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Billy Masters: Remembering Liz

By Billy Masters

March 29, 2011

"People didn’t know that she was so talented cutting hair. The one thing she would have liked to become is a hair stylist." - Jose Eber talks about Elizabeth Taylor’s secret passion. I’m not so sure it would have been a good idea. How much do you tip the stylist with two Oscars, a tracheotomy scar, and wearing the Cleopatra headdress?

I only met Elizabeth Taylor once. April 29, 1986. An AIDS benefit in NYC. "To Care is to Cure" was billed as "The World’s Largest Photo Session." Her "date" for the evening was a very dashing Calvin Klein -- and having him show up at an AIDS event back then was BIG news. As the presentation was about to start, people pushed closer to the stage. I seized that opportunity to slip over to the now-abandoned (and fully-laden) buffet. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a tiny figure in front of the guy slicing roast beef. Before the slab hit the plate, someone whispered in her ear. I heard a familiar voice screech, "Can’t I at least put a goddamn piece of meat in my mouth, for Christ’s sake?" Realizing someone overheard her, she smiled at me and winked. That was Elizabeth Taylor.

This was Taylor at her most beautiful. She’d gotten sober, lost all the weight, was tanned, and her dark hair had little grey tips -- she was breathtaking. I wormed my way into her enormous entourage and followed her into the wings. I took a series of photos of her onstage, hoping against hope to snag the big prize...a photo with the legendary lady herself. The moment she came off stage, about 20 security guards appeared and created a human chain around her and everyone in her immediate vicinity -- including moi. We were all hustled towards a waiting car, knocking over poor little Dr. Ruth (who I did get a photo with). Everyone was frazzled, except Elizabeth. This was her life. She was used to it. Come to think of it, she never did get a piece of meat that night...but I did!

Not that this really matters, but there’s been a lot of discussion this week about who was the first celebrity to join the fight against AIDS. Both Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Rivers have been credited with this, and in a way, both are correct answers. Auntie Joan is the first celebrity of record to raise money to fight AIDS. She produced and headlined two benefit concerts on March 11, 1984 at the legendary West Hollywood hotspot, Studio One (now known as The Factory). That evening, Joan and pals Charles Nelson Reilly and Julie Budd raised over $45K. Almost a year later, Elizabeth was asked to help organize an event for AIDS Project LA. This led to the first annual Commitment to Life gala, which took place on September 19, 1985. Elizabeth accomplished the seemingly impossible -- because of her support and personal phone calls (to say nothing of convincing former first lady Betty Ford to be the inaugural honoree), celebs like Shirley Maclaine, Burt Lancaster, Diahann Carroll, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder, Cher, George Hamilton, Angie Dickinson, Heather Locklear, Tommy Lee, Morgan Fairchild, and Dak Rambo showed up and helped raise over $1 million that night. Without a doubt, Joan Rivers was the first star to raise her voice. But Elizabeth made other celebs feel it was the right thing to do.