New Again: Cyndi Lauper
In New Again, we highlight a piece from Interview’s past that resonates with the present.
Since she exploded in the early ’80s with her first hit, the aptly titled “She’s So Unusual,” Cyndi Lauper has never really lost her mojo. These days, Lauper is as relevant as ever—not as a pop-rock sensation, an LGBT activist, or The Celebrity Apprentice contestant, but as a Broadway boss. Lauper’s musical, Kinky Boots, leads this year’s Tony Awards with 13 nominations including Best Musical and Best Original Score (which Ms. Lauper wrote herself, of course).
Adapted from the screen for the stage, Kinky Boots tells the story of a fledgling shoemaker and his business partner, who just so happens to be a drag queen. Yes, it had “hit musical” written all over it from the get-go, but it took Lauper’s Midas touch to turn the film into the most-talked-about musical of the year. Toss in a book by Broadway darling and multi-Tony winner Harvey Fierstein and we are willing to bet Lauper will not walk away empty-handed this Sunday evening. In honor of Lauper’s big night, we dug up an interview from our archives conducted by Gael Love and Glenn O’Brien (yes, it is from the ’80s). —Allyson Shiffman
By Gael Love and Glenn O’Brien
She’s been a wrestling manager, a geisha girl, and Ms. Magazine‘s Woman of the Year. She’s got a load of gold and platinum records and she’s got a diamond engagement ring. She’s for real. And she really talks like that, except sometimes she talks even more like that.
Gael Love and Glenn O’Brien interviewed her at her home in downtown Manhattan, where she lives with her fiancé and manager, David Wolff, her cat, an alligator love seat and a feline robot, which purrs affectionately as the interview begins.
Facts about Cyndi Lauper
- “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” only went to number two.
- She has a brother named Butch.
- She makes her own spaghetti sauce.
- The first song she learned to play on guitar was “Greensleeves.”
- She has a cat named Skeezicks.
- Miles Davis covered her song “Time After Time” on his last EP.
- The original title of her first album was She’s So Wonderful. It was changed to She’s So Unusual 30 seconds later.
CYNDI LAUPER: When I lived in Vermont, I worked in a kennel. I was an art major at Johnson State College. It’s up by Stowe and Goddard where all the rich brats went. I was in a special program. All the outcasts in the world went to school there—guys who were in jail for murder, people who had a lot of trouble. I was there because I was on welfare and I told them I wanted to go to school. They said okay, so they sent me to this place and they helped me get my high school equivalency.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Why did you go to Vermont?
LAUPER: Well, I was living on the street in a tent. So I took my dog Sparkle and my cat and my art supplies on my back. I used mostly charcoals and chalk, pastels. Then I planned to go up to Canada to do tree studies. I only had $25 and a pack of Marlboros. I was a wise guy, too. At the border, when everybody was declaring everything, they said, “Do you have anything to declare?” I, of course, pulled out my cigarettes. Well, they let me in anyway and I did my tree studies. I was lucky. Before I became famous I had a very full life, and that gave me a lot to pick from. I always use everything. It always comes in handy. Working with animals… Well, I just enjoyed that. That was the most peaceful time.
O’BRIEN: But why Vermont?
LAUPER: We were passing through it. I was with a friend, and we were camping out in different lots near Lake Champlain. Later, I moved into a runaway hostel; a place where kids could go if they left home. But I was 18, so I wasn’t exactly in that category. They said, “You look young, but you’re 18, so just do the regular stuff that everyone else does.” You had to write your goals out.
GAEL LOVE: What were your goals then?
LAUPER: They asked, “What would you like to do with yourself?” and so I wrote, “I’d like to spell better.” It was just a place where they help people, but I go to see a lot of kids and their problems. It was an amazing time. Every so often, people become aware of teenagers and their problems, and at that time people were aware, but it wasn’t that the runaways were running off and getting in a whole lot of trouble, it was that they were running away from their parents. There wasn’t that much talk about child abuse then. There was no protection for them, and I got to see it firsthand. There’s a shelter on Tenth Avenue in the 40s that’s run by a priest. It helps kids who run away to rehabilitate themselves. If you want to print that, that would be really good [The Dwelling Place]. It actually gives them an opportunity to train at something before going out into the world.
O’BRIEN: What other jobs have you had?
LOVE: You worked at Belmont Raceway, right?
LAUPER: I was a hot walker—I walked the horses after they had their run. If you loved animals and you just couldn’t work in an office, it was great, but it was rough work. My last time out the horse reared and I did a figure eight in the air, and that’s when I decided this kind of work really wasn’t for me. It was at a time when there were no girls, really, at the track. The old guys had this job, and it wasn’t considered a great job, but for a young, adventurous woman it was great. Plus the old guys were really upset that there were girls, young kids, coming in and taking their jobs, because really old people get the shaft a lot.
LOVE: What if you were 18 years old now, in 1986?
LAUPER: I’m not.
LOVE: Things are very different.
LAUPER: They’re a lot different now because I came along. When I first came out, I had to battle. I’ll show you a little piece of paper that I framed from a radio program; it said that I was no great shakes, and “I don’t know how she’ll do. She’s not going to do well in AOR. She’s definitely going to have a problem with Top 40.”
LOVE: Who said that?
LAUPER: I can’t say. I framed it and put it next to my gold and platinum records.
LOVE: In answering a question earlier, you said that, “Before I became famous…” What do you think are the consequences of fame? Specifically, what is the relationship between the individual who becomes famous and the crowds that make him that way?
LAUPER: I don’t know. The same people who lift you up will knock you back down. So I just went underground. I love it there, because to be an artist you have to maintain contact with the street. You have to still maintain being anonymous. It’s that anonymous person who meanders through the streets and feels what’s happening there, feels the pulse of the people, who’s able to create. When you have to be locked up… Well, I can only speak for myself, because every artist is different and every artist will write about her own process.
LOVE: So insularity is definitely a bad part—
LAUPER: It’s a bad thing. The thing that hurt me a lot at first was the fact that all my life I wanted to be who I was, and I took a lot of grief, as everyone does. You know, you live in Manhattan, and then, say, you go back and visit someone from home in Queens or Brooklyn, and you feel like an odd egg; people look at you rather peculiar. You forget. Manhattan gives you an opportunity to just blend in. For an artist it’s difficult, because if you stand out, even if you wear my hair color…
LOVE: About your current color…
LAUPER: You know, I’ve been playing with my hair color ever since I was nine. Not with bleach; I think the first time was for Saint Patrick’s day. I wanted green hair, so I used green food coloring. But really it began when I was 12, and I used Sun In, and then when the roots started to come in I went to Nice ‘n’ Easy. Then, before I realized it, every month I needed another bottle. And I went on to the hard stuff. Before I knew it, I tried to go back, and it was very difficult. I even tried to dye it brown.
O’BRIEN: What was the hard stuff? Crazy Color?
LAUPER: No, no. That’s the soft stuff. The hard stuff was the bleach and the dye. I tried to dye it back brown, but it turned red. That was the first time I had red hair.
LOVE: So now hair coloring is an addiction?
LAUPER: Oh, it is addictive. [laughs]
LOVE: I have always wanted to be a blonde, but I felt that once I crossed the line, there was no going home.
LAUPER: But you’ve already dyed your hair black.
LOVE: No, this is my natural color.
LAUPER: It is? That’s great color!
LOVE: But I have this feeling that it might be nice to be a blonde.
LAUPER: Everyone must be a blonde. I know…. Well, that’s not bad.
LOVE: As a political point, it’s bad.
LOVE: Because society has said that blond-haired people are the American ideal.
LAUPER: Well, I think it’s just fun to look different. That’s where it stems from. And after you finish getting dressed up you think how marvelous it looks and you go outside and deal with everybody. Then you first realize that nobody looks like that, and you have a bit of a problem going to the grocer. But the biggest problem happens, when it becomes too accepted, so much so that everyone is doing it, and then you can’t go out like that. Other people look that way, but if you go out like that you’re spurned. So that’s the Catch-22 that’s happened to me. As soon as you finish the show, you put this big cap over your head so your hair doesn’t show when you go out in the street, which is really a sad state.
LOVE: Is that because you don’t want to be noticed?
LAUPER: No, no, no. It’s hard to explain. I love people. I really do, I really love people. I figured it out, because one of my jobs was as a salesgirl. You know, people can’t pass up a bargain. They always want something for free. So they get an autograph—it’s for free and it’s something really cool. It’s like, “Oh, there’s so-and-so. Now’s the time. It may never happen again.” And really, odds are it won’t, but it’s difficult to be that person [who gives the autograph].
LOVE: But do you really mind?
LAUPER: It’s okay, because it’s part of my job as a singer—I think singing and music and art are forms of healing. The voice itself is healing. I try to always give something back—what I got from other singers whose voices are still in my head, who healed me. I don’t understand fame, in a way. It’s interesting to me because I haven’t really changed. My likes haven’t changed much. Time has changed. And I have no time. My skills have gotten better. With fame, I’m able to create more. With every success, you have more freedom to create.
LOVE: But don’t you get confined by what the audience expects from you?
LAUPER: I never think like that.
O’BRIEN: I don’t think pigeonholing is from the audience as much as from the people between you and the audience.
LAUPER: Whatever your ideas may be, you want to have a gradual evolution. That’s part of an art. You don’t want to radically change from this to that. I’ve evolved into many images. There’s a song I’ve written with one of my friends, called “Heading for the Moon,” and there’s a line in it that says, “My image bends its shape,” and it does. “It’s under the night, my image bends its shape.” We get really philosophical here. You know, I’m one of these people who can just philosophize myself to pieces! Because the whole cycle of what we live in, even molecules themselves, are ever-changing and evolving. Energy cannot stay static. When something doesn’t evolve or change, then it’s usually unhealthy. I mean, if you’re going to talk about cells and molecules… I just see everything and myself as a gigantic cell. Maybe I’m just an amoeba. I don’t know.
LOVE: When we were deciding on a over for this issue, the person who got the most howls of execration—
LAUPER: What’s howls of execration?
LOVE: That’s what Camus talks about in The Stranger—
LAUPER: Captain Lou?
LOVE: No, Camus in The Stranger.
LAUPER: I though you were talking about Captain Lou because he goes to a gynecologist-psychologist, works both ends, and you see what it does for him.
LOVE: Okay, the people who really got bad-mouthed were the ones who changed their image radically. If they were stars and pursued another medium, like Barbara Streisand, for instance—
LAUPER: I know, she got raked over the coals. But she’s number one: number one in album sales, number one MOR artist. Is MOR happening right now? No. But she did was she felt from her heart. I have a theory about that. What you truly believe and what you genuinely feel, someone else will genuinely feel. If you’re just changing with the style and fashion, then you’re bullshitting people. If you’re honest and you’re changing with your heart, you’ve evolved, and that’s what penetrates the people. Bullshit is thrown at you, and either you catch it or you suck it in, or you say, “Naa, bullshit.” I have a problem with people that say, “Aaah.” If I stayed the same all the time, then while everyone else now is wearing and doing the same thing that I did years ago, I’d think, “Who do I look to now?” But I never look to anyone. The same way that they were influenced by me, though, I am influenced by them and by everything that happens.
LOVE: It seems that fans hate change. Have you noticed that?
LAUPER: No, I haven’t. Only if you do something that’s 180 degrees, but, then again, in my career I can’t say that’s true at all, because I came out with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and did 180 degrees and came out with “Time After Time.” They were opposites. I understand what you’re saying. These are things that you’ve got to think about. You’ve got to think about what people can digest. I always think about that.
LOVE: What do you feel about a lot of people doing the classics? Can you imagine singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”?
LAUPER: Well, personally, no, but in defense of this, when I learned to sing, I learned how to sing all kinds of music. In fact, I sang “Ave Maria” for somebody’s wedding recently. You’ll always be condemned for something different, but with time, things change. I would rather take all the grief and be myself, and I always have. This is nothing new to me.
LOVE: Were you surprised by your success?
LAUPER: Yes, and the amount I had, because I was being myself and not a clone. I guess I was hell-bent on just creating again, because there was a time when I couldn’t create because I wouldn’t bend, and I wanted to make a record again so badly. Just to be able to sing, make a record and have creative freedom is so valuable to me. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t create. I’d probably be really half-crazy. And then to be a success at it in your own lifetime. That’s pretty cool. I wanted to create and inspire other artists and make, like, an artists’ community, and in a small way I have done that, I’ve influenced others. It’s almost as if it was a whole thing that opened up. There were a couple of people who did it, and then it just all happened.
LOVE: How do you react when people say Debbie Harry made Cyndi Lauper possible?
LAUPER: Deborah Harry influenced me a ton. Her clothes… Tina Turner… Patti LaBelle through her voice. I used to sing “Lady Marmalade” in my first band. To sing it with her onstage was a great thing. I’m a very lucky person to be able to talk with them and see them and do stuff with these artists. The “We Are the World” thing—I was so tired from doing another project, and when I finally got there, I had a jacket on—an Italian general’s jacket with tails—and I see Michael’s [Jackson] jacket and I said, “Oh, no!” So I took it off, also because I had mousse on that was flaking all over the jacket, so it looked like I had yellow dandruff. I was standing next to Billy Joel, who was gracrious, and Bruce Springsteen. I was standing between them and I felt very secure and safe, because that was like the New York contingent. To hear somebody say, “Hey, Cyn, over here,” it was like being home; it was no problem. And then Dionne Warwick was singing right over my head—I just couldn’t believe it.
O’BRIEN: Do you feel limited by your success?
LAUPER: Only sometimes when I want to go out and I kind of feel like, “Gee, I look terrible.” People are going to be staring at me saying, “Oh, look at her! Look at that. She looks sloppy,” or “Oh, look at her hair. Ooo, she’s got pimples,” or “Oh, that’s a rash,” or “Look at her. Did you check out her ass?” or “Look at her arms!” And even if not everybody’s thinking about it, I am. I think about it. I look in the mirror and say, “Oh my God!” It never was part of my image to look perfect anyway.
LOVE: So what’s the next fashion trend?
LAUPER: I wear less jewelry now because I started to see it all over the place. It’s too bad, because I love it so much. We thought that the clothes would make the statement, one or two pieces. Then I was watching TV just last week, and there was this big statement from a fashion designer, and I said, “Now what? Now what do I do?” I thought, “Well, I just have to go along with what I feel.” Fashion is like that, though. Everybody does it: Watch this and watch that. What flipped me out the most was corsets. When I was wearing the corsets it was, you know, kind of quiet turf. Nobody was into wearing a corset as a blouse. You had the corset with the garters and the stockings; that’s worn a whole different way.
O’BRIEN: Was there anybody who was a fashion idol for you or who you thought looked wild, who inspired you?
LAUPER: Well, I went to Fashion Industries when I was in high school. I flunked out. My uncle Frank is a coat designer. I have a really beautiful coat that he made my Aunt Gloria. I always wear it. It’s great, and it’s in such great condition. It’s nice to wear because it’s a period piece. I was always into that. I dressed up my Barbie dolls.
LOVE: You had a Barbie?
LAUPER: Of course I had a Barbie. And I had a Tammy.
LOVE: Do you know about Billy Boy, the guy who owns the entire Schiparelli collection? He is also a Barbie expert who is consulting for Mattel. He had every famous designer do an outfit for Barbie, one-of-a-kind pieces. Claude Montana, Saint Laurent. They even had a little Chanel suit made.
LAUPER: Just like Susan Blond! See, I didn’t get a lot of Barbie outfits, I made them out of toilet tissue and tissue paper from when we got presents. I always made something out of nothing, and that’s where work that I did came from, because I didn’t have a lot and I didn’t have a lot to spend. And also I like that kind of thing on myself, so I would buy this and buy that, and whenever we were dressing up—”Oh give me that piece of material! Oh, get this material!” and “Oh, we’ve got this old dress, but it looks to straight. Okay, no problem. We’ll yank it up and put this piece out here and we’ll put another piece here. We’ll sew it over here. No, we don’t have time to sew it. Okay, give me a safety pin,” and that’s how I went out. Then all of a sudden, that! That is what’s so hilarious, that that is fashion.
LOVE: And it all began with Barbie.
LAUPER: Well, it began with all of us and our little dolls, I’m sure. I had a Pollyanna doll, too. I cut her hair. I gave all my dolls haircuts, and some of them were bald for life—because they’ve only got that row that’s sewn in at the back of their head. I didn’t know that. My Pollyanna doll had long hair, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to give this doll a haircut. No problem.” I was going for the pixie, you know, when you cut up and then you let this part in the middle be long, with spit curls. And she had nothing back there. It was terrible. I felt bad, but it didn’t bother me too much.
LOVE: Who was your mentor?
LAUPER: It’s hard to say. Everybody. I’m affected by everything I see and everything I hear. I watch TV a lot; I was a real TV kid. I love old movies; actually, I watch all of them constantly, and even the worst movies always seem to have had the best style.
LOVE: Well, when you’re famous, you have to keep evolving your own look.
LAUPER: I’m a firm believer in concept, so when I did the first record, the look, the sound, and the whole statement, the art around it, was very strong, solid statement, so that when you looked at it and heard it; it made sense.
LOVE: What was the statement?
LAUPER: Be creative and be yourself and your emotions—your color! I used to feel that I dyed my hair red because what was in my brains at that time was red.
LOVE: Does that mean you were angry or passionate or both?
LAUPER: Both. And still I think, “Oh, I miss red,” but I don’t know if it’s going to be red or a pattern this time. I love animal patterns. Well, you know who made it more possible for somebody like me? I would have to say Boy George. He made it easier for me. I was a great lover of the New Wave era that happened in New York. I loved it. It was a very exciting time. There was a rebirth of art and underground going on in the East Village. When I was doing my record, I always walked in the East Village. I loved it there. I don’t know what’s happening in New York right now. Because of the expense of it, the young artists are not able to come in and people right out of college are not able to come here any more and work because it’s too hard to get a place to live. Most of those people are going elsewhere.
LOVE: Where are they going?
LAUPER: College towns.
O’BRIEN: Brooklyn—the dangerous parts.
LAUPER: Then once an artist lives there for a while and it becomes a safer place, it seem that somebody always comes in and buys it up. I had to become famous to move back downtown, to have enough money to live back down here. I used to think, “Oh, I want to move uptown.” I want to live here, though, because I feel closer to the pulse.
LOVE: How do you renew your energy? What kinds of friends do you have? What do you do to sort of replenish things?
LAUPER: First I try and go someplace where I can forget about what I’ve done, who I am, with people who are not impressed. I like to go up in Massachusetts, all the way up north, because the light is different there and it’s very high energy. I like to make crafts; I like to use my hands. When I come back I can start to write and work again. And I walk and walk around New York. I used to be able to walk a lot more because it was easier. It’s frightening now to be walking and have people recognize me when I’m by mself, because I refuse to have a bodyguard. First of all, I have nothing to guard. I don’t carry anything on me, and I don’t have a lot of super-heavy material things, you know. I don’t wear fur coats. I like old stuff. But still it’s scary sometimes because I don’t know how people are going to react to me.
LOVE: Is it lonely?
LAUPER: Nooo! And also I make up a lot of stories when people ask me if I’m Cyndi Lauper, I always say no. the only thing I haven’t been yet is an undertaker, but the business is dying out.
O’BRIEN: Does anybody ever think you’re somebody else?
LAUPER: Yeah, they tell me I look a lot like Madonna. [laughs] I think that’s funny. So I say, “Thank you! I’m Madonna Wannabe.”
O’BRIEN: Didn’t you think it was funny when everybody was comparing you to Madonna? There were polls in the newspaper that asked: “Who do you like?”
LAUPER: I didn’t even know that. So who won?
O’BRIEN: Well, more girls liked you and more guys liked Madonna.
LAUPER: I guess that means I’m ugly. [laughs]
O’BRIEN: I think the point was that you were meant to be a feminist, and Madonna was supposed to be the sex object.
LAUPER: I don’t think that’s true. I think Madonna is a feminist even if she doesn’t realize it. I don’t know what she thinks because I’ve never really spoken with her, but a woman can have a sexuality. They always do that to women. She feels sexual, and that’s what she projects. That’s what she feels. That’s not a bad thing. You can’t neuter everyone. Don’t go out and say, “Hey, show us some more leg” or “Hey, do this, do that. Now, open up the bust a little bit,” because I’ll knock you flat. If I wanted to do that, I would. I do what I want to do. I never want to be told what to do. I never want to be told what to do. If people thought “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was “kick your legs up in the air” and “girls just want to have fun,” it wasn’t “girls just want to get laid.” That wasn’t what it was about.
LOVE: I never thought of it that way.
LAUPER: That’s what people thought in the beginning, and that made me say, “Hey, listen here, I’m a feminist, pal. I burnt my bra when I was 14. Don’t give me that sexist crap.” But then, wouldn’t you know, here comes a woman, who feels sexual, and they have to give her some more sexist crap. The same women who complain about her being sexual probably own tons of Rolling Stones records, tons of Prince albums. There’s been sexism since the beginning of time. A woman is a sex object when someone else makes her into that object. If a woman feels sexual, she has as much right to being sexual as a man does. Madonna is not telling the kids anything; she’s just singing and being herself. That’s all she’s doing. She has no public platform on anything. There’s not reason why they should attack her other than she’s very popular and that people misunderstand or misread things sometimes.
LOVE: What does being a feminist mean?
LAUPER: Being a woman. Being pro-woman.
LOVE: So being macho means being a man.
O’BRIEN: There’s macha, too.
LAUPER: There’s macha, that’s right. But a feminist… Maybe I should get a dictionary—
O’BRIEN: I think a feminist is just somebody who believes that women and men have equal rights. I mean, I consider myself a feminist.
LAUPER: Right. My most prized possession is my Ms. Magazine award, because I am feminist and I do believe in freedom and equality for all, including women.
LOVE: So doesn’t that make you more of a humanist?
LAUPER: No, that’s a cop-out for somebody who’s afraid to say that they’re a feminist because they think it isn’t a popular phrase, because people picture a feminist as a wild woman from Borneo with a spear in her hand and a ring through her nose who hates men. That’s people’s perception of feminism through fear.
LOVE: Don’t you think that that’s an outmoded statement?
LAUPER: Now it is because people have started to speak up. Feminism is a fun thing. It’s fun to be a woman and to be able to be free. You don’t have to sell yourself like they sell cars. You don’t have to do that. If that’s what you feel, then you have every right in a free society to do that. I don’t know. Maybe Madonna went to Catholic school. I went to Catholic school. I got in trouble for playing elevator, where you lift your dress up and go, “First floor, second floor, third floor, oops, roof.” I always got in trouble on the roof part. But I think that by saying, “I am a human, and I belong to the human race—”
LOVE: No, that’s not the point—
LAUPER: I know what you mean, but I am saying that because a lot of women said that a long time ago. They’d start to speak up about women’s rights, and they’d say, “Well, are you a feminist?” and they’d say, “Well, no, I’m a humanist,” and then I felt like saying, “Bullshit. Tell the truth.” So when they ask me, “Are you a feminist?” I say, “Damn straight I am! What are you going to do about that now? Do you think it’s not fun? I’m having a pisser; I’m having a ball. If you don’t like it, fuck you.” That’s the way people are. If you have to worry about what everybody thinks, you’ve got a problem.
LOVE: It seems like your support of wrestling was hardly—
LAUPER: I used wrestling as a platform to bring humor to certain issues. It’s a form of entertainment for me. I don’t want to get into the issue of “Is it real? Is it fake?” Who gives a… It’s a form of entertainment. I don’t support wrestling. I did a few things with wrestling, that’s it. I don’t make a living from it at all. The things that I did in wrestling were for fun and because of a very important issue with Captain Lou, of course. He was going around saying he wrote the words to “Time After Time,” that he made me what I am today, that all women belong pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. For this I got pretty pissed off, and I said “You can’t say that about women, you can’t say that about me, and if you think you’re a real big shot, then I’ll go on your turf and beat you.” So he got Sluggo—she was the champ and now she’s the champ again—and I found this promising wrestler, Wendy Wilkin, and they went to battle. Of course, Wendy lost. But Lou apologized to me and came to his senses with the help and guidance of his doctor, and he’s not on the road to enlightenment. He’s a much better person.
Wrestling was one of those things I did for enjoyment and for relaxation when it sort of became impossible to relax. And I also had become a wrestling manager, but I don’t do that now. I haven’t done anything with wrestling for a long time.
LOVE: Are you friends with Pee-wee Herman?
LAUPER: Yeah, isn’t he the sweetest?
O’BRIEN: I think he’s the funniest. How do you know him?
LAUPER: I was doing this MTV New Year’s show and I met him and we got along pretty good. So I did the Entertainment Tonight show and I didn’t want to do a straight thing, you know: “Hi, I’m Cyndi Lauper, rock star.” I decided there was only one thing I’d like to do: go shopping. I’ll go with my good friend Pee-wee Herman! And then we went miniature golfing and I wore my Ralph Kramden golfing attire with a pair of shoes that really don’t fit me very well. They really hurt my feet, so I can’t wear them, but I saved them. And Pee-wee wore his “Right On” pants. It’s a very tacky outfit, I thought, but we looked great, the two of us. And that was the beginning of an interesting relationship.
LOVE: Do you think you’d want to make a movie with him?
LAUPER: Yeah, somewhere down the road. We’ve been talking about it.
LOVE: Does he ever act normal?
LAUPER: He’s very normal. Can’t you tell by the way he dresses.
O’BRIEN: I think I spotted him in pre-Pee-wee Herman movie the other day called K.G.O.D. It’s about a radio station that’s going out of business, so they become a Christian station and make a fortune.
LAUPER: If I didn’t want to sing rock-‘n’-roll and I went into Christian music, I’d probably make a fortune, whether I’m really Christian or not.
O’BRIEN: You can write off a lot more.
LAUPER: I’ve got to tell you something. David [Wolff] and I are very seriously considering giving a seminar on the right type of dirt to sell, and we feel that you can only buy the right kind of dirt if you have, like, 700 credit cards. If you have 200 credit cards, I don’t think that is really close to what you could have if you had 700. You can make a lot of money with credit cards and dirt. I’m going to sell dirt. I’m talking dirt. Different kinds of dirt. Dirt from outside, dirt from inside, dirt from downtown—
O’BRIEN: Your own personal dirt?
LAUPER: Your own personal dirt. I’m telling you. You know who told me this? Captain Lou.
O’BRIEN: Oh, right. The master of merchandising.
LAUPER: He’s the master of everything. I must say, even though I’m a feminist and everything, that doesn’t mean I can’t learn a thing or two from a master like him.
O’BRIEN: Since he’s seeing a gynecologist, all things are possible.
LAUPER: He’s seeing a gynecologist-psychologist, and his whole brain is working correctly now. It’s a very exciting venture.
O’BRIEN: What about becoming a Christian singer? Amy Grant seems to have the right idea.
LAUPER: I am under the distinct impression that all the religious groups need the devil. I figure that if it wasn’t for him they’d be out of business, because what they’re selling is God. I’m not in the God business. I ain’t buying nobody’s God, because if God is how they interpret it, then that’s not heaven for me. I don’t think that God is a racist, I don’t think that God segregates men from women, I don’t think that God has man-made rules, and I ain’t into being sold a bill of goods that they own me here, and when you get up there, it’s the same shit. I don’t believe in that. I believe in good. I think that there is a good energy force and I believe that people do really believe in things when they try and do good, but the same warmongers who scream out “right to life” also want war. It only means that they want to save them so that when they reach 18 they can kill them. I see too many contradictions here to really take part in any of it, but I do believe there are good people. It’s good when people still believe in things, as long as their beliefs are not driven by fear and ignorance, because if that’s the case, we’re in trouble.
O’BRIEN: So what would you want to do to help people?
LAUPER: Me? I’m just doing what I can. I always do what I can and I did a lot for women, to bring mother and daughter together again, and I did a lot to make people happy. I’ve tried, you know? I have the rest of my life to keep trying, but I don’t see myself getting into the God business. I don’t think God is for sale, and I wonder which version I would sell. What if God was a 36-year-old black woman? Don’t you think that racist moralists would have a problem with that? I watch a lot of TV, and how come each religion is selling a different bill of goods? They have a few things that are in common, all of them. How could one guy be wrong and one guy be right? One guy’s going to hell and the other guy’s going to heaven? How do you base that, and how could one religion be based on prejudice? How is that? That’s because people are running it. Since I was 14 I’ve been reading about all kinds of different religions, and I was going to hell then.
LOVE: Do you believe in reincarnation?
LAUPER: I believe in reincarnation.
LOVE: Do you believe in psychic powers?
LAUPER: Yes, I do. I’m not a screwball, you know, so I don’t really talk that much about it. How do you know so much about me?
LOVE: Do you have a favorite person in history?
LAUPER: No. I just like the “lost generation.” I have a great art period that I love—the Impressionists, because of what they do with light.
LOVE: Do you have any artist friends?
LAUPER: Yes. In fact my old art teacher—I’m doing a thing with him. His name is Bob Burell. He’s going to be having a show, and he’s a great artist. I’m presenting him.
LOVE: With which gallery?
LAUPER: I don’t know. I just started talking to him about it. He was really big in the ’40s. There’s a big article on him in ARTnews. Here, take a look. I like the young artists, too. I like the street art, but I think that the street art should stay in the streets. You can’t make street art bourgeois.
O’BRIEN: I think a lot of kids started doing art on the street because it was the only way they could get anybody to look at what they were doing.
LAUPER: Bob is doing a series on America—it’s pretty wild.
LOVE: Are you patriotic?
LAUPER: I’m all for a country and everything, but I’m more for people and human rights. Sometimes if you’re just for a country, without human rights, then you’re for the wrong country.
LOVE: What was it like being a geisha in a Japanese bar?
LAUPER: Oh, I wasn’t really a geisha. I was a hostess in a Japanese piano bar. Basically, I would sing and serve people and light their cigarettes and have conversations. Of course, I didn’t speak Japanese, and they did. They hired me because I had to sing, and the good thing was they were very kind. It was a family place. I learned how to sing in Japanese phonetically.
LOVE: You were talking before about your musical inspirations…
LAUPER: I went through my Barbra Streisand era when I was around nine or 10, and from there I went on to your basic folk music, but I did get into a little Eydie Gorme. When I was five, I was into The King and I, South Pacific, Louis Armstrong, Mario Lanza, Bambi, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinnochio, of course. I didn’t know which soap opera it was, but this one woman got married to the song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Remember, Jiminy Cricket sings it? And I said to myself, “If I ever get married, I’m going to get married in a dress that lights up, too.”
LOVE: Are you going to get married?
LAUPER: I was asked… [Cyndi rushes excitedly to the bedroom and upon her return produces the ring]. Christmas? No. December 7th. That’s when I met David.
LOVE: How did you two meet?
LAUPER: At a party. He was trying to pick up another girl. Then when he found out she was living with somebody, he started looking at me. So I gave him the business right away, till he told me about these two friends of his, Stredindinge and Ee-ee-ee-eemsht. They’re from a Nilotic family, ancient Babylonian people. David was studying the teachings of Hamu Rabi Maswiten from the family of Yem-Yem. Now you can see how all the religions start to gel together, because these guys happen to live on stumpwater and wampninny juice, which is made out of crushed rocks.
LOVE: Okay… and what was David doing at the time? Was he studying, or was he a lawyer, or was he—
LAUPER: He was just starting a management company. And I was a singer trying to get another record deal. He was also an artist, “The Human Fly.” In fact, in one of my first photographs of him—
LOVE: Isn’t that—
LAUPER: Yes, it’s exactly who you think, the comic book guy. He did the comic book with Marvel. He gave me a picture of himself, and I would show all my friends, and they’d say, “Which one is he?” and I’d have to say, “The one with the mask. The one with the hood on his head.” It was always great. Nothing to be embarrassed about. But he made me laugh so much that I wound up, you know, hanging out with him because I figured it was safe. Jim knew him for 10 years; he’s not going to kill me.
LOVE: Who’s Jim?
LAUPER: Oh, Jim Gregory. That was the bass player. He was working with a band I was in, Blue Angel, for a while. He’s a good friend of ours, and that’s how I met David, because he knew Jim and Nancy for 10 years, and I knew Jim and Nancy for three years.
LAUPER: Oh, I’m sorry. Nancy’s his wife.
LOVE: Was she in the band too?
LAUPER: No. She works for Wilhelmina. Anyway, that’s how we met each other. So he forgot about Dawn, the girl with the red tights—
LAUPER: She was another friend of ours. Now she’s living with my girlfriend, Debbie, who’s also a singer. You hang out together, female singers, and you sit and giggle and you say, “Oh, check this guy out. He’s hitting on that girl. Now watch this. She just told him she lives with him. Check it out.” And, of course, we were laughing, and she got up to go to the bathroom, and then he turned around and looked at me. I said, “Oh, you’re kidding me. Oh my God.” So, of course, he came over to me. I talked to him because I was kind of teasing him, but he was very funny, so I figured, “Hey, so what if this guy has long hair, a beard and wears bell-bottoms?”
LOVE: Does he still?
LAUPER: No, but bell-bottoms are coming back. See, at that time I felt that men should know enough to wear straight-legged black jeans. I mean, it was obvious to me, but of course looks can be deceiving. Then I started thinking, “Gee, so it’s all right. Underneath the beard and the hair is a nice guy with gorgeous eyes.” And he had the body of a lifeguard because he was a lifeguard. So when I started seeing him a lot… He had showed me all the pictures of himself when he was a singer. You know, all the different looks, because we singers have to change our looks all the time. We were just talking about that.
LOVE: Was he famous?
LAUPER: No, he’s sick enough to be, but… actually, he was the one who really loved wrestling. He was the wrestling freak. Then before you knew it, there I was, and David’s saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you a wrestler.” Anyway, Dave showed me the pictures, and I said, “Hey, you look really good.” He looked like a completely different person. I said, “Why don’t you cut your hair and shave your beard?”
LOVE: A frequent request.
LAUPER: He did, and he looked so handsome. When I first came in and saw him I couldn’t believe it was him. In fact, I felt a little embarrassed and shy because I couldn’t believe that I was living with such a handsome guy. He was handsome anyway, it’s just that a beard is a whole different look. You know, he went for the J.C. look. In fact, when I first met him, my mother couldn’t look at him because he looked like the picture that used to hang in her room. My grandmother was always smiling and said that he looked like that picture, so he blessed her. It could have been one of those things that goes over as a big bomb or a big hit, because my grandparents are very Catholic and Italian. But they liked him. Of course, they were so happy that I finally found a nice guy.
LOVE: How long have you been living with him?
LAUPER: Four years. In fact, we were living together before he managed me. We weren’t going to work together because we didn’t want it to interfere with our relationship, but as I was looking for managers, he’d tell me, “Ask them this and ask them that.” I would always bring it home anyway, so he just said, “Forget it. Let’s just work together.”
LOVE: Because of your upbringing and your parents being unhappy, I guess it took a certain kind of man to make you really trusting in a relationship.
LAUPER: I’ve lived with guys since I was 18, and my theory and his theory—we discussed it—is if it doesn’t work out, we’ll probably go back to living “in sin,” because we quite enjoy it. David’s also a great strategist, and he helped me make what I do creatively commercial. I couldn’t do that. It’s hard to do that.
LOVE: That’s half the art, I think.
O’BRIEN: Do you plan very far ahead what you’re going to do?
LAUPER: You mean is Japan booked already? You’re absolutely right. It is. I’m late already and I haven’t even started.
LOVE: In orchestrating your career, are there times when Dave will say, “We’re not going to do anything for a year. We’re pulling back now.”
LAUPER: We talk about that. There are times when I want to do something he’s not especially fond of, but he knows I want to do it because I feel it.
LOVE: Your career seems extremely well protected by the people that you have around you.
LAUPER: I have wonderful people around me. I’ve learned a lot from them. They’re men—
LOVE: Which I was going to ask about. It seems like your career is guarded by them.
LAUPER: I’ve learned a lot from men. I work in a male field. I’ve worked with men half my life. I have a power position and I run my life. I have people working for me and with me on it and I have creative control over my career and my work. It’s great to have that now. You know why? I had to fight so hard for it. You know what it’s like.
LOVE: I was just surprised because of your feminist feelings.
LAUPER: They weren’t chauvinists to you, were they? Because they’re usually not.
LOVE: No, but they make their point, so to speak.
LAUPER: Oh, the things they wanted to make sure that I got… You know what’s great? That I’m coming out with a new record, a new look. I wanted to call it “Cyndi Lauper III” so I could get over the second-album thing.
LOVE: What female image do you admire?
LAUPER: My favorite womanly images were, like, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren, so I had very strong… But actually when I began, I looked like Sir Isaac Newton. I had my eyebrows tweezed and the big lips… I still like that look, the big lips and the hair that is all wavy, one length. And hot pants and the big platforms, the sweaters. Remember that time? They were doing remakes of ’30s clothing, very tacky though. That was a very tacky period.
LOVE: Do you like to collaborate?
LAUPER: Oh, I do all the time. I worked with Adrian Belew for a while. He’s great. On this record we worked together and I wrote a song with him. I collaborate all the time with everybody because that’s how I write. I don’t write by myself. I don’t do anything by myself. It’s a fault. I kind of drift off or feel like I can’t do it, and I’m editing myself if I’m alone. If I’m with someone else, then I am always encouraged to work. After a while you work with so many different people… I wrote with Annie Lennox when she was here, and that was a lot of fun. She’s really sweet. I don’t like to work by myself unless I’m making Christmas eggs.
LOVE: Glenn Frey said that when he was in the Eagles and he and Don Henley wrote Hotel California, he just felt that after that everything had to be perfect or as good as that album. It was so hard to get over that hump.
LAUPER: You know how I always felt? Like, “Oh, ‘Time After Time,’ that’ll never happen to me again.” I always felt like it’s a channel, that somebody, somehow… I always felt like God put a hand on my shoulder, blessed me with writing this song that I felt and envisioned so long with Robby [Hyman], who also wrote about a real experience. He’s a very warm guy, so it’s easy for me to open up to him, too. I don’t know where the lines came from when they came out of my mouth. It doesn’t happen all the time, and so you always feel like, “Oh my God, I’ll never write another good song.” It’s that way with everyone, and then I wrote again.
LOVE: Sometimes talent can get used up. And sometimes people are better when they’re older. Being great doesn’t always have to be when you’re young—
LAUPER: No, it was never great when I was young. I’m not old, but at 20 years old I was struggling to live—as a painter, a sculptor. I realized that for me it was easier to sing because I knew how to sing, nobody had to teach me. As time went on, I did find a great vocal teacher who taught me about voice. Not a coach, but a teacher, who taught me sound and vocal therapy.
LOVE: What would you do if you woke up one morning and couldn’t sing?
LAUPER: That would make me very sad, because my voice has always been my strength, my internal strength.
O’BRIEN: Do you sing around the house?
LAUPER: I used to, but now I don’t because I feel that people can hear me. I sing in the shower, but I don’t really sing out anymore. You always have that feeling—
LOVE: That they’re making judgments?
LOVE: What’s the worst part about touring?
LAUPER: Flying, because it dries you out, makes you dehydrate, and it just makes my ears go crazy.
O’BRIEN: What was your first gig?
LAUPER: Our first gig on our first tour was in Poughkeepsie, at a place that has closed down. There were about 15 people there. It was freezing. It was the first gig, and of course people wanted an encore, and I did two encores, because, you know, I wanted to make them happy. The owner there said, “You only played to 15 people, but I’ll tell you, I liked you. When you came out with the ukelele, I thought you were weird, but I tell you, I like you and I’d hire you again.” That was in the fall of ’83, and then one of the other gigs was opening for the Kinks, where I was pelted with quarters and lit cigarettes, and, of course, I told them, “If you liked that, you’re gonna love this,” and I pulled out my ukelele, and 10,000 people all at once booed me, and then I saw the value in it.
LOVE: What is the value in booing?
LAUPER: When it’s like that? That kind of response? That’s a great response. That is a fabulous response. It’s different if no one reacts, but if they react, favorably or unfavorably, and they react unanimously, it evokes something in them, and it’s great.
LOVE: Why do they do that?
LAUPER: They wanted to hear the Kinks, and I guess I was challenging them, and it is kind of strange for someone to pick up a ukelele and start singing “He’s So Unusual.”
O’BRIEN: Are you surprised when you get out onstage and you look at the audience?
LAUPER: You know when I was surprised? When I saw little kids at the concert. That shook me up. And you know when I really flipped out? When I saw grandmothers, mothers and their kids, with their hair shaved back on the side, and even the grandmother had a little pink something in her hair. That was the weirdest thing, seeing all three generations, and that’s when I thought I did something really good. I wanted to make world music, and I wanted to make a change in music and I wanted to make a change for the better, just to do something positive in the world, and I think I did a little bit of it.
LOVE: Are you comfortable with who you are?
LAUPER: I knew there were a couple of oddballs out there; I just never realized how many of us there were. I love the fact that the music that I’ve done so far has made little children want to sing so much. I always see the things from “We Are the World,” and there’s always that little kid waiting to sing. I think it’s funny to see that the kid singing my part is always the one who’s got the glasses on and all the jewelry, waving his arms and going like this… They say, “Thank you, because I felt very different and odd, and when you came along you made it easier for me to be myself, and even made that a good thing to be.”
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE APRIL 1986 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
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