“Cyndi Lauper talks about her gay sister, her baby, her new CD, getting sued, &, of course, drag.”
Cyndi Lauper is the mother of a baby boy, as of November 19, 1997. Cyndi Lauper is also a drag queen. She’s been one since she was a kid. While her sister wanted to play “boyish games,” Lauper wanted to play dress-up. And she’s been playing dress-up ever since.
Now she’s writing and singing about it. On her latest CD, Sisters of Avalon, she sings the “Ballad of Cleo & Joe,” where “the working boy [Joe] becomes a dancing queen [Cleo].” It’s not just a great dancing tune, it’s also a great listen. And so is Lauper.
During the day of my interview with Lauper, she was very pregnant, so it was rescheduled a couple of times. It seems that she had put in some very long hours the night before . . . but let her tell you the story. She’s good at it.
Blase DiStefano: Are you and the baby doing okay?
Cyndi Lauper: Yeah, I thought my water was breaking. I pulled a long night last night – that wasn’t very smart. I guess while I’m in this condition, I can’t work like that.
BD: So you were working.
CL: I was editing, yeah.
BD: Till the last second!
CL: Well, no, you know what? I wanted to get this tape done for the “Cleo and Joe” song. I wasn’t really sure we were gonna do a video, so we were doing the promos because I couldn’t fly to go see anybody. I wanted to do something kinda special, and then I said, “Just get the boombox and let’s get a turntable,” so we did something like in 1980 when people used tape . . . it was kinda cheesy great. I thought it would be fun.
BD: So it’s finished?
CL: Yeah , I did it in two nights. I wish I had one more night to look back. Maybe it’s not as good because I should have done more edits, but I think it’s fun and it’s nutty. We put little tiny mirrors on my stomach to make it look like a big dance floor. I’m still trying to make myself look good, even though I’m a very large pregnant woman. So it’s wild. You know I’m a big old drag queen anyway.
BD: [Laughter] I know. It’s real obvious you don’t have problems with other people doing drag. But what if your little boy or little girl grows up to be a drag queen or drag king?
CL: You know, listen. Everybody’s different. Your kid is who your kid is. As long as he’s not a serial murderer – I think I’d have a problem with that.
BD: Do you think it’s gonna be a little boy or a little girl?
CL: It’s a little boy. He’s been working with me all the way through. We worked on the Tina Turner concert [in Houston]. He did this shoot with me. He went to the Halloween ball with me – we went as a belly dancer. We raised money for AMFAR. RuPaul came this year, so that was good. It’s getting bigger and better.
BD: Speaking of bigger and better, I listened to your CD night before last. It’s wonderful.
CL: Thank you. Not everyone feels that way, but thank you very much. I love it. I wouldn’t have put it out if I didn’t.
BD: How did “The Ballad of Cleo and Joe” come about?
CL: I wrote that because I was on tour in ’94 and ’95. I worked with drag performers from all around the world. I know people who perform in drag, but when you travel and you work shoulder to shoulder, you see things – the same things you see all the time, you see them differently. It really changed my perspective. It was quite wonderful. I wanted to write something for them.
BD: “Say a Prayer” was especially beautiful. You sang about people who you’ve lost.
CL: I wrote that because my best friend was really ill. That was before the cocktails came out. Still, everybody struggles, but the cocktails have made it easier. And then there are people who are still trying to find out which ones don’t work. And that’s been really tough for a few of my friends. I’ve been really excited about my buddies, but when I wrote that song, I had just come back from his house, and he wasn’t doing good. I love this person very much, and it was the first time I really had to consider what was going on. It was really tough.
BD: I hope you don’t mind if I change the subject, but is this your parents’ first grandchild?
CL: Yeah, my mother’s ecstatic. My stepfather passed away in the spring, and that was pretty traumatic and sad. But I told him before he died that I was pregnant, which was kinda good. I wasn’t gonna tell my mother because it was so early, but I told her anyway because I wanted her to have something to look forward to. This baby’ll probably teach us all a lot of things. I feel like I’ll be pregnant forever, but when I see the cradle, I think “Oh, my God, the baby’s really coming.” Today I went through a little fright, but it’ll be fine.
BD: I’m making an assumption that your parents know that your sister is gay.
CL: Well, she’s a big girl now. I’ve been fortunate enough to have her as a role model in a lot of ways. She’s very heroic. She’s always wanted to help people. She’s a wonderful acupuncturist and herbalist. She works a lot out of a clinic because she wants to help people, and she works with HIV-positive people who have no money. And she has her own practice, but I know the clinic is where her heart is. She’s a really incredible gal. And my brother is a remarkable fellow. He’s not talkative about what he does, but he also does a lot of charity stuff.
My mom somehow had the wisdom to raise three very individual people, despite the fact that [in those days] they never really promoted freedom of thought in women, and Italian immigrant families never nurtured the women. She wanted us to be able to grow up and think and be able to do something in the world.
Also, when we were growing up, that’s when Kennedy got shot. That left a big impression on us – knowing what goes on behind the scenes. But what we got out of it was what you could do for people, what you could offer to the world as opposed to what you could take. So I think that all of us wanted to do something. I feel fortunate to have those kind of siblings.
BD: What are the ages of the three of you?
CL: She’s a year and a half older than me, and my brother’s five years younger than me. But I always felt like wherever my sister went I would go. If she had other friends, I would be very jealous. When she played with other kids, I would chase her down the block all the time. I told her she had to play with me because I was born to be her friend.
BD: That’s rather sweet.
CL: Well, it was annoying. Everything she did, I did. And then when she graduated high school and I was left, I was so heartbroken. Everything was gone. I was devastated.
BD: So you stayed that close even till then.
CL: Oh yeah. It was like, [said very fast, almost without a breath] “Ellen, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen, what are we doing today, what are we doing tomorrow, what are you wearing, I’ll wear this, I’ll wear that, stay out my drawer, now! I’m drawing a line down the middle of the room. You can’t use the door.” Hopefully, my son will not be anything like me.
BD: [Laughter] Have you thought of a name yet?
CL: Oh I don’t know, whatever he answers to. We’re trying to figure it out.
BD: Speaking of names, here at OutSmart we’ve been having an ongoing discussion about using the words “gay woman” or “lesbian.”
CL: Now, my sister told me a long time ago, there’s a difference between gay and lesbian. Gay is referred to male, and lesbian is referred to women. But now things are changing again, language is changing. So I don’t know.
When my sister first came out 10 years ago, maybe eight years, I’d go visit her. Sometimes she’d have a group of angry women with her. And boy oh boy, no matter what I did, I was always wrong.
But you know, watching my sister develop, all I ever wanted was to see her be happy and be a normal well-adjusted lesbian woman, which has happened. But before [being lesbian] was really chic, you always had your heart in your mouth. I mean, I did. I would get angry for her, you know? We’d go to a wedding and they’d go, “Oh, your sister is the . . .” and I’d say “photographer.”
BD: Yeah, but it’s still hard for a lot of people, depending on where they’re at.
CL: It’s very hard for a kid. There are all kinds of circumstances. But when we were growing up, my sister always wanted to play with guns – see, she was even angry then . . . just kidding – and play boyish games. She wasn’t into the doll action at all. And my mother kept trying to make her wear the frilly clothes and give her the perms, and she was absolutely miserable.
Me, I was just so ecstatic once I learned how to set my hair. Iwanted the nylons, the jewelry, the purses, the hats. I was into it – I wanted the whole nine yards. At a very early age, I was into that drag thing.
But she wasn’t, and I saw that struggle going on, and that was kinda tough. I think a parent knows sometimes that a kid has to develop and be who they are, they can’t be who you want them to be. But you have to understand and be fair that this is a person, and you’re born with certain genes – it’s in your genes.
That’s how I feel, and the Jerry Falwells of the world, they piss me off. He has a right to be who he is, but sometimes when people are that vehement, I always think they have a swing set in the closet.
BD: [Laughter] Let’s just say, for some unknown reason, that you were chosen to be the one to decide who would be elected president and vice president in the next election, who would they be?
CL: I don’t know. Somebody open-minded, really qualified and somebody really good with figures – like accounting, not female figures, which this president seems to be good at. No, I don’t know.
One thing you gotta keep in mind – every time you hear about these different lawsuits and stuff, anybody can sue anybody in this country and anybody can accuse anybody of anything. A lot of times it’s a nuisance suit. I was sued once, and that’s when I learned.
BD: What were you sued for?
CL: “Change of Heart.” The woman lied to me. I paid for her administration to publish the song, and then some past deal that she made came back, and the guy sued me and accused me of the wildest things, and then even made it sound like I didn’t write any of my own things. For a minute I started to believe it myself. And then I said “Hey, hello, wake up. You’re not in The Rose Tatoo with Anna Magnani, you know, this is not a movie. This is real life, this is what they do. Get over yourself.”