EXCLUSIVE: When Loni Anderson took on a role that would forever change her life, she needed a new look that would be to dye for.
The actress, one of the most recognizable blondes in TV history, is actually a brunette. And just like stars before her, Anderson underwent a hair transformation for the role of Jennifer Marlowe in “WKRP in Cincinnati.” The sitcom, which chronicled the misadventures of a radio station in Ohio, aired from 1978 until 1982.
As titillating and intelligent Marlowe, Anderson cemented her status as a beloved TV sex symbol, a title she continues to hold. And while she was tempted to return to the dark side, she’s still a bubbly, buxom blonde.
The 75-year-old spoke to Fox News about changing her tresses, her favorite memory from “WKRP,” as well as how she really feels about her sex symbol status today.
Fox News: Some people may be surprised to learn that you’re actually a brunette.
Loni Anderson: I know, it’s so interesting. I was a brunette actress in ’75. So if you see old reruns, you can see the transformation of my hair. I was every color in the rainbow. I even tried to be a redhead. But the blonde thing happened because the cameraman kept telling me my hair was too dark. It absorbed the light and it was like an ink blob. And so, I started experimenting with different colors from the drugstore. And the lighter my hair got, the more work I got. Weird, right? *laughs*.
When the “WKRP” pilot came along, I wasn’t quite blonde. Hugh Wilson, who created the show, said, “Let’s make her look like Lana Turner and be the smartest person in the room.” I have to tell you that in ’78 that was unheard of. Girls now would say, “We can be glamorous and smart.” But not in ’78. Those things just didn’t go together back then. Especially as a blonde. I then went to a professional hairstylist and said, “Make me a blonde.” And that’s how my blondeness began. I always thought, “I’ll go back to my dark hair.” But it just didn’t happen. I was who I was and I was a blonde.
I remember I went to Grant Tinker, the head of NBC when we did “WKRP” and said, “I really want to do this movie. Could I do it with black hair?” And he said, “No – I didn’t hire Loni Anderson to have black hair.” *Laughs*. I realized I had created this image. But I think young actresses today can be chameleons. They can get away with changing their look and go back and forth. But there was a time when you had an image and that was it.
Fox News: How important was it for you to break the blonde stereotype and show that you can be glamorous, but also witty and intelligent?
Anderson: Oh, it was so important to me. I had been a respected brunette actress. And I just couldn’t believe the difference when I became a blonde. I remember as an experiment I wore a blonde wig on a Monday night for a theater bar where everyone went. Nobody treated me the same. I had lots of drinks lined up in front of me from people who were sending me drinks, but nobody paid any attention to what I had to say. I just wasn’t in the conversation. I was treated more like an object. So at the time, I decided maybe I shouldn’t go blonde because blondes weren’t respected.
So when I went in to read “WKRP” I was on my little soapbox. I said, “I don’t want to do this. I think this part is window dressing. I’m just not interested.” I thought they’re never going to hire me for anything else because I’m so snotty. I felt it was important for the character to not just be a blonde. It was really Hugh Wilson and Grant who were in the room that said, “You know what? We like it. Let’s do it.” I felt so instrumental that they listened to the concept of this glamorous person who could also be the smartest person. And you know what? It was wonderful. I had a huge female following because of that. And that has always been one of my most treasured memories, knowing that it did have an effect on women.
Fox News: What’s your favorite memory from your time filming “WKRP”?
Anderson: Gosh, I have so many. But there’s one spectacular scene I did with Frank Bonner, who played the salesman who was always after me. Jan Smithers, who played Bailey Quarters, told me to accept a date with him and maybe I would scare him away and he would leave me alone. However, it didn’t scare him. We have a scene alone in my apartment, which was so beautifully written. Frank is really poignant in it. It was such a wonderful scene to play because he’s so talented and gifted. We got fan letters, the two of us, from Steve Allen and Jack Lemmon about that scene. So I think that’s my favorite memory.
Fox News: Your character drew a lot of female fans, but so many men loved you too. How did you feel about being a sex symbol?
Anderson: Oh yes, I remember we all did posters back then. Everybody always asks me, “What made you do a poster?” I would say, “Because someday my grandchildren will look at this. And I’ll be able to tell them that I really looked like that. What you saw is what you got *laughs*.”
But you know, I had this discussion with Ann-Margret. Will there ever be a time when our names won’t be followed by “bombshell” or “sex symbol?” It becomes a part of your name. And you know, I’d never thought I would reach that point. I was so serious. I was doing “Fiddler on the Roof” for 53 weeks on tour. I never thought I would be Loni Anderson, sex symbol. But I embrace it. I think I was lucky enough to have been able to play so many different things and sex symbol was a part of it. I took whatever my career threw at me. So I embrace it. And my granddaughters think it’s a hoot!
Fox News: What has kept you going as a performer?
Anderson: I’m always looking to have a good time. And I love acting. Actors never retire because we love it so much. It becomes your life, your joy. Comedy is my favorite. I’m always looking to do something different and comedy attracts me the most. I want to do something that challenges me.
Fox News: What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Anderson: I would tell her, “Don’t keep looking forward to what’s coming, enjoy the climb.” There’s nothing more wonderful than the climb, you know? The looking forward to each day and creating something new, getting that job, going on an audition, putting yourself out there – that’s all great. But you can’t forget to enjoy the climb. I guess that’s the best thing you could do when it comes to your life. Don’t forget to enjoy the day while you’re looking forward to what’s going to happen next week.
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