She started performing in talent shows at the age of 12 in her native Canada, eventually landing a gig as a backup singer for Celine Dion. In 1994, she came to America in pursuit of a solo career, and found it four years later: Her 1998 single, “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” spent a record-breaking 14 weeks atop the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart, and catapulted her to fame. Since then, she’s had 10 more number-ones on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart.
Throughout her career, Deborah Cox has been a vocal ally of the LGBT community, appearing at Pride events worldwide, and participating in Cyndi Lauper’s 2008 “True Colors” tour. And of course there was the music video for “Who Do You Love,” which taught us the best way to tell off a man who’s done you wrong is to get a group of your friends together for a spontaneous dance number in the street.
Topher Payne: Okay, when I’ve had a bad day, I’ll crank up the remix of “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” in the car and scream it out. And I know I’m not the only one. But when you have a bad day, who’s your go-to for song therapy?
Deborah Cox: Depends on the mood I want. If I wanna get sexy, it’s Nina Simone, Sarah, Billie Holiday… If I need to cut loose, it’s the dance mix on Sirius, and I’ll sing along to anything.
Even Deborah Cox?
(Laughs) When she’s on.
Do your kids know your music?
Yes, and you know what’s amazing? They catch on really fast! They hear one of my songs once, and they just know it. I don’t know how they do that.
I can’t imagine where they get that from.
Oh! I never thought of it like that! I guess you’re right. Well, they learn it faster than I do.
You’re finally heading back to Broadway, playing the lead in “Josephine.” When should I get my tickets?
Next year. We had the last workshop in June, and now we’re just waiting on a theatre —one of the ones we’re hoping for. It’s been such an amazing experience. With “Aida,” I was stepping into a show already up, but I’ve never been part of a show from the very beginning. It is a really long, incredible journey.
What has Josephine Baker taught you?
So much. So much! You’ve got to have a thick skin. You have to be fearless, that’s with a capital F-E-A-R-L-E-S-S. She knew what she wanted to perform, how she wanted to live, and she never took no for an answer. And in playing her, I have to exude that fire and passion. So I have to believe that in myself. Which has been good for me to learn, because I’m very shy.
No one’s going to believe that.
Oh, not when I’m performing. On stage I feel 10 feet tall.
What can we expect for the Pride show?
All the favorites. I promise I’m gonna try to get it all in! It’s hard, because if you leave anything out, people say, “Can you believe her? Where was ‘Mr. Lonely?’” I’m just so excited to be back in Atlanta, it’s been way too long and it feels like home. When I was first starting out, recording with Dallas Austin, I lived there and fell in love with the city. A lot of great memories there.
Any place on your to-do list while you’re here?
Oh yes. Waffle House. We’d record ‘til the middle of the night, and then everybody’d realize we hadn’t had anything to eat. So we’d all get in the car and go have Waffle House, and there’s just something about it.
That food tastes so much better at three in the morning.
Exactly! Tired and laughing and eating a big soggy waffle!
I would strongly recommend the one on Cheshire Bridge after the bars close. Ooh, speaking of bars, have you ever seen a drag queen perform a Deborah Cox song?
Only online, and it just blows my mind to see these amazing drag queens doing my music. Because when I was just starting to perform in clubs — in San Francisco, in New York, at Arena in particular — drag queens saved me.
The gay community is really the tastemakers, and I was trying to break out as an artist. But I was so naïve about what to wear, how to be. So I’d watch the drag queens, learn from that confidence and that style. And now they’re dressing like me and doing my songs! It’s fun to see how they see me, when I learned from watching them.
That’s what they call full-circle.
It is. The gay community has been with me through this whole journey, and look where we all are now. This performance is a celebration of all that. And they keep me on my toes. Because this audience doesn’t play around. You have to come correct.
Top photo: Deborah Cox headlines the Coca-Cola stage on Saturday in Piedmont Park. The dance music legend and ‘Aida’ star hopes to return to the Broadway stage in ‘Josephine,’ a new musical about the life of jazz-age icon Josephine Baker. (Publicity photo)