“Staar is on hiatus,” actress Leslie Zemeckis—the other half of Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis ( Forrest Gump, The Polar Express)—purred as she slipped into a leather, circular booth at Gordon Ramsay’s West Hollywood restaurant in the London Hotel.
Staar is Zemeckis’ alter-ego and the subject of her one-woman burlesque show (think Cabaret but with more boas and men in thongs) that she’s been producing for several years now. She’s a Mae West-style performer whose signature torch song is “You’ve Gotta Have Boobs,” and she inspired, but does not appear in, Zemeckis’ new documentary Behind the Burly Q about the history of burlesque in America. The film, for which Zemeckis and her producing partner Sheri Hellard interviewed dozens of strippers, musicians, and other members of the “burly circuit,” comes out in select theaters on Friday.
It was her husband who first recognized the potential of “You’ve Gotta Have Boobs.”
Zemeckis, a former Cinemax—or, to be precise, Skinemax—mainstay, has Rita Hayworth cheekbones and wavy, coppery hair. She was wearing a leopard print cardigan, skinny black pants, and sizeable rocks on her very manicured fingers. The ensemble fit in perfectly with the room’s South Beach meets Southampton aesthetic (cotton-candy-pink-on-white palette, shimmering gold chandeliers, clapboard ceiling). As she took delicate sips of a skinny cappuccino, she elaborated on her plans for Staar, whom she hopes to grow into a cottage industry.
Already, there’s a Staar website, where you can buy g-strings and tank tops that say “I’d Rather Be a Mistress” (Staar’s catchphrase). A Staar pilot is being shopped around. And a few years ago, there was a Staar mockumentary featuring interviews with Carrie Fisher and Jeffrey Tambor.
Staar was also supposed to be the subject of a book written by Zemeckis due out this year, but that plan has been derailed, at least for now, due to what appear to be rather strange circumstances. According to Drew Nederpelt, of Sterling & Ross Publishers, which was initially planning to publish Staar: How to Live Like a Mistress (and Reap the Rewards!) last February, after several weeks of not hearing back from Zemeckis on email, he received a call from Zemeckis’ Los Angeles attorney in January, saying, “Do you want to make Leslie go away? I can make [the book] go away.”
“It was like the mob,” Nederpelt told The Daily Beast. “I guess that’s Hollywood-speak.”
Soon afterward, Zemeckis filed a $150,000 lawsuit for copyright infringement in what Nederpelt believes is an attempt to get out of the book contract. Sterling & Ross have counter-sued, and so for the time being, Staar is, indeed, on hiatus.
Nederpelt surmised that the reason for the change of heart was that Zemeckis’ husband, one of the most high-profile power players in the film business, did not like the idea of a book by his wife that touts the virtues of infidelity, hitting Barnes & Noble.
“It’s a little different if you go up on stage and perform as an alter-ego for 45 minutes than writing 250 pages on how to be a mistress, with your picture all over it,” Nederpelt said, adding that if Sterling & Ross ultimately ends up publishing the book, as he hopes, they will publish it with a sticker reading “The Book She Doesn’t Want You to Read” on the cover.
Leslie Zemeckis said she could not talk about the lawsuit for legal reasons but said that the idea that either she or her husband was against having the book come out was ludicrous, and that the problem had to do with actions by Sterling & Ross. She stressed that she was very intent on having the book come out.
Zemeckis’ attorney said he could not comment on the book lawsuit. And Zemeckis’ publicist, Michelle Bega, did not return several messages left at her office. After my initial meeting with Zemeckis and Hellard, they stopped responding to my emails.
But that day at the London, Zemeckis gushed that “no one is more supportive of Staar than Bob.” She said that he religiously came to all of Staar’s shows and gave her helpful notes on her performances. Bob Zemeckis also helped her edit both the Staar movie and the new documentary. He even set up a screening of Behind the Burly Q earlier that day at CAA, his (and her) agency.
Furthermore, it was her husband who first recognized the potential of “You’ve Gotta Have Boobs.”
“He found the performer [cabaret singer Ruth Wallis],” Zemeckis said in an interview with Filmnut in 2008. “And as soon as I heard that, I’m like, that is a Staar song. Because she says, what do I owe the secret of my success? Boobs, of course!”
A source who has known the Zemeckis’ for several years, said, “Other people around Bob think [his wife’s career is] weird, but he really has been behind her on this. I can’t imagine him killing a book.”
The Staar tract is not Zemeckis’ first attempt to follow in the footsteps of other moguls’ wives who’ve made a name for themselves in the literary realm. Both Gigi Levangie Grazer (über-producer Brian Grazer’s ex) and Cheryl Howard Crew (Mrs. Ron Howard) have published chick-lit titles, inevitably, about wealthy Hollywood wives wrestling with the burdens of boob jobs and Botox. A few years ago, Gawker reported on a 400-page manuscript by Leslie ( Walking the Red) that was making the rounds, but the book—about a 24-year-old heiress, who considered a “good day” doing “$8,000 damage” at Neiman Marcus—failed to find a publisher.
But after Zemeckis, or, rather, Staar, penned an essay on the benefits of mistressdom in the Huffington Post in November of 2008, Nederpelt smelled a book idea, and flew out to discuss it with Zemeckis, whom he met at the Ivy.
Ironically, the Zemeckis’ reputation is for being decidedly un-Hollywood (and un-Staar-like). The couple lives with their kids well away from the city, in the tony enclave of Santa Barbara. And Bob Zemeckis, who’s shy and geeky by nature, is hardly a red-carpet or Spago regular. Aside from trips to Tuscany, where they have a villa, and Aspen, Leslie Zemeckis claimed their lives were perfectly ordinary and mostly revolved around their kids, who are all under of the age of 6 and have not been fully briefed on Staar. She said that when her daughter started to pick up on the lyrics of “You’ve Gotta Have Boobs,” she was forced to stop singing it around the house.
Still, the way Zemeckis talks about Staar is in a coy, kittenish way that does not entirely suggest unparallel lives. When she was once asked how different she was from her alter-ego, Zemeckis said demurely: “Oh, we’re close. Very, very close. It’s a little scary how close.”
Publishing contretemps aside, Zemeckis said she has no intention of curbing the growth of the Staar empire. Batting her eyelashes as she looked up from her coffee cup, she smiled a cat-like grin and cooed, “Staar’s alive and well, and will prevail.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.