Saddling her horse for a morning ride through Southern California's Santa Ynez Valley, one fact is apparent: at 43, Bo Derek is luminous. She is one of those rare women who resonate beauty from the inside out. No longer the ingenue, she is still the reluctant celebrity, named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in an April issue of People magazine. Alone for the first time in her adult life, she is soft-spoken and in many ways still the enigmatic fantasy figure that captured men's hearts decades ago. Who would have thought that her brief appearance in 10, Blake Edwards's 1979 farce of male mid-life crisis, would coin a phrase that still applies to her today?
Certainly not Bo Derek. "The film opened and there was this sensation," she says. "There was a buzz. Not from the industry, just from the public. Usually, when a girl comes on the scene in a sensational way, you've [already] known her. She's modeled. She's done commercials. She's done television. She's acted somewhere before. But to come just out of the blue like that is unusual. And journalists didn't know who I was. They had heard I was married to John Derek so they went back into those old files. That's where the label, 'He's Svengali, I'm Trilby,' came from. The press just sort of created me. I didn't know what was coming, but John knew because he'd seen it so many times before."
The couple met in 1973 on the set of And Once Upon a Love (released in 1981 as Fantasies). John Derek directed the film; Bo was an aspiring 16-year-old actress and model from Southern California named Mary Cathleen Collins, the oldest of four children of Paul and Norma Collins. Though there was a 30-year age difference between Bo and John and he had already been married three times (his ex-wives include actresses Ursula Andress and Linda Evans), the couple fell in love and wed in 1976.
Hollywood and the press reviled their union. Yet Bo claims John was her soul mate, her partner in every sense. "John always believed, and it made sense to me, that you stay with someone as long as you're in love with them and you want to be with them. You don't do it out of habit, a sense of duty or things like that. And we didn't have children to complicate matters. So every day we stayed together, it was because we wanted to be with each other and in each other's company. Twenty-five years proved that it was meant to be." She pauses for a minute and giggles. "Either it was true love or John was the most incredible Svengali [with] incredible powers."
Twenty-one when she filmed 10, Bo had never taken the movie business seriously. Becoming the "It Girl" and the object of every man's fantasies overnight was a dizzying experience, one that didn't endear her to many women, particularly feminists, who made her a target.
"Women had to do what they had to do," Bo says. "I wasn't so easy for them. So I wouldn't want to criticize what they've done. My problem with the women's movement is that it's kind of a moot point if [all women] would just vote. Women are the majority, but they don't bother voting. Certainly we don't have to get together and decide we are going to vote this way or that way, but I think as women we would vote similarly. It's hard to understand why we're the majority and we're not in control. It's really quite simple: just vote."
Being a Republican makes Bo a bit of an anomaly in her industry, yet she is pro-choice and pro-gay rights. The fact that Bo Derek has political views at all may come as a surprise to those who only recall the girl who drove Dudley Moore's character to distraction.
"She has conservative views, which are unusual in Hollywood," says Chris Matthews, the host of CNBC's political talk show "Hardball," who recently had Bo as a guest on his show. "She's very eloquent and makes a real presentation. I didn't have a preconception [of what she would be like]. The idea of '10' forces out other estimates. You only get one chance at a reputation in life--when you get a reputation for being a 'perfect 10', a beauty beyond imagination, it's hard for people to say, 'What else?'. But in the case of our program [with her] they can say, 'What else?' pretty quickly. She was a treasure of a guest."
Many critics saw John Derek as the master manipulator behind the whole "Bo Phenomenon," and Bo's decision to retain the creative control of her career, as opposed to putting it in the hands of the movie studios, only fanned the flames. Thumbing their noses at the Hollywood establishment, the couple in 1980 created their own film production company, naming it Svengali, Inc.
"It was [John's] suggestion that I produce my own films so that I was responsible for whatever happened in my career from that day forward," Bo says. "He was aware of people who had sensational beginnings and when it didn't continue, they put bitterness and blame on other people. He was very convincing that if I was going to exploit this sensation, this Bo Derek, whoever she is, that I be responsible for it so that I had no regrets or blames or bitterness, whichever way it turned out. If I should succeed I could be proud of what I'd done. And if I should fail, it was my own doing."
The films the duo produced, which John wrote and directed as star vehicles for his wife--Tarzan, The Ape Man; Bolero; and Ghosts Can't Do It--will never be defined as film classics. The 1984 film Bolero was considered by some cineastes to be the worst movie ever made, and film critic Leonard Maltin dubbed 1990's Ghosts Can't Do It a "standard Derek atrocity." However, the films did earn big money in their time. Tarzan, for example, made more than $10 million in its first three days of release in 1981.
With the difference in their ages and their decision to remain Hollywood outsiders, the Svengali moniker stuck. Bo's decision to pose nude in Playboy (with the photography done by her husband) surely galvanized it. "John was the greatest photographer, especially for women," Bo says. "We had done our first Playboy layout before 10 ever came out. John did the famous one with Ursula, then with Linda. He was friends with Hef, and Playboy was a place that appreciated his photography and really showed off the photos. They had the best format, the best compositions, the best page layouts." The 1980 issue featuring her pictorial sold more than those of Andress and Evans combined.
There was another aspect to the choice--the Dereks could use Playboy as a forum. "Whenever we really had a gripe or we had really been attacked, it was a place where we could always call and say, 'Can we answer this? Can we set the record straight?' So Playboy was always a very friendly place."
The Dereks' experience with Life magazine was a different story. "Life had put the word out that they were looking for a girl to discover as their new superstar," Bo recalls. "I got a call from Orion [Pictures] and they were very excited that I'd been chosen. I said 'Fine, that's nice.' I didn't expect anything to come from 10; it wasn't my film. I went, I had a good time, there was no buzz about me. I had no agent at that point. I still wasn't serious about the business at all. And they [Life and Orion] wanted me to come in for the cover shot. 'Well,' they said, 'these are the musts. On the cover shot, we want you coming out of a burlap sack, like you're a gift, nude with packaging material, as our gift to America.' Or the world. Whatever they said. And I said, 'No, I don't think so.' And then they wanted to film me in the Marilyn [lying on] red satin pose or the Rita Hayworth lingerie pose and I said, 'No. I don't think so.'
"My life at that point was windsurfing and producing tiny little films with John. That's what I enjoyed doing. So I said 'No, I'd rather not.' And then the threatening calls started coming in [from both Life and Orion]. I remember I was in a windsurfing shop in Marina Del Rey and I was tying up their phones for an hour as they're threatening that I'll never work again. They're going to sue me for $10 million. Well, who am I? I'm trying to argue with them and they don't understand that I really don't care. They assume they can threaten me, then try to cajole me, offer me a million dollars for my next picture and I keep saying, 'No, thank you.' It was kind of exciting. I liked it; I had fun. And then of course," she adds with a smile, "when the film opened I got lots of nice jewelry from Orion Pictures."
While conservatives have attacked Bo for appearing nude in Playboy and in her films, she softly, firmly and unapologetically replies, "America is so funny that way. They have a big problem with nudity--not vulgarity and violence and cheapness, just simple nudity. I always marvel at how really uptight people are. You can have these really heavy-duty sex scenes with half-clothed actors doing really vulgar things up on a kitchen table or in a bathroom on an airplane; really heavy-duty scenes like that are OK. But take your clothes off and suddenly it's a big problem. It's a funny, prudish side we have. And it is so silly. We spend so much of our time nude. We're born nude and it just seems like the most natural thing."
To those that felt John Derek was exploiting his young wife's beauty, Bo says, "Most husband-and-wife combinations [in the industry] get that kind of criticism, they really do. It just bothers the heck out of people and I'm not sure why. It's all right for me to go off and do a nude scene and a love scene with another director and a strange actor. But if my husband was directing, where it's more up front, more honest to our relationship, that was the 'Big No.' It just bugged them. There is this impression that somehow your husband is prostituting you in some way. He was called a pimp! It was just terrible and I never understood why it's alright for me to go do that with a strange director and a strange actor, but not in the comfort of my own marriage."
Bo has a realistic view of the choices she made, and she accepts full responsibility for her decisions and their consequences. "Sure, if every once in a while I made a major motion picture, a mainstream film, it probably would have been the intelligent thing to do for my career. But my career was never the most important thing for me. I was really enjoying my life. If I had jumped into the business, who knows what would have happened? I was too young. I know I was too young. I was much better off doing it for myself. I felt good about my decisions and my life with John. I was completely content. And it's romantic. You know, '[John] and me against the world.' It was fun."
If living well truly is the best revenge, Bo certainly has had it. The quiet life that she and her husband built together in the Santa Ynez Valley sustained her more than the illusion of fame and stardom ever could. Yet two years after his death from heart failure, she doesn't sugarcoat their union. "No, he wasn't easy. But that was what was exciting and stimulating. He was so true to himself and to his beliefs and he was very courageous. It takes a lot of courage to live by your beliefs. And I find that I was attracted to him. It's so easy to conform and to follow. It's very difficult to be rebellious and live by what you believe is right. And to make decisions and to take the consequences. Very few people do."
Bo was happy with her life, with their life. "Our life was 24 hours a day together. We didn't have separate hobbies, separate anything. We were together all of the time. And we were always involved in some huge battle or project or something. There was never a dull moment to the very end." He was her mentor and partner and his life experience was always beneficial for the young actress. "He would never tell me not to work. But he did say that I didn't have to want it just because everybody does and it's supposed to be the best thing in the world."
So why didn't she ever fight back against the critics? Pausing for a moment as her blue eyes clear, she laughs a bit and says, "I've never really been too concerned with setting the record straight about any misconceptions about me. Also, you learn very quickly that you may try to set the record straight, but it usually just sounds like sour grapes." She laughs off the insinuations that she was a vapid airhead. "I was never out to prove myself one way or the other. I was never sensitive about my intelligence. I seem to have enough of it to do what I wanted to do and I was not out to prove otherwise. Thinking back on it, [my fame] happened so fast that I was unprepared for it. How many people at 20 years old can really articulate how they feel about things? They've never really been asked. So all of a sudden I'm sitting there and Barbara Walters [and all of these other] people are asking me these very deep questions and I don't even know what I thought about those things." Bo belied the notion that she was controlled by her husband by accepting a role--over John's very strenuous objections--as a mother of two teenaged sons in Zalman King's short-lived 1998 TV series, "Wind On Water."
"He hated that I did 'Wind On Water.' He could not believe that I was still the same person that he had spent all those years with. To him, parts of me were still that 17-year-old girl. Well, I had [teenaged] sons in that project and he never saw me as that. In the series there was a young girl who is wild and spirited, one of my son's girlfriends. And that's the way he saw me, the way he wrote parts for me. So this was a big shock to him; he expressed himself very strongly, but he always did. He never thought it was the right decision to play that kind of part. But I said I didn't choose the project because my part was great for me, I chose to do it because I liked the project and wanted to be a part of it. He didn't like to show it, but he really was quite proud." Bo shot the pilot in March of that year.
Fate soon intervened. John Derek died on May 22, 1998, before he could view the finished pilot episode. But for Bo, working on the series (which was canceled after two episodes after a change in the studio's management) kept her focused during the period immediately following his death.
"Grieving just has a life of its own. I didn't decide to orchestrate it one way or another, I just took it as it came. It's interesting to see who I was a year ago and who I am today. I floated around a lot. I was quite numb and just sort of going with the flow and not really making any decisions or having a direction. I couldn't. I was determined not to design it. I still just take it a day at a time and see how I will react to things. I just instinctively knew that for me that I shouldn't grieve one way or behave one way. The only thing I tried to do was catch myself and not fall into self-pity. I just felt it would be unproductive." The media was even kind to Bo, if ever so briefly, after John's death. However, within months they had her romantically linked to an ever-changing array of eligible and not-so-eligible men, many of whom she says she had never even met, such as Paul McCartney and Keifer Sutherland. Recently she has been linked with media billionaire Ted Turner, but she denies any romantic involvement.
Shrugging off the nonsense with good humor, she muses about what John's reaction would be to her moving on with her love life. "Would John have liked that I'm dating? Would John have approved? No. He would have preferred that I jumped off a bridge or something, I'm sure, because that's very dramatic and wonderful."
Suddenly serious as she embraces the complexities of her mate she adds, "I know that like most people, part of him would want me to go on and have happiness; but then another part of him would say, 'No. I don't want her to be happy ever again. I want her to go with me.' These complications are what made him interesting and his honesty about them are what made him interesting to me. They are not petty; they are just human. I was lucky that when he died, we were in love and happy and didn't have any guilt or things we hadn't said to each other. I don't think that happens very often."
What is clear is that, possibly for the first time in her adult life, Bo Derek actually wants to, has to work. If not for the economic benefit, then as a way through the grieving process. Since her husband's death, Bo has discovered her own ambition. She knows what she wants.
"I have such an opportunity now in acting, for at least a few more years, that I want to focus all my energy on that right now. Producing is something I can always do later. I've been doing decent work since I've started back to work and so I'm ready. Producing is distracting, and I love it. I absolutely love having a crisis and an insurmountable problem and fixing it by the start of the next day's shooting. But now I really want to concentrate on acting."
Her enthusiasm and respect for the process is readily apparent. Television guest appearances have kept Bo working and opened new avenues. "Guest starring on 'The Drew Carey Show' was a ball. I had never done anything like that before. I got into rehearsal and they were shocked that I had never done a sitcom. It was really fun and I enjoyed it very much. And 'Family Law' was wonderful, too."
She now hosts a weekly program on American Movie Classics called "The Hollywood Fashion Machine," in which she introduces films with an emphasis on fashion. "I enjoy the business aspect of television," she says. "A budget is a budget. A schedule is a schedule. I think some of the best filmmaking and storytelling now is done on television. I just can't believe they get it done on those schedules because it's as good as any film that is being made."
But Bo's interest in films continues as well. She has only made about a dozen movies since the 1970s, but she has two features slated for this year: Family Man, a comedy starring Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni, and Frozen with Fear, a thriller, as well as a made-for-cable movie for the E! Entertainment channel called Murder at the Cannes Film Festival.
Bo is eager to take on new challenges, including people's perceptions of her. "I think people don't understand how seriously I would like to go back to work, because I never have. So from what feedback I'm getting, people aren't quite sure that I'm committed. Which is understandable, because I have never been before. In a way, it has always come to me. I've had it easy in the business because normally, people have to go through a lot of suffering and heartbreak." Pausing for a moment, she adds, "I'm excited and I am nervous. But people are kind and I'm enjoying the work I am doing and people seem pleased that I am a professional and not a diva. I don't know where they got that impression; probably because I only made my own films so they assumed that I took really good care of myself and pampered myself. Our dressing rooms on Tarzan were a boy with an umbrella who would follow us around. We had no dressing rooms. Yeah, I am quite low maintenance."
Bo shares a home in the Santa Ynez Valley with her sister Kerry and her husband, Phillip, and their two small children (with whom she gladly plays the doting aunt). Adding to the happy crowd are her two German Shepherds. Bo's love of dogs is longstanding.
"I know that she is a wonderful person because she loves all animals, especially dogs," says her long-time friend, casino visionary Steve Wynn. "We have one thing in common: neither of us have ever met a dog we didn't like. Most people think of all of her other wonderful qualities, but that is what Bo Derek means to me."
Bo lives far from Hollywood by choice. "I have always preferred to live in smaller communities where people accept you for who you are. Up here, it's more important how I ride than what films I make. People are much more critical about your horsemanship. I'm already an outsider. In this valley you should pretty much be into quarter horses and I'm already the weirdo that shows up with these fancy horses," referring to her Portuguese Lusitanos. "Lusitanos are the national horse in Portugal and they're used for all their ranch work and fighting bulls. Very athletic. I got into horses about 20 years ago and really got hooked on the Portuguese horses. They're hot-blooded, but they're very noble. They're the old war-horses. They're very brave and to me the greatest athletes. A good all-around horse. Certainly other breeds will do one thing better, but I don't think any horse does everything else as well."
Out on the trail, completely in her element, she explains her passion. "It's not the riding, or that I'm getting from here to there. I don't have to ride. I can just go out and groom a horse or muck manure. There is something about it. When you have a horse that even recognizes you, or does something that is extremely generous or kind it's really, really rare. A dog would leave his pack to be with a human. He will choose a human over his own species. Horses would never do that. Never. Most of the time we're a big inconvenience in their life. They would rather just be out in the herd nibbling away and grazing and having their own interactions with each other. We separate them. We pull them out. Most of the time we make their lives miserable, so when you develop a bond with your horse, it's very special. It doesn't happen very often." Bo rides off, alone and content. While Hollywood pundits muse if the milestone of 40 marks the death zone of a woman's viability as a sex symbol, the enduring appeal of Bo Derek will no doubt prove them wrong.
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Alysse Minkoff lives in Beverly Hills, California.