August 05, 1985 12:00 PM

When Rita Coolidge’s six-year marriage to Kris Kristofferson ended in 1979, the divorce, though amicable, was not unlike an amputation. Kristofferson’s hard-drinking, hard-living exploits had transfixed the media and many thought of Coolidge as a mere appendage. Despite an engagingly husky voice and a few hit records—(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher, We’re All Alone—Rita’s career cooled when she hit the road alone. A Tennessee-born minister’s daughter who preferred Memphis blues to Kris’ brand of country, Coolidge found herself fighting a Kristofferson-inspired country queen image she never wanted. “I’m still fighting it,” she says.

Not for long, she hopes. This summer Coolidge has appeared as the sole female veejay on VH-1, MTV’s laconic, easy-listening spin-off. As the first bona fide female entertainer to become a video jock, Coolidge is treading where no solo recording star has gone before. Although cynics would say her middle-of-the-night slot is the last stop before oblivion, Rita doesn’t see it that way. She likes the idea of being a pioneer of sorts—and, not incidentally, on a frontier that “improves my visibility.” Coolidge shared the job after some assiduous campaigning by her manager, Ron Rainey. Last January she flew from L.A. (where she lives with her only child, daughter Casey Kristofferson, 11, and musician Thorn Mooney, 38) to audition in New York City. Judy Collins was also considered, but, says VH-1 executive Kevin Metheny: “We saw a warmth in Rita you seldom see in TV.”

At 40, the lithe and graceful singer has the look of a moneyed California matron who wears clothes a trifle too young for her: The gauzy white shirt, suspendered jeans, silver-studded leather belt and dangly rhinestone earring would not look out of place on her daughter. On a five-day jaunt from L.A. to tape three weeks’ worth of shows in New York, Coolidge seems on the brink of sensory overload. “New York is not my pace,” Rita admits. “I feel like I’m back at Florida State cramming for exams.”

When she debuted in May, the excitement meter registered low. Rita’s Southern speech sounded somnolent, and her face looked haggard under inexpert lighting. “I could see room for improvement in the first shows,” says Coolidge. Agrees Holly St. Lifer, Coolidge’s director: “It took her a while to get the jargon down, but once she did, her energy level went up.”

VH-1 happened along at a crucial time in Coolidge’s life. Last year her singing career was endangered when a small nodule appeared on her vocal cords. “My voice went away completely for a while,” she says. “I got dizzy onstage from forcing air and had to have shots of cortisone so I could do road shows.”

The cortisone triggered depression, but no improvements. An Australian tour was canceled partway through because of her problems, and Coolidge went speechless for two weeks at a stretch. Last October she had surgery to remove the nodule. “I wish I’d known about the operation earlier,” she says. “I had a sore throat for two days and then it was over.”

Thom Mooney, her lover of four years, saw her through it all. The drummer in Rita’s band since 1982, “he takes care of the music and the band business, and he protects me,” she says. “I appreciate that.” Their life together is markedly different from the high-profile frenzy of her marriage to Kristofferson. “Kris and I were public people—we never had much privacy,” says Rita. “I like the fact that Thorn and I have a private life. Thorn is very secure—he doesn’t need or want fame. And we’re in tune to the same kind of music.”

Coolidge and Kristofferson have long since made their peace. It is Kris and third wife Lisa who look after Casey during Rita’s long weeks on tour. “When they first got married, I was a little jealous,” Rita admits. “But Lisa and I are close now—Kris has a way of doing that with his wives. Lisa is very bright, and she and Casey really love each other.”

Casey has experienced more trouble adjusting to Thorn. “It’s been hard,” Coolidge admits. “She wouldn’t call him by his name for the whole first year—she’d just say, ‘him.’ ” And frequent separations are difficult for both mother and daughter. “About once a day I have to pick up her picture and call her. Sometimes she says, ‘I’m so lonely,’ and it breaks my heart. When I get home, Casey wants all of me. She has trouble sharing me with Thom.”

But Casey can at least watch her mother in absentia on VH-1. The woman with what cable execs call “preexisting marquee value” will be introducing videos by such artists as Kris Kristofferson (“My favorite ex-husband,” she confides to the cable audience) and even, blush, by Rita Coolidge.

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