LOS ANGELES – Cyndi Lauper’s latest hair color is blue.
More than 15 years since this spunky songbird from Queens, N.Y., burst onto the music scene with wild orange hair, punk/retro-wear outfits, and the revolutionary idea that Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Lauper’s style is still uncompromising.
Sitting in her Manhattan apartment, the singer/actress is taking care of business. Her latest single, a remake of the Trammps’ Disco Inferno, is set for a summer release; she’s working on a new studio album; development has begun on a TV pilot in which she’ll star; and she’s the special guest performer on Cher’s Believe tour kicking off Wednesday.
Her chirpy voice and Queens accent sound familiar over the phone. Lauper, 45, who speaks about her life with blunt honestly and cutting humor, says she truly began to focus on singing after she bombed out big time at everything else she tried: the list includes painting, art school and fashion design. Some people come to the planet to do something, she says, I guess (singing’s) what I could do.
Born into a family of Italian immigrants, Lauper was raised in Brooklyn and Queens by her hard-working waitress mother, whom Lauper describes as a high stepping dame. She recalls her neighborhood as rather bizarre: It was kind of like purgatory, but there were moments of real beauty.
Catholic boarding school took its toll on her, with its emphasis on conformity and regulations. But, as with most of Lauper’s early life, what didn’t kill her only made her stronger. I will never be like a sheep, she says. It’s just not my nature.
In the early ’70s, Lauper dropped out of art school and started singing with cover bands in small Long Island clubs while supporting herself with odd jobs. After a few years of this, her untrained voice gave out from the strain. I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning, so I lost my voice, admits Lauper, who now has a four-octave range. It made me very suicidal.
After a year of intense vocal training, and with the aid of what she calls a fight, fight, fight attitude, Lauper formed Blue Angel, a ’50s-style rock band, in 1978, later filing for bankruptcy when the band split. By the early ’80s, with the aid of her then manager and boyfriend David Wolff, she landed a record deal as a solo artist on CBS’ Portrait label.
Her debut release, 1983’s She’s So Unusual, went to No. 4 and won her a Grammy for best new artist, eventually selling over 5 million copies. The album’s success made her the first female artist to have four top five singles: Girls Just Want to Have Fun, She Bop, Time After Time and All Through the Night. When the Girls video went into heavy rotation on the fledgling MTV cable channel, there wasn’t a teenage girl in America who didn’t want to emulate the freewheeling Lauper.
That freaked me out, says Lauper. It wasn’t just being famous, it was the fact that everybody wore my clothes, they imitated me and looked like me and sounded like me. I literally couldn’t get away from myself. Lauper recalls getting to the point where hearing her songs on the radio made her retreat into a corner and shake.
Her counterculture image and musical style made her a poster child of the early ’80s. Though she was praised for her ingenious image marketing – unlike Madonna who also emerged at that time – Lauper says, it wasn’t made up, it was really kind of where I lived.
From the party anthem Girls Just Want to Have Fun to the pro-masturbation rocker She Bop, Lauper became a feminist pop icon. In 1985, she was named Ms. Magazine’s woman of the year. Lauper, who says she happily burned her training bra during a protest in New York City, gets excited when talking about Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem. I was so into her because she changed the history of women, Lauper says. Right out of the gate, my life was different and better, and I knew the difference because my mother’s life and my grandmother’s wasn’t.
Her second album, 1986’s True Colors, did not match the success of her debut, even though the title track went to No. 1 and earned her a Grammy nomination. A Night To Remember (1989) was not well received by critics and only yielded one hit, I Drove All Night.
I was in conflict because I was involved with my manager (Wolff) and it was our life, says Lauper sadly. For him to be successful, I had to be successful. And, of course, because he loved me he wanted me to be successful, but I would always say, `successful at what price?’
Lauper found herself becoming more and more creatively unsatisfied. I can’t just stand there and sing a song that I don’t like, she says. I couldn’t, because to me, music was always real, it wasn’t fabricated.
After Wolff and Lauper split up in 1990, she was devastated. We had nothing together and we achieved something that was not in the realm of a normal reality, she explains. It was like hitting the lottery together: we starved together, we stuck together, we made it together.
She returned with Hat Full of Stars (1993) and Sisters of Avalon (1996), acting as co-writer and co-producer on both albums. Though neither was a commercial success, critics applauded her musical risk-taking. What keeps her going, Lauper says, is that Italian thing – as long as you can stand and you can endure, you can continue – you’ll win.
After so many years of riding the ups and downs of the business, Lauper is coming out on top as an entertainer. She won an Emmy award in 1995 for her appearance as Marianne Lagasso on Mad About You (a role she recently reprised for the show’s season finale), and she stars opposite Christopher Walken in the upcoming independent film The Opportunists.
As ambitious as ever, Lauper admits she sometimes feels like she’s trying to be superwoman. In addition to her numerous projects, she and her husband, actor David Thortnon, whom she married in 1991, are the parents of a baby boy. I want to be with my little baby, I want to sing, I want to do so much, she says. It’s very difficult, the art of happiness.
Though Lauper will miss her 18-month-old while on her three-month concert tour, she says getting on the road will be good for her. She’s especially pleased that the tour’s lineup is all female, with Wild Orchid as the opening act.
It’s women, she says, that’s what’s making me happy. I’ve always said women can work together and do well.