HERE SHE WAS IN 1984, A BLUE-LIPPED, ORANGE-HAIRED, golden-voiced, self-proclaimed misfit whose odes to fun, loyalty, and masturbation elevated her to instant international glitterati status and turned her into the world’s most incongruous feminist heroine. Who else would have come up with that image but the inimitable Cyndi Lauper? And who else would have thought it would work?
Onstage she resembled a wacked-out Lucy Ricardo who’d finally hogtied Ricky to his conga drum. Lauper’s debut video came closer to Judy Holliday than to Billie Holiday. With her Archie Bunker accent, ragtag retro wear from mix-and-match decades, and cheery ding battiness, she could easily have been written off as just another record biz gimmick. Once the audio caught up with the visuals, though, you realized something else was happening. Underneath the Technicolor flamboyance was a phenomenal voice with a four-octave range. When you finished looking at the music and began to listen to it, you realized there was a message to the madness: girls should be free to play with their friends, their men, or themselves.
Four years later Cyndi Lauper is trying to re-create the breakthrough vision that put her over the top. She’s just released a single, “There’s a Hole in My Heart That Goes All the Way to China,” and its companion video, a high energy, hysterically funny action/adventure romp through a Chinese laundry. Her first album in two years, tentatively titled Kindred Spirits, is about to be released. And Vibes, her first feature, will be appearing nationwide. If Cyndi Lauper used to look like a street urchin, her new image, just in time for the release of the album and film, gives new meaning to the phrase “radical chic.” Posing for Ms. wearing three different colored slips, nine belts, and a fake flower, bi-colored hair done in a lopped-off modified bride of Frankenstein with circa 1959 spit curls, she looks, ummmm, elegant.
At the time that we meet to talk, she’s been working 10-hour days, recording, dubbing, producing. The video needs final editing; the album cover has to be completed; commercials for the movie must be made. Wearing no makeup, dressed in a June Cleaver housedress, hair chopped short and dyed to a relatively conservative platinum blond-the image is of a pure businesswoman exercising quality control over her product. The success of this album is crucial at this juncture in her career. The walls of the record companies are lined with platinum albums made by one-trick ponies; people who never repeated their initial spectacular success. The novelty wears off quickly in a business that eats its young for breakfast. And with audiences constantly bombarded with newer/better/different images, loyalty is not something you can count on taking to the bank.
Cyndi Lauper set a standard for herself that’s hard to duplicate. Her first album, She’s So Unusual, sold 4.5 million copies in the United States alone. It was the first album by a female artist to spin off four Top Ten singles and earned her a Grammy, Rolling Stone’s “Best New Artist” of the year award, MTV’s “Best Female Video” artist award, and the title of Ms. Woman of the Year. According to an executive at Epic Records her second album, True Colors, was “a little to the left of the public.” It sold well, but despite a hauntingly beautiful Top Ten title-track single, other cuts, like a remake of Marvin Gaye’s politically explosive “What’s Going On,” failed to match her initial success.
Besides her extraordinary musical ability-which doesn’t necessarily count for much in the music business-the one thing Lauper has going that might propel her past the too-big too-soon jinx is an image of uncompromising outrageousness and insistent individuality, that a public overwhelmed by New Wave clones instantly took to heart. Her free-to-be-you-and-me appeal cut across class, gender, and age lines. In case anybody doubts this, they should have been in the streets of New York trying to manage a Sunday afternoon for Ms. Tourists from Sweden stopped in their tracks and pulled out their Hasselblads. Street people and Bowery winos waved as if greeting an old friend. A carload of non_english-speaking locals from nearby Chinatown held up traffic. Finally, a prototype preppie with Wellesley emblazoned across her chest approached, ignored the “get lost” gestures from the assistants, stuck out her hand to Lauper and said, “I have all your albums and I think you’re wonderful. I really admire you.”
L.L. Bean meets the shmatta queen. In person, without the living color accoutrements of her performing persona, she is a juxtaposition of opposites. A streetwise tough guy who seems soft, younger than just-turned 35, vulnerable. A woman who managed to flunk out of four schools, yet whose most obvious attribute is a razor-sharp mind. A nonstop comedian with an intense need to be taken seriously. The reason there seems to be two Cyndi Laupers is because, her current incarnation consciously refuses to discard the former Cyndi Lauper.
She once was a tough guy; homeless, destitute, hospitalized for malnutrition, living on handouts in the streets of New York. She once had no choice but to dress in odds and ends, using her outer artistic sense as compensation. jokes were a survival method for a woman who, for years, no one ever took seriously. It’s as if she now wants her “I’m still one of the kids from the neighborhood” attitude to be a notice to people still stuck in her former life that if she escaped, maybe they can too.
What she escaped from was hardscrabble poverty, Catholic rigidity, and what she terms “Immigrant ignorance.” Scrambling, struggling, barely surviving were conditions she inherited not long after birth. Her parents divorced when she was five and her mother, left to support three children on her own, worked 12-hour days as a waitress. “There wasn’t any child care and my grandfather wouldn’t allow my grandmother to baby-sit for us because he felt that this way my mother would go back to my father. He was trying to help her.”
The irony of the memory, though obviously palpful: is tinged with a modicum of forgiveness. “Italian immigrant mentality. He was taught that way so it wasn’t his fault. He was taught to be ignorant.” The Catholic Church that her family faithfully supported didn’t offer any solace. “They kicked me out of Catholic school because my mother was divorced. That didn’t make any sense to me as a kid because I could see my mother working, breaking her back to put food on the table, but she still wasn’t good enough to be a Catholic. Pissed me off.”
Home was not a heaven in any way, shape, or form. Things happened there that she still feels uncomfortable discussing. “There was a conspiracy of silence at that time that let people have power over us. I didn’t know then that if you broke the silence, if you just told someone else, the power would disappear. I just knew that I felt like nobody could protect us and nobody could protect my mom except us and we sort of grew up like strong little soldiers.” Her escape, her only haven, was always her voice. “Even when I talked, I sang. Always. As a kid I knew that all my power as a person came from my voice.”
New York is known for its performing arts high schools-remember Fame? But getting admitted takes knowledgeable parents wit political savvy. Talent wasn’t enough to get her over. “I wanted to go to Performing Arts but they put me in a fashion industry trade school. I failed everything. I really felt stupid. Someone even called me a simp. Then they put me in a special class for nonachieving geniuses, so I figured here’s my chance. I failed that one too. Then I felt like I was failing everything and I had these horrible headaches [later diagnosed as TMJ and a severe sinus condition]. Finally a doctor prescribed barbiturates and I got into them. The only escape I had was drugs because I figured the craziest person would be left alone.”
Money and fame haven’t eased the memories. Lauper admits the difficulty in talking about that painful period in her life, but in a manner that has become part of her trademark, she quickly turns it into a joke. “So one of the high schools that expelled me just decided to give me a diploma, and look what that piece of paper’s done for me: I got an album coming out, I got a movie. See, you need that diploma. You need that education. Like my grandpa always said, ‘When you loin, you oin.” Humor is the Lauper way.
In an offhand conversation with an assistant, she’s overheard saying, “I studied voice for seven and a half years and then I said fuck it. What was I gonna be-an opera singer?” This belies the fact that talking with her about voice is only a little less technical than talking to Einstein about physics . She may be a natural talent, but she took her training seriously, learning phrasing studying Billie Holiday records, singing Charlie Parker solos, writing out Ella Fitzgerald’s scats until she could reproduce them. Since no one ever took her aspirations seriously, maybe she feels it’s easier to pretend not to take them seriously herself.
A girl having fun was the image, and girls who spend hours a day perfecting their craft are more complex than “funlovin” suggests. If people assume you are a spontaneous lightweight, why not give them what they want? That way you’re in control, you have the power. Underestimation has its advantages. Control was a thing Lauper desperately needed as she battled to succeed in music. She ran across hustlers, con men, people who had no qualms about abusing her talent, and they all had their own image of what would make her a star. That was only part of the problem. There was still the fact that when people have misjudeged your talents all your life, it’s not easy to put say “Run with it.”
Particularly in a male-dominated industry where female vocalists referred to as “girl singers” are marketed by being dressed in just enough leather to cover their pubic hair and forced to sing about pleasin’/teasin’/sleazin’. Lauper became intransigent about compromise, believing she was the only one with the magic secret of how to get over. This didn’t endear her to industry executives and although her voice had become legendary within the New York club scene, so too had her reputation as a woman with a mind of her own. She eventually won the battles and the war, and her first album is a tribute to the soundness of her unique vision.
It seems ironic that in the final analysis what seemed to be a risky venture in the wild, iconoclastic image she presented-the oddball feminist who goofily danced across the MTV creen-was actually the most conservative way she could have marketed herself. It was just Cyndi being Cyndi. The question is, now that she’s “made it,” now that she’s successfully done it her way, will she be flexible enough to change if that’s what it takes to keep selling records? Having read The Managerial Woman, she should know when to run with the ball and when to pass it. She’s been through therapy, because “the kind of computer I had in my brain worked like this: when you put in stress, you pull out freak.”
Yet neither of those was enough to prevent her from a virtually unexplainable foray into wrestling management. If anything has slowed the career she worked so hard to create, it’s her bout with the Hulk Hogan crowd. Audiences kept waiting for the joke and there wasn’t one. Some industry insiders blame the semisoft sales of True Colors on the fact that she confused the public. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to her feature film debut, especially since this is the first major project she’s been involved in over which she didn’t maintain complete control.
At first she turned down the role because “I didn’t want to look like an idiot,” but she reconsidered because she felt a special kinship with her character, a psychic who consults with an unseen spiritual guide named Louise. Lauper describes the experience of making Vibes by saying, “I was a hired hand and when you’re a hired hand you’re learning.”
But although Lauper may see this first film as part of her education, the critics may not take her neophyte status into account. They can be brutal with musicians turned actors (witness the reviews of Madonna’s last two films and her Broadway debut). The fact that Lauper has always had acting aspirations should be obvious to anyone who understands the music video revolution. Instead of trying to outmacho (or as she says, “macha”) Billy Idol, instead of slithering around in front of the camera in order to give some guy a hard bass line, in two-and-a-half minute vignettes she creates plots, characters, and subtext. “Of course I had my own preconceived notions about what acting in films was. I learned a lot about myself, and that was important. There were moments when it came through, like singing. That’s when I connected and that’s when I was centered. In my heart I wanted to be Ingrid Bergman or Vivien Leigh, but the best I could come up with was honest.”
Only Cyndi Lauper could hope to be Vivien Leigh her first time out, but then, only people with big dreams get big rewards. This is a woman who everyone else considered least likely to succeed, after all. “Every once in a while I’ll realize what happened in my life, what’s been accomplished, how far I’ve come, and that I’m not a dummy. Then I think of the person in high school who called me a simp and I say to myself, there’s a lot of justice in this world.” Here is a woman who moved past her past and looked the record industry in the eye, demanding more than she had a right to hope for. And she’s done it while refusing to disassociate herself from her days as a victim. Some in the industry may not believe that Lauper can keep her star in ascendancy.
But armed with the belief that “If there’s a will, there’s away,” Lauper has an alchemist’s conviction that she can create gold. “Success changes everything that happened before when nobody could be in control. It changes it; things are different now. And that’s the key to me: that no matter what happened it did develop me into this person. I’m not a child anymore. I’m not powerless. I can take a step backward, look at what’s really going on, and ignore the guy who’s freakin’ out inside.”