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Why Tina Turner was the Queen of Midlife Reinvention

Her theme song might have been, ‘What’s Age Got to Do With It?’

spinner image Tina Turner performing onstage at Wembley Stadium in London
Tina Turner performing at Wembley Stadium in London on July 15, 2000.
Amanda Edwards/Redferns

If Tina Turner had not been a real person, we would have had to conjure her. That’s how vital she was to the American spirit. Her passing, at age 83 Wednesday in her adopted home of Switzerland, reminds us not just of her extraordinary multiphase career as the rock, pop, and R&B hitmaker of “Proud Mary,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Best,” or the joy she brought her millions of fans. It’s also a time to remember how she inspired those of us searching for a new chance and a deliverance from delayed dreams, especially in the second half of life.

She wasn’t just the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll. She was the Queen of Midlife Reinvention.

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Even in the face of declining health that made her officially retire in 2009 — in recent years she endured a kidney transplant, vertigo and a stroke, and was recovering from colon cancer — she still managed in 2020 to cowrite her third book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good. The title was less a sales gimmick than a mantra. Though she had sold over 100 million albums and won eight Grammy Awards, it wasn’t until her second act that she found lasting love — to German music executive Erwin Bach — and religious fulfillment. And while she was already a legend, she hit her zenith at almost exactly the midpoint of her life.

Born Anna Mae Bullock in Brownsville, Tennessee, to a mother who did not want or love her, she initially saw no respite from the drudgery of working in the cotton fields of her rural community of Nutbush, a place she would later commemorate in song (“Nutbush City Limits”). But she knew she had a purpose, she told me in an email interview for AARP when the book was published, which was “not only to survive and thrive myself, but also to be a positive example and encourage people to never give up.”

She ran up against every possible hurdle: poverty, racism, sexism and a famously abusive and terror-filled marriage to bluesman Ike Turner, her musical partner in the 1960s and ’70s, whose physical and psychological torture drove her to a sleeping-pill-induced suicide attempt.

As actor Forest Whitaker tweeted at the news of her death, “Tina Turner was an icon, whom we loved for her voice, her dancing, and her spirit. As we honor her, let’s also reflect on her resilience, and think about all the greatness that can follow our darkest days.”

spinner image Tina Turner poses for a portrait in 1985
Photo by: DENIZE alain/Sygma via Getty Images

Turner achieved her chrysalis-like breakout as a solo artist with the landmark Private Dancer album in 1984 at the age of 44, when most women usually find themselves in the show-businesses dumpster. Her transformation — personally, professionally, physically and spiritually — dwarfed anything she had achieved in her younger years, and as she subverted the concepts of growing older, she emerged as one of the sexiest and most vital people on the scene.

She might as well have retitled her 1984 chart-topper “What’s Age Got to Do with It?”

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Seeing her live in Cincinnati on her Private Dancer tour of 1985 was nothing short of jaw-dropping.  She was nearly 46 years old, fit as any Olympic athlete, and dancing like a hellcat in heels, no less, tearing up the stage with the energy and abandon of a woman half her age. She was the dancing, glowing, roof-shaking definition of what healthy maturity could look like, and she sang songs that spoke to her own story — a woman reinventing herself, realizing her own power, and making no apologies about any of it.

 “Once in a great while, a special champion comes along, a Joe Louis, a Jose Capablanca, a Joe DiMaggio, someone in whose hands the way a thing is done becomes more important than the thing itself … the only one in his class,” Chris Chase of the New York Times wrote when Elvis Presley played Madison Square Garden in 1972.

spinner image Tina Turner performing onstage at The Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1985
Turner performing at The Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts, on July 22, 1985.
Ron Pownall/Getty Images

That’s what it was like to witness the majesty of Tina Turner at the height of her reign. And yet she was not elusive, not towering over her audience. I was a bit more than a decade younger, and filled with clammy dread about what I saw as my descent into middle-age. Like most of the enthralled audience, I was awed by her vocal and personal power, and watching her strut that amphitheater stage with hard-won confidence and the authority of a mama lion — that wild, defiant and wiggy mane adding to the image — I thought, “Damn! If this woman is hitting on 50, why am I worried about 40?” And when she laughed that delicious, glorious cackle of pure joy, the joke was on everybody who said she couldn’t do it. She had recharged her soul, and also our own.

Her glory was part of her making peace with her past, cutting the chains of negativity with Ike, with her mother, and herself. As she wrote in her Happiness book, “Even though I eventually became nearly as famous for my legs as for my talent, I still couldn’t see my own beauty.” It was Buddhism that helped her find herself, and recognize that “adversity isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” as she told me. It also helped her define her mission: “Giving hope to others so they can become happy, too. Happy people are strong, but strong people aren’t necessarily happy. From the spiritual view, I say that I’ve ‘changed poison into medicine’ and transformed the difficulties in my life to realize my dreams.”

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spinner image Tina Turner laughing during a photo shoot for Tina - The Tina Turner Musical
Tina Turner laughs during a photo shoot for the musical "Tina - The Tina Turner Musical" on Oct. 23, 2018.
Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

Practicing that philosophy “allowed me to find a way around every obstacle.” she continued. And she didn’t shy away from celebrating her 80th birthday.

“I’ve definitely grown happier as I’ve aged,” she said. “Age and experience are priceless. There is a change in perception, a broadening, that comes with aging, a greater appreciation for simple things. As I’ve matured, age has helped me to put things in perspective, and to have even greater patience and compassion for others.”

As she faced her own mortality, Turner said she cherished “every moment of my life,” and looked at her health challenges as valuable reminders that “some of the most important lessons in life come to us through difficult times, not through ease, and are what make us stronger, wiser and happier.”

That’s advice worth remembering from “The Best,” at any stage of life.

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