| [Photo: The Associated Press]
...convicted felon, but I'm an honest convicted felon."
"I don't sugarcoat anything, I'm just Heidi, I tell it like it is," the former Hollywood madam, purveyor of $10,000 tricks to Tinseltown's A-list, is telling me over the phone.
"Just Heidi," of course, is Heidi Fleiss, and the reason we're talking over the phone instead of chatting at the Sutton Place hotel in downtown Toronto as we'd arranged is that Fleiss has been denied entry into Canada for the second time in recent weeks. She even went through the proper channels and tried to get a temporary visitor's visa at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles this time. But the officials there turned her down.
"Everyone knows what I did," she says, sounding sweet and sincere. "I'm a convicted felon, but I'm an honest convicted felon. It's so embarrassing for me. A lot of people worked hard and had a lot of things planned. I feel terrible."
The reason she was refused entry was the identical reason that she wanted to gain entry: her book, Pandering.
"The reason I couldn't get into the state of Canada was because my book Pandering promotes prostitution," she says. (I don't tell her Canada isn't a state.)
Pandering is a visual memoir -- a "work of art," Fleiss calls it. There's a lot in it, though a lot of what, I'm not sure. It's certainly colourful, and I wouldn't mind looking at a similar pictorial history of, say, the Rolling Stones. But more than 100 pages of Heidi and her friends, I'm not so sure.
The outsize book -- it's scrapbook size -- includes photos (mostly of Fleiss), newspaper clippings (of Fleiss), Q&As by former associates and friends. There are even old school report cards (belonging to Fleiss). For the life of me, I can't figure out who would sit and read this book, let alone pay $79.95 (except perhaps Fleiss). And yet, the former Hollywood madam tells me the book is now in its second printing and sold close to 50,000 in its first.
Fleiss says the tome, which obviously cost a great deal of money to produce, was paid for by "a distributor, who believed in me." She stresses it wasn't her money. "When the federal government gets finished with you, you have nothing. I don't know how Leona Helmsley does it."
Fleiss spent three years in prison, from 1996 to 1999, and is quite blunt about what life behind bars does to a woman. "When most people get out, they're dying to get laid. I was looking for a pair of socks. I had nothing."
Not that she didn't get offers. Fox TV, she says, offered her $300,000 to "celebrity wrestle" but she turned them down flat. "I'm against violence," she says, "though I could have killed anyone they put me up against. I learned it in prison."
At first, she says, "I was scared to death. Some of the girls there were lifers," but she eventually settled in. She even had a girlfriend -- in fact, girlfriends.
The first was a girl "who looked like a cute surfer guy. Best orgasm I've ever had in my life, but she was missing one thing ...." I don't ask what that might be. Next, she met the woman she settled down with in jail. "She looked like J.Lo., beautiful inside and out. We bonded, even outside of sex."
Fleiss, 37, says she is estranged from her mother, Elize ("She told stories about me when I was in prison"), but remains close to her father, Paul, a pediatrician. "He takes care of Madonna's daughter, Lourdes, Tom Cruise's and Lenny Kravitz's children, and Leonardo DiCaprio."
When I point out that DiCaprio is hardly a child, she responds that "Dad's such a good doctor that patients like Leo, who saw him as children, still see him as adults."
Her parents, who are divorced, would have preferred that she had pursued an academic career but she wasn't the scholarly type.
"I did poorly in school. And that made me focus on other things, like going to the racetrack. I would like to have been an art curator."
When I ask her what she would change about her life, her response startles me. She says she wishes she'd gone to prison three years earlier, in 1993 instead of 1996, because of the stress of those times.
I am sympathetic, and wonder why her famous clients, who scattered to the winds when she was arrested, didn't help her.
"Why would they help me? They weren't my friends. We had a business relationship."
It is a line of work she would not pursue again.
"Once you do it the best, you don't do it again. I understood deals and how people like to be treated." Being a madam, she says, was never her plan. "It just evolved."
I ask her if this was just one of those situations where you start at the, er, bottom.
"Yes, it's like Phil Jackson, coach of the L.A. Lakers. He didn't just learn how to manage. He had to learn offence, defence, he had to play the game too."
Today, Fleiss lives in W.C. Fields's old house, which is owned by a friend, in the Hollywood Hills. She moved there after she broke up with actor Tom Sizemore (who has been charged with assault involving an incident with Fleiss).
"It's so inappropriate to comment outside the courtroom," she says, proceeding to comment. "He makes comments that are offensive, character assassination. Let him do that, I'm not going to."
At the end of our strange half-hour conversation, my head is reeling. She reverts to the sweet and sincere woman I encountered at the beginning of the talk, urging me to get in touch if I need anything more.
"Call me back if you need to. Call me anytime of the day or night," she encourages. "It doesn't matter what time."
I guess old habits are hard to break.