June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

From 1995 until last month, when her sitcom was cancelled by CBS, Cybill Shepherd kept network censors alert by dealing frankly with such delicate topics as menopause—the very issues, she felt, that were of compelling interest to women her age. The Memphis-born actress, now 48, will keep sounding off in a memoir, Cybill Disobedience, scheduled for publication next spring. “For me, the most frightening thing about menopause was how no one wanted to talk about it,” she told PEOPLE. “It would kill the conversation when I brought it up.”

Causing a stir is nothing new for Shepherd, a former model who became a household name with her critically acclaimed film debut in 1971 ‘s The Last Picture Show—and her highly public affair with the movie’s married director, Peter Bogdanovich. Though the relationship lasted eight years, it almost killed both their careers as the pair collaborated on the notorious flops Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love. Showing the steel beneath the magnolia, Shepherd reinvented herself in the ’80s on the hit ABC series Moonlighting. Playing off costar Bruce Willis, the actress delighted audiences with the earthy humor she had previously shared only with family and friends. She—and it—would return in the saucily subversive Cybill, a show she developed and produced in frustration over the lack of worthwhile roles for women her age. “I’ve been very fortunate,” Shepherd says, “but I had to create this part.”

The actress is hardly alone in grappling with the issues of aging and societal expectations. An estimated 20 million women of the baby boomer generation have either reached menopause or are having symptoms of perimenopause, the transition years leading up to the change of life. Shepherd recently sat down with staff correspondent Paula Yoo in the Mediterranean-style home in Encino, Calif., she shares with her fiancé, musician Robert Martin, 50, and her children, Clementine Ford, 19, and twins Zachariah and Ariel Oppenheim, 10. (Clementine is Shepherd’s daughter by her first husband, auto-parts dealer David Ford; the twins are from her second marriage, to chiropractor Bruce Oppenheim.) She spoke bluntly about the physical and emotional changes she is going through and what she describes as her excitement at entering a new phase in her life.

I’ve been dealing with the fear of losing my beauty from a very early age. When I got to Hollywood at 20, I was told, “You’re going to be over the hill when you’re 25.” Emotionally, I was also afraid of aging. I always enjoyed having my period—the power of this potential to create life. I wondered, “What’s going to happen to me when my period stops?” But during the last three years, there has been a gradual acceptance of growing older. I look in the mirror, and I don’t look as “beautiful” as when I was 18. But I now realize there’s another kind of beauty. Instead of being the end of something, menopause began to seem like the beginning of something else in terms of who I was.

To prepare myself for menopause, I began doing extensive research five years ago. I’ve always read about women’s issues and about our bodies and biological cycles. When we were developing the concept for Cybill, in 1993, I told Chuck Lorre, the show’s co-creator, that I wanted to explore the topic of menopause and other issues for women over 40. We had very spirited discussions during the writing of our first episode on menopause, “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” which aired in 1996. One of our younger women writers told me, “When my mother was going through it, she started acting like a crazy person! She was so angry!” I thought to myself, “Well, if your society is throwing you away, saying that after menopause you can’t be sexual, you’re no longer beautiful, and you no longer have power, of course you’re going to get angry!” I believe, as Germaine Greer does, that what society wants to do to women as we age is to make us invisible. They want us to shut up. And that’s why I’m speaking out.

My mother had a hysterectomy about 30 years ago, and menopause was never discussed when I was growing up. There was no rite of passage for me, in terms of learning about menopause. As an adult, the feelings of perimenopause were so subtle that I wasn’t sure if they were caused by stress. I kept looking up the definition of a “hot flash,” and the dictionary would always say “sweating” and “night sweats.” And I’d go, “Well, I haven’t sweated; I just felt warm enough to wake up.” It wasn’t until last September that I started to believe there was some kind of change going on for me. I called a close friend who had severe hot flashes and said, “I think I am now experiencing this.”

(I had my checkup last year, and I told my internist about experiencing some mild hot flashes. He said he thought hormone replacement therapy was great, that it helps with depression and makes your skin look better. I told him when a friend had HRT she started experiencing depression, so her doctor gave her a mood elevator, which stopped her from having orgasms. I told him I thought having an orgasm a day instead of HRT was more fun, and his jaw dropped.)

There was a period where I’d have four or five hot flashes during the day. Of course I had to turn the air-conditioning on! Some people began complaining that the stage where I did my show was really cold. I started bringing a small cooler of ice on the set.

And then it happened—my first oh-Lord-have-mercy hot flash. It was during the filming of the 1997 Halloween episode. I had on this big costume and a wig—I looked like Glinda the Good Witch. And I suddenly felt extremely hot. I was like, “ICE WATER!!!”

Having a hot flash is like having a very intense feeling of heat through the center of your body. I feel it somewhere right where my heart is. I grab ice water, and it seems to quiet down. I’ve heard horror stories from other women, though. I had quite intense hot flashes for about three months, from September through November of last year. So far this year they seem to have subsided.

The people I worked with were very helpful. When I felt a hot flash happening, I’d say, “Uh-oh, I’m having a power surge!” and they’d get me ice water. But sometimes other people look at me like I’ve lost my mind. I don’t think that people know how to deal with menopause.

Aside from the hot flashes and wakefulness, I haven’t experienced any other symptoms of menopause. Yet. I’ve not experienced mood swings, but I do feel things more intensely. Which includes sex. I also feel I know more about what I want and don’t want sexually and what works for me. Before, I was afraid of intimacy because it made me feel vulnerable. Now I’m older, more confident, and comfortable with exploring intimacy in a monogamous relationship.

I did go through a period of confusion during September of last year as I was experiencing the beginnings of perimenopause. One person would tell me to take one pill, someone else would tell me to take another vitamin, and before I knew it I had 16 bottles in front of me. Then I said, “That’s it! I can’t do this by myself.” I bought about 15 different books on menopause and read them. There were two I particularly liked: What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause: The Breakthrough Book on Natural Progesterone, by John R. Lee, M.D. and Virginia Hopkins; and Natural Menopause: The Complete Guide to a Woman’s Most Misunderstood Passage, by Susan Perry and Katherine O’Hanlan, M.D. Both discuss natural alternatives—such as foods, supplements, herbs and progesterone creams—to hormone replacement therapy.

Two of the biggest concerns for women entering menopause are the increased risks of heart disease and osteoporosis. So I maintain my regular physical examinations and have a balanced diet, including dark, leafy greens, and take calcium supplements. For the past four years I’ve been eating more soy and tofu, after hearing that in certain cultures where they mainly eat soy women don’t seem to have such extreme symptoms of menopause. (I don’t believe in depriving myself, though. If I’m feeling sad, I will eat ice cream!) Of course I work out as often as I can. My ideal exercise schedule is this: I wake up in the morning and make very strong coffee—strong enough to float a crowbar. Then I meditate for a half hour. Then I do an intense workout, which, if I’m lucky, includes about 15 minutes on the Stair-Master, working with weights and free weights, aerobics, and walking my dog.

The one thing I haven’t done yet is hormone replacement therapy. It’s a complicated issue. At this point in my life I am more interested in experiencing this amazing change. I want to be present during my menopause. I want to be aware. If I’m going to have a hot flash, I want to feel it. If and when I think HRT is necessary, I’m willing to consider it. But I want to be tested first to find out some facts, like which hormones do I really need? HRT is reported to reduce the risk of heart disease, but there are possible dangers associated with the treatment—including increased risk of breast cancer and uterine cancer—depending on your body type and family history. No pill is a panacea.

Puberty and menopause are bookends for women. When my daughter Clementine had her first period, I gave her a ring with a red garnet stone in it, to tell her that it was something to celebrate. I wanted her to have a positive rite of passage. What angers me lately is that menopause appears to be the last frontier of women’s biological cycles that is still considered unmentionable. Especially on prime-time television. We were told that we couldn’t say the words “menstruation,” “vagina” or “cervix” in the “Some Like It Hot” episode, our second on menopause. I had to fight CBS in order to say the word “period.”

I talk a lot with my fiancé about everything I’m going through—about menopause, about what we value and what’s important to us as we get older. He’s really great. He’s a little ahead of me—he’s 50 this month—but not by much. He’s very understanding and supportive. When you reach 50, whether you’re a man or a woman, you realize you’re not going to live forever.

My advice for women entering menopause is to trust your feelings. Explore. Invest in yourself, whether it be through school or therapy or church. Believe in yourself, find out who you are. As a woman out there today, you have to be a warrior. When I started in this business 30 years ago, nobody believed I could do what I do today. I did it by sheer not giving up.

Society hasn’t changed as much as I wish it had. I wish it were easier for my daughters. For me, menopause is a chance to make peace with myself. It’s a reminder of my mortality—and an opportunity for me to grow.

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