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Last Updated: Monday, 24 October 2005, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
No holding back French disco diva
By Hugh Schofield

Regine Zylderberg
Regine decided to use two turntables to avoid awkward silences
A 76-year-old French woman with dyed red hair and a business-like look in her eye can legitimately lay claim to one of the most important inventions of the last century: the discotheque.

Of course Regine - or Regine Zylberberg to give her original full name - can boast of a lot else besides.

She gave her name to a multimillion dollar nightclub empire that in the early 1980s stretched from Monte Carlo to Kuala Lumpur; she taught a former king of England to do the twist and a future one the samba; and she had a smash hit with the French version of - aptly - Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive.

But it was a day in 1953 at the Whisky-a-Gogo club, off the Palais Royale in central Paris, that will long have the social historians talking.

"I laid down a linoleum dance-floor - like in a kitchen - put in coloured lights, and removed the juke-box. The trouble with the juke-box was that when the music stopped you could hear snogging in the corners. It killed the atmosphere," she said in an interview.

"Instead I installed two turntables so there was no gap in the music. I was barmaid, doorman, bathroom attendant, hostess - and I also put on the records. It was the first ever discotheque and I was the first ever club disc-jockey."


Born to Polish Jews in Brussels in 1929, Regine has had an extraordinary life - and though for young people today she is something of a showbiz has-been, the lust for fame that first gripped her in heady post-war Paris shows no sign of waning.

This year she made an extraordinary comeback on the popular reality television show Farm Celebrity - slopping out the stables alongside the likes of Belgian singer Plastic Bertrand.

The next thing I got a call from the Duke of Windsor asking me to come over to teach him the dance. I said gladly - but only at the club

She is planning a new CD of songs written for her by the late Serge Gainsbourg; concert appearances are scheduled for March; and there is a book of memoirs - Me and My Stories - to come out in the new year.

In it she will tell of her early life hiding from the Nazis in occupied France, and of her father Joseph - a strong-willed and at times violent man who kept a cafe in the poor Paris neighbourhood of Belleville.

"That was where my ambition began. It was a working-class Jewish cafe with all sorts of people passing through. I said to myself: I want a place where I get to choose who comes in. I wanted counts and dukes - people with titles," she said.

She hung out with her father's poker-playing friends and soon had a reputation as a fast-living, fun-loving girl about town. She could dance and sing, and she had great legs.

Regine Zylderberg
Regine's dancing partners have included Prince Charles
After four years managing the Whisky-a-Gogo, she borrowed money from the Rothschilds and in 1957 opened the first Chez Regine in the Latin Quarter. The glory days had begun.

"Today there are tens of thousands of so-called celebrities. But back then the in-crowd was very small. It was high society, royalty and the real film stars. It wasn't every Tom, Dick and Harry who had made his fortune in nails," she said.

Regine enchanted princes and playboys, who flocked to her cavern. The entire cast and crew of The Longest Day turned up.

"John Wayne looked at me with a smile and said: 'So you're Regine'. He knew I'd had a thing with Robert Mitchum and a couple of other stars," she said.

After watching the Paris cast of West Side Story warming up to Chubby Checker records, she introduced France to the twist, which became an instant sensation.

"The next thing I got a call from the Duke of Windsor [the former King Edward VIII who lived in Paris] asking me to come over to teach him the dance. I said gladly - but only at the club. So he became a regular."

Ballroom glitz

Twenty years later, Regine danced Brazilian-style with Prince Charles at an embassy ball to mark the accession of President Francois Mitterrand.

"Princess Grace was looking askance at us because protocol said he should only dance with a person once, and we were together for eight. I would have liked to have taken a tour of the garden with him. He was very handsome," she confided.

Nowadays society demands vast halls for thousands of people. But I don't like anonymity
Regine's story goes international in the 1970s, when she moved to New York and set up in a suite of rooms at the Delmonico hotel. Down below, her flagship club surfed on the surging appetite for glitz, gossip and disco music. It was all new at the time - and all of American society came to gawp.

The empire grew, and at its height there were 25 Regine franchises on three continents. It was said you could party 17 hours out of every 24 at a Regine's somewhere the world - if you could get in. She was the most famous living Frenchwoman - the "Queen of the Night" of the US press.

But at some undefined point the sheen faded. In New York Studio 54 - with its sexier and druggier undercurrent - eclipsed its older rival, and the Regine's brand began to conjure up images of big hair and shoulder pads.

Bar plans

Today Regine has left it all behind. The franchises have run out - even if the name lingers on in some of the world's less fashionable capitals.

"I got out because tastes changed and I didn't get a kick out of it any more," she said. "Nowadays society demands vast halls for thousands of people. But I don't like anonymity. The perfect nightclub takes 400 people - no more."

The empire has gone - but Regine still has plans: "I am going to open a piano-bar."

Live music this time, but she will still get to decide who comes in.

The return of French pop music
20 Dec 01 |  Entertainment
Country profile: France
12 Oct 05 |  Country profiles

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