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We know all about Leonardo's life since he found stardom. But what was he like when he was growing up? Leonardo has experienced the best and worst of Hollywood, having lived as a child among drug addicts in an area of Tinseltown he calls Scumsville. His parents separated when he was a baby and, as JOHN EARLS reports, while Leonardo now gets pounds 12 million a movie, his dirt-poor childhood has left a lasting impression on his attitude to money. Often mistaken for a girl because of his long blond hair, Leonardo was unpopular at school and had to act the class clown to escape bullies. But it wasn't all misery. He says his parents made sure he didn't suffer from their break-up - and his acting helped him win girls...

EONARDO Wilhelm DiCaprio was born in Los Angeles on November 11, 1974, making his starsign Scorpio. Leonardo's parents, George DiCaprio and Irmelin Idenbirken, met and fell in love while studying at a New York college in 1963.

Irmelin, a legal secretary until she became Leonardo's manager, had moved with her own family from Germany when she was four. George, who is half- Italian, was on the fringes of America's early hippies, the Beat Generation.

He was friends with leading writers of the time like Charles Bukowski.

George, who still grows his grey hair down to his waist, had also lived with Sterling Morrisson, guitarist with influential Sixties rock band Velvet Underground. George and Irmelin married in 1965 and travelled around America as hippies.

It was while they were on a second honeymoon in Italy, celebrating Irmelin's pregnancy, that the fateful moment came which decided what George and Irmelin should call their unborn son. "My mom felt me kicking while they were looking at a Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Uffizi gallery in Florence and they took it as a message," said Leonardo.

Having travelled for so long, the DiCaprios decided to settle down before Leonardo's birth. They ended up in Los Angeles, in the poverty-stricken East Hollywood suburb.

"My parents moved to Los Angeles when they had me," Leonardo said. "They'd heard it was such a great place and they chose Hollywood because they figured that's where all the great stuff was going on in this town. Meanwhile, it was the most disgusting place to be..."

Sadly, the domestic life didn't suit George and Irmelin after so long as free spirits. Although the couple have never officially divorced, they split up when Leonardo was just a year old.

Leonardo had just learned to walk and talk and his parents tried to ensure that the toddler wasn't affected by their separation.

They sent him away on a Russian cruise ship with Irmelin's parents, Wilhelm - from whom Leonardo got his middle name - and Helene.

By the time Leonardo returned from his first holiday, George and Irmelin had moved their belongings into separate homes.

Although the couple were determined to stay on good terms for the sake of their child, Irmelin - now 53 - had to take George to court before he would pay any maintenance for Leonardo's upbringing.

Even more into the hippy lifestyle than his ex-wife, George earned little money from a succession of hand-to-mouth jobs. He distributed tattoo magazines, arranged public readings by cult authors such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg but earned most of his little money selling comic books from his garage. A sympathetic court decided that George, now 54, could only afford to pay Irmelin 20 dollars a week for Leonardo. Although he couldn't contribute financially, George spent as much time as possible visiting his son at home with Irmelin.

"My dad has always been there for me," said Leonardo. "I never missed out on a so-called normal father-son relationship because I saw him any time I wanted.

"He took me to all my auditions and helped start my career. We have always had a lot of fun together."

Leonardo says his parents' separation has never affected him. "My mom and dad were separated before I could talk properly, so I never knew any different," he said.

"We weren't the hippy family that everyone imagines. You couldn't call us apple-pie-and-Republican but we didn't meditate or live on organic food."

George lived two miles away in a ranch-style home with his current partner, physiologist Peggy Farrar, and her son Adam.

Irmelin and Leonardo lived in a squalid bungalow surrounded by junkies.

It overlooked Griffin Park, where Leonardo's hero James Dean filmed much of Rebel Without A Cause, but the houses themselves are so dilapidated that Leonardo now dubs the area Scumsville.

"We were in the poorhouse," he admitted. "I would walk to my playground and see a guy open up his trenchcoat with a thousand syringes inside. I saw some major homosexual

activity from my friend's balcony when I was five and to this day it's left an imprint on my mind.

"I saw all sorts of stuff at an early

age. I went back to my first house when I started getting successful and I suddenly recalled it smelt like Mexican fried eggs!"

Such poverty has left a permanently deep impression on Leonardo. He said: "Where I come from is the reason why the money people throw at me doesn't get to me.

"I don't want to sound like some under-privileged kid but you learn certain values - like not accepting that just because you're in a hotel you have to pay five dollars for a Diet Coke. Just go down the road for a three- dollar six-pack!"

Leonardo was able to escape his lack of riches by entering into a fantasy life and his first memory is of being an entertainer.

"I was taken to a performance festival when I was two," he said. "I had my red jumpsuit on and my tackiest shirt. My father suggested, `Hey, go up on stage'.

"I remember looking out at a sea of expectant faces. After a moment or two, I began to dance; tappity, tappity, tappity...the crowd loved it. And I thought, `That's me getting that attention, me!'

"There was no stopping me and my dad had to pull me off the stage."

Although Leonardo was used to an alternative lifestyle from an early age one experience when he was six was something he felt was a step too far.

"We were sitting in a car," he recalled. "Dad suddenly announced, `The first time I had sex I was your age. You should try it'. But I wasn't interested. I told dad, `Shut up, dad, I don't want to try it. I'm gonna do all my homework instead'."

George later explained himself by saying: "Leonardo was never excluded from conversations about sex or drugs. He's still on a quest to find out how many things he can do in life and not do them straight. If he had to go to the guillotine, he'd still be goofy on the walk there."

Despite telling his dad he was more interested in homework than sex, Leonardo admits he hated school right from his very first day. "Mom took me to my first pre-school," he recalled. "She told me, `That's where you're going to go in two weeks'. I started crying and wailing, `Am I going to stay there all day? No, I wanna stay home!'

"In the end, mom became a childminder for the neighbourhood just so I could stay home."

Eventually Leonardo had to go to school. He attended The Centre For Enriched Studies and John Marshall High School.

"I was never really much of a school person," Leonardo said. "I had a really tough time. I got mostly B grades. I never got over the fact that we weren't allowed to learn what we wanted to learn. Why did I have to do maths? I wasn't good at it. I was frustrated."

Leonardo claimed school was dull and boring. "I know it's up to you to a degree," he admitted. "But it's hard to learn in such a boring environment. There's hardly any vibrancy there. For me, it's all about getting a person interested in a subject by linking a lot of happiness and joy in doing it."

Eventually, Leonardo cheated at school. "I cheated a lot," he said. "I hid behind other people's faces and having somebody next to you who you're friends with was important.

"I have to commend this guy named Mustafa who probably helped me through three or four classes just because I sat next to him every time. I got to copy his homework just before class started.

"If I had problems in a test, I'd just look over and Mustafa would show me his answers."

Leonardo wasn't popular at school either. He was nicknamed Leonardo Retardo. "The way I became more popular was to joke around, be wacky and funny. Dad taught me not to be shy. I did impressions, all of it.

"When I was nine, I saw the murderer Charles Manson on TV but I really had no idea who he was. I went to school the next day doing a Manson with a swastika painted on my head. I started talking about biting dogs' heads off. I really had no idea what I was talking about. Of course, I got sent home. Dad had to go in and explain to the principal that it was just an imitation."

At about that age, Leonardo started shoplifting. "There's a thrift store near where I grew up," he said. "It used to be a supermarket called Ralph's. That's where I stole my first bubblegum.

"I quickly stopped stealing because I believe in karma (where a person's actions decide his destiny). I'm curious about Buddhism. My brother Adam is always preaching about it to me."

Besides acting, Leonardo's other big interest was pets. His mother Irmelin said this started because Leonardo's favourite activity as a toddler was his bathtime!

"It was like a big party," Irmelin said. "All his animal and dinosaur toys had to be lined up around the side. By the time he was two or three, he already knew the names of all the different ones. He's always loved his animals."

Leonardo's first pet, a cat called Germain, died in a fight with another cat. "I didn't get any luckier with animals," he said.

"I brought some frogs home from the swamp one day and kept them in a cage. When I was cleaning it, I popped them in a bowl and put Clingfilm on it to prevent them getting away. It was like a microwave for them, and when I came back they were burned and contorted in different positions. I cried about it, and I'll never forget that."

Leonardo's mother now cares for a rottweiler named Rocky. "He's an epileptic," said Leonardo. "He's on medication, so he's tired all the time but mom treats Rocky like a new-born child so he's happy."

Before taking acting seriously, Leonardo wanted to be an ocean-ographer, a lawyer and a travel agent.

Leonardo wanted to be a travel agent because of his grandparents in Germany. Wilhelm, who died in 1994 aged 81, and Helene lived in Dusseldorf. Leonardo spent all his holidays from the age of eight with Irmelin visiting his grandparents, going to Germany seven times before he was 10.

"We tried teaching him German," said Helene, 83. "But he never got very fluent. The best he could manage was a few sentences. Leonardo was a very happy child, he was always ready for fun.

"He loved German dishes. A favourite was pigs' trotters with sauerkraut. But his real loves were home-made potato pancakes, German cold cuts and meatballs and strudel."

Helene recalls Leonardo entering a breakdancing competition when he was 12. "He came second," she said, "even though he was competing against bigger boys."

Leonardo still loves travelling and one of his ambitions is to visit Capri in Italy - DiCaprio means `of Capri' in Italian.

"What I really wanted was to travel and see all the different animals which were on the verge of extinction," said Leonardo. "I still want to go to see a bunch of animals in Madagascar, the Galapagos Islands and so on."

As well as travelling the world, Leonardo inevitably started wanting to explore the opposite sex as a teenager.

Besides the bizarre request for his son to lose his virginity at six, his dad played an instrumental role in Leonardo's sexual awakening.

"Dad used to show me all these weird magazines, which were stored in his garage," Leonardo said. "I used to run in and look at all the dirty underground sex magazines when I was younger, comic book sex."

Bored at school, Leonardo started studying girls instead of lessons. He said: "There was one girl who would watch the school chicken coop all day.

"She was tall, with black hair and big eyes. All I would do every day was watch her without her seeing me. It was the weirdest thing, I would stand behind a tree just admiring her - I never spoke to her."

His first kiss was with a classmate Nicole Becher. He learned how to flirt when he landed the leading role of Luke the sailor in the TV sitcom Growing Pains. It was one of the perks of the job. "I was 16," he said. "I learned a lot from my co-star Alan Thicke - including how to put the moves on women. I had a bit of a routine going on there!"

With such loving but unconventional parents, Leonardo claims he didn't feel the need to rebel when he was growing up. "My parents were the rebellious ones," he said.

"They're the people who have done everything and have nothing to prove. Whatever I did would be something they'd already done and anything I wanted to do in my life they would sort of allow.

"I don't think my parents would be shocked about anything I did because they're so laid-back.

"It's like, I'm an only child but it's very cool. I love it. I never missed having brothers and sisters in that way because my parents allowed me to do so much stuff that I wanted. Actually, I was a spoiled little brat!"
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Earls, John
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Apr 19, 1998
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