First you win a contest, then you win friends. That's how it happened for Lisa Barber, 20, a Sheridan, Wyo. motel chambermaid who last month dialed an MTV contest number and, by being the 10,000th caller, won a date with Prince and the opportunity to have his much-hyped new movie, Under the Cherry Moon, premiered in her hometown. Barber, a veteran contest entrant who had never won more than "a couple of Big Macs and a curling iron," was ecstatic. So were her friends, many of whom she had never met. Moments after her name was announced, callers from California to the Carolinas began ringing up to ask for one or two or 10 of the 200 tickets she'd been allotted for Prince's frontier fandango. Her mother, Elena Holwegner, fielded the endless requests with humor, if not compromise. Ring! "No, Lisa's not here," she fibbed to one caller. "You say you're calling from Maine? Sorry." Ring! "You say you want to come over and take pictures of me doing housework? I've got a better idea. You come over and do housework, and I'll take pictures of you." Ring! "Sorry, no more tickets. What? You say you have six days to live? Well, sorry to break the news, honey, but you'll be long gone before Prince gets here. What? You say you can hold on an extra day? Well, I can't. Sorry!" Click.
For Prince -- who, when it comes to publicity, is usually about as visible as a microbe and only slightly more talkative -- the sojourn to Sheridan seemed to serve two purposes. After years of performing in bikini underwear and a raincoat and singing such single-entendre hits as "Head" and the incest-themed "Sister," he is, say pals, concerned that the public hasn't seen enough of the happy-go-lucky, Little House on the Prairie side of his personality. "He's perceived by the media as a bad boy, a rude boy," says his friend and protégé, singer Sheila E. "He is very conscious of his reputation, and I think he's making an effort to turn it around. Basically, he's an easy-going guy." Says Lisa Coleman, keyboardist with Prince's band, the Revolution, "He's so consumed by what he's doing that sometimes he has not noticed what is happening to his public image. He realizes it now."
The other reason Prince is courting publicity is that as Cherry Moon goes, so may go his movie career. If Moon succeeds, he'll be seen as a screen phenomenon; if it fails, his first movie, the $80 million-grossing Purple Rain, may be seen as a fluke. Adding to the tension is the fact that the new film, a black-and-white fantasy romance set in the South of France, is pure Prince: He stars in the movies, conceived the plot, handpicked the cast and took over for the original director, Mary Lambert, after she left because of "artistic differences." He also reportedly refused Warner Bros.' entreaties to inject conflict into the script, saying that atmosphere and music would keep the audience entertained.
Sheridan hadn't hosted such a dramatic event since 1865, when locals took on Arapaho Indians in a skirmish that preceded the Little Big Horn. By the time Prince pulled into town -- 11 days after Barber made her call -- Sheridan was ready. The pro-Prince contingent gathered at the airport, carrying signs (WELCOME TO SHERIDAN. WE'RE PROUD OF OUR TOWN. GOT ANY EXTRA TICKETS?) and hoping for a glimpse of the would-be minimogul. Others, less enthralled, could be found at the coffee counter in Ritz Sporting Goods, where rancher Dugan Wragge noted, "This town's known for fishing lures. We don't care about no boy who wears tight pants and struts around like a woman." Ventured another customer: "I'm going to paint a fence. If Prince wants to help me, that's fine." A third recalled that when he first learned of Prince's impending arrival, it set him to thinking about a visit Queen Elizabeth made to Sheridan in 1984 to look at equestrian stock: "I told my wife, 'This is real nice. First his mother, and now him.'"
The airport crowd let out a hoot when Prince's Learjet appeared as a dot in the Western sky. It landed and sat on the strip for a few minutes, the passenger door open. Then one tiny, high-heeled boot appeared. Then all 5'3" of Prince Rogers Nelson, decked out in a purple paisley silk suit, emerged smiling. He walked down a red carpet and threw his jacket over a fence to the crowd, then politely exchanged pleased-to-meet-you's with Sheridan's mayor, Max DeBolt, and other dignitaries. DeBolt, who takes every opportunity to plug Sheridan's tourist attractions (hunting and fishing), and neighborly life-style ("I think we had a thief here -- once"), was delighted with the hoopla. As Prince climbed into a gray-and-black limo, he said, to no one in particular, "I'm going to buy a house here."
Meanwhile, back at the small cottage behind her mother's trailer home, Lisa Barber fretted like a prom queen should. Prince's staff had cured one headache by providing a black-and-white outfit that would match the evening's decor. "I was real worried about what I was going to wear," says Barber. "I usually shop at K Mart." Prince also sent over a hair stylist and a makeup artist. After that, Lisa has nothing to do except sit perfectly still until date time, 6 p.m.
Her guy pulled up, 15 minutes late, at the wheel of a white Buick convertible with personalized license plates that read LOVE. Eschewing the gravel driveway, he vaulted the chain-link fence and knocked on the door. "Hello," he said, kissing her hand. "My name is Prince. Ready to have a good time?" Unfazed by the fact that her date was wearing more makeup and -- thanks to a midriff-baring shirt -- showing more skin than she was, Barber answered in the affirmative and took her seat in the car. Preceded by Sheridan's female riding troupe, the Equestri-Annettes, and trailed by a posse of costumed cowboys, the couple cruised to the Centennial Twin theater, where 800 enthusiastic but inexpert stargazers waited. Singer Joni Mitchell entered unnoticed; crooner Ray Parker, Jr., a newspaper reported, was misidentified by some as Lionel Richie. "We cheered for anyone who was dressed weird or who was black," says one Sheridian.
Inside, Prince sat with Barber in a back row. He did not buy her any Raisinets or popcorn but otherwise behaved like a perfect gentleman. "Well, there was one time during the movie when he played with my hair and he put his arm around me," says Barber. "But that's all he did. Honest." And did Prince, rock's reigning purple enigma, actually engage in conversation sometime in the evening? "Oh, yeah," says Barber. "I asked him how he liked it here. He said it was real pretty and that I was lucky to live here. In the car he asked me what the best radio station was, and when he turned to it, the deejay was talking about him. He said, 'If I had a phone in here, I'd call him.'" At Cherry Moon, she says, "I told him I liked the movie. [Prince's co-star and sidekick] Jerome Benton asked me if I liked to fish but I told him 'No way.'"
And how did the all-important Sheridan critics react to Under the Cherry Moon? The first review came from a young woman who, when Prince's tightly suited form first appeared on the screen, yelled out "Nice butt!" After that things got a little less precise. "I liked it, but I didn't get it," said one local, whose opinion was echoed by others throughout the evening. "It was great!" offered another. "Like one long rock video! But I didn't really figure out what was going on." The next day, when Cherry Moon opened at 941 theaters around the country, paid critics began weighing in with reviews that made the townfolk seem kind. The New York Times called Prince's character a "self-caressing twerp of dubious provenance." The Washington Post said that in black-and-white, "Prince begins to remind you of something your biology teacher asked you to dissect." USA Today, at least, pointed out that Prince's principal draw isn't his dramatic skill: "Fewer people saw [Purple] Rain for the acting than saw Old Yeller for the sex." In its first weekend, the film grossed $3.1 million -- about the same as Walt Disney's new movie The Great Mouse Detective.
That was in the future, however, and there was still joy in Sheridan as the movie crowd spilled out of the theater and into a party at the Holiday Inn. At 10 p.m. Prince climbed onto a specially built stage and unleashed 45 minutes of radioactive funk. "He's incredible," said a surprised Lillie Belle Johnson, 66. "I never realized what we were missing." With uncharacteristic informality, he and his band members mingled with the locals and made small talk about movies and trout. Cherry Moon might have gone over like wheat rust, but you couldn't tell that from the crowd's mood or from the mouths of Prince's entourage, who were hard-pressed to find fault with their mentor. "I thought it was the perfect thing for him to do," said bandmate Lisa Coleman. "Purple Rain was a heavier film; this is lighter." Casey Terry, lead singer in the Prince spin-off group Mazarati, pronounced him "scintillating to work with. If you can't handle his energy, you're up a creek." Said Cherry Moon co-star Kristin Scott-Thomas: "He was a joy to work with." Seconded Jerome Benton, who has worked with Prince as a roadie, backup singer and actor: "He's a genius. I won't ever leave, unless he couldn't use me. I like being under that protective wing."
Lisa Barber also enjoyed her time under the protective wing. When the party ended, her date made sure she had a ride home in a limousine. "I'll have lots of memories, but I know he'll probably never see him again," she said of her beau, who gave her earrings and a gold necklace as keepsakes. "I'll never take them off," she vowed. Looking back, she says the only good flaw in a perfect evening involved a misunderstanding over some costume jewelry Prince had impulsively asked to borrow. "He was a dream date," says Lisa, "even if he didn't give me back my pearls."
--Written by Culter Durkee, reported by Cathy Free and Jeff Yarbrough