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Regine's Last Stand

"This life is all about fate," she says, selecting a prune from a big white bowl. "Even when I was a little girl, I would tell everybody that I would one day have a big nightclub and rule the world. I always knew I would be a legend." She's trying to drum up interest in a TV movie of her life -- Stefanie Powers, Bette Midler, and Joan Collins would all be suitable to play her, she says. An occasional chanteuse, she is best known for her French rendition of I Will Survive, and is something of a frustrated actress. In all of our conversations, the only time I ever saw Regine tear up was when we discussed her attempts at movie-stardom, which resulted in only a few bit parts in films like The Seven Percent Solution and Claude Berri's Marry Me, Marry Me."It is good to be the darling of the jet set, but I wanted to be the darling of the public," she says wistfully. "My whole life, I wanted to have my name on Broadway. All I got was Park Avenue."

Even so, Regine has managed to mold herself into a global celebrity. When she was arrested with her son in 1996 for smoking on an airplane, the story made headlines around the world. In New York, strangers yell her name as she walks down the street; in France, where she is a beloved icon, sixteen of her Madame Grès and early YSLs are displayed in the collection of the Louvre. "Once, I flew with her to Paris on the Concorde, and she was the only person I ever saw who didn't have to show her passport at Customs," says Diane Von Furstenberg. "It was just, Bonjour, Madame Regine."

The official version of her rise is reprised almost annually in Paris Match: her mother's abandoning her as a baby (the deeper reason why she "cannot bear to let the night end"); her lonely childhood in Belleville with her alcoholic father, the manager of a bistro. In 1941, she hid from the Nazis in a convent for the two years she calls "the worst of life." Then there were the après-war years peddling bras on Paris street corners, and her brief stint as a scullery maid. In 1953, when she was 23, she landed a job as a hat-check girl at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. A high-spirited tomboy with flaming-red hair, she quickly caught the eye of playboys like Portofino Rubirosa, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, and the Rothschilds. The last helped finance the first club to bear her name.

Placing the bowl of prunes on the kitchen table, she suddenly begins to hum, pantomiming the lengths she went to attract attention. She dances with a glass on her head, slipping rings over her gloved fingers. Standing on a chair, she waves her hand over a lightbulb to demonstrate how she created a strobe-light effect over the dance floor. "I am the person who made the modern way of nighttime," she says proudly, climbing down. "I am the first, and only, Queen of the Night."

Her first club, Chez Regine, which opened in Paris in 1958, was certainly an original: The world's first discotheque, it was the spot where customers like Premier Georges Pompidou, Brigitte Bardot, and Rudolf Nureyev first danced to recorded music instead of live bands; where they first bought bottles of liquor instead of cocktails (250 francs got you a bottle of White Label); where they first did the twist to Regine's imported Chubby Checker records. "One night, I got a call at home from the Duke of Windsor," she recalls giddily. "He wanted me to come to his house, to teach him the twist. I told him, 'No. You come to my club -- I teach you there.' "

"Everybody, just everybody, knew Regine from these incredibly decadent nights in Paris, which was considered the height of chic by New Yorkers those days," says jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane. "We would dance until dawn to music that wasn't around here back then -- rumbas, tangos, merengues -- and then there you were, heart open and gay, stepping into a waiting limousine in Paris at sunrise." Regine specialized in "happenings," like the Jean Harlow night where the women wore white satin dresses and painted their Rollses white for the night, stepping out of them onto a white carpet that covered the sidewalk -- Dalí turned heads by arriving on the arm of his lover, Amanda Lear, rumored to have once been named Alan. "Working as a journalist covering the jet set in Paris at that time was extremely easy," admits Robin Leach. "You'd just go to Regine's every night and wait for the princesses to file in."