Cybill is a natural athlete and her garage is bursting with family sports equipment.
"Everybody bicycles," she says, "and I have all sizes of wetsuits and four boogie boards and we get in the truck and go to the beach. It's wonderful. Last time we went I saw a dolphin, like 14 feet away."
Suddenly Cybill squeals with delight as her assistant announces that Clementine is on the telephone. "Sorry, I'm screeching but this is so exciting!" she says. "I want to talk to her!" Just as fast, Clementine has gone. Her assistant offers to get her back on the line but Cybill switches into concerned mother mode, shouting: "No! Don't bug her, she's in the car! Oh, cell phones and cars! I am constantly saying, 'Don't talk while you're in the car.'"
Clementine is a beauty but so, of course, was Cybill who became Miss Teenage Memphis in 1966, then a magazine cover girl. Yet she paid a price. Even as a very young woman, she was obsessed with the fear of losing her looks.
"Now I'm not so scared," she says. "Forty was the hardest birthday I've ever had. Fifty wasn't. It was learning to look at myself in a different way, in the way I feel. Looking into my eyes when I'm at the mirror, instead of at the wrinkles.
"I tested my kids. I told Clementine I was thinking of having a facelift, not intending to at all. She said, 'Don't you dare!' She held my face in her hands and said the right thing. But I don't begrudge anybody doing plastic surgery. I'm not against it. And I am not saying I won't do it eventually."
To Cybill, "it's crucial" to have harmonious relationships with her children's respective fathers. She was 28 when, in 1978, she married Clementine's father, David Ford, a Memphis auto parts dealer. They divorced in 1982. She wed second husband, chiropractor Bruce Oppenheim, in l987. Their twins were born seven months later and they divorced after sixteen months. Although the initial split was acrimonious, she and Bruce shared custody and worked through their problems.
"I'm very close to Bruce," she says. "It took a while but it's one of the things I'm most proud of in my life. And I went out of my way to pay to move my first husband out here to L.A. so he could make a living at what he does. He remarried and Clementine has two sisters by his second marriage she's very close to. I did that because I wanted her father to be close."
Cybill's hit series with Bruce Willis, 'Moonlighting,' ran from 1985–1989. Then she had another hit with her 1995 TV comedy 'Cybill,' which ran for four years. She was executive co-producer but never saw a penny of the expected profits.
"I ain't rich compared to the rich people in this country," she says, "But I'm very fortunate. I don't have a private plane or a giant ranch like Bruce Willis, but I'm fine. I've got a house on the Mississippi. I can beat my feet on the Mississippi mud!"
As a product of the segregated south, Cybill's a longtime champion of civil rights issues and women's reproductive health issues. She also has a fierce interest in politics, the main topic of conversation at family dinners.
"This is such a pivotal year in world history for this country," she says, unapologetic about her disdain for George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Her son has worked as an intern for the California Democratic Party and Ariel has marched in Washington with Cybill for women's reproductive health.
Since Cybill's beliefs aren't easily set aside, she generally asks first dates: "Do you believe in a woman's right to choose whether to have a child or not?' Other ways to scare men off? She handed one visiting beau who needed to borrow a toothbrush a spare electric toothbrush head she'd written his name on.
"I swear that ended it! He was terrified!" she cries. "You know, I have learned a few things but I certainly don't know anything about love." She does know that she is more vulnerable than she ever imagined and that casual sex doesn't interest her.
"I tell men that on the first date," she says. "Then they don't believe you and say, 'Oh, I want to know the old Cybill! Oh! I'm too late?"
Cybill may be more reflective but she's still boundlessly creative. With no major film or TV projects coming up, after all her past successes, much as she loves performing cabaret in small venues, can it truly fulfill her?
"I have four movies in the New York Times' 1,000 Best Movies of All Time," she says proudly. "'The Last Picture Show,' 'Daisy Miller,' 'Taxi Driver,' and 'Heartbreak Kid'. And I've had two hit series in which I got to break ground in different ways. Absolutely it fulfills me!"
Hello! magazine, UK, 2004
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