BOOTLEG FILES 780: “The Rula Lenska / Alberto VO5 Commercials” (series of TV commercials from the late 1970s).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There is no perceived commercial value for a home entertainment anthology of these commercials.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Sorry, darling.
I did not plan to write another television commercial-based column, but yesterday on Twitter I read that the British actress Rula Lenska turned 74. I had not thought of Rula Lenska in ages, and for those of us who were watching television in the 1970s her name and image occupied a unique space.
Over in the U.K. Lenska appeared in a number of forgettable low-budget films before she gained stardom in the TV series “Rock Follies” as a band member. Hollywood talent agents didn’t pay any attention to her – except for Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith, British actresses were not considered commercially viable for major movie roles.
However, the advertising agency for Alberto VO5, a hair care product line from the Alberto-Culver Company, noticed Lenska and thought that she would be the perfect spokesperson for the product. After all, she was a gorgeous woman with rich auburn hair and a sexy husky voice. Plus, her name gave a sense of the exotic – she was actually born Roza Maria Leopoldyna Lubienska, the daughter of exiled Polish aristocrats.
There was just one problem – Lenska was totally unknown to American audiences. And that’s where the genius of the Alberto VO5 campaign clicked – Lenska was presented as show business royalty despite having no claim to that crown.
In each commercial, Lenska identified herself by name and is pegged via an on-screen subtitle as “Rula Lenska – English Television and Theater Star.” She constantly played the star in these commercials – whether emerging from a jet plane to a crowd of paparazzi, accepting a bouquet of roses in a curtain call from a theatrical costume drama or sitting in a luxurious dressing room, Lenska is presented as a cross between Dame Edith Evans and Diana Dors – an aristocratic member of theatrical nobility who happens to be damn sexy.
In her work, Lenska always informed the viewer, she needed to look her best – whether performing under hot lights, greeting her adoring public or showing “friends from America” the sites of London, the only product line that kept Lenska’s magnificent tresses in place is the Alberto VO5 brand.
The U.S. commercials created some degree of puzzlement, as Lenska’s regal presence and the framing of her as a major talent did not seem to jive with the reality that Americans had no idea who this woman was. No less a figure than Johnny Carson expressed confusion over the campaign, pausing during one of his monologues to ask his audience, “Who the hell is Rula Lenska?”
The commercials inspired a few parodies – Jane Curtin did a faux-Lenska on “Saturday Night Live” and Steve Allen donned drag to play “Rula Shiksa” in a spoof in a short-lived 1980 variety program called “The Big Show.” This was notable as it marked a rare U.S. appearance by Lenska – she was hidden back stage while Allen did his routine and came out after he was done to declare, “I’m Rula Lenska and you’re not!” – which she followed by pushing him into a swimming pool on the show’s set.
Alberto-Culver did similar commercials for British television, but since Lenska was already known to local audiences there was no need to constantly identify her on-screen.
By the early 1980s, the Alberto VO5 brand dropped Lenska from its marketing and she mostly disappeared from sight in the U.S. Over the years, Americans with a love of U.K. television caught glimpses of her in the short-lived Britcom “Take a Letter Mr. Jones” as the business executive with John Inman (Mr. Humphries as of “Are You Being Served?” fame) as her secretary, and she would gain greater visibility for her decidedly non-glamorous roles in the long-running serials “EastEnders” and “Coronation Street.”
As for the Alberto VO5 commercials, several of them can be found on YouTube. Because there is no commercial market for putting together TV commercials into a home entertainment anthology, the only way to see Lenska’s brief spin in the U.S. spotlight is to hunt down the individual videos across that online video site. And, quite frankly, these commercials are still a lot of fun – and a bit baffling – all of these years later.
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