THE AVIS ADVANTAGE
Byline: Melissa A. Weisman
NEW YORK — “I’m looking for a man,” whispers chanteuse Yanna Avis to her audience at The Players on Gramercy Park.
“Actually, that’s not true,” she adds. “I already have a man.”
She smiles at her husband, Warren Avis — founder of Avis Rental Car — who sits in the front row.
For the past six years, Avis has been singing in cabarets throughout New York. She made her debut in May 1992, at Eighty-Eight’s in Greenwich Village, with a room full of uptown friends curious to see what she was getting herself into.
“The first time I performed as a chanteuse, I thought I was going to die, I was so terrified,” Avis says. “Unlike theater, there’s no fourth wall in cabaret because you walk into the audience. But I just knew I had to do it. I had come at a point in my life where I needed to do something for me.”
The Franco-Romanian former model who lives in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park and in a sprawling home in Acapulco, struggled to make her mark as a cabaret performer.
“I had everything working against me,” she says with a straight face. “I had the most difficult and critical audience that could ever be invented because they only knew me as the wife of Warren. They didn’t know me back in my Paris days when I was acting professionally.”
At that time, Yanna modeled and studied theater at the National Conservatory of Drama in Paris, winning second prize in her graduating class for her performance in Racine’s “Berenice.” But during a modeling job in Acapulco in 1978, she was introduced to Warren — divorced and 35 years her senior — at a cocktail party, and instantly fell in love. Determined to make the relationship work, she stopped acting to spend time with Warren in New York.
“He was a playboy, and so I had to decide what was more important to me: love or theater. I did the right thing and chose Warren, but it became a full-time job,” she says.
Three years later, they were married, and the new Mrs. Avis settled into her husband’s New York bachelor pad, designed by Mica Ertegun.
“For a long time I traveled with Warren everywhere, so I never became a real social hostess,” she recalls. But when Warren started to slow down in 1986 and spend more time in New York, Yanna felt a sudden lull in her life. She was eager to return to the stage, but wanted to try something different. Tap shoes didn’t feel right, so she took singing lessons and eventually built a repertoire of international songs from the Thirties through the late Sixties. She sings in English, French and Spanish.
“It was like when the day ends and the night begins,” says Yanna about her desire to become a cabaret singer. “I don’t know when one thing took over the other. It just happened.”
Even so, it took Avis several shows before breaking comfortably into her routine. The audience from uptown was “rather stiff” — and Yanna was not the first to point it out.
“My producer’s wife looked at the audience the first night and said, ‘It seems that the person that is supposed to laugh for them has been left behind.’ That’s how tough it was.”
In the intervening six years, Avis’s audiences have improved. Arnold Scaasi, Clive Davis, Mary McFadden, Lady Sarah Churchill, Oleg Cassini and Dimitri of Yugoslavia have applauded her performances at the Russian Tea Room, Maxim’s and the Firebird. And as Yanna finishes work on her second album — her first, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” caught the attention of Gian Carlo Menotti, who invited her to perform at Italy’s Spoleto festival in 1996 and 1997 — she is setting her sights on a long-term singing engagement at a club.
“The greatest achievement would be to make a performance space my own,” she says. “Something intimate, covered with red velvet.”