SHE HAS DONE A TURN AS PAMELA Lee’s body double on Baywatch, got Imelda Marcos to show off her post-Aquino shoe collection and persuaded Sharon Stone to don a beard for a visit to a Manhattan coffee shop. But for all the star power Ruby Wax delivers on her hit BBC show Ruby Wax Meets…, it’s the hostess who provides the electricity. Rat-a-tatting one-liners, complaining about her physique (not wild about her backside) and sex (doesn’t cotton to late-night lovemaking), the fortysomething, American-born Wax makes the celebrities she interviews seem almost beside the point.
But as viewers will discover on June 9, when Fox launches a six-week U.S. run of the series (rechristened The Ruby Wax Show), her guests like her just the way she is. “She’s wild, sarcastic and hysterical,” gushes Pamela Lee. “Ruby rules.”
And seldom rests. “I work for hours at making them laugh,” says Wax, who does weeks of research and dines with each guest the night before taping. “I’m just trying to make them the best they can be. That’s how you get someone to do an interview in bed,” which is what Goldie Hawn agreed to during a stay at London’s tony Dorchester hotel. Hawn was so tickled, she hired Wax and Wax’s equally outrageous friend Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous’s co-creator) to write a script. Even Sarah Ferguson was a good sport as Wax rummaged through her bedroom drawers. “We British are so uptight,” says series producer Clive Tulloh. “With Ruby, we say, ‘She’s American. She can do that.’ ”
Wax, who retains her American citizenship, grew up in Evanston, III, the only child of Austrian Jews who fled the Nazis. Her father, Edward, now retired, was a “sausage-casing king,” she says. “He made the outside of hot dogs, not the inside.” Her mother, Berta, helped with the accounting. An indifferent, fun-loving student, Wax graduated from Evanston Township High in 1972 and studied psychology at Berkeley for a year. She dropped out at 19 to travel with friends from Hair’s Chicago production. Landing in London in the mid-’70s, she decided to stay on and try show business herself.
Rejected three times by London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (“I thought I could become an actress by just wishing it”), Wax studied in Glasgow instead. In 1978 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where, at 5’2″ with an unruly mop of dark hair and unflagging comic energy, she was soon typecast as a wench. A friend, actor Alan Rickman, encouraged Wax to try writing comedy. The result, a 1979 play called Desperately Yours, inspired her to spend a few (unproductive) years in L.A. as a comedy writer. Wax moved back to London in 1982, where she hit her stride writing and starring in Girls on Top, in which she and Saunders played roomies. The sitcom made her a star, and the following year, its director, Ed Bye, now 42, made her his wife. “I would still be in the streets if he hadn’t come along,” says Wax. “I was sort of a wild woman, and he restrained me.”
There were, in fact, two earlier marriages, but Wax says she doesn’t “want to talk about them. They weren’t about love.” As for Bye, he insists that Wax can also wane. “There is a quieter side to Ruby,” he says. “If anyone was like that all the time, they’d probably just fall over and die.”
When not working, Wax can be found in the four-story, five-bedroom terrace house in west London she and Bye share with their children Max, 8, Madeleine, 6, and Marina, 3, and where her prize possession is a flotation tank she calls Ruby’s Retreat. Just about any spare bit of shelf space is given over to photos of the children and celebrity pals, including Princess Diana. They met at a charity event. “I have been a friend,” Wax says. “Though I may be off the list now.”
In August, Wax begins preparing for her third BBC season. Political figures, like Yasser Arafat and Hillary Clinton, are on her wish list. Though she would love to see Ruby Wax Meets…turn into an American sensation, she draws the line at recrossing the Atlantic to live. “In England there’s more room for eccentricity,” she says. “Freaks are honored and get their own TV shows.”
ELIZABETH TERRY in London and ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles