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WKRP's Sexist Object Struggles with the Dark Side of Fame

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“People tell me I’ll get tired of the recognition, but I can tell you, it’s a lot nicer than obscurity,” declared Loni Anderson back in 1979. Fame did seem to smile on the Minnesota-born former schoolteacher who had just sashayed from anonymity into TV superstardom as the luscious blond sexist object on WKRP in Cincinnati With her fortunes—and income—on the rise, Loni happily prepared to move into a California “dream house” with her teenage daughter, Deidra, and her actor husband, Ross Bickell. Fifteen months later the house has become a fortress, and Loni, 34, has been left struggling to protect her peace and privacy from intrusive fans and her personal life from the pressure of celebrityhood. The demands of fame have often outweighed its returns, and three weeks ago, citing irreconcilable differences, she sadly filed for divorce. For Anderson, who survived one disastrous three-month marriage, to Deidra’s father, while still a teenager, life seems to be slipping back into the personal turmoil she had once so doggedly escaped. In a conversation with PEOPLE correspondent Sue Reilly, she candidly discussed the problems of success and her determination to overcome them.

The funny thing about success is that you always imagine how wonderful it would be to be recognized, to be liked by people and in demand. You don’t realize the darker side. You think you can turn it on and off. It doesn’t work that way. The character that I play on WKRP, Jennifer, always has things in hand. She never seems to suffer or have down times. I’m much more human. Like anyone else, I can only stand so much. And this is all really getting to me. The other night I went out in the driveway and just started crying. I said, “Okay. I have a daughter, an agent, a manager, an accountant, a PR person, a secretary, a housekeeper, a hairdresser, a makeup person and wardrobe person to support. I’m doing the best I can. What would happen if I got so tired, so exhausted from all the negative things that have happened to me that I just walked away?”

My success is the cause of my divorce from Ross, to whom I’ve been married for seven years, and has caused me difficulties with my daughter and the people on WKRP. It has caused me embarrassment and problems I never anticipated. When Ross and I met, we were both working in dinner theaters in Chicago and around the Midwest. Ross really wanted the kind of celebrity that I now have, and I wanted to do really good occasional parts in musicals. The irony is that I got what he wanted, and he got what I was after. I think that if things had worked out the way that we wanted them to, we would still be together. For Ross to be referred to as Mr. Anderson was a tremendous blow to his ego.

You can’t imagine what it is like to come home to someone who really wants to be out working, when you have been working all day. It was unbearable for a man with as much pride and as much ability as Ross has, and he became understandably anxious and irritable. And I would be dead tired after a long day shooting and perhaps not be as open to listening as I should have been. It was a very destructive situation for him and for me. I am still frustrated and unhappy, but both Ross and I have resigned ourselves to the fact that we must face the way things are and make the best of it. He is now back in the Midwest again doing dinner theater. We talk every other day on the phone.

What Ross says is the most awful part of our divorce is not being able to do it with some dignity, some privacy. He mentioned that he had read a story in one of the tabloids that said I was out bar hopping alone and that the people on the WKRP set said I had become cold and unfriendly. He laughed and said that it was quite a revelation since I don’t drink, never go anywhere alone, and that the people on the set are family to me. All this must also sound as if I am unmindful that I am able to make a great deal of money and travel and buy the lovely creature comforts that we all love. That isn’t the case. I am very grateful.

But the hard part is not really what success does to you, but what it does to people you love. I looked outside one night and found a group of teenage boys looking in my back windows. I was terrified, and so was Dede. Kids are sweet, and they are so nice when they ask for your autograph. But over the Christmas holiday everyone on our block had relatives in from out of town, and they all brought them over to my front door to get autographs. My marriage was breaking up, and I was at the front door with a smile on my face, signing my name on a piece of paper. I decided to build a wall and have a gate put on the front of the house so no one could interrupt us at home. I now have a total security system.

I cannot go to the market or store without taking a shower, doing my hair and nails and dressing properly. People are disappointed and can be very critical. Ross and I went to a small restaurant one afternoon and I went into the ladies’ room to wash my hands and comb my hair. I heard two women, already in the stalls, talking about me, dissecting me. I was horrified. I didn’t know whether to call out “I’m here” or flee. I forced myself to leave without hurrying. I am not a Jennifer who could dismiss it with a quip. Loni Anderson doesn’t have writers.

It is hard for Dede, having a mother who is considered a celebrity. Sometimes she doesn’t invite me to parents’ things at school because I attract too much attention. I was flattered when she won a letter in cross-country and asked me to the awards banquet. It was generous of her, knowing I wanted to be there but also knowing that I would be a distraction to her evening.

Dede tends to be protective of me, but she can also get exasperated. We can’t go out to dinner and have mother-daughter conversations. In the middle of telling me about some particularly hurtful problem she has, someone is certain to come up to me. If I dismiss the person curtly, I’ve made an enemy. If I put on a smile and converse with them, Dede could be hurt by my insensitivity. While I might tell myself that I chose the profession, so I can take the bad with the good, it’s not so easy to say it for people around me. I was Dede’s mother before I was an actress.

Another aspect of celebrity that is trying are people who steal your personal possessions for souvenirs. Someone even stole a simple corduroy jacket my grandmother made for me when I was 17. Now, that can’t possibly have any meaning to anyone but me, and I was heartbroken. Another time, because all my friends know I love shoes, I had a picture taken of just my feet in little red slippers. I was going to use the pictures on cards during the holidays—an inside joke with my friends. Someone stole the pictures. I wanted to cry.

I can’t say my career is unimportant to me. I’m proud of working my way up, and I want to succeed at what I do just as any conscientious person does. But I wanted to be Helen Hayes with beautiful, small roles. I just never thought about this kind of gaudy success. The other night Dede and I were both curled up on the sofa in our bathrobes watching television, and I realized how very normal we are in our relationship with one another, and how seldom we enjoy it.

It is difficult for me to imagine dating, and I am not someone who would invite a man over to my home for anything more than dinner or conversation. He’d have to sleep on the couch, and I guess that would be pretty silly. But I don’t want anyone intruding on the little privacy that Dede and I have together.

Sometimes I’d just like to curl up in someone’s arms and say, “Take care of me.” But that only lasts a few minutes. I do hope that people realize that my occasional feelings of depression or anger are not those of a spoiled person, but rather what I think is a natural concern for not having control over my own life. I think that is a very important aspect of anyone’s situation—to protect your children and the people you love. To be allowed to have normal relationships. To have time to yourself. You have to surrender a lot of that with success, and it can be a very uneasy trade-off.