It’s Beautiful Women Week here on Rambling On. Today, I talk to the incomparable Jennifer Holliday. Jennifer is a woman who needs no introduction, but I’m going to give her one anyway. She shot to the top with her Tony Award winning role as Effie White in the original production of DREAMGIRLS, a role she’s reprising for the last time later this year. After lots of personal struggles, 2012 is poised to be a break-out year, as you’ll see in the interview below.
Jennifer Holliday, still beautiful. Photo by Meg Radliff.
ANTHONY: I was excited when I found out you were on Twitter and we struck up an on-going conversation. I remember seeing you in DREAMGIRLS during the original run and being absolutely devastated by “It’s Over” and “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” We were sitting in the highest balcony seats and it felt like you were standing in the row in front of us. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but can you tell me a little bit about what doing the show was like, and share a favorite moment or two?
JENNIFER: Being involved in creating a show and being a part of something that is new and innovative. Nothing had been done like this at the time and of course I was young and you know you’re making something happen. You don’t know you’re making a hit that’s going to be around for generations to come, making history, that sort of thing. None of that came to mind. It was a lot of hard work, and I was doing another show during the night while working on DREAMGIRLS during the daytime, so a lot of it was work and building something. My memories are kind of in a big ball tied up from the time we put it together: out of town tryouts in Boston and opening and boom I was the star really overnight. A lot of it my memories are not the kind of memories people would think you would have of creating something. A lot of them are melancholy because it was so overwhelming. I try to look back and see where they are from that time, but I have a hard time trying to gather those up. That’s why I think I’ve haven’t written a book about it, because a lot of it was just so much that I’m still sorting through it after 30 years, I can’t find the happy moments out of it. Not that there weren’t happy moments, there were.
ANTHONY: What was the other show you were doing?
JENNIFER: A lot of people forget that DREAMGIRLS was not my first Broadway show. I was doing YOUR ARMS’ TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD at night while DREAMGIRLS was developing during the day.
ANTHONY: You mentioned not writing a book about DREAMGIRLS. Have you ever seriously considered it?
JENNIFER: Well, you know, Sheryl Lee Ralph has a book coming out in March (Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the original Dreamgirl) and I thought maybe it’s time for me to write something.
ANTHONY: Would it be more of a memoir, a self-improvement book, or … ?
JENNIFER: More of a book where people can take help from it. So I think it will concentrate on overcoming depression. It will be about working on the mind to get through depression. There was a government report recently that said 1 in 5 Americans suffered from mental illness in 2011. I think that’s what I want to talk about and how it was intertwined with my life and my career.
ANTHONY: On Twitter, you are so supportive of everyone who talks to you. I know you’ve had a lot of personal challenges, including the depression you mentioned. What’s gotten you through the tough times?
JENNIFER: I think that the toughest part of the depression, and I actually tried to commit suicide when I was 30 years old, coming through that, working through that, was about having the right type of therapist and the right medication at that time, and “staying the course” (I know that’s from the Bush era but I just love the phrase). If you make progress even just a little … you keep going. Just be consistent, it will bear results and get you to where you want to go. I have lots of people who I’ve lost, people I knew who just gave up. Depression just wasn’t talked about a lot back then. Phyllis Hyman in 1995 was supposed to be at the Apollo and took her life just hours before her show, and that was the first one that made me want to talk about it more, that’s when I became an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention. And then Susannah McCorkle, another a jazz singer, leapt to her death in 2001 after years of fighting depression and relapsing, and that was traumatic to me as well. People who give up right before things turn around, and that’s why I say you have to be careful talking about these things.
ANTHONY: Careful about how you talk to folks with depression?
JENNIFER: Careful about how you talk about finding the right help. I’ve dealt a lot with alternative, holistic methods for some of the problems I’ve dealt with. I still believe in doctors and medicine and treatment, I just think you sometimes have to go further. But stopping your meds and thinking you’re alright for a little while is sometimes the problem so I’m careful in how I talk to people about self-treating themselves. Find a doctor who understands your concerns about your meds and will work with you. There are still doctors who care, who take time and make time to listen. For me to be able to have clarity on that, it was a long time before the voices of darkness cleared away for me. One of the reasons I moved from New York City to Atlanta was NYC is a fast paced place and I couldn’t figure out how to slow down. Even getting from airport to apartment was stressful for me. I sleep better in Atlanta and that, sleeping, has a lot to do with our health. I was finally able to do that without taking anything. Things are quieter down here, things are not bustling after 10pm here, so that helped me a lot. I’m always revaluating: what can I do to get more peace, the kind of peace I’m looking for? That’s why 2012 will probably be more a year of prep than a year of performing. I don’t have a desire to be everywhere, but I do have a desire to do great things. I don’t want that at the expense of the peace I’ve found. I do want to have a balanced life.
It’s sad, but depression still has a stigma attached to it. A drug or alcohol problem is far sexier, especially if you go to rehab and “fix” it. Depression is still viewed as horrible, even with more discussion and acceptance.
ANTHONY: People still get that “why can’t you fix yourself, why do you need help” reaction.
JENNIFER: Exactly. Every situation is different. Mine was clinical depression; manic-depression needs to be handled differently, so do the other types. And you need the right professional help.
ANTHONY: It’s also so true that we never know what’s going on in someone’s head; just because they’re so energetic and social on-stage doesn’t mean they go home happy with themselves. You know I’ve struggled with that, too. Speaking of being on-stage, though: I just watched your duet with Jennifer Hudson again via Youtube, and of course I got to see you in concert in Chicago back in December. I’m always amazed by singers whose voices don’t falter, and you’re as much a powerhouse as you were in the 80s. What kind of vocal workout regimen do you follow to keep your voice so strong?
JENNIFER: Discipline always. No vocal warm-ups, exercises, etcetera, outside of performance. That comes from the theater, doing eight shows a week. No drinking, no excessive talking, no smoking; being very strict about how you treat the instrument outside of the performance. That’s why my speaking voice is so different from the singing voice. People are sometimes shocked at the difference. My singing voice became the main voice, so everything goes into the performance: 200 percent. I’ve had no formal vocal training, never sought any. A lot of it I had to just learn for myself. Doing DREAMGIRLS eight shows a week, with one day off, having to be wonderful, to create magic: I had to take care of my instrument in a different way. No partying, no speaking before 3p.m. each day until the show each night.
ANTHONY: So it’s really more about maintenance than further training?
JENNIFER: You know, even if your voice is trained, that doesn’t train you to perform every night. You have a legit voice, but it still doesn’t enable you to do eight shows a night. You still need the discipline. That’s why opera singers do less shows a month, to rest their voice. I’m grateful I started in theater first. If I’d started as a recording office first, my voice might not have held up as well, might not be the clear powerful voice it is.
ANTHONY: We’ve had a “Jennifers” Duet. Now, what are the odds we can get the GLEE producers to cast you as Mercedes (Amber Riley)’s mother for an episode or four?
JENNIFER: I think Glee would be a fun thing to do. I don’t know how we could get that done. The wonderful thing about Hollywood is you can just happen to meet somebody and boom you’re there, then if you’re not out there in that network you may not get thought of for something like being on Glee even if people know I may have influenced some of what they do – “let’s not get Jennifer Holliday, let’s get someone who sounds like her.” But anything can happen. Dreams are still made and things that seem impossible can become possible.
ANTHONY: It’s tougher not being in Hollywood or even New York, isn’t it?
JENNIFER: Yes. You know, Atlanta is a place that is becoming connected but a lot of people don’t even know that I live here, and I’m not a networker. But connections still happen. I did meet Amber through Sheryl Lee Ralph.
ANTHONY: Speaking of Sheryl Lee, How often do you see the DREAMGIRLS cast?
JENNIFER: They’re mostly actors. I’m mostly a singer fulltime, earning a living just from singing. So our paths don’t cross a lot. But I do see Sheryl Lee Ralph quite a bit because of her activism for AIDS and our relationship with the gay community. And I hardly ever run into Loretta Devine but the three of us were all together for Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Divas Simply Singing AIDS benefit concert in LA this past October.
ANTHONY: Earlier in your career you did a lot of benefit concerts, especially for LGBT causes. What causes are important to you these days?
JENNIFER: The same causes are there in terms of the gay community. It all started with HIV because AIDS pretty much cleaned out the Broadway community in 1981-83, around that time. And at that time it didn’t even have a name, it was the “gay white man’s disease.” People were just dying, there was no help for them so it took out a great deal of the Broadway community and had a large toll on our cast at DREAMGIRLS: Michael Bennett, Tom Eyan, Michael Peters, other creative staff and male cast. Both Sheryl and I were thinking about that early on and that’s been our mainstay in terms of activism ever since. And now it’s becoming one of the leading killers of African-American women because of so many men not being truthful and still being on the “downlow.” So that’s something that will still remain because of that connection I have.
Of course with my own problems with depression, that’s an important area for me too. And even though I have Multiple Sclerosis, I have never been a spokesperson.
I think I’m known to be a philanthropist because I help people with a lot of causes that aren’t as public. I’ve done charity performances, etc. “Everybody’s condition is my condition,” as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think I have to be personally touched by that cause or illness in order for me to give help. If I’m available and the timing is right, I’ll be there.
ANTHONY: I didn’t realize you had MS.
JENNIFER: People forget I have it because I am so energetic on stage, and I can walk, etc. It’s no secret but people kind of forget it because I don’t dwell on it, and because I’ve taken the stance that my depression was far worse than my MS was for me in terms of life-and-death. That’s how I’ve always looked at it. I think that’s because the medications that are out there, I’ve been waiting for them to get better. I have been unable to walk and been blind due to the MS. I’ve been taking care of myself, in fact I’ve undergone several controversial types of treatment to get help for my MS. That’s not for everyone.
You know, trying to figure out how to speak about a disease they don’t know a lot about is difficult. You don’t want to give people false hope, and when people are searching for an answer they don’t want to hear certain things. So if people see me out working through the pain, then they can try to draw from that. Even thought they have to take the meds and they’re in a particular situation that’s different from me, they can take inspiration. I’m working with a woman now who also has MS and is also a singer but is in a wheelchair, and I tell her I can’t promise you’ll walk or sing again, but I do you want you to take your medicine, etc. It’s hard when you’re a person like me who grabs life; how do you talk about a cure that worked for you but you know is controversial that might not work for everyone?
I do believe prayer works, too. I think everything starts in the mind. I was diagnosed seventeen years ago, and by the time they narrowed down my symptoms I couldn’t really walk. They did a spinal tap and other tests, to say conclusively “yes, it’s MS.” I asked them “Why can’t I walk?” and they said “Because your brain can’t send a message to your legs.” I thought, “My brain already can’t send a message to anything because I’m clinically depressed and take meds for that! So the depression has to go so I can put my energy to fighting a disease no one really understands and gets misdiagnosed.” So I started working on my mind, my outlook. And then they put me on the MS meds and one of the side effects is depression and suicidal thoughts! So I had to get off of that medication, and that’s why I explored the alternative methods I mentioned earlier.
ANTHONY: How did you go about that?
JENNIFER: You do your own homework and your own research. Doctors may not tell you the alternatives. So you have to go and research. I had to take myself off of the medicine because it was bringing on the depression and heavy thoughts of suicide! And I hadn’t read the paperwork to know that’s why I was feeling worse. So I did that and now here I am, and I still suffer greatly with the illness and I was last blinded for almost three months in 2007. But I continue to use all alternative meds and procedures that have allowed me to be my best self. As a performer I’m way better than I used to be before, but a lot of this is me telling myself that this is how I want it to be.
ANTHONY: I know fans are hoping/wishing for a full pop album. Is there any chance we’ll see one soon?
JENNIFER: I do want to record this year, but I don’t know what I want to do. I was thinking of doing an album of love songs: some cover tunes and some original tunes as well. I will make a decision this month.
ANTHONY: Regardless of what genre your next album is, I’m interested in knowing how you decide what songs to record or add to your concert repertoire.
JENNIFER: It depends on whether I want to try something new, maybe a favorite song that I’ve never performed before. A lot of stuff sounds new to me that I want to try, a jazz standard, a pop song. That’s how I’ve been looking at putting the concerts together. A lot of people think I’ve recorded lots of cds, but it’s only been five albums and two “best of’s,”, so it’s not a lot of material to use in a 90 minute concert unless there are the diehard fans. I had someone tell me “oh I loved Love Story” and I said “oh what album was that on? Oh, 10 people bought that album…” In a way it’s good that I don’t have lot of material because as I move forward (hopefully singing for another 20 years or so), it gives me a realm of possibility. I can keep recording and it’ll be new to me and new to my listeners and fans, and I’m excited about that.
ANTHONY: Where will you be appearing in the early part of 2012?
JENNIFER: I’ll be in San Diego with Marvin Hamlisch and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra on February 10th and 11thdoing the “Romance with Broadway’s Best” show. I’ll also be doing a number of private performances in the first part of the year. And you know, the recording industry has changed so much that I’m not sure I can get a label deal, so I’ll have to do an independent release with this album.
ANTHONY: Some of my favorite performers are independent artists putting their own releases out there. My friend Casey Stratton had one major label album and went back to producing and releasing his own stuff. It’s not the easiest way to get your music out there, but it gives you more creative control. To bring our conversation full-circle: You just announced that you’ll be returning to the role of Effie White in a special week of DREAMGIRL performances at The MUNY in Saint Louis. Does playing that role ever get old?
JENNIFER: I have played Effie every five years or so in revivals, but I am pretty sure that at 51 years old, this will be the last one. I don’t want to turn into Norma Desmond! I’ll be playing to 11,000 people a night in the oldest and largest open-air musical theater in the country. It’s another dream come true, so it just goes to show it’s never too late to dare to dream new dreams.
ANTHONY: I am going to make every best effort to be there for a performance. And now for my usual final question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to convince someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
JENNIFER: There are so many to choose from. I love The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. I think it speaks to me now, to where I am and I think it can help people. It’s a Bible-based book; if someone is searching it’s a great support.
I also love Love Leadership by John Hope Bryant. Another deep one! Not a Christian book but more about how you do business and work with others and involve loving yourself and others.
ANTHONY: Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, and for your friendship and support on Twitter!