(VIDEO): Grammy-winning singer Cyndi Lauper says she was a “complete and utter failure” before she started singing. In this interview for AARP The Magazine, Lauper reveals how she earned the music industry's respect, and what she still wants to achieve.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who sit at the table and those who sit at the bar. We table sitters value comfort, privacy, predictability. Bar sitters happily sacrifice those things for the chance encounters, the unpredictability, the fun. Can you guess which kind of person Cyndi Lauper is?
"Let's sit at the bar!" she shouts as she barrels through the crowd at a favorite French restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. People stop and stare, and a few cellphones capture the unmistakable tiny woman in black and pink. "Do you think this wine will dry my voice up tomorrow?" Lauper asks, knocking back her drink without waiting for an answer.
It is around 9 p.m., and after a long day that has exhausted her entourage, the singer is just beginning to perk up. But there is a five-minute gap in our conversation as Lauper studies the menu, so I have time to study her.
Her expression is somewhat impassive as she takes her time deciding between asparagus and artichokes. At 63, Lauper has almost poreless skin. Her arched, pencil-thin eyebrows call to mind Marlene Dietrich, one of her heroes. I notice, too, that pink is a surprisingly flattering hair color. "Yeah, it's warm, isn't it?" she says, in her trademark Adelaide-in-Guys-and-Dolls accent. "Don't let people tell you what you can and can't get away with at this point in your life."
And here we have the philosophy that has guided Lauper throughout her years. Often it has helped her, and sometimes it has hurt her, but it has certainly made her one of the most original performers of the past three decades.
Case in point: her new CD, Detour, a collection of country standards made famous by such greats as Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. The mood of the record ranges from haunting ballads to a rollicking reboot of the Loretta Lynn–Conway Twitty classic "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly." The producer is Sire Records' Seymour Stein, who discovered the Talking Heads and Madonna, among others. Working with him, Lauper says, was "on my bucket list." While country might seem an odd departure for this girl from the blue-collar borough of Queens, New York, over the years she has sung pop, rock, New Wave, blues and Broadway, making very sure she would not be pigeonholed. Along the way she has won a Tony, an Emmy and a pair of Grammys. She has sold more than 50 million albums and has dallied with acting, performance art and professional wrestling. And here she is, in her seventh decade, still searching — and still open to the shock of the new.
And let's not forget that she has had fun. Many of us recall where we were in 1983 when we first heard Lauper's breakout hit, particularly if we were the kind of girls who weren't so much into having fun as we were into fulfilling the ethos of the era: "Girls Just Want to Get an MBA." "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" became a feminist anthem because it offered up the possibility that a woman could be both powerful and colorful, serious and crazy, at different times.
Lauper was instantly compared with Madonna, whose first album was released the same year. The Material Girl's brand of female empowerment, though, depended on men for attention. Lauper, with her peacock/punk attire and four-octave pipes, was the rock goddess who didn't need T&A to sell her songs. Madonna's cool may have been aspirational, but Lauper was the one you'd really like to party with.
Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper's hardscrabble childhood would make a fitting country tune if it hadn't taken place in Astoria: the poverty, the absent father, the stepfather whom Lauper describes as creepily abusive and the mother who held it all together.
Lauper's mother, Catrine, was a singer whose traditional Italian family did not allow her to attend a performing arts school because that was for "whores." So she instilled in her three kids a love of opera, and she made sure they were exposed to the art and literature she had been denied. Lauper laughingly notes today that her mother was most fascinated with the tragic female characters of the classics. "I remember my mother taking me to see Medea," she says. "I watched the whole thing and was horrified. I thought, Really? I mean, OK, she got divorced, it didn't workout so good, so she kills the kids? Mom, what are you trying to tell us?"
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As Lauper stabs at her asparagus, I wonder if her inexpressive mask is perhaps a throwback to the days when, as she described them in her memoir, she would look cold and apathetic to avoid the attention of her violent stepfather, who would threaten her and her sister, and would touch himself while she took a bath. Catrine eventually divorced him. Cyndi doesn't know whether he's still alive, though a part of her wishes he'd get in touch: "I'd kick yer ass now, you old bastard," she says.
Lauper left home at 17 to escape the abuse, dropping out of high school and taking a variety of odd jobs. For a year she worked at Screaming Mimi's, the legendary vintage store in Greenwich Village. She often took her payment in used clothing, recalls owner Laura Wills. One of Lauper's close friends and, for many years, her stylist, Wills says Lauper was a fantastic salesperson — but there were limits. "Of course she hid away the things she wanted for herself!"
Lauper was, in fact, one of the most influential style icons of the '80s. When Wills met her, she was enamored of '50s vintage, which soon evolved, even before Madonna, into the trend of inner wear — crinolines, lingerie, bustiers — as outerwear. But Lauper's exuberant style and her 1983 hit song belied continued tumult in her life. She says she was sexually assaulted by band members in one of the first groups she joined. And in 1977, after damaging her vocal cords, she was told she would never regain her voice. (Hard work with a voice coach restored it.) For years, she sang for cover bands but was routinely fired.
"I was told I moved too much on the stage," Lauper remembers. "Why couldn't I just stand still and sing?" The rejection not only increased her resolve; it also sparked a lifelong belief that early stumbles can lead to later success. "Who knows what I would be doing if I had been successful in cover bands?" she asks, arching one brow.
Dan Beck, then a marketing manager at Epic Records, recalls when he saw Lauper perform at the Fast Lane in Asbury Park, N.J., in the early 1980s. He urged the head of his label to sign her, only to learn that he just had. Because of Lauper's broad range, the suits at Epic wanted to turn her into the next Streisand. She balked. "Cyndi was very strong-willed, but she also listened," says Beck. "She became one of those artists everyone loved — and worked hard for," he adds. "She always wanted people to connect. She wanted work and family and friends to coexist."
Accordingly, Lauper's early videos are populated with those close to her. That's how Wills became the stylist who traveled the world with her. "She knew I loved to travel," Wills says, "so she'd do this thing. I'd get a call, and she'd just shout 'Tokyo!' and hang up. And I was like, 'Yesssss!'"
But loyalty could be a liability. Today, Lauper admits she sometimes stuck with people even when they hurt her. She has made fortunes but hints that she's lost them, too. "I was never smart about money like Prince," she says. "I wish I wasn't taken advantage of so much." In 1986, her second solo album, True Colors, spawned three hit singles and sold 2 million copies, though by 1989, her then manager was already losing faith. He told her, "You'll never be as big as you were" — yet she refused to fire him. "Why didn't I say, 'If you don't believe in me, you shouldn't be working for me'?" she wonders now. "I couldn't. He had a family. And I guess there were times I didn't think I was worthy either, because I was always told I was a pain in the ass, and why can't I just stand there and sing?"
Still, Lauper has been insistent on remaining true to herself and her artistic vision. Even if her fame has not consistently been in the stratosphere, she has no regrets. "You can't live your whole life worrying about staying famous," she says. "If losing some fame means doing what you want, you gotta go with what you want."
Lauper met her future husband, the actor David Thornton, in 1991. Thornton was gorgeous, though that wasn't his only appeal. "He was so funny. And sweet. And he loved art," Lauper exclaims. "Even now, 25 years later, I love to see how he appreciates pictures." Which isn't to say Thornton is more sensitive than the average guy. "I had just had Declyn [their son, now 18], and I sort of had postpartum depression, and David takes me to a movie about a boy in Brazil whose mother gets hit by a car, and he's wandering the streets alone. This was the movie he brought me to? I couldn't stop crying. So I punched him."
At the mention of Declyn, born when Lauper was 44, the singer brightens. "I love my kid so f---ing much, I can't take it." Yet for Lauper, the main issue at the moment is that, though her son is an aspiring hip-hop artist, he refuses to take her advice. Still, she's sanguine. "I'd get mad when people gave me advice, too. I still do. I'll ask my husband what he thinks of what I'm wearing, and he'll say, 'I don't really like it,' and I'll wear it anyway. So why ask the poor bastard?"
Lauper says her marriage has been a constant in a roller-coaster life. Another constant? Her social activism, particularly in support of the LGBT community. For years, Lauper's True Colors Fund has sought to end homelessness among gay, lesbian and transgender youths. She became involved in part because her sister is gay, and in part because it is in the theater, among gay people, that Lauper has always felt most at home. Kinky Boots, the musical she wrote with Harvey Fierstein about designing shoes for drag queens, won the Tony for best new musical of 2013. "Most composers walk into the room and the first thing they want is their sound," says Fierstein of his collaboration with Lauper. "Cyndi never had that attitude. She was like, 'What does that character sound like? How about that one?'"
Lauper's outrage at the recent North Carolina law banning transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with is palpable. "Where I come from, you don't let your friends and family be stripped of their civil rights." But unlike other artists, including Bruce Springsteen, who canceled their concerts in the state, Lauper went ahead with her Raleigh show and donated the proceeds to a local LGBT charity. "Just my money," she adds quickly. "Set people, electricians — all those guys need to get paid."
Despite having appeared on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice, in 2010, Lauper is a staunch supporter of a certain female candidate for president. But she wants to be clear: "I'll never tell people what to think, but I will beg them to think. Not to just blindly follow along."
I ask Lauper if there's a secret to staying relevant as a pop star. "Don't listen," she says, swirling the wine in her glass.
That's it? "Well," she continues, "I find it remarkable when the 'industry people' try to pigeonhole you, like they know. Even me, I don't know what I can do. I want to be great, but I don't know if I can be great, so I just have to keep trying."
If Lauper has a mantra for how she conducts her life, it's probably "inclusivity." "When you include everything in your work and in your thinking, you get the braces off your brains," she says. "You can't just listen to one thing and do one thing. You can, but then you get stuck."
She has no script for aging gracefully. "It sucks. That's it," she adds, but you get the feeling she's not really minding it too much. Apparently, she has discussed the matter with another great female music — and fashion — icon who also has no plans to go gentle into that good night. "I really think that when Armageddon comes, it's gonna be just cockroaches, me and Cher," Lauper jokes. "And we're gonna do the 'End of the World Tour.' I'll probably open for her."
Judith Newman also writes for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Harper's, the Wall Street Journal and more.