June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

LOOK AT THE BRIGHT SIDE: MADONNA NOW owes her a favor. Until this month the Material Girl held the title of Most Embarrassing Guest after the singer’s four-letter diatribe on the Late Show with David Letterman a few years back. But what’s a little cussing compared to the performance Farrah Fawcett put on for some 5 million viewers on June 6? Promoting a Playboy Channel TV special featuring Fawcett applying paint to canvas with her naked body, the 50-year-old sex symbol rambled and strained to find simple words. When she stopped mid-sentence, stared at the backdrop, then uttered a spacey “Wow,” even Letterman seemed stupefied. “No question about it,” says Dick Rosetti, president of production for Playboy Entertainment Group. “She was terribly, terribly distracted.”

The past months cannot have been easy for Fawcett. In February she and Ryan O’Neal, the father of their 12-year-old son, Redmond, split up. In May a fellow actress accused Fawcett of stealing $72,000 worth of her clothes from the home of a mutual friend (the Los Angeles DA’s office rejected the accusation in June, citing insufficient evidence). And since November she has been putting in 12-hour days working on her special Farrah Fawcett: All of Me. “It scares me because she’s so tired now,” says Marjorie Schicktanz Ashley, Fawcett’s manager.

Still, her Letterman antics prompted speculation that Fawcett is under the influence of something other than stress. Some friends blame menopause. Others cite nerves. But heading the Top 10 Reasons Farrah Acted Weird list—at least according to one supermarket tabloid—is “Farrah Drug Agony.”

Fawcett sniffs at such allegations. “Do you think anyone in their right mind would in any way alter their ability to be on their toes going up against David Letterman?” she told PEOPLE. There were no drugs, “absolutely not,” she insisted. Nor, friends add, have there ever been. “She is such a health nut, she doesn’t want to do anything negative to her body,” says former manager Jay Bernstein. “She’s boringly healthy.”

In fact, as Fawcett sees it, the show went fine. “I knew I was being vague and playful,” she says. If so, most viewers didn’t get the joke. Her manager, for one, called after the show to push her to take a vacation. “I lit into her,” says Ashley. Then, after taping the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show a few days later, Fawcett overheard two women in an NBC studio ladies’ room badmouthing her. According to her assistant Colette Weintraub, Fawcett confronted the women. ” ‘What is it?’ ” Weintraub says she asked them. ” ‘Is it that I’m not who you want me to be?’ ” Fawcett then brought the women into her dressing room where, says her hairstylist Mela Murphy, Farrah asked the pair to repeat what they had said, adding, “I have to figure out what people want from me.” The response—that they were disappointed someone who had spotlighted the issue of domestic abuse in the 1984 TV drama The Burning Bed would now pose for Playboy—set Fawcett crying. “She was offended,” says Murphy.

Happily a few kind words have lately been heard. “I got a very nice letter from Ryan,” says Fawcett (who says she and O’Neal enjoy a “friendly relationship”). “He said, ‘Contrary to what the pundits are writing, I loved your funny turn on Letterman.’ ” As for those who didn’t, friends say not to worry. “When you’re an icon,” Playboy Enterprises corporate vice president Cindy Rakowitz told Fawcett after the bathroom incident, “you have to be a bit more like Teflon.”



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