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The Woman from Wales

Movie star. Oscar winner. Wife of Michael Douglas. Catherine Zeta-Jones is all those things as she nears 40 but at heart, she is still a small-town girl.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009

"Cougar? I've never heard that expression." Catherine Zeta-Jones looks perplexed—gorgeous, to be sure, but perplexed, nonetheless. "Cougar?" the actress says again in her native Welsh accent, which still sounds surprising, given how many American characters she's played on film. The question was: Is the term "cougar" (referring to an older woman who takes a much younger man as her lover) a compliment or an insult? With another person, that could be a conversation-stopper. But nothing fazes Zeta-Jones, who is chatty and upbeat for this lunch on the patio of the famed Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. "Is it a compliment? Absolutely—why not?" she says with a throaty laugh. The subject is actually The Rebound, a new romantic comedy scheduled to open before year's end, in which Zeta-Jones plays a divorcée with two young children who unexpectedly finds herself involved with a considerably younger man (played by Justin Bartha, the missing groom in The Hangover).

But it gets Zeta-Jones talking about the way the film mirrors her own life—only backwards.

"I happen to have the reverse in my own relationship," she says, sipping an iced tea, ignoring the glances of other diners, who have spotted the Oscar-winning actress. "When I was dating Michael (Douglas, her husband of nine years), there was this 25-year age gap, and what I heard was that I was just this girl from Zorro who was after his money.

"But the older woman—younger man thing—I don't know if there's a taboo or if it's just a social stigma. I don't think it happens in movies much, unless it's a comedy. I don't know why age matters so much."

It's another day in paradise and the Beverly Hills Hotel is hopping. Guests arrive and depart in flocks, striding the red carpet from the valet-parking stand to the lobby. The peach and aquamarine color scheme with a palm tree motif bespeaks an old-school glamour, from the elaborate chandelier in the lobby to the bellboys dressed in starchy uniforms and chin-strapped pillbox hats to the lavishly landscaped patio where Zeta-Jones is dining. The hotel is a reminder of a bygone era, an old Hollywood still visible in the kind of pictures that play on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

But Zeta-Jones, in a beige silk top and matching skirt, has none of that "Look at me—I'm a star!" quality. Granted, she's a beautiful woman, with her lush figure, lustrous brunette hair and deep brown eyes. But she's not dressed to make a scene or call attention to herself, with one obvious exception: a 10-karat diamond ring with a rock the size of a cashew that was a gift from her husband.

"Jewelry is my one guilty pleasure," she admits. "Fortunately, my husband has fantastic taste."

The waiter approaches the table and Zeta-Jones orders a salad, then sighs: "I've had everything on the menu," she says. "This place is a little bit like home because we stay here whenever we're in Los Angeles." When her salad arrives shortly thereafter, Zeta-Jones takes a bite and observes, "Really, I was brought up on meat and potatoes."

That's the paradox of Catherine Zeta-Jones: She's a movie star who can glam it up when she needs to, but at heart, she's still the small-town girl from a village in Wales. She's an Oscar winner who's just as happy spending her time at home tending to her two children—although home is in Bermuda (where she and Douglas live much of the year).

"She has great style and she knows how to live well, but she never puts on airs," says friend David Foster, the producer who cast her in The Mask of Zorro, her breakthrough film in Hollywood. "She's just very down-to-earth."

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