By Constance White
May 28, 2001 12:00 PM

The scene was supposed to be steamy, but Apollonia remembers it as anything but. Filming the Oscar-winning rock musical Purple Rain with Prince in November 1984, the actress had to strip to her underwear and dive into freezing Lake Minnetonka, outside Minneapolis. After multiple takes, she collapsed from hypothermia. “When I came out of it,” she recalls, “Prince’s voice was cracking. He kept saying, ‘I love you. I love you, Apollonia.’ That was the best he ever took care of me. Like I was a golden little princess.”

After a decade out of the spotlight, the former Prince protégée is developing an animated children’s show, launching a cosmetics line for Latinas called B.A. Calendar Girl and even helping produce a Las Vegas show starring former Baywatch star—and Prince paramour—Carmen Electra. “I’m in a different place now,” says Apollonia, 42 “I’m out of my shell.”

Escaping the shadow of her former mentor, however, hasn’t been easy. For years, she says, casting agents simply lumped her in with Prince’s other creations—Vanity, Sheila E. and Electra—and she was offered mostly sex-object roles. “People would think we’re like these little purple soldiers,” she says with a laugh, referring to Prince’s favored hue. “To this day it’s very rare that I’ll wear purple.”

But even as a child growing up in Santa Monica, Apollonia couldn’t resist the spotlight. “I would dance on tabletops for silver dollars,” says the woman born Patricia Apollonia Kotero, the oldest of six children of Mexican immigrants Victor, a restaurant manager, and Socorro, a caregiver for the elderly. “I wanted to entertain.” Dropping out of high school at 16 (“That’s my bone in the closet,” she says with regret), she quickly lined up work as a model, actress and cheerleader for the L.A. Rams football team. “She made her first million by the time she was 24,” marvels her brother George, 40, an entrepreneur.

She met Prince when she auditioned for the Purple Rain part at an open call in 1984. “I had his 1999 tape and thought it would be fun to work with him,” she says. But Prince, who had recently split from his previous protégée Vanity, “was looking for not just a leading lady in a film but a leading lady in his life.” Although she insists she and Prince “never had a relationship,” Apollonia admits she acquiesced to his demands that she break up with her then-boyfriend, Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth. “Prince didn’t want me to be known for dating someone famous,” she says. “He made me promise I wouldn’t date anyone publicly during promotion of the film.”

There were other demands as well, including his insistence that she eat only what he ate, often just candy and tea. “He wanted to make everyone clones of himself,” says Apollonia. “We had to sing like him and dress like him. I still love him, but there was a side of him that was just a tyrant.”

In 1987, after the film hoopla died down, Apollonia wed actor Kevin Bernhardt (General Hospital’s Dr. Kevin O’Connor), whom she had met at a Los Angeles nightclub in 1984. But fame put a strain on the relationship almost from the beginning. “It didn’t take long before he was tired of always being Mrs. Apollonia,” says the actress, who went on to small parts on the CBS drama Falcon Crest and in straight-to-video films.

Divorced since 1997, Apollonia says that for the time being she’s happy focusing on her work and hanging out with friends like Electra, whom she met when Electra moved in next door—by chance—to her L.A. townhouse in 1998. But they never discuss you know who. “You’d think we would,” says Electra, “but we don’t. We have our own friendship.” As for the artist once again known as Prince? He and Apollonia haven’t spoken in years. Yet “I wouldn’t change a minute of it,” she says. “It allowed me to become the woman I am now.”

Constance White

Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles