Cyndi Lauper released her first album in 1983, instantly becoming one of the most recognizable musicians of the decade. From amusing hits like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “She Bop” to ballads like “Time after Time” and “All Through the Night,” the album won her a Grammy for Best New Artist and legions of devoted fans.
The album’s title, “She’s So Unusual,” proved particularly apt for gay fans — not only were Lauper’s quirky style and knock-out vocals far from typical, but so was her outspoken support for LGBT rights from the early days of her career.
Her second album, 1986’s “True Colors,” included the achingly beautiful title song, which was quickly embraced as an anthem of acceptance, as well as “Boy Blue,” dedicated to her friend who died of AIDS.
And as Lauper’s career has grown, so has her support for LGBT rights. In 2007 and 2008, she hosted the True Colors tour, which brought together a diverse group of LGBT and supportive musicians.
In early 2010, the True Colors Residence — led by Lauper as honorary chair — broke ground on New York City’s first permanent supportive housing for young LGBT people ages 18-24. Also this year, she launched the “Give a Damn” campaign to encourage straight people to care about LGBT rights.
Last month, Lauper released her 11th studio album, “Memphis Blues,” which includes duets with blues greats like B.B. King and Allen Toussaint. She took time out from her busy touring schedule, which brings her to Atlanta on Aug. 6, to answer questions from the Georgia Voice.
True Colors Fund
Your tour visits Atlanta on Aug. 6. Do you have any particular memories of Atlanta from past visits, and what should our readers expect from the show?
I can’t wait to be back to Atlanta. I haven’t been since the True Colors tour in Atlanta back in ‘08. There are some great restaurants there and it’s a great music town too. I can’t wait to see everyone on the Aug. 6 show.
I am on the road with probably the best band I ever played with. So much fun. These guys have played with everyone from Al Green and Isaac Hayes to Booker T and the MG’s and Willie Mitchell. It’s about the blues this time, guys! I do perform my hits at the end of the set, but my focus this time is playing the songs off “Memphis Blues.”
You’ve reached a point where you could simply sit back and rest on your laurels, and just perform your hits from through the years. Instead, you continue to push yourself musically — like taking on a new genre with “Memphis Blues.” What inspired you to make a blues album?
I wanted to do this CD when I was still at Sony back in 2004. Jeff Beck and I had wanted to do a blues cover project but Sony didn’t want us to do it. I have always been a fan of blues. I have been listening to the blues since I was a kid. Later on I loved how Janis Joplin and acts like the Rolling Stones made it modern ‘70s. …
So I always had this project in the back of my mind, wanting to do this record for a long time and then Jeff and I spoke about doing it, but that didn’t work out. I still wanted to do it, and was just waiting for the right time to make it happen. Here it is 2010…my dream came true.
What was it like to record with blues legends like B.B. King?
What more can I say…this is B.B. King! It was a huge honor to work with all the talented artists on this record. Every one of them from the legendary B.B. King, to the amazing Ann Peebles, to the genius who is Allen Toussaint — it was like a dream to work with each of them. Jonny Lang is still only 28 years old, but I think he is a legend in the making. He has already established himself as being in the same league as Clapton and Beck.
This was a dream record for me to record.
What are some of your favorite songs to perform live, and why?
Something new and something old. I just love to revamp all my songs and make them sound different with each performance. You should hear how “Girls” sounds with this band. I have to say it’s really good. Come to the show and let’s have some fun. I am so proud of this band. You want to see some real, honest-to-goodness great playing, come check these guys out.
You performed in Atlanta for the True Colors Tour in 2007 and 2008, which supported LGBT rights. Why did you not do a True Colors Tour in 2009 or this year, and do you ever plan to bring it back?
Yes, of course, we will do True Colors in 2011. This year I wanted to focus on “Memphis Blues” and bring it on the road. That’s the main reason. The other reason is the economy is still pretty bad and a lot of folks just don’t have the money for those big ticket festival shows. The more acts on the bill the more the ticket has to cost.
But we do want to do it in 2011. We are going to do a three-day festival in NYC and take it out on the road as well. Stay tuned.
You’ve supported LGBT rights throughout your career. What initially prompted you to speak out, and were you ever afraid of possible backlash?
Because I have friends and family in the community. In the ‘70s and ‘80s I saw incredible discrimination and had to speak out. You can’t sit by while your friends and family are being treated like second-class citizens. And then when I became famous I had a lot of fans that were LGBT too, and since you guys supported me, of course I have to support you too.
I think that maybe because I was an outsider looking in most of my life, I could relate. I don’t care about backlash.
It’s been reported that your sister is a lesbian and is a big role model for you. Do you remember how she came out to you, and how you reacted?
When she did, I just gave her the biggest hug and told her that I love her. But I had known it for a long time. This is 25-30 years ago. Things are a lot better now then they were in the early ‘80s though. We still have a long way to go.
And now for a fun question: Have you ever kissed a girl?
Yea I tried it. Just wasn’t for me.
You’ve said that you don’t like being called a “gay icon.” Why not?
I don’t really consider myself a gay icon because you are all my friends and family. I love the community and the community has always been good and supportive of me too. Why attach the word “icon” to it?
Your True Colors Fund is helping create permanent, supportive housing for LGBT youth in New York City. What makes youth issues particularly important to you?
GLBT teens are coming out in greater numbers as they see themselves accepted on TV and in movies, but they’re still being kicked out of their homes, running away and living on the streets. We need to make sure to take care of them and allow them the opportunity to reach their full potential.
You also recently launched the “Give a Damn” campaign aimed at encouraging people to be allies in the fight for LGBT rights. What would you tell a straight person about why LGBT rights should matter to them?
Equality should matter to everyone regardless if you are in the majority or the minority. It’s a slippery slope when one group is not free. Because when one group’s freedom is up for grabs that means your freedom could be next.
Either we are all equal or we’re not. It’s all of our responsibilities, especially in the majority to fight for the minority.
But I gotta say that it is also important that the people in the minority do everything they can do to reach out to the majority and understand that they may have questions or need some help understanding.
They may not say the right thing every time or be with us on every issue, but welcome them and help them understand what being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is all about. Share your story; help open their eyes to what life in the minority is like.
That’s part of why we started the Give a Damn Campaign. We have created a lot of things to help you start those types of conversations. Come to wegiveadamn.org and look around.
You campaigned for Barack Obama and performed at the 2008 Democratic Convention. What do you think about his performance as president so far, and what would you say to him now?
The man has only been president for a year and a half. Give him a chance. He has a lot of garbage to clean up after eight years with Bush/Cheney. He inherited the mess, didn’t create it.
There is a lot wrong in this country but I think he will bring positive change. He already has reformed health care, he is dealing with the corruption that is Wall Street, he passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and has done other positive things for the gay community like the added protections and benefits for LGBT federal employees.
We’ve just gotta give the guy a chance. I think that there was such a massive amount of hope when he was elected, he was already set up to fail in people’s minds because the problems facing this country are so huge. Is there a lot more left to be done? Absolutely, a ton.
So let’s keep up pressure on the president and all of our elected officials. Let’s stay on top of Congress to get rid of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Defense of Marriage Act and finally pass ENDA and immigration reform that includes gay couples. Let’s work together to affect chance, and not just sit back and complain if you don’t feel like enough is being done.
You’ve been involved in TV throughout your career — from wrestling to “Celebrity Apprentice.” Who is scarier — a WWF wrestler or Donald Trump?
Donald Trump, of course. LOL! Kidding.
We’ve seen reports that you, your husband and son will be the subject of a new reality show. What is the premise?
I did a deal with Mark Burnett Productions before I signed on to “Celebrity Apprentice.” Mark Burnett is the most successful producers of reality TV, so I am really happy to be in partnership with them. It’s going to be a lot of fun to do. It is mostly about me and my day to day, focused on my career. We start filming in January.
A lot of reality shows don’t show their subjects in the most flattering light. Are you nervous about opening up your home? What is your biggest hope and biggest fear for the show?
The show is going to concentrate on my professional career mainly. I am a pretty open person. I am human so of course I make mistakes. On “Apprentice,” I made mistakes and everyone who watched saw that and I don’t think I was vilified for being human.
Do you think that your advocacy for LGBT rights will end up being part of the show?
Of course. I bring that with me into everything I do. Whether it is through my music, TV, concerts. It is running through my bloodstream 24/7.
What would you like to say to the gay and lesbian fans who have loved you and your music for so long?
Thank you for all the love and support through the years. I am very lucky in that my fans seem to love all kinds of music and at different times in my career I have wanted to record certain genres of music that have been meaningful to me, or helped shape me as an artist, and they have always come along for the ride, and for that I am grateful.
Top photo: Cyndi Lauper (by Ellen von Unwerth)