In the scramble for new talent these days, few competitors nose out the William Morris Agency, Fabergé, the ABC network or Vegas’ MGM Grand Hotel. So it has to say something big that all four of those savvy operators have glommed onto Lola Falana. At Fabergé, she’s the spokeswoman for the Tigress campaign (“Because men are such animals”) in a thoroughbred stable already adorned by Margaux Hemingway and Joe Namath. With ABC, she has taped four specials (the last airing March 23) on the way to a possible series. And at the MGM Grand, she headlines for the first time next month at $75,000 a week and has been tied up protectively for another six weeks next year at $90,000 per.
But as the promos declare for Lady Coco, a newly released movie she shot in leaner days, “Nobody owns Lola Falana.” There is a go-to-hell insouciance about Falana best defined during an earlier bummer, Broadway’s Doctor Jazz. It lasted four nights but won her a Tony nomination and a deathless accolade from New York Times critic Clive Barnes: She’s “a hand grenade of a woman.”
Lola’s husband at the time, singer Feliciano Tavares, caught some shrapnel when she subsequently exploded. “We got one of the most adorable divorces in the history of America, so warm and cute,” cooed Falana. “There was never a harsh word. We said to our lawyer, ‘Listen, how long will this take? We’ve got a tennis date, and then we want to go out for dinner!’ ”
Lola’s relations with her parents back in Philadelphia were similarly ambivalent. “Even as a baby,” she reports now, “I could be wet and hungry but I refused to cry.” Her mother and welder father “panicked” and her neighbors wrote her off as a fallen lady for her showbiz ambitions. During one struggling period in New York, she wound up sleeping in the subway. Falana claims to be 27, but that would have made her a barely pubescent girl when Sammy Davis Jr. discovered her in an Atlantic City chorus line and made her a lead dancer and protégée in his Broadway musical Golden Boy. During those early days, concedes Lola, “I thought it was hip to be the baddest person around.” Right now, though, she doesn’t drink or smoke tobacco and even bans cursing on the set.
The Fabergé contract was perhaps the key to her current mellowing—”This was the first cosmetics company that ever employed a black woman to show a line that wasn’t made just for blacks, but they weren’t even aware of it.”
To Lola Falana, the ultimate threat in this society is no longer racism or sexism but ageism. “One day I’m going to be a middle-aged lady, and I don’t want people to think I committed a crime or that I’ve got some strange disease. I don’t believe in time. The past you can’t account for and the future you can’t count on. Everything is now.”