By Fred Hauptfuhrer
April 14, 1980 12:00 PM

‘I am camp,’ admits the Polish countess of TV spots

A bumper sticker appeared just before the Illinois primary reading “Honk—if you’ll vote for Rula Lenska for President.” The British actress actually got a few write-ins, and she has created more noise than some announced candidates. She first appeared on U.S. television in 1978, making a pitch for Alberto VO5 hair sprays. “I’m Rooo-la Lenzzz-ka,” she growled in a tone that suggested she was somebody famous. America’s curiosity was piqued, and soon T-shirts were stamped demanding, “Who the hell is Rula Lenska?” In short order Lenska, who had an undistinguished European acting career, became a celebrity and the target of satirists from Robin Williams to Jane Curtin.

Last month Rula, 32, visited the U.S. for the first time, which of course put her international fan clubs, based in Detroit and Chicago, in a lather. The Detroit group (1,200 members) already had held lookalike contests for both Rula (won somehow by a Japanese woman) and her actor husband, Brian Deacon. They also have poetry competitions hymning her name, and one of the clubs publishes a monthly newsletter. Surprisingly, there is something to write about: Lenska is a Polish countess by birth who discarded her title (“In Britain it doesn’t count, if you’ll excuse the pun”). But lineage aside, Rula was barely known before signing with Alberto-Culver. Company president Leonard Lavin discovered her while watching the telly in a London hotel room. She was playing a pop singer in the miniseries Rock Follies. Knocked out by her auburn locks, Lavin invited her to tea at the Ritz, and the deal was struck. With the Lenska campaign, the firm’s aerosol hair spray sales spurted, and Alberto was soon filming its star in mink and a chauffeur-driven Bentley. “It’s fantasy,” coos Rula.

The daughter of exiled aristocrats, she grew up in London. Her father directed Polish programs for Radio Free Europe, and the family cherished its past—each Christmas a consecrated host was sent to them by relatives in Poland. The young Countess Roza-Maria Laura Leopoldnya Lubienska acquired her nickname, Rula, in childhood and dropped three letters from her surname when she went into the theater (“I didn’t want to Anglicize it completely”). She had already “gotten a buzz from acting” in convent school plays, even though her height (she is 5’9″) and deep mezzo at first limited her roles to Saint Joseph and the Archangel Gabriel. Rejected by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at 19, she settled for a bilingual secretarial course (she now speaks five languages) and a job in a bank. But she quit when she was admitted to another drama school. Brian Deacon, now 31, was a fellow student, but it was not until six years later (after an affair with a dealer in Surrealist art) that they met again and fell in love. They married in 1977 and live with their 8-month-old daughter, Lara, in a modest two-bedroom house in Wimbledon. The couple have similar tastes—vegetarian food, bridge and moviegoing. Brian starred in the recently released Jesus.

Lenska played a prostitute in Peter Sellers’ Soft Beds and Hard Battles, and her latest shot at advancing to the big screen came when she was cast as a film director in the spoof Queen Kong; she had no regrets, though, when King Kong producer Dino De Laurentiis won an injunction to stop the movie’s release. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done,” rues Rula.

Yet with her commercials, she has already come a long way—from a figure of fun to a figure of speech. Just a couple of months ago New York Times columnist Russell Baker called George Bush “the Rula Lenska of politics.”