Liza Minnelli

Of course I know her name isn’t pronounced ‘Lisa’. Everyone does. She even had a television show in the 1970s called Liza with a Z. But the moment I learnt that she gets stroppy when people anglicise (or anglicize) her name, that was it: the word-gremlin began its evil work in my brain. I’m not sure what the technical name for this condition is, but it’s that thing that makes you mention the War to Germans, or that happens when you ask a man with enormous, sticking-out ears to pass the salt and instead say, ‘Can you pass the ears, please?’

But this is yet to come. For now I’m waiting in a hotel suite – yellow silk curtains, 18th-century landscape paintings, vases of roses – a few blocks away from where Liza Minnelli lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She is only an hour late, which is pretty unstarry of her, considering. Her fiancé David Gest, a music producer who specialises in multi-star extravaganzas, has phoned, introduced himself as ‘Mr Gest’ and told me that his intended is on her way. I hear a raucous laugh – ‘Hah!’ – in the hallway and, when I open the door, I almost get flattened against a wall as Liza with a Zee barrels in and starts pacing around the room signalling for her entourage of two – there are normally half a dozen – to come in and join us. ‘Hello old boy,’ she barks at me in a mock plummy English accent. ‘I need an ashtray.’ The curtain is up. The performance has begun.

She is wearing black, from her jacket to her high-heeled boots (which make her seem taller than her 5ft 4in). Her spiky hair – ‘I call this my wet hair with toe stuck in electrical socket look, hah!’ – is very black, bottle black indeed, as are her Cleopatra eyeliner, long false eyelashes and thickly drawn-on eyebrows. The blackness of her expressive, bulging eyes, though, is all genuine 100 per cent Liza Minnelli.

She is 56 this month but, apart from a few crow’s-feet and liver spots, she doesn’t look much different from how she looked in 1972 when she first became an international superstar after winning an Oscar for her high-kicking, big-voiced performance in Cabaret. She did look rather different this time last year, though. She was in a wheelchair and, after months of binge-eating junk food, she was five stone heavier than she is now. Having survived three broken marriages, chronic drug and alcohol addiction, rehab, depression, failed comebacks and three miscarriages she had, it seemed, finally hit her lowest point. In May 2000, suffering from arthritis and pneumonia, she had cancelled 14 concert appearances. This followed two hip replacements, three bouts of knee surgery and an operation on her throat. While convalescing she had been rushed back to hospital where she was treated for a life-threatening bout of encephalitis, a viral infection carried by mosquitoes.

Today the only physical intimations of this troubled past are a slight shake in her hand, a crack in her voice and an occasional tendency to make connection jumps and lose the thread of her thoughts in conversation. She is sipping cold, sugary coffee from a giant Starbucks cup; taking agitated drags from a Marlboro Light. ‘Know something?’ she says in a muscular, chewy voice. ‘It’s my last vice.’ She holds up the cigarette, turns up one corner of her pursed mouth and raises an accusing eyebrow. ‘And it’s going within six months. I stopped smoking for a while then I thought I’d have one, then half an hour later I found myself lighting another and I thought, ‘Son of a bitch.'”

She is getting married for the fourth time on Saturday. Does her bridegroom smoke? She widens her eyes. ‘No! Heavens no!’ So that is going to be a bone of contention? ‘I have smoking areas in the house. Yes I do! Hah!’ She touches my shoulder. ‘Marriage is about compromise, honey.’ I imagine she is busy doing all those last-minute things a bride must do: making sure there will be enough vol-au-vents to go round at the reception, ordering the flowers, wondering whether the best man will be bringing his monkey to the service. It is true that Michael Jackson is best man, isn’t it? ‘Well, yes. David grew up with Michael so he knows the family really well. They are partners in business.’ And Whitney Houston will be singing as Minnelli enters the church? ‘Sure.’ Her attendants will include Petula Clarke, Gina Lollobrigida and Martine McCutcheon, but Elizabeth Taylor will be maid of honour, correct? ‘Yes. But Elizabeth can’t bend down – her back is so bad – which I why I asked the others to help.’ Am I right in thinking that since Liza Minnelli’s mother, Judy Garland, died of a drug overdose in 1969, Elizabeth Taylor has been her surrogate mother? ‘Yes. No. She is more like a sister. I met her so many years ago when she was working with my father [the Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli] on Father of the Bride, the first one I mean. And she was nice to me. She loved me.’ From the nursery onwards what was ordinary life for Liza Minnelli would be extraordinary to other people. The first visitor to see her, just hours after she was born, was Frank Sinatra. No‘l Coward, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe were regular guests at her parents’ house. When she was seven, Ella Fitzgerald taught her how to sing ‘Embraceable You’, when she was 11 she made her television debut with Gene Kelly. ‘Yes,’ she says, blowing out smoke. ‘But you must bear in mind that these people were just the neighbours. It was all I knew. Hollywood was much more of a community then. Everyone stuck together. It’s like our wedding. Our friends are coming, that’s all. We’re all in the same business. If you were getting married, wouldn’t you invite journalists?’

No, they’d get drunk and cause trouble. ‘Well, you know what I mean. We’re a clan.’

‘She hasn’t been put off marriage? She didn’t think she should maybe just live with him? ‘But we’ve been doing that. Hah! No, David is so…’ She trails off. ‘It’s so different this time. I really waited. A long time. And I thought I’d never get married again. And he thought he would never get married.’

As did quite a few people. Indeed there was insinuation in the American press that David Gest, who is 46 years old, has a collection of Lalique crystal and hasn’t had a girlfriend since he was 29, might not be the marrying kind. David and she became engaged three months after she appeared on a Michael Jackson special he had organised last summer. Was it love at first sight? ‘No, because we had met each other several times over the years. It was always, ‘Hello Mr Gest,’ ‘Hello Miss Minnelli.’ But for this last show Michael said, ‘I want Liza on it.’ And David was sceptical. David knows every rock and roll act in the world but he didn’t know ‘Liza with a Zee’. So he sent his conductor over and I sang for a while and afterwards I could hear the conductor on the phone to David saying, ‘Yeah, three octaves! I’m telling you, she’s got her voice back. You’ve gotta come down here and hear this.’ So he did.’

David Gest has, it seems, been a good influence on Liza Minnelli. ‘I lost all this weight because David wanted me to. But I also did it because I don’t want to take any medicine. Nothing mood-altering. I have two crushed discs and two rotated vertebrae in my neck. If I’m carrying any extra weight, it hurts. I don’t want to be in any pain. I don’t want to take painkillers. So there’s the inspiration.’

Is she following a particular diet, such as the Hunza? ‘Yeah, it’s called the Hunga Diet. H-u-n-g-a. Hunga! Hah! You get used to eating healthy. I have half a banana for breakfast. Yogurt for lunch and fish and steamed vegetables for dinner. I went to Bob Mackie who is designing my wedding gown and he said: ‘Oh Liza, you look great. Did you have a nip and a tuck? Liposuction?’ And I said, ‘No, darling. Hunga!”

She disapproves of cosmetic surgery? ‘No, I don’t disapprove of it, but it hurts! That’s why I don’t want to do it, it hurts. Some people are more sensitive than others and I get a little claustrophobic with all that stuff.’

Is there anything about herself she would change? Long pause. ‘My attitudes.’ What’s wrong with them? ‘I’m in constant change now every day because I realise I have a choice. I don’t have to be a slave to anything. I have healthy fear.’ She embarks upon a long analogy about being bumped by someone and turning round angrily to find it’s a blind man. ‘Alcoholics and those of us with compulsive-obsessive disease get bumped on the street and I’ve got to turn round and see who it is before I open my mouth because I know the guilt of what I have done will keep revolving in my head.’

Riiight. But even as a recovering compulsive obsessive, she must perhaps feel she has no choice. It is inescapable. Indeed, in her case it has been suggested that her mental and physical problems are genetic. Judy Garland was notorious for her mood swings, her nervous breakdowns, her 23 suicide attempts, her five marriages, her violent weight fluctuations and her various drug addictions. And so far Minnelli seems to have crashed through life repeating the same mistakes her mother made. ‘Honestly, it is not inevitable because of one woman,’ she says in a hazy drawl. ‘It’s inevitable because of my family history on both sides. It skips generations, but it’s there, like cancer, like any other disease, that’s just the way it is.’

So she does think it was inevitable that she would go off the rails? She puts on her serious face. ‘I don’t want to dwell on the past. I like moving forward. But… Here’s something I’ve learnt. Whenever you get two people talking about me the conversation will follow the same pattern. ‘I saw Judy Garland’s kid in an off-Broadway show, I didn’t think she was very good.’ And the other person says, ‘Of course.’ Or it might go: ‘I thought she was terrific.’ ‘Of course.’ Or another conversation: ‘Liza Minnelli is out of the business, she has adopted children, she is working with brain-injured people and she is going to college.’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Did you know Liza Minnelli just jumped out of a window and died?’ ‘But of course.’ Do you see what I’m saying?’

Of course. Whatever she does, people will say it’s inevitable? ‘Yeah, it’s as if I can’t do anything by myself.’ She lies back on the sofa. ‘Look, my momma told me: ‘Give the people what they want, then go get a hamburger.’ Or several. She mentioned her compulsive-obsessiveness, has she turned to a psychiatrist for help with it? ‘I’ve reached out for help to all sorts of people all the way down the line and never kept my mouth shut. You need to know as much as you can about your condition. It’s like you can’t expect to know how to do a Broadway show from watching it. You have to practise.’ She stands up and starts dancing. ‘You have to learn: step, shuffle, tap, shuffle, hop, hop, take it slow. You gotta rehearse.’

And life is a cabaret. Does she think she would have been a successful singer if she hadn’t been Judy Garland’s daughter, in the sense that her trials and tribulations, her traumatic childhood, gave her performances, her torch songs, an added depth and poignancy? ‘I don’t think you can communicate from the stage with people unless you can identify with them, with their suffering. You know, if I am walking down the street, spinning, saying I have to do this, I have to do that, if I just perform a citizen’s arrest and say halt and look around I will inevitably see someone with one leg. Someone suffering so much more than I am. I have high-‘N’ [neuroticism] problems.’ Meaning? ‘I was never in the gutter. Up here [she taps her head] I was, but not in reality.’

But she grew up knowing about financial problems. Judy Garland was often in debt and died owing $4 million. Liza once joked that before she could read or write she learnt how to check out of hotels without paying. True? ‘Yes, well, there’s lots of stories.’ Aren’t there just. ‘Yeah, but it’s not my problem. I know how I grew up.’ She lights another cigarette. ‘It is strange. So many times I’ve been, say, visiting my half-sister on my father’s side, in Mexico where she works with the Church, and I’ve read that I’m drunk somewhere in some club and I’ve just thought, ‘Hello?’ And I’ve just kept on doing what I was doing, washing the dishes with my sister.’

So she just shrugs it off? ‘It’s not like any of this is new to me. For anyone who was not born into this, though, it is hair-raising. I grew up with it.’ Does she think ‘normality’ only came into her life once she became famous in her own right? ‘Well, my parents were so proud of me and supportive and wonderful. When I was 16 they said you can go to New York and Momma gave me $100 and my father gave me an airline ticket and another $100 and I went to New York and I never took another cent. Never. Not one.’

On the contrary she began sending money home to help her mother out. Judy Garland only realised that her daughter had become a star when Garland invited her on stage during a concert she was giving at the London Palladium in 1964. Was that when the world first recognised Lisa Minnelli in her own right?

‘Liza. It’s Liza with a Zee.’

I must look mortified because she laughs her maniacal laugh – ‘Hah!’ – and says with a shaky, lopsided smile: ‘It’s all right honey, people get it wrong all the time.’ Realising that I am now speechless with shame at my mistake she pats my knee and grins. ‘Don’t worry about it. Really. What were we saying? Yes, the first time I was recognised as a performer in my own right wasn’t on that London stage: it was in an off-Broadway show. I won all the awards there were to win. I was 16. I earned my stripes. So by the time I went to sing with Momma in London she had no idea I’d done all this work and she was quite surprised.’

Recovering my composure slightly, I ask if her mother became competitive. ‘She had to. My mother wasn’t dumb. She was one of the smartest, funniest women I’ve ever known. But, boy, after being on stage with her when she turned from Momma into Judy it was…’ She stands up again, puts her hands on her hips. ‘Well, she sang her five songs and then she introduced me and I came on and sang a song and she applauded. Second song she was still applauding. Then when I did my third she was pacing up and down and by the fourth she had her hands on her hips and was staring at me like this.’ She scowls. ‘By the fifth she was no longer looking at me but re-doing her lipstick, and I thought, ‘Yikes!”It must have been odd for Judy Garland to recognise that her reign was nearly over, that she was being usurped by her daughter. And of course just eight years later, Minnelli realised her full potential with Cabaret. It must be strange for her being preserved on celluloid as she is in Cabaret, this wisecracking coquettish young thing, practically a baby. Does she look at herself in that film now and think, ‘If only you knew what was in store?’ ‘No, I don’t see this baby dancing around. I see a ballsy performer.’ Is she any different from that ballsy performer now?

‘I can turn into her at any minute – so watch out! It’s a stage presence. I was taught all that. What I was never taught was how to live. Momma didn’t know. She’d been working since she was 13 years old.’ Live as in ‘living in the real world’? ‘Yes. Rather than this artificial world. They [the studio, MGM] protected Momma from the time she was so young right up until she had me. They got her addicted to pills, kept her on a starvation diet, and then they kicked her out. That’s not a good thing. There is help now in studios so anyone who is flailing around just has to raise a hand.’

Liza Minnelli mothered her mother. By the age of 12 she was her mother’s nurse and dresser and was even hiring and firing staff – interviewing applicants to assess whether they could deal with her mother’s erratic behaviour and addictions, and asking the police to check their references. As children, Minnelli and her sister Lorna, the daughter of Sid Luft, Garland’s second husband, would replace their mother’s sleeping pills and refill them with sugar, in case she overdosed. By the age of 14, Liza had taken the precaution of acquiring a stomach pump.

Some childhood. ‘Look, my father did his best to give me a normal upbringing. He really did. He’d see me and say, ‘What do you want to be, Liza?’ And I’d say: ‘A Spanish dancer.’ And he would go and buy crpe paper from a drug store and wrap it round me and he would then stretch it and put safety pins in and I would have a train and ruffles and he’s say, ‘What does a Spanish dancer do?’ And I’d say, ‘Dance?’ And he’d say, ‘Then dance, Liza, dance!’ And he’d watch me for hours.’

It’s a touching story. Clearly she felt closer to her father, who died of cancer in 1986, than to her mother. What objects of his does she still keep around the house? ‘I have his viewfinder in a glass case alongside my lucky five-dollar bill – the first money I ever earned. The two things remind me of who I am.’ Liza’s father was bisexual, as was her grandfather and her first husband, Peter Allen. Indeed, on their wedding night, she caught Allen in bed with his boyfriend (‘When we got divorced he got my wardrobe, that’s all he took!’ Liza said later.) Why does she think she has always been attracted to gay men? ‘Well, who else is in the theatre? Know what I mean? Are you going to meet a lot of basketball players when you’re performing on Broadway? I think not.’ In some ways she has continued in her mother’s role as a gay icon, a ‘Friend of Dorothy’ (the name of Judy Garland’s character in The Wizard of Oz) being an early idiom. How does Liza Minnelli account for her own gay following? ‘There is a difference in the genes with gay people. I find that gay people relate to women like me because I’m sensitive like they are. I describe what they are going through.’ Perhaps so: she was an ornament of Studio 54, a true bohemian, frolicking with Andy Warhol and taking many lovers, among them Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Sellers. By all accounts she could be immature, petulant and shallow but her quixotic, excitable, likeable personality always seems to have compensated for her flaws. And, as she says, fame breeds insecurity, and she was born to it.

It is time for her close up now. Her make-up man goes to work. ‘This is my best side, honey,’ she tells the photographer, presenting her left profile. Endearingly, she keeps absent-mindedly bursting into song – ‘Mr Saturday Night’ – and she keeps trying out dance steps, too, seemingly oblivious to other people in the room. At one point she wanders through into another room, and I can hear her say loudly: ‘What’s that English guy’s name again?’ When she comes back out she says: ‘It’s blaady cold, don’t you think, Nigel, old boy? When you lose weight you really feel it.’ She takes a sip from my coffee cup by mistake and nearly chokes on it. ‘Ahhh, no sugar! Yuk!’

Pictures taken, she gives the photographer and his assistant a big hug each, but sensing my English terror of such tactility she slaps me on the back instead and says: ‘Ta-ta’. Her mobile rings. It is Mr Gest. She ends her conversation: ‘I love you, sweetheart.’ A minute later Mr Gest walks through the door: 5ft 9in, dimple in chin, shaped eyebrows, permatan, neat little scarf around neck and, though the room is dark, sunglasses. ‘How did it go?’ he asks. Liza links her arm through his and says: ‘He called me Lisa! Hah!’