I am feeling all of my fifty-nine years as my assistant is slathering my bare skin down with petroleum jelly. I already have the make-up on. That’s the easy part, the hard part is the costume. Luckily, LionCon only comes once a year.
I will never forget the first time I saw The Deer Hunter. It was a Friday night 1978, I was fourteen years old and had badgered my older brother to take me to a movie. The one condition was that he got to pick the movie. I agreed and sat down in the theater resolved to enjoy a night out of the house no matter how stupid his film selection was. Within the first five minutes of that film, I completely lost track of time. It was the first movie that didn’t seem like a movie. It was a window into another world. It seemed as if the actors weren’t actors at all, but had become the characters in reality. We, the audience, were watching them live their lives of friendship and love and fear and despair. I remember thinking that it was the first time I really understood anything about the Vietnam War, in spite of hearing about it for most of my young life.
The next thing is the body-shaper. I had to start using them about five years ago. In spite of the strictest of diets, multiple tummy tucks, liposuction and my body sculpting trainer, I am still getting old and my body is just not the same body it was twenty years ago. That doesn’t matter to the fans. They want the Eshra they saw in the movies. It doesn’t matter to them that the last installment was filmed when I was all of thirty-five years old and the woman in front of them is now nearly sixty. My assistant, a young woman who would look much better in my costume, holds the girdle down for me to step into. “There is no easy way to do this” I think as I put my feet into the holes. It is not a normal shaper, not one like you can buy at a store. I had this one specially made with a super strong elastic and reinforced with rubber sheeting. I put it on just like a bathing suit except that the bodice has a series of hook and eye closures. I lay down on a small sofa so that my assistant can close the damn thing. She has to help me up and I survey myself in the mirror. My breasts are pushed up, my waist is tight and small. The industrial-strength girdle has the added benefit of improving my posture so that my back in almost inhumanely straight.
I will be fine as long as I keep my breaths shallow.
My parents had been nagging me for months to start thinking about a college major. I had been thinking about accounting or hotel management. After that night, after that movie, I decided that I would be an actress. I told my mom and dad about my glamourous future plans the next morning at breakfast. I expected them to be happy that I had finally decided on a career path, but they were horrified. My father called it a pipe dream, my mother said I would change my mind within a week.
When it came time to apply to colleges, I applied to UCLA and was accepted. I promised my parents I would major in something “practical” but it was all a ruse to get to Hollywood. I lasted barely a semester before I dropped out and started waiting tables and going to auditions and acting classes. Mind you, back in those days, you could get a cheap apartment with a restaurant job and some temp gigs.
I was got my first real break as an extra in a sitcom. The show was a total flop and got cancelled before the first season, but one of the other extras introduced me to her agent, Louise Casella. As agents go, Louise was one of the best. She actually got me a few speaking parts on some shows. That led to my break. It wasn’t my BIG break. It was a small one, but when you’re grinding away out there, you will take any break you can get.
I got a part on a horror movie. It was low budget, but reviews were good. I wasn’t the star, I was the “best friend” who tells the main character that everything is fine and then gets killed half-way through the movie.
From there, I became a regular on another soap opera for a season, then came a few roles in some big budget studio films.
One of those films was nominated for an Oscar and suddenly everyone who had acted in it was the talk of the town, myself included. Louise’s phone was ringing off the hook. I still remember the stacks of scripts being sent to my apartment in downtown LA. When I went home for Christmas that year, my parents were so proud of me. As far as they were concerned, I had made it.
But the thing to remember about show business is you are only as good as your last show. The world moves on quick and you have to move with it.
Through the miracles of dieting, exercise and plastic surgery, I am now the size the fans expect me to be. Carefully, I step into the spandex form-fitting pants that the assistant holds for me. She pulls them up and over my stomach. They are covered in brownish gold velvet. Then comes the gold fur button up top that shows just a bit of cleavage. Thank goodness I had the sense to get the boob-job last year. Between that and the shaper I look almost as good as I did twenty years ago. The boots are platform and brown-suede. I have several pairs but this pair is original from the first film. I don’t own them even though they were made only for me. A tech billionaire who was a fan of the movies bought them from the studio for five-million dollars. He loans them to me for events. Outside the door is a security officer he hired to make sure the boots get back safe. Yes, that is correct. He hired a security officer to keep the BOOTS safe.
I got an offer for a lead role. The budget for the film was huge. They were going to pay me one-million dollars. I couldn’t believe it. I called my parents to tell them I was going to be a millionaire and a star. I was thrilled the day I signed the contract.
My character was a woman who finds out her husband has three other wives and families. It was based on a true story. I was sure that it was going to vault my career into orbit.
I was wrong. The film ended up being so long that the director had to cut huge parts of it out. Then so much of the story was lost that the plot was practically non-existent. The critics hated it, although they gave me and the other actors a pass. It didn’t matter, the damage was done. The year before I had been at the Oscars. Then I found myself sitting on my expensive new leather living room furniture, running out of money and waiting for the phone to ring. One million dollars, as it turns out, wasn’t as much as I thought after taxes, agent fees, a few designer shopping sprees, a used Mercedes and a rented beach house. The worst part was that with every passing day and no new offers, I felt my potential draining away. It was as if the future I had envisioned for myself had danced on the tips of my fingers for just a moment before flitting away.
This whole time, Louise never abandoned me. You have to remember, she had a lot of other talent on her roster, but she believed in me. She got me some voice acting gigs for a few animated shows. I got a few more auditions and some supporting roles on television. I was pretty down on myself. Louise told me that the important thing was that I was working, that I was visible. I had to stay visible and keep adding to the list of jobs on my resume. Something would turn up, she said.
I walk a few steps across my dressing room to get a feel for the boots. They feel like they always have. I have to admit, they are like an old friend. I am always glad to see them. The assistant sets a large box on the table. She opens it and pulls out the headdress. It belongs to me. The studio gave it to me as a souvenir at the wrap party of the first 'Lion' movie. We all thought the film was going to be terrible, a joke that all of us would have to live down. It wasn't a joke, but we still never lived it down.
I had another problem. My money was dwindling. I was staying visible, but I wasn’t getting paid much for it. Just when I thought I was going to have to go back to some shoebox apartment, Louise came through.
When I first saw the script for The Pride of the Lion, I had my doubts. It was about a group of people who board a spaceship to escape an apocalypse on Earth. They crash land on a planet of lion-people. I was going to get the part of the Eshra the Lion Princess who falls in love with one of the explorers.
I was planning to turn it down. After all, I had come to Hollywood to be Meryl Streep, not some science fiction princess.
Once I put the headdress on, I am truly Eshra the Lion Queen, (I became Queen in the the second movie). Eshra has her own walk, light, quick and stealthy. I watched nature films of lions for days to get the walk exactly right.
Backstage, I see some of my former costars also in costume. There is Don Lambert who played my love interest in the first film. I walk up to him to say hello. Poor Don turned seventy last year and I don’t know how much longer he can keep doing this. His last facelift did more harm than good, his eyebrows are a little too close to his hairline and he can barely blink his eyes. The make-up artist did a good job hiding his aging face. I hear a familiar voice and turn around to see Jessica Lewis. She played Lydia, the Lion/Human hybrid who tried to have me killed in the third sequel and install herself as the Lion Queen. I do sympathize with Jessica. At least when I am at LionCon, I get cheers, love and adoration. The crowd will boo and hiss when Jessica goes out on stage.
It's true. I was going to turn down The Pride of the Lion, then I heard about Cole Brandon. In my early days I had a couple of acting classes with Cole. We were great friends. He was gorgeous, smart and an intuitive performer. He became the star on a program aimed at the teen and college-kid demographic. He played a young professor and instantly became a teen idol, the kind that girls scream for and chase when they see in public.
After a couple of seasons, Cole left the show. Like me, he had come to Hollywood to be a movie star. He got an offer for a bit part in an independent film. He turned it down. A year later, that film was breaking earnings records and Cole Brandon was doing infomercials to pay his rent.
I called Louise and asked about the contract for The Pride of the Lion. It was five-hundred thousand dollars and a five percent share of the royalties. I accepted.
Critics panned The Pride of the Lion, and said it was terrible. My royalty checks told me otherwise.
The movie developed a following. Fans wrote to me, to the other actors, to the director and finally the studio.
The first movie was released to little fanfare in 1988. By 1991, a sequel was in the works. By 1995, we were a franchise and my career as anything other than Eshra the Lion Queen was over.
Things got a little weird. I was rich and famous but not for being an actress. As far as people were concerned, I was Eshra the Lion Queen. Out of costume, no one recognized me. In costume, I was and still am, practically a goddess.
In all, the studio did four film installments of The Pride of the Lion. Louise negotiated better and better contracts for me until I became wealthier than most Oscar winning actors. That was a good thing, because I was never offered any other projects after I portrayed Eshra.
After the fourth film, I told the studio I was done. They briefly considered a fifth film without Eshra but ultimately decided against it.
Instead of more films, they licensed The Pride of the Lion for products. First there were t-shirts, then lunchboxes, bedsheets, curtains, rugs, toys and coffee cups. Now, our pictures are on everything. I was in Santa Fe a couple of years ago when a fan brought an Eshra Queen of the Lions toilet seat for me to autograph. Some people made fun of all the different types of merchandise associated with the movie.
I didn’t care. Every time something with Eshra’s face sold, I got paid. I got a piece of revenue from every single item, including the toilet seats.
I stand in the center of the stage basking in the adulation and applause of the audience. Most of them wear their own costumes for their favorite characters. Eshras are everywhere. For the last two hours, we have answered questions about everything imaginable relating to the films. People want to know about the production, how we were selected for the parts, how we felt during different scenes, everything. Multiple books have been written, thousands of interviews, articles, videos and social media discussion pages and people still can’t seem to get enough. We will now head out to a large ballroom where fans who have paid extra will meet with us and get pictures. I will be here for a few more hours so I head to my dressing room for some water. I can't eat at all while I am wearing the costume and the lines to see Eshra are always the longest.
Over the years, I have talked with the rest of the cast about the obsession around the movie and our characters. We agreed that the writing was exceptional in spite of the fact that the movie wasn’t expected to do much. We all also played our roles like they were the most important roles of our career. I guess they were, even though we didn’t know it at the time.
I retired from acting after the last film. I was still in my forties. I guess I could have kept auditioning for other parts, but there was really no point. I was richer by then than I had ever hoped to be. I bought a beach house in Malibu, got my parents a condo in Beverly Hills. My brother had a successful accounting firm of his own, but I paid the tuition for his daughter to go to Harvard. I told him it was pay back for the time he took me to see The Deer Hunter.
It is midnight, which means that LionCon is officially over. My assistant comes to walk with me out of the ballroom. I have signed hundreds of autographs and talked with countless people. The crowds have thinned out, but there are always a few stragglers who want one last picture or autograph. Back in the dressing room, the boots are carefully removed and put into a bullet-proof and fire-proof box for the security guard to return them to the tech billionaire. The rest of my costume will be packed away for the next event. I feel sweet relief as I am peeled out of the body shaper and can breathe deeply for the first time all day.
After every LionCon, I put on my favorite black tracksuit and I put my hair up in a hat. I am wearing that now as I climb into the limo that that my contract stipulates will take me to the airport after every event. Exhausted and hungry, I pull a compact out of my purse and look into the mirror. The Eshra make-up has been removed and I am me again. Sometimes, I don’t think the fans even know I exist. For them there is only Eshra. I am sure I could resent this but I don’t. The truth is that I owe Eshra. I gave life to her in the movies, but she certainly gave me the life I have today. For now, Eshra is gone. Folded back up in the box and placed in the closet until I take her out again. I am exiting the limousine now on the tarmac to board a private plane that will take me back to that life. I don’t miss Eshra when I go, I will see her again at the next LionCon.