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The sex kitten puts down her whip

Ann-Margret was once called the female Elvis Presley. But now the sixties icon comes across as a little girl lost in a movie star's body.

She was a surname-less star when celebrity culture was in its infancy, but Ann-Margret's first-name-basis stardom was not a reflection of her fame.

"It was to keep all the bad things from my parents," the 68-year-old sex kitten of the sixties says sweetly in a barely-there voice. "I didn't want them to have to suffer if I got into trouble or anything. We sat at the kitchen table, and I said, 'I'm going to drop the last name [Olsson] to protect you.'"

She sits before me, a shapely, sugar-plum vision, dressed in a purple sequined dress, violet-tinted glasses, big white veneers and her signature strawberry-blond hair. It is not hard to see why aging Hollywood female stars can become gay icons - in their confident embrace of who they once were, they can look like caricatures of femininity, more made up than real.

In Toronto recently to be honoured by Best Buddies, a charitable organization that recognizes the philanthropic efforts of celebrities (Burt Reynolds in 2007 and Shirley MacLaine in 2008), Ann-Margret is a strange interview challenge. She presents as a little girl lost in a movie star's body.

"Oh, I don't watch," she says in a whispery voice when asked if she was looking forward to the vintage movie tribute to her that has been compiled for the event. "My daughter called the other night to say 'You're on TV,' " she says, referring to a clip of her star-making role in the 1963 movie Bye Bye Birdie that the ad guys of the show Mad Men were watching as they brainstormed ideas. "I get so self-conscious," she says. "I don't know who that person is," she continues as though embarrassed by the being she could become when in front of a camera or on a stage.

I remind her that she was once referred to as the female Elvis Presley, one of the men she dated. Her dance abandon was legendary. "A cross between a high-calorie shimmy and a convulsive seizure catapulted her from a non-entity to a star in just three minutes," a newspaper reported in 1962 after she walked on stage at the Academy Awards to perform a nominated song, Bachelor in Paradise.

She giggles childishly at the recollection and proceeds to talk about growing up in Sweden, where she was raised before immigrating with her parents to the United States in 1946. An only child, she was surrounded by a close-knit extended family that loved to sing, play music and dance. Several times, in fact, she mentions her deceased parents as major influences in her life. "I was very well brought up," she explains at one point, when asked about how she handled her considerable fame. "If I could only be half as good as my mother and father."

And why were they so good? I ask, leaning forward so I can hear her little voice. "They never asked anyone for anything. If they couldn't afford something, they wouldn't get it. So I learned very, very early. We celebrated always on Christmas Eve. I'd get one Sunday dress every year, a go-to-church dress, and every time there was a special event, a wedding or something, I would wear that dress."

She lived at home with her parents until she was 23, well into her career after being discovered as a teenager by George Burns in Las Vegas, when she auditioned for his annual holiday show.

George Sidney, director of Bye Bye Birdie, once said of his star, "She makes you wonder whether to give her a piece of gum or a bracelet." That projection of innocence and naiveté, whether real or adopted, is still a large part of her public persona, despite setbacks, including a battle with alcoholism, as documented in her 1994 autobiography, and the terrible fall in 1972 when she dropped 22 feet from an elevated platform to the stage, suffering severe injuries that necessitated facial reconstructive surgery.

A few times, I find myself thinking of Dorothy Parker's line about Katharine Hepburn's acting style: She runs "the gamut of emotions from A to B." With Ann-Margret, she never moves past G for good girl.
"I feel so sorry for them," she says of contemporary celebrities who must contend with an intrusive tabloid press, paparazzi and the Internet rumour mill.

How would she have felt if she had had to undergo such scrutiny?
"I would have left. I wouldn't have been able to handle it."
But didn't she enjoy her ascendancy, being on the cover of so many magazines, twice nominated for an Oscar, celebrated as a sex symbol?
"I felt it was very flattering," she replies as if someone has offered her a cookie she must politely refuse. "But it wasn't something that I sought out."

Her marriage to Roger Smith, an actor who starred in the TV series 77 Sunset Strip and later became her manager, has been her greatest accomplishment, she suggests. They have been married for 42 years. "Can you believe it? We can't believe it!" she says, inching toward E for excitement. Did she ever have moments of doubt about her marriage? "No," she says sweetly. "I knew when I was 17 years old that I would only be married one time and that was it. (Despite a diagnosis of myasthenia gravis, an incurable neuromuscular disease, her husband maintains his health, she says.)

They spend a lot of time with friends and family in Hollywood, including his three children from his first marriage. (They were unable to have children of their own.) They love to ride their Harley motorcycles. "It's the speed, it's the element of danger, it's the wind, and freedom," she says. When she saw Marlon Brando in the 1953 movie The Wild One, she was enthralled. "I just thought, how exciting!"
But before she allows herself any emotional abandon, she returns to good girl, recalling a moment in her childhood, when her uncle put her on the back of his motorcycle. "He'd take me across the Norwegian border, and the fjords were down there and the mountains," she says dreamily with a sigh.

At that point, thankfully, the publicist brings the interview to an end.


By Sarah Hampson


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