BEHIND THE SCENES
When Prince Made a Chambermaid His Queen For a Day
In 1986, a young motel chambermaid won an MTV dream date with Prince in her tiny Wyoming hometown. On TV, it seemed like a fairy tale. Behind the scenes, coke-fueled chaos reigned.
On a muggy summer morning in Big Sky Country 30 years ago, Prince Charming stepped out of a private Learjet and into a fairytale. Except in this case, His Royal Highness really was Prince—as in multiplatinum-selling pop-rock sensation Prince. “Act your age, mama, not your shoe size”-vintage Prince. All around sexy motherfucker Prince, who at the peak of his global superstardom in 1986, journeyed to Sheridan, Wyoming (population at that time: 10,369) to premiere the black-and-white musical romance he directed and in which he stars, Under the Cherry Moon.
Circumstance rather than choice had brought the five-foot-three sex symbol to this frontier town where African-Americans comprise less than one percent of the population and cattle outnumber people by more than two to one. As part of a minutely choreographed Cinderella scenario—really, a promotional campaign by MTV and Prince’s music label/movie studio Warner Bros.—the performer had come to whisk a shy, curly-haired motel chambermaid named Lisa Barber off her feet in front of a national televised audience.
Barber, then 20, had been the lucky 10,000th caller in MTV’s Win a Date With Prince contest. As such, she was entitled to 500 tickets to the screening which she could distribute at will (plus VIP access to an intimate after-party concert). And more crucially, Barber bore almost sole responsibility for the star’s appearance in the Cowboy State that June day. “Prince, the Revolution and the cast will arrive in your hometown for the worldwide premiere of his long awaited new movie,” an MTV commercial announced.
Awaiting him on the airport tarmac were Martha Quinn, MTV’s most effervescent on-air personality, Sheridan mayor Max DeBolt, a phalanx of press photographers, Miss Wyoming Teen USA and—in aviator sunglasses and a denim mini-skirt—Prince’s junior publicist Robyn Riggs.
Asked his first impressions of the place, the shy superstar replied: “Purple.” It was an implicit shout out to his breakthrough album and 1984 movie smash Purple Rain, against which Cherry Moon would soon be measured none too favorably.
Then Prince smiled. And in his tiny Cuban-heel boots, he took off sprinting toward a throng of screaming fans behind a chainlink fence. Cameras captured him impulsively hurling his custom made double-breasted suit jacket to the crowd of 700, whipping them into a frenzy. Then he departed in a chauffeur-driven limousine that had been imported from Billings, Montana (Sheridan had coal mines galore but no limo inventory of its own). “I thought, ‘Man, I can’t believe we’re in this town,’” recalls Robbie Paster, the performer’s personal valet at the time. “Prince might’ve rolled his eyes. All of us were rolling our eyes—and laughing. This was the biggest thing to hit Sheridan, Wyoming, like, ever.”
But unlike the tidy wish-fulfillment fantasy being sold to Prince’s fans on basic cable, his journey to this cradle of Caucasity in the country’s least populous state was far more complicated—and with wider ranging consequences—than it seemed: a culture clash between small-town America and Big Media, yielding a mutual exploitation that would help shape the performer’s career prospects for years afterward. “It was Bye Bye Birdie on acid,” former MTV CEO Doug Herzog noted on his Tumblr page. “You could not have written it better. Sheridan is big sky/cowboy country. They do not see a lot of small black men in high heels, make up and purple jump suits out that way.”
And getting Barber ready for her MTV close-up turned into a week-long My Fair Lady-like ordeal. Orchestrated by Riggs—an unsung Pygmalion of Purpleness whose spin doctoring ultimately prevented the fairytale from turning into a nightmare, and whose key role in the contest proceedings has never been made public until now—the Wyoming wallflower’s makeover involved a team of out-of-state fashion and beauty gurus as well as a crash course in public locution. Not least in Riggs’ responsibilities: suppressing the fact that Barber preferred heavy metal headbangers like Motley Crue and Ratt to Prince and the Revolution.
In “Kiss,” the No. 1 hit from the Cherry Moon soundtrack Parade, he sings, “You don’t have to be rich to be my girl/You don’t have to be cool to rule my world.” And although the song was recorded months before Prince ever set foot in this blip on the Wyoming map, the song’s lyrics eerily presage the artist’s interface with Barber. Viewed a certain way, she did rule his world for one July day, in the same one-horse town where Kenny Rogers had filmed the TV western Wild Horses a year earlier.
For her part, the Wyoming native now looks back on her Win a Date ordeal as a pivotal experience. She’ll be the first to tell you Prince changed her life, helping her to open up and “feel more at ease” about herself.
In the months since Prince’s death from an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl at age 57, fans have channeled their grief into an unending stream of social media serenades and memorial concerts. Bruno Mars’ blazing rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy,” for one, arrived as a standout performance at the Grammys last month, coinciding with a new deal from the Prince estate to finally release all 25 of the singer-songwriter’s albums as well as a trove of vault material on streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music.
But at a moment when Prince’s passing is no longer a fresh wound, yet his departure from “this thing called life” still manages to strain the boundaries of belief, a look back at the showman’s deep fan connection—or more precisely his connection with Barber, this one not quite fan turned eternal torch-bearer—shines a new light on the transformative power of Prince in his prime.
In ways both profound and ridiculous, his arrival in Sheridan mirrored Prince’s overall mid-‘80s impact: challenging social mores, breaking down racial barriers and providing a jolt of sexual electricity where none had existed before. “I really loved him,” Barber told People magazine in April, just days after he died. “I’ve never married. And I guess it’s because Prince never came back. There will never be another like him.”
The fairytale begins on Jun. 20, 1986, with Barber—living in a two-room apartment fashioned from a garage behind her mother’s 76-foot-long trailer—settling in to drink a few after-work beers with a friend and watch some MTV.
Over the channel’s brief half-decade in existence, Music Television had evolved into a taste-making showcase for neon-hued videos and pop music. In an era dominated by such acts as Journey and Phil Collins, Prince helped shatter MTV’s unofficial color barrier, joining Michael Jackson as one of a scant few African-American artists receiving regular airplay.
Purple Rain played a big part in that. Shot for $7 million, the quasi-autobiographical rock-drama generated critical raves and took in $70 million over its domestic theatrical run to qualify as a sleeper blockbuster. Its soundtrack, meanwhile, spent a staggering 36 weeks on the pop charts, spawning the smash singles “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” as well as landing an Oscar for best original score.
In a larger cultural sense, however, Prince’s double-barreled breakthrough established the transgressive performer as a bona fide movie star. And Warner Bros. was quick to green-light a follow-up film.
Having already defied the odds by transmuting his appeal from stage to screen, Prince now had a blank check from Hollywood to deliver what it hoped would be Purple Rain 2. Instead, he went on to conjure what movie critic Roger Ebert called “a real disappointment” on the film review program At the Movies. “The film insults our intelligence,” added the show’s co-host Gene Siskel. “And really, it insults the intelligence that Prince showed us he has in his debut.”
Cherry Moon’s slim plot follows Prince’s gigolo character as he falls in love with a poor little rich girl (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas) on the French Riviera before trying to go legit. Emboldened by Purple Rain’s success, the star became tyrannical about creative decision making and “reportedly refused Warner Bros.’ calls for more conflict in the script, insisting ambiance and music would entertain audiences,” according to the book Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks by Ronin Ro.
The production turned into a shit show with Prince firing two directors—music video ace Mary Lambert and Purple Rain helmer Albert Magnoli—to assume the job himself despite never having directed before. “It was just a fucking disaster,” recalls Robyn Riggs, who worked as Prince’s spokeswoman for five years throughout his mid-’80s heyday. “Warner Bros. Pictures knew it. Warner Bros. Records knew it. [Prince’s managers] Steve Fargnoli and Joseph Ruffalo knew it. We all knew it. The only one who didn’t know it was going to be a flop was Prince.”
Mark Canton, Warner Bros.’ president of production, oversaw the release of all three of Prince’s scripted movies (Graffiti Bridge came out in 1990). And to hear the former studio executive explain it, MTV’s Win a Date contest aimed to galvanize fans through an inversion of the usual premiere process—with the star and his entourage trucking in to wherever the winner lived for the premiere rather than vice versa.
“The movie was not destined to be a classic like Purple Rain,” says Canton. “But it still was the follow up and there was a lot of anticipation. So someone had this idea of, ‘Let’s do this contest and the chips will fall wherever.’”
Keenly aware another hit would solidify his reputation as “a screen phenomenon”—and that its failure would reframe Purple Rain as just a flash in the pan—Prince’s managers and Warner Bros. executives drew up battle plans. There would be no preview screenings of Cherry Moon (before social media, such a roll-out would effectively quarantine negative word of mouth until after opening weekend). And Prince could be relied upon to do precisely zero pre-publicity.
Sitting in her bedroom—plastered with posters and cut-outs of Motley Crue, Van Halen and Tom Cruise—Barber remained unaware of that media meta-narrative. Although the Sheridan Center Motor Inn chambermaid did know her way around contests, having previously called in to claim such radio prizes as a curling iron, a couple of McDonald’s Big Macs and a Rick Springfield concert ticket. Barber dialed MTV four times that evening more to pass the time than out of affection for His Royal Badness. And on her fourth try, she was greeted by the voice of MTV VJ Alan Hunter.
“I thought I would just try,” Barber says with a shrug. “Someone got on the phone and said, ‘You’re the 10,000th caller.”
Two thousand miles to the east, Riggs set aside concern for her highest-profile client to blow off a little steam. More specifically, the 25-year-old junior publicist at the Howard Bloom Organization went out for a long night in New York City, taking in a performance by Ratt at the legendary church-turned-hard rock/disco club the Limelight. “I was out partying my ass off,” Riggs says. “We were going to find out tomorrow where the premiere was going to be and who won. So I snorted cocaine all night. And I just went straight to work in the morning.”
A natural-born connector standing 5-foot-and-a-quarter-inch tall, with a purposeful walk and self-described “big ‘80s hair,” the Pennsylvania native had only recently wrested control of Prince’s account from another, more recalcitrant senior publicist through pluck and sheer determination. And Riggs was living a version of the dream that has always made Manhattan a beacon to young strivers—VIP-access laminates, rubbing elbows with greatness, big city nights—when she stumbled into the office and scanned a copy of USA Today. With mild interest, she read the Win a Date winner hailed from nowheresville Wyoming.
Then with increasing panic, Riggs registered Barber’s lack of fan appreciation. “They asked her, ’Oh, are you a big Prince fan?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s OK. But I really like Motley Crue! I hope I get to meet Tommy Lee,’” the publicist remembers. “And my phone started to ring.”
According to Roberta Cruger, MTV’s director of talent relations at the time, the Motley Crue comment was nearly a deal-breaker. “When the Warner Bros. film people heard that, they wanted to cancel the contest,” she recalled.
Suffice it to say Barber was not the kind of winner on whom Prince’s managers had pinned their hopes: an MTV-appointed Cinderella whose “meh” response to her Prince Charming had real potential to kill business. Left unchecked, they reasoned, Barber’s lack of enthusiasm could dampen audience appetite for the movie and depress album sales.
With Prince’s senior management focused on his career big picture and the performer himself content to maintain a “no comment” policy toward all interviews since 1982, Riggs had developed a reputation as his de facto mouthpiece as well as something of a fixer. So without being asked, Riggs booked a flight to the nearest commercial air strip (in Billings, Montana), planning to drive in to Sheridan and implement crisis control.
Next, she called to introduce herself to Barber, quickly ascertaining some key information. The contest winner’s cassette tape collection included all of Prince’s albums but her real passion was hard rock. She had no boyfriend. And in addition to being clearly overwhelmed by the interview and premiere ticket requests already pouring in, Barber’s formal education ended at age 14 when she had dropped out of school. “I said, ‘From this point forward, Lisa, stop answering the phone and don’t talk to anyone. I’m going to help you get through this,’” says Riggs.
On the way to the airport, the publicist stopped by her own apartment: “to throw all my dirty clothes in a suitcase.” Then en route—11 days earlier than planned—Riggs made one final detour. “I stopped at my dealer’s house and picked up an eight ball,” Riggs recalls, using the slang for an eighth of an ounce of cocaine. Operating without sleep, she reasoned she would need all the energy she could get. “I had to pull off the road a couple of times on the way from Billings to Sheridan, pull out a CD case,” she continues. “There’s dust blowing all around me. I had a map trying to figure out where the fuck I am. It just got me into town—on a wing and a prayer and an eight ball.”
Pulling in around 7:30 that evening, Riggs told Barber to meet her at the local Holiday Inn and bring a change of clothes. Barber would be staying with Riggs, they were going “get together over a couple of six packs,” and talk. Still, the publicist’s initial impression of the 10,000th caller left little doubt she had her work cut out. “She was sitting there in a black and red checked flannel shirt. She’s the sweetest person in the world—but she didn’t have a clue,” says Riggs. “There was no way I was putting her in front of a camera or letting any journalist talk to her unless I was present. Because she couldn’t talk about Motley Crue anymore. I had to explain to her why that was important.”
That week, calls from would-be premiere goers continued to tie up the phone line the chambermaid shared with her mother, Elena Holwegner. Some attempted a “Who’s your buddy?” approach to cajole tickets. Others concocted elaborate sob stories. “This gal was crying up a storm. She was from North Carolina and said that she had five days to live and that her dying wish was to see Prince,” Holwegner recalled in USA Today. “I told her she was out of luck, the premiere was six days away. She said maybe she could hold out another day.”
For Barber—described by friends as shy but also occasionally “withdrawn”—the onslaught of butt kissing was an entirely new experience. But especially with Riggs running interference, it wasn’t altogether unflattering. “Heck, I’ve even got relatives now that I never even knew I had before,” Barber told Riggs, adding later to Bloomington, Illinois’ The Pantagraph: “I don’t know 500 people. I might be able to find 200 and MTV said they would give 300 tickets away on the radio.” (Barber initially answered a few questions for this article via email but later declined to be interviewed “out of sensitivity for Prince.”)
The local Chamber of Commerce became a communications headquarters processing hundreds of Prince-related inquiries and calls. News crews from ABC’s Good Morning America and as far away as Salt Lake City flooded into Sheridan. As did reporters from Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Time, even the Junior High School Times, all looking to chronicle this Wyoming wallflower turned queen for a day.
Meanwhile, other members of Prince’s advance team began trickling into town. Karen Krattinger, the singer’s tour production coordinator/executive assistant (and Riggs’ best friend), booked every room at the Holiday Inn. She had to meet His Purpleness’ exacting specifications—during the filming of Cherry Moon in France, for instance, Prince demanded a piano be crane-lifted into his hotel room—as well as the arrival of his three-dozen deep entourage (which included band members, security, wardrobe and makeup personnel and a personal chef). “He had a lot of people that could change anything that could be changed,” recalls Krattinger.
Next came a convoy of 18-wheelers trucking in Prince’s musical equipment and staging for the premiere as well as a boat-like ‘64 Buick Wildcat the star owned—the same convertible in which his playboy character can be seen zooming around in Under the Cherry Moon.
By several accounts, Prince had no trepidation about being a gender-bending multi-racial fish out of water in Big Horn Country. “He didn’t care,” Revolution member Lisa Coleman is quoted as saying in the 2016 biography Prince: The Man and His Music. “He was like, ‘We’re gonna rock Sheridan.’”
Adds Warner Bros.’ Canton: “He wasn’t an elitist.”
But by appearances, Prince was aware the trip to Sheridan—a town with 22 “saloons” where local bands like Ironhorse and the Powder River Boys usually ruled the roost—represented a pivot toward the mainstream, a partial retreat from the hard-edged sexuality of earlier musical efforts such as “Head” and Dirty Mind.
As the town girded for Prince’s arrival, local ranchers contemplated naming their cows after the star and employees at a neighborhood saddlery jokingly offered to outfit him with a 10-gallon hat. Mayor DeBolt had no qualms about playing up the “hick town” angle on MTV. “We are agriculture, we are cowboys, we are the west. We are the site of the bloodiest Indian war in American history,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Still, not everyone was delighted to be bathing in the Purple Rain. “Some of the locals were OK but most of them were leery,” says Riggs. “A man that wears makeup? They thought he was a freak.”
As one local rancher told People magazine: “This town’s known for fishing lures. We don’t care about no boy who wears tight pants and struts around like a woman.”
Barber, meanwhile, continued adapting to Riggs’ Henry Higgins tutelage. In interview after interview conducted at the Golden Steer Steakhouse (where the contest winner’s divorced parents worked: Barber’s mom as a waitress and her dad as head cook), she stuck to her talking points—always with Riggs at her elbow, nudging and finessing the conversation in a Prince-friendly direction.
The two women could have hardly been more dissimilar: one the fast-talking, gimlet-eyed epitome of ‘80s hipsterdom; the other, a naif who had barely ventured beyond the Wyoming border. But a genuine rapport began to develop between them. In particular, Barber milked Riggs for personal details about the hard-partying members of Ratt, former clients whose sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll transgressions the junior publicist had helped bury time and again.
And in quieter moments, Riggs gave Barber her first makeover. “She’d never had makeup touch her. She would blink and jump when I would touch the brush to her face,” says Riggs. “I’d say, Lisa, trust me! Then I’d make her look in the mirror. And I’d say, See? And she’d say, ‘Well, that looks nice. But I don’t want to look all trampy, made up!’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t do that to you.’ I curled her hair and she looked pretty. She’d never had her hair done before. I took her measurements. I called the wardrobe people. I said, ‘We need to get her some clothes.’”
What had begun as a kind of exercise in existential bewilderment on both their parts gave way to trust. “I was like Pygmalion,” Riggs continues. “And she was digging it. She started to feel the moment.”
The day before the premiere, Prince finally touched down in Sheridan. As Riggs saw it, the finish was within reach. All she had to do was ensure the star picked up Barber while the cameras rolled and her mission was basically accomplished.
But at 2 a.m. the night before the premiere, Prince’s co-manager Steve Fargnoli called up with a flip of the script that would effectively nullify her efforts. “‘Little change of plans for tomorrow,’” Riggs recalled Fargnoli saying (he died in 2001). “‘Prince is going to send the girl with the band in the van and he’s going to drive the Buick by himself.’ I said, ‘No Steven, he can’t do that!’ Then he hung up on me.”
The publicist was no stranger to Prince’s capricious nature as well as dealing with his crisis PR (such as when the singer’s bodyguard punched a photographer around the recording of the charity single “We Are the World”). She knew the star was publicity shy. Prince hadn’t yet met Barber so neither ill will or bad vibes could have factored into his decision. So Riggs surmised that Prince was simply following his bliss—and hadn’t thought through backing out of his prescribed part in a marketing campaign that had already sunk a reported $750,000 into Sheridan’s troubled local economy.
At the same time, Riggs knew cancelling the fantasy date would almost certainly sour public opinion against His Royal Badness at a moment when Cherry Moon needed all the help it could get. “The media would have destroyed him for that,” she says.
After a moment of stunned silence, she picked up one of the three phone lines she’d had installed in her hotel room and called Rob Friedman, the vice president of Warner Bros. movie marketing, who was also staying in the hotel. Roused from a deep slumber, he came up to her room “with bed head, scratching his chest hair going, ‘What the fuck!’” then, informed of the situation, picked up the phone to Prince’s manager.
“‘Steven, here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to get with your client, you’re going to tell him that he’s going to take this girl AS HIS DATE. If he does not do that, then I’m going to haul Warner Bros. out of here. And all of our promotional dollars are going home. Fuck you. Tell the kid he’s got to take her as his date or I’m leaving in the morning,’” Riggs remembers Friedman saying. (Friedman, who stepped down as co-chair of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group in September, declined an interview request for this story). “Robbie sat there for a minute. Then he goes, ‘That’s what I thought. I’m going back to bed now.’ Hangs up. ‘Prince is gonna take her to the movie. G’night Robyn!’”
Jul. 1, 1986: Inside the cottage behind her mother’s wood-paneled mobile home, the contest winner’s makeover was nearly complete. Prince’s wardrobe department had procured a silky black-and-white outfit designed to match the decor at the movie premiere afterparty—a big upgrade from Barber’s K-Mart wardrobe. His staff makeup artist Robyn Lynch attended to the 20-year-old’s facial landscape. And Prince’s personal hairdresser Earl Jones blew-dry and hair-sprayed Barber’s mousy tresses into a textbook ‘80s bouffant. She tried not to bite her nails.
Pulling up 15 minutes late, Prince hopped out of his convertible with a bouquet in hand, vaulted over a low chain-link fence surrounding the mobile home and knocked on Barber’s door. “Hello. My name is Prince,” he said, kissing her hand theatrically. “Ready to have a good time?”
As the sun began to dip over Bighorn National Forest, His Royal Badness hopped behind the wheel of the Buick, threw an arm around the awe-struck Barber and set off for the town’s main commercial artery. To get there, the couple joined a procession of limousines, following the hooves of the Equestri-Annettes, a nine-woman horseback team attired in matching red riding coats with MTV bumper stickers affixed to their backs.
Prince did his best to mitigate the situation’s awkwardness, cracking jokes in the car, complementing the scenery and asking Barber about her favorite radio station. At the precise moment he tuned to it on the FM dial, a DJ happened to be talking about Under the Cherry Moon. Prince wanted to call in but, of course, in a pre-cellular era that was impossible.
On Main Street, a banner welcoming Prince to Sheridan had been “lassoed down” and stolen, according to local press reports. Members of the Revolution and Cherry Moon co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Sallet pulled up to the premiere in vintage Packards and Chryslers. As Barber and Prince arrived on scene, they threaded a gauntlet of some 2,000 screaming well-wishers surging behind police barricades. And on the red carpet, the couple joined a higgledy-piggledy celebrity throng including Rosanna Arquette, “Ghostbusters” singer Ray Parker Jr., Playboy centerfold Devin DeVasquez and Sheila E.
“Couldn’t be better!” gushed Scott Thomas, then 26, absent the icy hauteur on which she would later forge a career.
Wearing a rhinestone-studded trench coat and midriff-bearing shirt, Prince took the fuss in stride. “Purple—that’s all I can say,” he told a reporter, reprising his stock interview response. Barber seemed paralyzed by the attention and at an almost total loss for words. Still, the made-for-TV optics were just about perfect.
Riggs was wearing an eye-popping sequin gown and took in the spectacle seated alongside Friedman in the back of a limousine. The studio executive grew unexpectedly wistful. “‘Do you ever feel bad about stuff like this?’” the publicist recalls him saying. “Tomorrow we’re all gonna pull out of here. And she’s gonna go back to being a cleaning lady in a hotel.’”
“I said, ‘Well, she’s had a great time. She’s got makeup and free clothes,’” Riggs continues. “He said, ‘We’re pimping out this girl.’ It hit me hard. I had never thought about it that way.”
Inside the Centennial Twin Theater—into which Prince’s hero and musical muse Joni Mitchell had slipped unnoticed by the world press corps—the performer’s father John L. Nelson mingled with attendees including a full contingent of Hollywood movie executives in matching wardrobe. “We all wore something purple because we all were in our Purple Rain glory,” Canton recalls.
As the lights dimmed, Prince placed a chaste arm around Barber’s shoulders and played with her hair a little bit during the movie.
All in all, the mercurial composer of songs such as “Jack U Off” and the incest-themed “Sister” performed his Prince Charming role to a T, behaving like a perfect gentleman and displaying a kind of old-world courtliness toward Barber. “I was proud of him that he treated her with respect and kindness,” says Krattinger.
By the time Barber was tasked with introducing the star onstage for MTV later that night, she had taken to calling him “my friend Prince.” And he, in turn, reverted to his default setting of flirty physicality. On camera, the showman could be seen whispering in Barber’s ear, and at one point, he playfully snatched a faux pearl necklace from around her neck, swapping it later for his own gold cross necklace and earrings.
With the movie over, a smaller audience of just 500 headed to the Holiday Inn for an afterparty where they were treated to a smorgasbord of shrimp, crab, roast beef and unlimited complimentary booze—not to mention a private concert by Prince at his absolute performance peak. The decadent dandy could sell out coliseum shows nearly anywhere in the world at that phase in his career. Yet here he was in a high school prom-like setting, amid black and white balloon decorations and silver streamers: a tiny tornado of charisma on a tiny portable stage.
“Yee-haw!” Prince exclaimed on the microphone. “Alright you cowboys, put your hands like this.”
Dressed in a white tone-on-tone Zoot suit ensemble, he fell into the splits and sprang up from the floor like a toy on springs. And before an audience that included the 35-year-old housewife who had caught his custom-made suit jacket back at the airport, Prince led the Revolution through early hits including “Raspberry Beret,” “Delirious,” “Controversy” and “Purple Rain.”
MTV, of course, managed to amplify the spectacle while diminishing the ballroom’s space limitations. “It was so silly, because they put the band on risers, but the ceiling was only eight feet high,” the Revolution’s keyboard player/vocalist Lisa Coleman recalled to Billboard magazine.
“[H]is head almost hit the fucking ceiling when he jumped up and down,” added MTV producer Joe Davola.
A brief 45 minutes later, the music was finished. For all the pomp and circumstance of their arrival, Prince and Barber departed in separate cars: a Cinderella-at-midnight moment the TV cameras failed to record.
Almost immediately afterward, however, the performer’s perfectionist streak—coupled with his repulsion toward intoxication in any form—resulted in an ugly argument with Revolution guitarist/vocalist Wendy Melvoin. “That night I had a huge blowout with Prince,” she recalled. “I was at the bar having a beer with Joni Mitchell. An interviewer came up to me and the next day in some paper, it said: ‘Wendy from Prince and the Revolution answering blah blah blah while nursing a Budweiser.’”
Added Coleman: “Prince read that and got really pissed off. He was worried, like, ‘What if kids read this and think it’s cool to drink beer?’ At this point, Prince was very caught up in becoming the kind of mainstream star that even grandmas loved, and he felt that this didn’t fit that image. And so he fined Wendy. Docked her pay.”
That beer at the Holiday Inn’s Brass Banjo Bar turned out to be the beginning of the end for Prince’s most famous backing band. In October—just three months shy of the Sheridan gig—he fired Melvoin and Coleman, along with drummer Bobby Z. And the Revolution was no more.
Meanwhile, the Win a Date contest had run its course after having consumed and bewildered the townsfolk for more than a week. “It wouldn’t have been the same if it had been in a bigger place—like, say, Duluth—because you really couldn’t take over the town like this has,” Bobby Z noted in the Star and Tribune.
Exhausted yet still high on adrenaline after the concert, Riggs planned to celebrate by smoking an enormous joint in Krattinger’s room, secure in the knowledge Prince had gone off to hang out with Joni Mitchell in another part of the hotel. “I sat down on the bed and started to roll one up when there’s a knock at the door,” remembers Riggs. “I say to Karen, ‘What kind of fresh hell is coming next?’ I took the weed, stuffed it under my behind on the bed.”
“There was this little hallway before you got into the room,” says Krattinger. “I’m trying to motion to Robyn with my eyes and point my thumb without him seeing. ‘Um, somebody’s behind me!’”
As both of them knew, cigarette smoking was a fireable offense while marijuana, in Prince’s view, ranked as a cardinal sin. “She comes around that corner and her eyes are as big as quarters,” Riggs says. “And behind her is Prince! In a royal blue suit, a cream-colored shirt and a little navy blue tie. I’m sitting on weed, three seconds from firing one up. I say, ‘What’s up?’”
“‘I just came here because I wanted to thank you—you did an excellent job,’” she remembers Prince saying. “‘I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart.’ I couldn’t stand up because I had dope underneath my ass.”
Riggs continues: “I just look up and go, ‘Great!’ And he leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. Then he spun around on his heels and back down the hall he went. I looked at Karen like, ‘What the fuck!’”
“I worked for this man for three years and I had never seen him say thank you to anyone,” Krattinger says.
Before leaving Sheridan, Prince offered to fly Barber and a friend to see him perform in Denver the following night. But after absorbing Under the Cherry Moon’s early reviews—and in particular, the scathingly personal critiques of his performance—Prince’s Prince Charming shtick could no longer be sustained. “[H]is movie is anarchistic, self-indulgent and monumentally self-obsessed,” opined a critic in The Washington Post. Entertainment Weekly was even less merciful: “He engages in much mock-effeminate vamping, scampers around the French Riviera in outfits that would have humbled Liberace, and grants himself the most melodramatic death scene since Camille.”
“You could see his disappointment,” says Krattinger. “He was not used to that.”
This fairytale ends with Barber backstage at Denver’s McNichols Arena, still dressed in the silky black and white outfit she had worn to the movie premiere, searching for her previous night’s Dream Date to no avail.
“She said, ‘He left?’ Yes. He left,” Riggs recalls of their conversation.
“I wanted to say goodbye,” Barber said. “Well, he’s a little upset right now,” Riggs replied. “So this is pretty much it.”
But according to those in Barber’s orbit, the contest winner had already been ineluctably changed by her brush with His Royal Badness. For weeks afterward, the premiere remained the talk of the town. Barber rode in a local rodeo parade where she was applauded for attracting so much attention—and Big Media marketing money—to Sheridan. And friends and co-workers began to remark upon her newfound confidence and physicality. “She’ll never be the same,” Helen Austin, the housekeeping supervisor at the Sheridan Center Motor Inn, told the Star Tribune. “Before, she was shy, polite and a loner. Now she’s out to touch everybody.”
Riggs promised to keep in touch and she and Barber have remained in intermittent contact ever since.
Back in New York, the publicist’s Win a Date efficacy went on to earn Riggs a $100 a week raise and and a new title: senior account executive. More importantly, Riggs won props inside the Warner Bros. C-suite. “You were totally cool under pressure and delivered at every turn,” Friedman wrote her in a letter dated Jul. 3, 1986 and cc’ed to all Prince’s managers. “You were a welcome addition to the team and can play ball with us at Warners any time.”
By contrast, Prince’s matinee idol-dom perished under the avalanche of negative write-ups. Reportedly costing around $12 million to produce, Cherry Moon took in just $10 million at the box office: an unmitigated flop. In turn, the artist threw himself into performing and recording music starting with 1986’s Hit n Run—Parade Tour (his first with new backing band the New Power Generation), carrying into what some fans consider his creative magnum opus: the 1987 double album Sign o’ the Times.
In the end, Barber went back to the working-class life from which she had come. She lives in the same trailer to this day.
When Prince died last April, Barber found herself frequently in tears, listening to Purple Rain—her favorite album—and fondly looking over the autographed photo of her and His Purple Majesty circa 1986. Turns out the residual effect of being queen for a day can last a lifetime.