PARIS — For Régine Zylberberg, the nightlife powerhouse who once ran a club empire spanning from Rio de Janeiro to Kuala Lumpur, living well is the best revenge.
On the cusp of turning 86, the redhead known to the international jet set by her first name has just published a book of photographs and released a triple album of her greatest hits. She is also embarking on a French tour that will see her perform at the legendary Folies Bergère music hall in Paris on Valentine’s Day.
Initially set to take in 17 cities nationwide, the tour started on Nov. 15, two days after the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people. Ever the trouper, Régine honored the first two dates, inviting her audience to join her on stage for her signature anthem, “Je Survivrai” (“I Will Survive”).
With many people avoiding large concert venues in the wake of the Bataclan massacre, the remaining dates are now being rescheduled, possibly in favor of a more intimate format. But Régine, a Jewish survivor of World War II, remains undaunted.
“I’m not going to say everything is fine, but we have the same problems as elsewhere. Simply, we must not get bogged down, and people now need to bounce back and survive,” she said, perched on a stool in her ornate apartment just off Avenue Montaigne, surrounded by mementos and photographs.
“I’m not a medium, but I have an instinct,” she added. “During the war, I would go out at night. The curfew, the Germans — I wasn’t scared. I would deliver messages. I have a lot of faith in life, and I think we will get through this period, hopefully as quickly as possible — but it will end. Things have to look up. They have to.”
It is the kind of steely resolve that allowed the Belgian-born entertainer, whose childhood was marked by an absentee mother and a gambler father, to hoist herself from hat-check girl to the top of the social pyramid, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Aristotle Onassis, Françoise Sagan and Yves Saint Laurent on the way.
Her new book “Mes Nuits, Mes Rencontres,” which loosely translates as “People and Places,” shows her out on the town with luminaries including Oscar de la Renta, Diana Vreeland, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Shirley MacLaine, Julio Iglesias, Sammy Davis Jr., Charles Aznavour and Pelé.
It also highlights her career as a singer — she performed at Carnegie Hall in 1969 — and an actress, with bit parts in films including “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” and “The Last Train.”
“I always play ladies of the night. I find it’s quick and easy, and that way I get to pick up some fun outfits for my parties at the club,” she tossed out dismissively.
As might be expected, Régine is a treasure trove of juicy anecdotes.
There was the time Mick Jagger was turned away from the opening of Régine’s New York City outpost because he was wearing a jacket and sneakers — the notoriously strict door policy specified men had to be in a dark suit.
Or her long-standing feud with Frank Sinatra over a fracas in Monte Carlo, which he wrongly believed she had leaked to the press. When Régine appeared in Las Vegas to sing with Paul Anka at Caesars Palace, a sullen Sinatra refused to introduce her on stage.
“I sent him flowers. He was not happy — he sent them back,” she recalled. “Not that I care. Whether I was part of his inner circle, frankly, never ruined my life. I mean, he really was a pain in the ass.”
Régine’s sharp tongue and ability to hold a grudge — she refers to former friends as “the living dead” — are as legendary as her hospitality. She gleefully tells the tale of sending a cactus to a New York Times food critic who had dissed the restaurant at Régine’s in New York, run at the time by famed chef Michel Guérard.
Then there were her famous lovers, including Gene Kelly, with whom she had a three-month affair. “We remained very, very close friends,” she said, recalling her sadness at watching him go blind in old age.
Indeed, it hasn’t been all Champagne and caviar.
Barely in her teens, Régine lost her boyfriend, Claude Heyman, during the war. Heyman had told his uncle he would marry her when she turned 15, but he was deported in 1944. “Of course, he never came back. He was my first love, and I think, for me, my only love — voilà,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Her only child, Lionel Rotcage, passed away at the age of 58 in 2006. “My son is the only thing I miss,” Régine said of her heyday.
Not that she likes to dwell.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. That doesn’t interest me. I want them to laugh with me and to be happy. Boring people — I want nothing to do with them. So I banish boredom from my existence, and I think I have no time to be bored. I work all the time. I love working — in that sense, I’m a true Capricorn,” she said firmly.
Régine, who still gets by on four hours of sleep a night, said she was born with an uncommon drive.
“I think people have a destiny,” she said. “I got divorced at 19-and-a-half because I wanted to do what I wanted. It was something I had set my heart on. It wasn’t about being famous, but I wanted to be loved the world over.”
The bumps in the road made her even more determined to succeed.
“I think my biggest quality is that I have remained very close to my childhood, despite some very tough times, hardships and moments when you ask yourself a bunch of questions. In fact, was it not to avoid asking myself questions that I had this totally insane life? Because it was utter madness,” she mused.
Régine opened her first nightclub in Paris in 1957 and at one point oversaw 23 clubs on three continents. And even if the golden age of nightlife is long gone, she is convinced she could pull it off all over again.
“I would do it the same. I would have the same success. It’s not about the place, it’s the way I connect people that’s special. I’m a hostess. That’s why I don’t like being called the ‘Queen of the Night.’ It really bothers me. I didn’t have a big family, so for me, it was like having a big salon and introducing everyone,” she explained.
Somewhat surprisingly, the person in her inner circle whom she rates the most highly is French politician Simone Veil, who helped her set up SOS Drogue International, an organization that helps drug addicts, in the Eighties. These days, Régine helps raise funds for a nonprofit that builds wells in the Nigerian desert.
Asked if there is anyone she would still like to meet, she singles out Mark Zuckerberg.
“You know, I’ve met pretty much everyone. I haven’t met the kid who launched Facebook,” she said. “He seems pretty likable but above all very, very smart. I adore intelligent people.”
“My cupboards are bursting. I could open a vintage store tomorrow,” she said jokingly.
“I have a lot of special things from Chanel, of course, because Karl is fabulous with me, but I go to Zara as well. Fashion has changed so much, it’s hard to tell what is fashionable. I like wearing casual clothes. The older I get, the younger I dress. They say that happens when you get older, but I don’t think about my age at all. I have fun and I am fortunate to be healthy — touch wood,” she said.
Nicknamed “La Grande Zoa” after one of her songs, Régine often performs wearing a feather boa — though she has also been known to walk around her clubs with a live boa constrictor around her neck. For her Folies Bergère performance, she is still mulling her options.
“I have five copies of the same stage dress. It’s very classic, but with fringe, because I love fringe,” she said. “I always thought that if one day I played the Folies Bergère, I would do it naked. Maybe I’ll show up naked — it’s possible. With a boa. A real one.”