Cover Story
Cybill Liberties
Photos by Brett Patterson/Abrivo Studio

Pardon us, but Cybill Shepherd's roots are showing.

That's not an inference that the beautiful, successful and wildly outspoken star of stage, screen and television has frequent and intimate relations with a peroxide bottle. Rather, it's in the lilting music of her Southern drawl - which sneaks out when she's not acting - and in her undying love of Memphis, Tennessee, her hometown, her security blanket, and her Zen place of quiet contemplation.

Shepherd built a home there, on a high spot overlooking the mighty Mississippi. She and her twins, Ariel and Zachariah, spend as much time as Mom's career will allow. She walks the antebellum land, bicycles the back roads, waves to friends and family in this town that gave her her show business start. She's unashamed in her love for the city.v Shepherd is also unabashedly proud of her first political appointment. Call it a different kind of moonlighting. Shepherd was appointed by Memphis mayor W.W. Herenton to serve on the board of the Riverfront Development Corporate, a not-for-profit, public-private partnership with a mission to create a world-class riverfront destination rooted in the city's history and character. The corporation's plan is to draw on the majesty of the Mississippi and the flavor of Memphis, to revitalize this significant section of the city.

"I was one of the first people to build a home downtown 10 years ago," Shepherd says proudly. "I was born and raised here. I've always loved the river. I left when I was 18, did The Last Picture Show, was discovered, and my career took off." That career, which includes blockbuster movies like Taxi Driver and televisions hits like "Moonlighting," led her away from Memphis. But as often happens, her hometown bond ran deep.

"I always wanted to go back," she says. "My daughter Clementine was born there. I have so many friends there. I have a real strong connection to the Mississippi at Memphis. It's the widest, deepest and, where I built my house, it's near the highest geographic part of Memphis."

Shepherd gets dreamy talking about her Memphis. She quotes William Faulkner, and calls out pre-Civil War buildings and historical places. You can almost see the mud between her toes when muses about the Mississippi and Yazoo river delta, Mud Island River Park, and other points of interest. In her wistfulness you can almost see the riverboats and cotton bales and the flow of the muddy water.

And then there is the culture. There's no escaping Memphis' rich heritage of music, in the blues, jazz and country. In the course of her growing up, Cybill was informed by these things, instilled with Southern song. She continues to sing, having released some six recording projects, including a recently released album, "Cybill Shepherd: Live at the Cinegrill," recorded in Los Angels. Singing the praises of Memphis is second nature to her.

During her wild ride of a career, one that's spanned 30 years, she found herself away from the hometown she loved, to pursue her artistic dream. It's the price you pay. But she's good enough at what she does that she was able to come back, build a house, raise her children, and reinvest in the community, proving you can go home again.

Cybill did it in spades. Her house, designed by famed Memphis architect Francis Mah, is designed like an abstract modern-looking riverboat. "I told him I wanted a place where I could go and experience peace and solitude, with Zen gardens." It's three stories, with a rooftop deck, where she can watch the river roll. She imported Arkansas stone, used old train-yard cobblestones. She set a trend, building on this bluff. There are, she says, only a handful of buildable lots left on the South Bluff. "It's filled in nicely," she says.

But more than a simple housing development, what's happening on the Memphis waterfront, Shepherd claims, is more about a surge of interest and influence from a new social segment of the population. She quotes from "The Rise of the Creative Class," by Richard Florida, that posits a new attitude about this class's influences of talent, tolerance and technology. The concept derives its identity and values from its role as purveyors of creativity, where the creative ethos, not necessarily the economic one, is increasingly the dominant factor in work and living spaces.

"These spots are happening around the country. It breaks the rules," she says. "We used to say 'Great, we get the Toyota factory. It turns out they boost the economy, then they leave. The new way of looking is the more music you have, the more art, the preserved downtown -- the more the creative the influence on where you live. Because Memphis has so many old buildings left that have been protected, it has so much more character."

The Memphis Riverfront Master Plan has been completed, and was formally endorsed by the Memphis City Council on May 21, 2002. Riverfront Development Corporation is now creating an implementation strategy. Cybill couldn't be prouder.

Shepherd's activism isn't a new wrinkle in a long career. The 52-year-old actress, who never pulls punches when speaking her mind (for proof, check out her autobiography, "Cybill Disobedience," published in April 2000), was aboard the feminist movement early on. For many years, she's been an outspoken advocate of human rights -- women's reproductive rights, civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, and any other rights that, if taken away, leads to brutal, unfair oppression.

Cybill grew up in the segregated South, a little sheltered from the major civil rights events that were happening nearby. She may have been uncomfortably cloistered and a little na´ve, but she never settled. She wanted more. Beauty pageant wins lead to a modeling career. She graced the covers of Life, Glamour and Vogue. That led in 1971 to landing the breakout role of Jacy Farrow in the critically regarded Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, with whom she would later couple. More roles in other films followed, including The Heartbreak Kid, Taxi Driver, Daisy Miller, Alice, Married To It, Once Upon a Crime, Texasville and Chances Are, to name a few.

Her star on the rise, she attracted men, and didn't stiff-arm their advances. She dated Elvis. She had a daughter, Clementine, with first husband David Ford. She found her way to the stage, and scored a hit TV show in "Moonlighting," with Bruce Willis. She would marry again, have twins, and persevere in a business known for its gaping maw and the ability to chew up talent and spit out.

Her feminist education began while she was filming the Last Picture Show, she says. She began to explore and understand feminism. "In 1970, in Wichita Falls, Texas, where we were shooting, I read three books -- Germaine Greer's book, "The Female Eunich," Betty Freedan and "The Feminine Mystique," and "Sexual Politics," by Kate Millett. It was like 'Oh, now I get it.'"

She got active in reproductive rights. She says she was lucky. She had a family doctor who prescribed birth control pills at age 16. She grew incensed with federal legislation that cut off funding for reproductive freedom for poor women. "At that time, I said I have to do something. I was one of the lucky ones."

Cybill got more involved, with the Voters for Choice PAC and the National Civil Rights Museum. She marched for gay and lesbian rights, testified in congress on behalf of RU486. "I began to be politically active then. My main issue has always been reproductive rights for women," she says. "It's part of civil rights. Once you start getting involved in civil rights, you understand that no human being is allowed to be treated less, for any reason, than any other human being. You just can't draw the line there. If you're a woman you get reproductive freedom. People shouldn't have the right to interfere with this very private, very difficult decision. It's not an ideal world."

She stood alongside the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks and Blair Underwood for the dedication of the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. "I was very proud to be a part of that. He was murdered in 1968, the year I graduated from high school. I remember being struck to the heart that I'd never done anything for the movement," she says. "It was strange. We had what we called a whiteout in the local newspaper. We didn't really know what was going on three miles down the road. We would have had to go get the New York Times. I internalized the pain, and it moved me toward something."

That something would be a strong empathy and streak of activism that continues unabated.

These days Shepherd is as busy ever. She recently starred in the film Due East on Showtime. She still performs her cabaret act live in clubs and continues to record. She's developing a show for Broadway and a new TV series ideas that, if picked up, will help ease the sting of the network politics she felt with the cancellation of "Cybill," and the misstep she took as host of the talk show "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," on the Oxygen network.

If she's learned anything in her 52 years it's this: "That if you ain't havin' fun, something's wrong," she says. "Life is shorter than we ever imagine." She's enjoying raising her 14-year-olds twin, and proud of her oldest daughter, Clementine, who was recently married. She loves men, is single, and is truly enjoying dating. "I adore men," she says, then advises, "Women shouldn't make men their home improvement projects. And men should learn to listen to women." Simple advice that's served her well.

Life isn't all red carpet treatment, fame and wealth. "It's tough being a famous mother. You cast a long shadow. It can be extremely difficult for the children, for the family. It's difficult. Fame is like a plunger for a toilet. You wanna get the job done, you grab the plunger. I like the humility of that, that fame is the price I paid for something I adore doing. I've tried to create situations where the opportunity would be there."

She's inspired by a quote from Goethe. "It's probably got me in a lot of trouble," she says "but it's responsible for a lot of the successes I've had in an enduring career. This is not the exact quote, but 'In whatever you believe you can do, boldness has genius, power and magic in it.' I'm nothing if not bold. You have to keep taking chances. What you do is jump off cliffs with absolutely no assurance that you'll fly."

When the Hollywood life gets to be too much, she heads straight for home, to Memphis, to rest, recharge and soak up the Southern essence. "Memphis is our magical place. There's a great vortex of energy," she says. "Where we can get on our bikes, and ride just forever along the Mississippi. It's paradise. I call is Shangri-La."

Don Campbell is a frequent contributor to World Traveler magazine.