Before the Kardashians, there was Zsa Zsa

The Gabor sisters and their mother (from left) Magda, Eva, Jolie and Zsa Zsa in a 1953 file photo.
The Gabor sisters and their mother (from left) Magda, Eva, Jolie and Zsa Zsa in a 1953 file photo.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NEW YORK • Long before the Kardashians, there were the Gabors. Before Paris Hilton, Ivanka Trump and other blondes with an air of effortless wealth and exaggerated glamour, there was Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Gabor, who died on Sunday, was a working actress who perfected the art of seeming idle. In that sense, she and her sisters anticipated the reality-show breed of semi-celebrities who are mostly famous for being famous. She married at least eight times and appeared in more than 60 films and television shows, never trying to pass as an actress perfecting her craft. Her career consisted of preserving and polishing a Euro-courtesan persona.

And it was an act of alchemy - spinning gold out of a pretty face and an exotic Hungarian background. In almost every appearance, be it a cameo on Gilligan's Island and towards the end of her career, a self-parodying star turn in The Naked Gun 21/2: The Smell Of Fear (1991), she expertly impersonated herself, swathed in chiffon, marabou feathers and diamonds, talking about her many husbands with her patented and paprika-spiced intonation of "Dahlink".

"How many husbands have I had?" she would reply when asked. "You mean, apart from my own?"

She was a fixture on The Merv Griffin Show back when talk-show guests were invited merely because they were amusing. Nowadays, the business is more bluntly transactional - actors, politicians and athletes show up when they have a new project to promote. In the 1970s, Gabor, along with other regulars such as Charo, rarely had anything new to sell; they were pros at presenting their same old selves.


It was at times hard to distinguish Zsa Zsa from her sister Eva, who had the same small, whittled features, coquettish voice and cotton-candy bouffant. Both played naughty foils to Leslie Caron in 1950s musicals - it was Eva who played Gaston's flighty mistress in Gigi (1958); Zsa Zsa was cast as the flighty magician's assistant in Lili (1953).

Zsa Zsa was even better known as a bubbleheaded millionaire's exwife on talk shows, on game shows and, in 1989, in a Los Angeles courtroom, where she was convicted of battery after slapping a police officer who pulled her over for an expired registration sticker on her Rolls-Royce. Even there, she was a trailblazer for today's celebrity scofflaws like Lindsay Lohan. But Gabor didn't milk her three-day jail sentence for sympathy and a redemption tour. In public, at least, she played it for laughs.

It didn't really matter which sister was which. The Gabors were a brand, established by their canny and ambitious mother, Jolie, who died in 1997. The eldest sister, Magda, had six husbands (including actor George Sanders, who was also one of Zsa Zsa's exes). She too romped in Hollywood and European cafe society.

Deep into old age, Zsa Zsa would no more drop her Champagneand-caviar insouciance than consider going out in public without the full masquerade of make-up, false eyelashes, wigs and jewellery.

Today's celebrities hawk sunglasses, clothing lines and houseware, but the Gabors were early masters of self-merchandising. Jolie sold costume jewellery and Eva a line of wigs. Zsa Zsa marketed her husband-hunting skills.

There, too, she was a pioneer, publishing her 1970 primer, How To Catch A Man, How To Keep A Man, How To Get Rid Of A Man, decades ahead of self-help books with wordy titles like All The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets For Capturing The Heart Of Mr. Right. For most of her life, Gabor seemed like a throwback to an Anita Loos-era of gold diggers and sugar daddies, an antiquated age when European roues gave themselves titles and divorcees were seen as daring and slightly dangerous.

Actually, she was the first reality show star and way ahead of her time.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline 'Before the Kardashians, there was Zsa Zsa'. Print Edition | Subscribe