Juliette’s life has been full of adventure and brush with fame—Cat Stevens, Hugh Hefner, Bruce Springsteen—not the least of which is getting her pilot’s license and using that skill to help rescue animals after Hurricane Katrina. What an odyssey!
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born Juliette Bora in London, England, in 1951. An only child, I lived in Turkey with my parents for the first four years of my life. My father was Turkish, and died when I was 10. My mother was French and a very unbalanced woman. I think we know today she was bi-polar and suffered from extreme depression, but in those days no one really talked about that kind of mental illness, especially in England—you kind of lived with it. There were no therapists or help of any kind. You very much kept your troubles to yourself.
When I was five, we went back to live in England, where I grew up and went to school. My childhood/youth was pretty harsh. Because my dad died so early, life changed dramatically for us; mother was in a panic and we pretty much financially went downhill. When I was 13, my mother bought me a horse because she thought it might ease the loss of my dad but we really couldn’t pay for a horse, so to earn the necessary money to keep him, I worked as a stunt rider for MGM Pictures, which happened to be two miles from where I boarded my horse. I spent two years riding, falling, getting knocked off by bandits and jousting in full medieval armor—just about anything you can do on a horse—to make whatever money I could. I got hurt quite a bit, so when I turned 15, Mother sold my horse (without telling me) and that was that for my equine career.
I left school at 15 and went to work. I got a job after a year at the London Playboy Club as a casino dealer and tried as best I could to help my mom pay the bills. It finally all caught up with us and one night in the winter of 1969, the Bailiffs arrived at the front door to take my mother to debtors’ prison—yes, that was a thing back then! It took some fine double-talking on my part to convince them to give us a few days to come up with a certain amount of money. They didn’t know we owned a crumbly car, so the next day we packed the car and drove to Istanbul, Turkey.
The car broke down in Bulgaria. This was 1970 and you didn’t want to be two women stranded at 2:00 am on the main (cobbled) highway in the middle of a very communist country. We did survive this (very long and hair-raising story involved) and finally arrived in Istanbul, Turkey, in the back of a cattle truck.
At 19, I became a cabaret singer at the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. Then, a year later, in 1971, I moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where I lived for four years singing in clubs and hotels. I basically got on a plane one day, while Mother was visiting Grandma in England, and left. When she returned to Istanbul, she was furious, but I had to get away; I was choking. The war started in 1973 and I got out in the beginning of 1975 on a super scary drive, with bullets flying around, huddled on the floor of taxi cab to the airport on the last day it was open.
After a few more years working as a singer in London and Europe, I moved to the USA in 1976—Los Angeles—where I then started working for Playboy, singing across the country in all their clubs.
During that time, I moved to New York City (1979) and got married to a now very well-known Broadway actor, Terrence Mann. I always wanted to become a writer so I started writing plays and movies—mainly plays—and had a few produced in small, unknown, cold and drafty theaters but nevertheless I was loving it. I also started a workout class that was a kind of ballet/Pilates intense stretch class, which I taught in the city for the next 16 years. It was very successful.
In 1989, Terry found his soulmate. I honestly can’t say I blame him as I wasn’t the best person I could have been. I realize now how much influence and power my mother had on and over me—thus creating in me a second version of her, which was very damaging. But Terry found his soulmate and had to go. It was meant to be.
Of course I was completely unprepared. Terry had been the major breadwinner so everything—credit, nice apartment on the Upper West Side with a $3000 a month mortgage, most of the money in the bank—was in his name. My friends told me to leave the apartment and get a couple of roommates, oh, and burn all his clothes outside “her” apartment where he was living.
I was not about to leave my apartment; it was my home. I was way too old for roommates (I was 38 and didn’t much care for people anyway) and I was not about to break the law and burn anything, but I had to do something fairly drastic because money was running out. I doubled up on the classes I was teaching, established my own credit, and became more focused than ever before. I was running out of time and it was catching up with me, so I called the President of Citibank (not an easy task and I don’t think it would work today) and told him my story and asked for an extra five years on the mortgage to reduce my monthly payments. I think saying my husband had just left me for a ballerina helped! They gave me the five years and I struggled along. When I kind of ran out of food, I realized I was going to have to earn a lot of money to stay in my apartment and live in NYC, so I took a play I had written to ABC Daytime TV and applied to become a Soap Opera Writer for One Life to Live (OLTL). I got the job and stayed as a soap writer for the next four years, earning an Emmy Nomination and two WGA (Writers Guild of America) awards.
When did you start to think about making a change?
Working as a writer in Daytime TV was very stressful. I had to write a 90-page script, edited and delivered in five days, 52 weeks a year, and I could absolutely NOT be late on delivery. I loved the writing but I worked for very intense, ambitious women executives and that was a challenge. It was a lot about “who likes me this week?” I did well on OLTL and we got the Emmy nod which was great, so for a few weeks everyone liked us!
Then I moved to a show called Loving (which spawned Michael Weatherly who is now on the number one show Bull); they were doing a huge turnaround and changed all the staff. There was a new Producer, Haidee Granger, who is one of the finest women I have ever known, not to mention very talented in her own right as a TV producer. Haidee turned Loving around and we were getting serious notice from the networks. As is very typical in daytime TV land – someone high up decided that Haidee was getting too successful; in three days she was gone and replaced by another producer
The two WGA Awards we received for Outstanding Achievement in a Daytime serial were entirely due to Haidee’s work. At the WGA awards ceremony in NYC at the Waldorf Astoria, I caused a big scene by holding up the show, asking Barbara Walters to sit down (as she was coming back to the stage to host), and giving Haidee the accolade she deserved. Everyone in the room applauded except the ABC table—they all turned their backs to me. Two weeks later, I was gone from the show. But I felt amazing. It was worth getting fired for doing what I truly believed was the right thing. That was the first time I felt the power of being truthful, authentic, and giving to someone with not a care about my own safety.
I met Jason in 1992 at a small cabaret hangout in New York City. He was dating a mutual friend and I was already divorced and on OLTL and had absolutely no thoughts of getting married again. I didn’t want children and I was perfectly happy just hanging with my friends. Well… God has a great sense of humor and after a few months I realized I had met my soulmate. We dated for two years then married in 1994. While we honeymooned in Jamaica, I sat on the beach and contemplated my future. I was 43. I knew daytime TV was not for me. I remember thinking, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” and “What would you do for free?”
Fly an airplane!!
My father had been an aircraft engineer and it had always been in my blood. Also, we were very fortunate at that time as Jason was doing very well in his voiceover career and, for the first time in almost 30 years, I didn’t have to work! We could afford this. When we got home to New Jersey (we had moved there in 1993) I called the local airport and off I went, at age 43, to become an airplane pilot.
What is your next act?
I am an Airline Transport Pilot (ATF) and Master Flight Instructor, qualified to fly 19 different airplanes.
Flying is something quite extraordinary. You take off and climb to thousands of feet above the ground and you are in another world—literally. You are talking to Air Traffic Control (ATC); they are your lifeline, responsible for making sure that over 20,000 aircraft that are airborne at any given time, fly, land, and take off safely. I love the language of pilots and ATC, the unwavering professionalism that is so prevalent in the air amongst us. I always felt surrounded by “my people.” It is peace at its finest.
Back in those days, before 9/11 and all the shit that followed, all was well with the world. And there is nothing better than bringing that plane home to the airport and feeling the wheels gently thunk to the ground. Your airplane is not a machine like the car; it’s a part of the family. I purchased my own airplane and loved it. It carried us all over the country: me, hubby, and two dogs!
How hard was it to become a pilot?
It took three years for me to secure my Private Pilot’s License and my Flight Instructor license. I was very fortunate as my first instructor was a young man named Marcus McCall (now a Jet Blue Captain). He was 22 and just a few weeks graduated out of Embry Riddle Aviation University. I was his very first student. He was so talented and guided me through this very difficult process.
Many times, I really thought I’d have to quit. Sometimes our lesson was cancelled because of wind and weather and I remember in those early days being secretly relieved—I had a day reprieve! See, I had fear. Not the scared of night shadows fear but real, mind-numbing terror. Here I was in a small—no, tiny—little lawnmower with wings; up in the air and feeling every wind bump and strange noise that little airplanes make and thinking, “have I lost my mind completely?” Marcus was so patient!
The academic side to flying is all about math—my worst ever subject—but I found that when I was learning the technical side of flying, the math fell into place. Why hadn’t that nasty math teacher I’d had in school told us that Pythagoras’s Theorem totally applied to airplane navigation?
Landing was the tricky part. Taking off is optional—landing is compulsory. It was my Achilles’ heel. For some reason my spatial awareness was all wonky. You really have to “feel” the landing as there is a time about 10 feet off the ground where you are on a kinesthetic journey of just knowing when the wheels will touch. I thumped that little plane down hundreds of times and poor Marcus was sometimes quite pale, but off we’d go again and again and again, round and round the pattern, landing—or should I say meeting the ground firmly. I was so determined to become a Master that I didn’t stop. I went to the airport every day and practiced. Sometimes I scared myself but I pressed on. Today, I can pretty much land anything, anywhere.
I remember the day I soloed. My instructor Marcus got out of the airplane—not as confident as he would have liked—and I was alone in this little tin cup.
And as I learned and gained knowledge, my confidence increased. I spent over 117 hours as a student before Marcus could sign me off to take my Private Pilot’s license. But because of that arduous, although thrilling journey of learning, I became an excellent instructor as I knew what it was to struggle in the flight training process. I found I could really help people with their fear—everyone has it.
With the help of some of the most extraordinary pilots I have ever known, I honed my craft. Every time—to this day—when I have a challenging flight, I think of all my teachers and what they used to say “Just wear the airplane and fly!”
Jason and I had moved to Red Bank, New Jersey after our wedding, in 1994, and right after we got there and I started flying. I struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen at our local gym. One day, I sat down beside him and he said, “What’s the topic of the day?” And off we went for the next few years having extraordinary chats about everything. This was Bruce’s local gym and he’s just that kind of guy—one of the most gracious and kind people I have ever met. We would pretty much see each other every day at the gym and he sort of became my flying mentor in a strange kind of way. He loved that I was learning to fly and used to ask me every day how it was going. He nicknamed me Sky King (from the old series Sky King & Penny).
I remember the day before my first exam—the one that would give me my Private Pilot’s license and make me an official pilot. I was sick-to-my-stomach terrified, hoping for awful weather or that I’d come down with some lengthy illness—anything that would prevent me from going to the airport the next morning to face The Examiner! I was sitting in the gym and I told Bruce my exam was the next day. He was thrilled; I was not. I asked him, “Have you ever been scared to go on stage?” and without missing a beat he nodded and said, “Oh yes. A lot.” I was amazed. He has faced thousands of people and played for hours. Scared? Really? He patted my hand and said I was going to do fine and he’d see me in a couple days to hear the good news. Strangely, knowing that Bruce Springsteen got scared also was exceptionally comforting.
The next day, I aced the test and got my license. The following morning, I was getting out of my car at the gym and turned to walk in across the parking lot. There was Bruce standing with his arms open wide mouthing “Well?” I said I passed and he literally swept me up in a huge bear hug, congratulating me. That was a special day. He never knew it but Bruce Springsteen had an awful lot to do with my success as a pilot for the next 15 years. Whenever it got rough, I would often think of those days at the gym in Red Bank and the lovely friend I had in my corner.
You’ve used your pilot’s license to help with animal rescue. Tell us about that.
As I improved and passed all my pilot’s exams with flying colors, I started to think, “What can I do with this?” “How can I be of service?” So in 2003, Jason and I moved to Kanab, Utah to work at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. They are the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the world. Set on 3000 acres in Southern Utah, a half hour from the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park, Best Friends is one of the most amazing places you will ever see. Funded solely by individual donors, they bring in over $55 million a year and most of it goes to the animals. They have been instrumental in a lot of legislation changes around the country with regard to animal shelters and rescue. Just a look at their website tells you everything.
I took my airplane and worked as a Volunteer Coordinator and their animal transport pilot for ten years. They sent me to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to aid with their animal rescue and we rescued 6,000 dogs, cats, and various other species. I stayed down there for nine months. My first stationing was in Tylertown, Mississippi, where Best Friends had set up a temporary shelter/receiving area. We put in a 19-hour days, 7 days a week. At 1:00 am every night, a huge semi-truck would arrive filled with rescued animals from the city (New Orleans). We would take them and vet them. Some were in such a bad state we had to do emergency surgery there on the spot; some were so thin and cold they couldn’t walk; some were ok but so frightened they would bite everyone who came near them. But we didn’t care. They were our kids now and we would fix them.
What we were not prepared for, however, was how few people ever came to claim the dogs, cats, bunnies, snakes, reptiles, and varied assortment of critters we had accumulated. So after a while, we started adopting them out and sending them to other animal rescues across the country, which is where I came in: I flew the animals to various locations for adoption. I once had to fly a “family” of Tarantula spiders to a Tarantula rescue in Alabama. They were in a large roomy dog crate on the back seat of my airplane and I spent three hours steeling my nerves with those large, black, hairy creatures over my shoulder. I think I aged a bit on that flight!
In 2006, Jason and I moved to New Orleans itself, where Best Friends had set up a holding/rescue station in the city called Celebration Station, which Jason ran. This was very different: Every day we had a steady stream of people coming through the doors to adopt. Anderson Cooper even came from CNN and did an interview with me! I was primarily an adoption coordinator and we had to be very careful as most of our dogs were pit bulls. I worked side by side with my dear friend Cathy Scott, who wrote an amazing book about this experience called Pawprints of Katrina: Pets Saved and Lessons Learned. We had to be very careful as you never knew who was running a dog fighting ring and had come just because we had pit bulls.
One day, Cathy and I were working through a line of very impatient people wanting to adopt, when a guy who honestly looked like he was “straight out of Compton”—all black leather, gold chains, sunglasses that would have made Elvis squirm, with a posse of Dr. Dre wannabes—leaned over my desk, laid out three $100 bills and said, “I want the black one in cage 12.” His nose was about six inches from mine. My brain did that thing where it goes super slow—you know when you run through the list of options—as I figured out how to say no, as I knew in my heart he wanted this pit bull to fight. I then contemplated the various death scenarios that could possibly transpire as a result of my channeling Braveheart and facing down a gangster, not to mention Jason having to deal with the fact his wife was dead because she was “brave.” Oh but it was such an easy decision. I stood up; looked Mr. Rapper square in one sunglassed eye and said, “No, Sir. That dog is not available to you. None of them are.” I could feel Cathy holding her breath as I basically waited to die. An eternity of seconds went by. Mr Rapper stared at me, pushed his nose an inch closer, turned on his heels, snapped to his boys, and walked out the front door.
I have no idea why he left but I felt like a million bucks. I knew I had just saved a life: the black dog in cage 12.
How supportive were your family and friends?
It’s always ever just been my current husband. Everyone else thinks/thought I was mad, too old; too ambitious (for my age), etc. But when I succeeded in each endeavor – yup, they all said how great I was. How amazing! How I was so fabulous! My favorite was, “You are always so lucky.” Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Or even semi prep in my case!
What challenges did you encounter?
Sticking with it. Overcoming real fear. Getting into that plane every day. Trusting my instincts were right and this was my mission. Learning to understand that because this was so difficult and I had so much resistance, this was what I was supposed to be doing for a much larger and more important reason. I had no idea what that was as I wasn’t really that interested in only being an airline pilot. I just knew that even though most days were hard, I still had days of pure exuberance and joy like I had not felt since I was a child. I remember my first really good landing, where the plane met the ground and you didn’t even feel the wheels touch. That was beyond words amazing! That’s when I knew this was right. It was one of the first times I solely listened to my gut and ignored the chattering committee in my brain.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Yes. I think about quitting and just riding my horses and not thinking about being on a mission or changing the world, but that’s not my destiny. Thankfully I do have my amazing husband who is my consummate cheerleader, but that’s not enough is it? So I always go back to, “I’ve done this before.” When I was learning to fly I couldn’t land the airplane, I mastered it because I made it critical to my life. When I was learning to deal roulette and Blackjack at the Playboy Club and I couldn’t count fast enough and was on the brink of losing my job (and if I had, my mom was going to be put in debtors prison), I had to learn so I could keep the job. I found a way.
So I remember these times (and many others, when all looked hopeless) and remember how I focused and accepted nothing less than success. When it all looks hopeless, I create a critical commitment within myself. I just say it’s time to make magic happen!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Be brave beyond anything you could ever have imagined.
Ask yourself, “What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail”?
And most important of all, scare yourself at least once a day!
Find mentors. I created my own: Maya Angelou for her wisdom in such few words; Eckhart Tolle to keep me in the Now; Bruce Springsteen for his extraordinary eyes on life; Tony Robbins when I need a kick somewhere. And always look for teachers who love teaching. They will be the best at what they do.
What advice do you have for those interested in becoming pilots? What resources do you recommend?
Get in your vehicle, drive to the airport and sign up with a flight school. Find a good instructor and just do it. It’s really a hands on deal. You will get all your study textbooks from your flight school. But there are a few extra things I recommend.
AOPA is the Pilots association for private pilots. Become a member and you will also get the magazine.
The cost varies depending on which kind of flight school you attend and a lot of other variables. Here’s a good page for that info.
What’s next for you?
I am launching my new business, Act Three Productions where I hope to help women who want to change their lives and live a long-lost dream but just don’t know how or where to start. The kids are gone. Husband is doing what husbands do. Retirement looms in the distance. Now what? These women have been wives and mothers for so long, they realize they have lost themselves in who they’ve been for other people.
I am developing a Reinvention Program that will include one-on-one online mentoring and Reinvention Weekend Retreats, where we will delve into each person’s individual dreams and goals and work to achieve them by creating a new and different way of thinking about… What is my Third Act? How do I start? How am I in my way? What do I need to overcome to achieve ultimate success?
I’m also working on my speaking career and have officially signed with the Denver Speakers Bureau.
My book, Just Watch Me, will be coming out in spring, 2017. This is my autobiography told with nothing held back: my life starting as a child in England; my very first, fall-head-over heels-in-love-as-only-you-can at 17 relationship with Cat Stevens; my life as a Playboy Bunny and move into becoming a cabaret singer. Being raped at knifepoint in Liege, Belgium and taking two months to catch the guy, by myself, charge him, and put him away in prison for 15 years. Being tricked by my best friend into going on a holiday to Lausanne, Switzerland, and finding out it was just a ruse to send me into white slave traffic to an Arab Sheikh, then my subsequent hair-raising escape back to London, England. Telling Mother I was going on holiday to America in 1976 and never going back. Being told by some very nice Italian men from New York that I was going to play the lead in the movie of Judy Garland and finding out I was just their front for robbing casinos in Vegas. Walking the firewalk with Tony Robbins. And a lot more. The book will then continue on to the present day—very exciting.
I am self-publishing on Amazon and plan to make it a Best Seller! My hope is to catch the interest of a traditional publisher once that happens. And then the movie!
Contact Juliette Watt at Juliette.email@example.com