Her birthday party, fittingly over the top in every way, revealed a lot about the Lucia Kaiser her friends knew and loved, and as newly minted acquaintances of this lovely lady, we reveled in the opportunity to get to know her better. Among the VIP guests we mingled with, on hand to celebrate her in the style she so obviously adored, were A-list celebrities, gifted musicians, media moguls, cover girl models and invited intimates, luminaries all, who clearly enjoyed shining the spotlight on the birthday queen. Personal well wishes came from far and wide, crossing COVID-closed borders all over the world in message form so they could join her in spirit and not miss her big day, heartfelt notes from best friends Quincy Jones and Dionne Warwick among them. As you might expect for an Emmy-winning entertainment industry insider, fabulously gifted performers, from jazz to opera to salsa stars, sang, played and danced for her, wowing the room with talents like the ones she booked during her reign with Johnny Carson. Guests sipped on exquisite, très chère Louis XIII cognac, barrel-aged to rare perfection, crystal toasted with the very best French champagne, and indulged in a luscious dream cake as decadent and picture pretty as Lucia herself. And the setting in a beautiful spacious New York City loft apartment in Soho that owned spectacular city views was equally as warm and welcoming as everyone knew Lucia to be.
Which begs the question: how did a girl from The Bronx like Lucia climb to the top of a traditionally cut-throat, couch-casting career and not only remain remarkably her own person, but also gain recognition as one of the best-liked, universally respected women in the entertainment industry? We were excited to find out.
We had the delightful opportunity to speak to her about an adventurous life lived on her terms and the self confidence that kept her safe along the way. What she shared is the stuff of movies and romance novels, with royal intrigues, passionate affairs, daring escapades and a star-studded line up of jobs, saviors and lovers that had us riveted from the start.
As she tells it, she was born to travel, having arrived in the middle of an ocean crossing during her parent’s voyage from Sicily to America to start a new life. Her mother, an Old World Roman Catholic, became a Jehovah’s Witness, and often sent her eight-year-old daughter out on the streets in their Bronx neighborhood to peddle the nationally syndicated Witness publications: “The Watchtower” and “Awake” Magazines. Even then, Lucia (then known as Sandra) instinctively knew how to make the best of any situation she found herself in, selling 25 cent magazines and pocketing a nickel from each sale for her own calling. All the while she was breezing through school with exceptional grades, skipping a year before graduating from high school at the tender age of 15. Money and Hawaii was on her mind then so, with a fake ID in hand, she auditioned for an American musical variety show that would set the stage for her life in show business. She was cast on the spot as a caged go-go dancer on Hullabaloo, a TV showcase for leading pop stars featuring major musical artists and hosted by a different top-name star each week, including Sammy Davis Jr. who would become one of her dearest lifelong friends. When he found out that the pretty raven-haired dancer was underage, he took her under his wing. Her time dancing was cut short when her mother got word that her young daughter was dancing inappropriately on television and proceeded to march down to the NBC studios to rescue her from evil. She actually saved the money she made dancing on the show and was able to fund her way to the life of luaus and leis she dreamed of – and off she flew to Hawaii to make her obsession with a place where the wealthiest of the wealthy lived in an ocean-lined paradise come true.
Fearless and fun loving, she dove right into Hawaiian life, modeling hats and bikinis for a living and getting her feet wet – then winning 2 back-to-back women’s championships – in surfing competitions, before a collision with another surfer sidelined her.
In those years, she told me, women could only compete against women; she wasn’t allowed to officially challenge the men. “Did that stop her?” I asked, knowing the answer before she had a chance to tell me her story, one of many I would discover where she stood up for women’s rights. She recalled that she and a girlfriend were allowed to surf with the guys in a casual contest. “There was one surfer who was really mad that we were allowed to join them and he rammed me with his surfboard, making it look like an accident. I ended up in the emergency hospital with my foot in a cast.”
“That’s when I returned to New York and landed a job with Johnny Carson,” she added, somewhat nonchalantly I thought, as if getting a job with the late great king of late-night television was something anyone, let alone a woman, could easily do.
But Lucia is not just any woman. Carson called her the gutsiest woman he had ever met with more balls than any guy he ever met, first hiring her as an intern, one foot in a cast, the other in a very sexy high heel shoe, then promoting her in the coveted role as Talent Booker for his television show, the first time a woman would hold this position. She also took on the job as show publicist, again making waves in a high-profile role that made people stop and take notice. She was just 19 at the time and had landed one of the most powerful positions with one of the most powerful celebrities on TV. She remembers asking Johnny why he ended up interviewing her.
“Are you kidding me?” he said, trademark Johnny Carson expression on his face. “Do you, did you ever look in the mirror?” Laugh track, then serious again. “And you turned out to be one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met in my life.” And from all accounts he meant it.
Lucia and Johnny would work closely together for five years, he fully confident in her abilities to do anything she set her mind to, he was always confident in her value as an exceptional executive. What she endured behind the scenes reinforces the person he believed her to be.
“I was sexually harassed many times over the years because of my looks but I never once gave into their demands. In fact, when I told Johnny about the men who were harassing, or inappropriately propositioning me – some who were from his powerful inner circle, and told him I was leaving, he said, ‘No, you’re not leaving, they are.’ And he fired them just like that.”
To say that Lucia was ahead of her time is a given. Blessed with beauty and brains and the self-assuredness to live life on her terms, she never thought twice about compromising her standards. Never one to be intimidated, no one, no man, was going to tell her what to do no matter how omnipotent he considered himself to be. “And I always paid my own way,” she added proudly.
“I had an uncle who early on warned me about the dangers I would face as a woman. He described exactly what could happen, leaving no details to the imagination, if I were to be sexually assaulted or trafficked to someplace I couldn’t escape from. I never forgot his words and gratefully share them with parents and young children whenever I can.”
She ended up leaving the Johnny Carson show to head up an all-women’s advertising agency as President at the extraordinary offer of a man who recognized the many assets she brought to the table. She had top-tier connections and social contacts from her job with Johnny Carson – think Joan Crawford, Burt Reynolds, the Rat Pack, and a wide range of headlining superstars – and from her very visible profile as a Revlon Lipstick Girl, making her agency a success from the get-go. It is also where her fortune and fearlessness grew – as did her disdain for men who would denigrate women.
“Disgusted” with the man who backed the business, she ended up closing the agency after a year. Following that chapter, her need for wanderlust emerged again and this time she decided to take an extensive trip throughout Europe with Amsterdam being the first stop. The entire trip was filled with too many adventured to be told – some highlights including getting stopped and held at Check Point Charlie for 24 hours in East Germany for being mistaken for another woman; getting caught at a Marine Base in Naples, Italy for sneaking in to visit a boyfriend and again almost getting arrested and told she could never come back to Naples, just to name a few.
During another trip to Rome, after being smothered by an ardent admirer who followed her, she flew to Egypt, a dream destination for Lucia who had studied Egyptian art and wanted to see The Pyramids, her trip resulted in imperial intrigues in Anwar Sadat’s royal palace, a passionate six month relationship with a handsome courtier which sadly ended when an ultra-powerful Saudi Prince who wanted to purchase her from her lover to be part of a “high class” subversive sex trafficking ring – He threatened her life when she would not comply.
Listening to her stories, my imagination raced back in time to the days of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, where their ever-watchful enemies were always ever present, when kidnappings and murders were rampant, and star-crossed lovers fled to safety by any means possible.
While she mentioned having a gun held to her head for some act of cultural disobedience, she assured me she had the freedom to come and go from the palace as she pleased. Living the life of a princess was not a bad deal for her, a kid from the Bronx. That is until her partner explained that she was to be taken away the very next day and he didn’t have the power to stop it. When she voiced her horror at the Prince’s plans, he helped her escape in a thrilling edge-of-your-seat story that is destined to be retold on the big screen and one that underscores her life’s mission today. While she supports an array of causes on behalf of the homeless and the helpless, she has been especially focused on making the world a better and safer place for women and children and by bringing awareness to the very real dangers of sex trafficking, having experienced it firsthand.
“Were it not for my friend in Egypt, my story would have ended very differently and I wouldn’t be here today to tell it. I could have been one of those women who are forever lost to a world of slavery. What he did by warning me and secreting me away on a boat bound for Beirut and a flight to the US, Egyptian law enforcement would never have dared do, and I owe him my life.”
“I went on to make a lot of money for women in my day, sadly never equal to what men were paid, and traveled the world because of it. I’ve lived all over and have experienced so much. If you saw pictures of me from the past, you’ll know that I have always been able to blend in with different nationalities, from the time I was kidnapped to South America to my days passing for an Egyptian with my sun-darkened skin and long black hair to a visit to Israel where the locals thought I was a local”
That blending in opened doors to cultural experiences few American women have.
Her travels and the travails she encountered along the way were in turn dangerous and delightful, pitting her against good men and bad until she met the love of her life. While traveling in Hong Kong, she agreed to accompany a man to meet a potential employer which led to her job as president of Bruce Lee’s Film Company, a role traditionally held only by men in a centuries-old chauvinistic society. Riding head-to-head with machismo motorcycle racers – Steve McQueen taught her how to ride – While motorcycle racing in Bangkok she got into a terrible accident and ended up in an army hospital with soldiers from Vietnam. She jumped out of a plane 32 times, letting nothing hold her back from soaring through life her way. And while she admits to being a real player back then with no interest in marriage or children with a bevy of men at her beck and call, meeting a handsome golden-haired stranger in a Munich Disco Club and going home with him on that first night lasted 23 blissful years of marriage she’ll never take for granted.
After her husband Steffan Kaiser’s tragic and untimely passing, Lucia turned her attention to documentary filmmaking and philanthropic causes, winning two Emmys in the process and making a huge difference in countless lives. She has received The Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Cannes Film Festival, Philanthropy and Leadership in Pioneering Women in the Business Entertainment Industry for breaking barriers for women, an incredible HBO Legacy Award for her role as President of Bruce Lee’s Film Company in Hong Kong, The Lifetime Achievement Humanitarian Award from GEM (Global Empowerment Movement Organization) at The United Nations and was chosen at The Davos International Forum in Switzerland as one of the 100 Most Influential Women in America just to name a few. She’s raised millions for Charity, including building a ballet school in Hawaii, was one of the original founding members of The Maui Film Festival and continues to support causes dear to her all over the world. And after making many an actor and actress household names, she’s now back home in the New York metropolitan region where film companies are in discussions to finally produce a movie and a TV series about her.
This time, they won’t have to embellish the script to make her story a riveting box office hit because all of the scenes in Lucia Kaiser’s life, as unimaginable as they are, are the real deal. We can’t wait to sit in the front ro
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