Barbra Streisand didn't like Vegas much at first because it was a city so unlike herself.
It was the summer of 1963, the young singer was but 21, earning $7,500 a week warming the stage for Liberace at the Riviera.
It was her biggest payday up to that point, but Streisand wasn't enamored with the town - the glitz, the manufactured glamour, the emphasis on the cosmetic.
Streisand stood in contrast to all of that, at least back then.
She didn't look like the starlets of the day, more boyish than buxom, more cutting than coquettish.
Vegas, then, was a big gleaming monument to that which she pushed hardest against: surface appeal.
"She wasn't a traditionally pretty girl who shows up and wins over audiences," says William J. Mann, author of the recently released "Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand," a meticulously researched chronicle of the first five years of her career. "She was going against the whole notion of what a nightclub singer is supposed to look like and act like.
"It must have been really tough as a 19-year-old girl who sings her heart out onstage and then gets a review from 'Variety' that says, 'Nice voice, but you really ought to plane down the schnoz,' " he continues. "She would say to friends, 'Why do people have to be so mean? Why can't they just talk about my voice?' "
But for as much as Sin City clashed with her natural instincts, it was here, nearly 50 years ago at her aforementioned stint at the Riviera, that her career gained a new kind of momentum, even if she didn't exactly get off to a glowing start.
"She was a product of New York's Greenwich Village in many ways, so when she went to Vegas, some of her humor really wasn't translating very well," Mann says. "Liberace took her under his wing and convinced the audience, 'Hey, give this girl a chance' - and then, of course, she won them over.
"That was the moment where she was suddenly making more money than she had ever made before in her life, it was the moment where she realized, 'There's a lot of different audiences and I can win them over if I work hard enough,' " he adds. "Also, that first appearance in Vegas was really important to her, because it was there that she learned that she had gotten the role in 'Funny Girl.' It really was a period of excitement for Barbra. It was the calm before the storm, the moment right before she exploded into the public consciousness."
This moment had been painstakingly planned years in advance.
"What was so striking about Barbra Streisand is that the legend has always maintained that she showed up and the world opened its arms and said, 'Come in,' when in fact, there was an awful lot of really shrewd salesmanship that had to take place in the early '60s to get her to be heard," Mann says. "There's no question Barbra has one of the great voices of all time, so that's not taking away her talent at all, but one of the things that really struck me was how much her publicists and managers had to do to get people to invite her back onto television shows and get her into nightclubs so that people would hear her and hire her."
Mann, who's also written books about Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, was initially skeptical about tackling the Streisand biography, urged on at the insistence of his editor.
He could appreciate her talent, but wasn't a Streisand partisan.
It wasn't until he began to really research the project that he began to see her in a different, more relatable light.
"She pursued fame not for the limelight," Mann says. "She's never liked the idea of being recognized and asked for her autograph. She's always had this kind of prickly, uncomfortable relationship with the fans, and it's because what she wanted was to prove that she mattered. She didn't know her father, her mother was withholding, in high school, she was the misfit and the loner. She wanted to show, 'Hey, look, I'm special and I can do great work.' "
Still, "Hello, Gorgeous" is no love letter to Streisand.
Mann portrays his subject as having a narcissistic side with an occasional lack of gratitude toward some who have helped advance her career over the years.
But in the end, Mann says that he came to admire Streisand's resolve.
She never fit in with anyone until she fit in with just about everyone.
"She had been the underdog, and I think that's why she was cheered on in those early days by some and also criticized by others," he says. "She did it her way. And she succeeded."
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.