August 01, 1994 12:00 PM

It is 1 p.m. in Atlantic City, and Cybill Shepherd is feeling the first twinges of fear. This weekend, Shepherd is moonlighting, so to speak, as a cabaret singer at Merv Griffin’s Resorts Casino Hotel, and the whole concept sets her nerves on edge. Why, you might ask, would a rich, successful TV star with a voice critics love to hate put herself through the stress of singing onstage, with a New York Times writer in the room smelling blood? It’s simple, says Shepherd: “I can’t stop myself from doing it. Despite all the critics bashing me, I have never given up on it. I do it as naturally as walking, talking and breathing.”

For years singing in front of an audience came about as naturally to Shepherd as walking, talking and breathing under water. The pounding she took from the critics in 1975 for her work in the musical comedy disaster At Long Last Love (directed by her then-lover Peter Bogdanovich) shattered her self-confidence. Attacks like the one from Today’s Gene Shalit (“Shepherd can’t sing, dance or act”), coupled with the commercial failure of her six albums (recorded between 1974 and 1990) drove her into five years of psychotherapy. “Singing was always terrifying to me because I didn’t think I was good enough,” she confides. “But with the help of a brilliant psychologist, I healed my wounds.”

Wrapped in a white terry-cloth bathrobe, Shepherd stares out her hotel-suite window at the faux onion domes of Donald Trump’s Taj Majal and starts putting on her makeup. “It’s funny,” she says. “Barbra Streisand went through the same thing and began singing this year too. It’s just coincidental. I’ve known her for 20 years, but it’s not like I called her up and said, ‘Hey, Barb, are we ready to get back on the circuit?’ ” Of course, Streisand’s tour is on a somewhat different scale. While Barbra can command up to $350 a ticket for gigs at Madison Square Garden and other arenas, Cybill is happy with the $30 a head she got at Griffin’s Coconut Ballroom before moving on to New York City for a three-week engagement at Rainbow & Stars that began July 19.

Tonight Cybill is sharing the bill with headliner Merv (who crooned versions of “There’ll Never Be Another You” and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” among others), the Modernaires, a quartet partial to songs predating the ’50s, and a dance troupe called Lindy Hoppers. After the Hoppers hoof their way through a version of the Wheel of Fortune theme song, Griffin introduces his “special guest” to a full house, most of them retirees. “Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Cybill Burton,” he says, confusing Shepherd with Richard Burton’s first wife, Sybil. “I mean, the beautiful Cybill Shepherd.” Unfazed, Cybill belts out versions of “I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” ” ‘S Wonderful” and “America the Beautiful” to exuberant applause. “Isn’t she remarkable looking?” Griffin asks the nearly 1,100 fans in the audience. “She’s a great beauty with that wide-open, terrific face. She looks like the first American ever born.”

These days that face requires a little more work than it did when she was an 18-year-old cover girl. “It takes 2 hours for me to look like this,” says Shepherd, who, at 44, maintains a lucrative contract as a spokesperson for L’Oreal cosmetics. “It’s part of the fantasy about me, the glamor. I’ll never forget this one time, after I had finished making myself up, my daughter Clementine looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Mommy! You look just like Cybill Shepherd.’ I thought she was going to say, ‘You look so beautiful.’

“But I’ve cashed in on my looks in a fabulous way,” she adds. “It’s given me financial security, which is something I never cared about until I had kids.”

Shepherd’s three children—Clementine, 15, and the 6-year-old twins, Zachariah and Ariel—all stayed home in Memphis this time, while their mother went on the road. Clementine is the daughter of former auto-parts dealer David Ford, whom Shepherd married in 1978 after her eight-year relationship with Bogdanovich came to an end. (Cybill is still friends with Bogdanovich and worked with him and his ex-wife Polly Piatt four years ago on Texasville, the sequel to Shepherd’s debut film, The Last Picture Show.) Shepherd and Ford divorced after four years.

In 1987, Shepherd married her chiropractor, Bruce Oppenheim, but that marriage foundered too—only three years after the twins were born. Shepherd once claimed during her time with Bogdanovich that it was “sexier not to be married,” but she now believes it’s plain better not to be married. “Marriage isn’t my thing,” she says. “It scares me. The whole idea of ‘wife’ is…yech. I guess I don’t mind having a husband so much as I mind being a wife.”

Shepherd will play a single mother in an eponymously titled show for CBS slated for next winter. And although she’s currently dating Robert Martin, a 46-year-old keyboard player and backup singer in her band, the unmarried Shepherd admits to loneliness once in a while. “Oh, yeah,” she says, “underneath this Preference hair color is the girl next door.”

Cybill’s mother, Patty Shobe Shepherd Micci, taught her daughter about hair dye when she was 15, the year Cybill’s silver-blonde tresses began to darken, causing a mild panic in the Shepherd home. An hour before Cybill’s second performance of the weekend, Patty (who remarried following her divorce from Cybill’s father, Bill Shepherd) arrives at her daughter’s suite. While Cybill dashes off a letter to Zachariah, Patty sneaks downstairs to her room for a smoke. “I think Cybill is a great singer,” she says. “But she’s had bad advice on her recorded material. I wanted her to put a little country and western in her albums. I’d love to have her do a Patsy Cline song.” She takes a long drag. “Cybill’s so excited. She told me that she’s finally doing something she really, really loves. It’s taken so long. There were always other projects, but she never neglected her singing. In fact, her children would tell her, ‘Mother, please don’t sing around the house all the time.’ I guess she’s just so happy.”

Back at the suite, Patty joins Cybill and accompanist Tom Adams at the piano for a warm-up rendition of “Sentimental Journey.” Cybill is laughing, and her nerves have quieted down. How would she rate herself as a singer? “I wish I were better,” she says, speaking softly to save her voice. “I wish I had Bessie Smith’s voice and Louis Armstrong’s phrasing. But I think I’m a really good singer with a really good instrument, and I sing in tune almost all the time.”

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