VERNON: So today I’m here at a photo shoot interviewing the gorgeous Paula Ficara, who is my boss at Kougar, and she’s living the big 4-0, or as I like to say, 20 times 2! People are saying 40 is the new 20, but they should actually say it's the new 12, because most people seem to act that age when they turn 40.
PAULA: Nice [laughs]!
VERNON: [Clearing his throat] So, it's really cool to have you here—see, I'm scared already. Oh, my God.
PAULA: You're not the only one. [Laughs]
VERNON: Actually, I'm sure everybody realizes I adore you, so interviewing you is really fun. And it's fun being able to say that you're officially a Kougar! What’s it feel like to be 40?
PAULA: [Laughing] I don't FEEL any different than when I was 12, so to say that I'm 40 is really weird. It's funny because I remember when I was 12 and dancing for a dance company, and the director turned 40. I remember thinking, "Oh, my God, she's so old." And they brought this cake out that had, "Lordy, Lordy, Diane's 40" on it and I wondered, "What’s it feel like to be that old?" And now I'm here, and it's weird to say, but it doesn't feel any different.
VERNON: My grandfather used to say, "If you couldn't count, and you didn't know what numbers were, how old would you be?" It's a figure we put on ourselves. It's strange. We as human beings tend to give ourselves age limits to do things, which is really a shame, because we put so much pressure on ourselves to live up to those expectations. When you turn 20: Oh, I'm supposed to be this or I'm supposed to have done that. Then: Oh, my God, now I'm 30.
PAULA: And, if you haven't accomplished that goal by the expected age, you feel like you have to give it up, because it's too late. It can really hinder your quality of life. I, myself, have to fight that. Now that I've reached such a huge milestone, I fight the need to put those expectations on myself.
VERNON: Well, you hang around me so much, you know that I really don't buy into that.
PAULA: No, you don't. [LAUGHS]
VERNON: We've been the best of friends for a long time now. I met you years ago working on a film set. Your husband, who was also in the film, and I were sharing a trailer. I'll never forget, one day he said to me, "Do you mind if my wife shares the trailer with us for a day?" Because you were shooting just for the day, you hadn't been given a trailer, and he didn't want you to have to sit in the car! And I was like, oh, yeah, this will be great. Well, we got along famously and I have adored you ever since. Over the years I've watched you grow; you're a wonderful actress, you've got a wonderful singing voice, which blows me away, and what I love most about you is you persevere and persist. So, I thought I'd start off by asking you...
PAULA: What kind of hamburger would I be? [LAUGHS]
VERNON: What kind of hamburger would you be? [WHISPERING] She's been with me before. Don't put the cart before the horse! We'll get to that!
PAULA: Aw! But that's my favorite part!
VERNON: I know…It's funny. You're 40 - you don't look 40, you don't act 40 - but you have certain aspirations in your life, and I know that you're frustrated with not having achieved certain things yet. I look at you and I think, "Good God, lady, you should be really proud of where you are. But what is—and you can finish this question. "If I had a chance to do it all again, I would..."
PAULA: Wow, honestly? Hell, I don't know! [LAUGHS]
VERNON: Damn, I've stumped her with the very first question!
PAULA: I think, given that question, we all could immediately think of things we would change if we had the chance. I can think of a list of things right off the bat. But having a moment to really meditate on it, I realize that if anything had been different, I might not have the many gifts in my life that I now have.
Truthfully, my journey as an actress has certainly been rocky over the years, and it's been very frustrating. Looking back, I see the many mistakes I made and obstacles I couldn't seem to overcome, but it would be foolish to let that overshadow all of the amazing experiences I've had along the way and the things I have now that really matter - my family, good friends. My life is full of unique opportunities and adventures, like the developing of Kougar to empower women of age, working with Wolf Connection, a wolfdog sanctuary which also serves as a youth empowerment program - other lifelong dreams - and I'm just so grateful. Yeah - I could immediately jump to my failures and think of the things I wish had been different, but change one step in the path that got me here, and I run the risk of losing everything beautiful I have now. So saying that, I wouldn't change a thing.
VERNON: Yes, as they say, if you traveled back to the past and stepped on a fly, you'd affect the future, and the probability is that if you did do it all differently, all of those things may never have happened, and everything happens for a reason. So just go with the flow and enjoy the ride.
PAULA: Yes, enjoy it!
VERNON: Your father was in the Army, and you moved around quite a bit as a child. What was that like?
PAULA: It was a gift and a curse. A gift because I was exposed to many parts of the world and cultures that most people don't get to experience in their entire lifetime. It gave me courage and a sense of adventure. A curse because I never truly had the feeling of having a home until much later in my life - that feeling of being grounded somewhere. You always have this slight feeling of unrest, as well as never really fitting in, always feeling like the outsider. It seemed like just when I'd start to make friends, we'd up and move again. That affected me for many years until I consciously decided to let it go.
VERNON: Is that what gave you the courage to move to New York?
PAULA: I think so. My father was stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia - a place I never felt like I fit in. I was finishing up high school and had made the decision to move to New York for a career on Broadway. My parents, however, threw a fit and made me agree to give college a try first. I tried it, I hated it, I moved to the city and became a hoofer! I'm very right-brained, and the structure of the scholastic system felt too confining. I've always been a hard worker, and I've always loved to learn - just in my own way - so I moved to the city and created my own curriculum while I pursued my career.
VERNON: And you did what every good actor does - wait tables!
PAULA: Ha! But, of course!
VERNON: And that's how you met Steve, your husband of 15 years.
PAULA: It only makes sense, seeing as he's also an actor. [Laughs] It really does go to show what a small, weird world we live in! We had been running in the same circle for years but never actually met until much later. He managed a bar on the upper west side that I used to go to when I first moved to New York. My cousin and I would go just to dance. I didn't even drink. The bar was well known in town for its Velcro wall jumping. You would put on a suit covered in Velcro, jump on a trampoline, and throw yourself against a padded wall covered with the other side of the Velcro - and hopefully stick. Apparently it's really fun when you're drunk. As they became more well-known, they started being featured on all of the hit talk shows - Sally Jessy, Regis and Kathie Lee. One morning, I was sitting having a cup of coffee, watching Regis and Kathie Lee, and they're featuring Adam, the bar owner with the Velcro wall. And there's this guy with spiky black hair in this Velcro suit, and Adam says, "And the world champion Velcro wall jumper..." I thought, "Oh, my God! I had no idea this was such a big sport. How cool, and this guy is hot!" So of course I watch…he takes a deep breath, runs down the middle isle of the audience, jumps on the trampoline, does a flip, and ends up in an upside-down cross on the Velcro wall. Everybody cheers, and my heart is fluttering! Little did I know I was watching my future husband. [Laughs] Several years later, I was hired as a cocktail waitress at a trendy country-western club in midtown called Denim & Diamonds, and he was a bartender there. It was hilarious! All of the Wall Street suits would line up with their duffel bags over their shoulders waiting for the doors to open at 4pm so they could run to the bathrooms and change into their rhinestone-cowboy attire. Then they would line their duffel bags along the back bar against the wall. It looked more like the Y than a club in New York City. They would proceed to line-dance all night long and drink water. Not the most lucrative job I've had. My first night, I was in the employee locker room, and I'm talking in this southern accent, being a little obnoxious – I was such a musical theater geek. You would have thought I was straight out of an episode of Glee - and Steve is sitting there with this Rockabilly pompadour, smoking a cigarette, too cool for school, and he just looks at me and says, "You're not going to work with that accent, are you?" And that's when I decided I hated this guy. I hated him. Embarrassed, I looked at him and I said, "I just might!" and I stormed out, and that was it. We were engaged within two weeks.
VERNON: [Laughs] Love it! So what eventually brought you to Los Angeles?
PAULA: Well, we both were New York trained actors, working really hard, doing a lot of black box theater, which is very spiritually and creatively fulfilling, but not financially, and at one point we decided we really wanted to take it to the next level. We wanted to see if we could actually make money and support ourselves at what we loved doing. We knew at the time that it was either stay in New York and do Shakespeare for free, or move out to LA and try and jump into film. There wasn't an option. We just decided to do it, and we did.
VERNON: Which is rather daring. Now I do believe that you also produced a couple of stage plays back in New York, or was it here in LA?
PAULA: Both. The first play I produced was with a wonderful theatre company in NY called The HomeGrown. And it's funny, I guess I've always been a bit of a feminist [laughs].
VERNON: No! Not Paula!
PAULA: But I felt like it was important to do something with women, and feature women, so I produced Women of Manhattan by John Patrick Shanley, an amazing play. I mean, it's a really nice company piece and it did very well.
The first play I produced in LA was a play by Leonard Melfi called Club Hellfire. Back then, Leonard was The HomeGrown's in-house playwright and, for anyone who knows New York Theater, he was huge. He's unfortunately passed away. But he wrote Birdbath, which is the number one studied play for acting students in the country, as well as some other famous plays. Anyway, we became great friends. At one point, he lived with us for two months when he was between apartments, which was amazing. Every night he would walk down to the corner deli and grab a couple of sodas. Then he would come in and sit with me. We'd drink our sodas and chat for awhile, then he would say goodnight and disappear into his bedroom to write. He had this tiny manual old-school typewriter, and for a couple of hours as I was winding down and falling asleep, I would hear chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, - so neat. Anyway, he wanted Steve and me to produce Club Hellfire on the West Coast when we moved out here, so we did. I wouldn't say it's his strongest play, but definitely the most fun to do and a lot of fun for the audience. It's just silly.
VERNON: It's interesting watching you develop. You’re a risk taker and with each new project, you grow and find ways to incorporate the things important to you, which brings us to Kougar. Kougar is fascinating in many ways. It's all about women, and I'm a guy, so, I mean, what the hell. But what I'd like to know from the Kougar herself is what on God's given earth possessed your soul to start a magazine called Kougar for women over 40?
PAULA: Anger [laughs].
VERNON: Oh, see, now we have the truth!
PAULA: It's true. Just being a woman is difficult, anyway. I mean, yes, we're blessed in this society to have so many freedoms and so much available to us, and we have come a long way, but there's definitely still a stigma, and we feel it. We still have the feeling of being a minority, of being excluded from things and not being taken as seriously, and not being given the same pay and the same respect. But even tougher is being an older woman. As you start to reach middle age, you feel people treating you differently. Opportunities are no longer being presented strictly because of how we’re viewed. Older people, in general, are not valued in this society, and that’s a huge problem.
VERNON: I think a lot of it has to do with we've become such a technocratic society that now everything you buy has a wear-out date. It really does. You know, once upon a time you'd buy a car, it would last for decades. Now you're lucky if it lasts until the bloody three-year warranty is up. And we tend to do the same to people. It's like there's an expiration date on everything.
PAULA: Well, several years ago, I experienced that personally. I was told by a Hollywood bigwig, in a nutshell, that I should give up pursuing my career as an actress because I had one foot in the grave. Well, when I heard that, I was furious. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. The next day I made my decision. I thought, I can sit here and feel like a victim, or I can jump in and try and do something to change the attitude. I figured the best way to do it was with humor and strength - to get out there and get a little attention - so Kougar Magazine was born. I wanted to create a platform for older women to show their worth, both mentally and physically. It's a place for us to be sexy and outgoing. One way to support that is we don't use models younger than 35. They're all shapes and sizes, and they're all hot! We focus on the strengths of powerful, well-rounded women, who are living life to the fullest and who are inspirational to younger women. I also want this magazine to be appealing to younger women because they see their role models here.
VERNON: Yeah, the thing is, we live in a society that puts too much emphasis on youth. If you look at the women in film and magazines these days, they're all young, and they've had every procedure known to man to get their bodies to look like something that is unobtainable in real life. We’re being brainwashed into thinking that's the ideal. And when it comes to dating, it's a dichotomy. You can be a man my age, and go out with a 25-year-old, and everybody's like, "Oh, wow, what's he got?" You're a woman my age, you go out with a 25-year-old, and everybody is like, "Oh, my God, that is so disgusting. This woman is really—why would she do that?" I personally don't see the difference.
PAULA: Well, mind you, Kougar magazine is not about the old definition of cougar. For anyone who reads the magazine they know that, but for people new to the magazine, they'll see very quickly that we're redefining the term to encompass all that an older woman should be with her wisdom, her sexuality, her passion towards life, and her sense of adventure.
VERNON: "My philosophy on life is..."
PAULA: For me, life is a training ground, and I feel like no moment should ever be wasted. My biggest challenge is battling my ego, but it's getting easier as I get older and my purpose is becoming clearer to me, which is why I really work on being of service and giving back. It makes life much more fulfilling, and that's when you really feel the most connected and grounded in life. So I feel my philosophy on life is to strive to live in your "higher self" as much as possible, and by doing that, you'll find your truth.
VERNON: "Now that I've turned 40, the top three things I want to achieve are..."
PAULA: To really learn to be at peace with myself, to focus on what I value most and, more important to me now than ever, to contribute to the bettering of this place for future generations.
VERNON: Which leads me to the next statement: "If I were granted one wish to change one thing on the planet, it would be…"
PAULA: To help the human race evolve to a higher spiritual level, because I think that would make the biggest difference on this planet all around.
VERNON: That's a very nice way of putting it. You've turned 40, and you're coming to terms with that at the moment. Where you see yourself 15 years from now when you turn 55?
PAULA: Vernon! I'm just trying to be comfortable where I am right now! [LAUGHS]
VERNON: Where do you see yourself?
PAULA: I would really like to—oh, God, that's so hard. That's really hard...I have no idea. I'm just trying to focus on the present! I'd like to be living happily with my husband and my wolfdog by the ocean or in the desert, Kougar is a huge success, I’m traveling around the world speaking and empowering women – I still have tons of energy, and I am really healthy and happy. How's that?
VERNON: Where do you see Kougar in the next five years?
PAULA: That's an interesting question, because Kougar is still in its infancy and still finding itself. I would love to see it be, well, I like the concept of an e-zine. I, myself, am still learning about the Internet, and what's popular, and all of this online stuff, you know what I mean? So I'm kind of learning as I go, and that's why it changes so often because I'm discovering. When I have an idea, I'm like "Why don't we try this?" or, "Why don't we try that?" or, "That doesn't seem to be working, let's try this." Sometimes I need to step back and let it marinate for a little while.
I'd like to see it be a constant; a feel-good place for all different types of women. I'd like for it to become known as a place they can go for a little pick-me-up when they're down and the place they go to for information and advice. I would like to see it inspire people. I’d like to see more people embracing the term Kougar with its new definition, because that is still a challenge. Some people just don't get it. It's funny, but at the same time, with its new definition, it's powerful. And some women don't want to accept it. Some actually have a harder time accepting the term than men do. I’m finding that men actually appreciate it. They're like, oh, that's cool. Women are like [GASPS], "Kougar..." And it's really important, I think, that women redefine the term and embrace it.
VERNON: Yes, and you're right in the fact that women tend to be more offended by it than men, especially if they are of that age. They're so accustomed to the old definition that they have a hard time letting it go. As you know, I've tried to interview some women that are of that age who have acted as if they were going to cut my throat at the sheer mention of the word. Then you get the other ones like Marina Sirtis, who we interviewed, who embrace the whole idea and just go mad on it.
PAULA: And Tia Torres, too! She couldn't wait.
VERNON: Right, yes.
PAULA: She was so excited and proud. She got it!
VERNON: It's just a funny thing that women are at times their own worst enemies. I think that if they would embrace it, it would change. It's like everything. And what you're doing is wonderful because you're trying to say to people, "Hey, get over yourselves. We all get older. There ain't no way you're going to stop it. So just get over yourself, and let's have fun with it. Let's get out there and enjoy it." That should be Kougar’s tag line: Get over yourself! There is a life to be lived after you turn 40, or 50, or 60, or whatever the hell...
PAULA: Well, I'm just as much a victim of it as everybody else. It's funny, I feel like I should be, "Rah, rah, 40!" in this interview. "I'm so happy to be 40!" But no, I'm not really. So this magazine, it's as much an inspiration for me as anyone. I want it to inspire me, and to remind me on a daily basis what it is I want from it, as much as to inspire other women. I have as much to learn as anyone else, and as much to try and embrace, and get over myself.
VERNON: Now, I know it's been a rough year for you because of family medical issues. It was a challenge just for us to get together and do this interview!
VERNON: Just before your 40th birthday, you had to rush back to New York for one.
PAULA: It's interesting because it's something we all have to start facing more and more as we get older, simply because that's just part of getting older, and your family's getting older, your friends are getting older, health issues start catching up with us, but you're never quite prepared for those emergencies. It was a bit of a double whammy of a wake-up call. It just makes you realize that life is very precious, and your relationships are very precious, and not to take things for granted. It forced me to look at how I was living my life, realizing, well, this could happen to me soon. This could possibly happen. With age, bodies break down. Am I taking care of myself? I better change my diet. I need to get back into shape. I need to go have my cholesterol checked. Oh, my God, I'm at that age. Oh, my God, I'm 40. I need to get a mammogram. I mean, all that stuff, because you don't really realize that you've gotten to that point until it presents itself in big neon lights. But it was a very intense time, and all I can say is thank God everything turned out OK. Funny enough, as soon as I got home, I found a lump in my breast and ran to get that mammogram. Luckily it turned out to be benign, but through all of the testing, I kept trying to prepare myself for bad news and figure out how I would try and handle it gracefully. It's definitely been a milestone year with important lessons.
VERNON: What would you say your greatest triumph is?
PAULA: I really love the person I've become. I spent many, many years as a younger woman not liking myself at all, not liking my life, and not being able to find any happiness in it. I was unable to be grateful, to the point of sometimes wanting to kill myself. And I really have a deeper respect for myself now. I love who I am, I love the things that I stand for, and the things that I try to do. That's my greatest triumph — and I'd like to just keep moving in that direction and see that I'm continuing to make progress.
I'm also really proud of the fact that I won over being a statistic. My parents had a pretty nasty divorce, and because of that I had to work very hard to let go of a lot of baggage, a lot of baggage that wasn't even mine, so that I could live a healthy life and have a healthy relationship of my own. And I’ve been able to do that. It’s a huge accomplishment for me. A lot of people come out of something like that pretty damaged and not being able to recover from it. So, yeah, just that alone is a huge life accomplishment.
VERNON: Good, well I think that just about does it for me. I've screwed with you for long enough.
VERNON: However, I have one final question...
PAULA: Such a serious interview. God, turning 40 is so serious, apparently.
VERNON: It’s the question you’ve been waiting for…
PAULA: [SMILING] What kind of burger would I be?!
VERNON: IF you were a burger…what kind of burger would you be?
PAULA: Yes! (Hee, Hee!) Well, for those who know me well, they know that I would definitely be a big, fat, beefy mushroom and Swiss with sautéed onions on a toasted Kaiser role with sesame seeds, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. But it's all about the mushrooms. All about the mushrooms.
VERNON: You want to answer my other silly questions?
PAULA: Nah. [smiling] I just wanted to do the burger one.
VERNON G. WELLS
CELEBRITY & BEHIND-THE-SCENES INTERVIEWS/KOUGAR CUDDLER
This son of Australia and actor of both the big screen and television is one of America’s favorite cult heroes from his work both as Wez in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Bennett in Commando. Vernon is also a prolific writer and is with us to share the inside world of his celebrity friends in unbiased and, most certainly, candid conversations. One of Vernon’s passions is encouraging young people to stay in school.