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She's not going
Jennifer Holliday thanks God and the gay community for keeping her off the streets
Is the song that elevated Jennifer Holliday to superstardom a wonderful example of cosmic simpatico, or is it a cruel irony?
Even though she attained stardom at an early age--she was only 19 when she originated the Dreamgirls role of Effie--Hollidayís life has been such a roller coaster that ďIím Not GoingĒ has become an anthem for her life, her survival against all odds and her ability to keep singing, and living.
In a phone call from a Philadelphia hotel before a pops concert with the symphony, Holliday opened up like no other interviewee. She holds nothing back--the joy, the pain, the utter desolation, and the irrepressible gratitude she has for God and the gay community--two entities she believed saved her not only from a life on the streets, but from death itself.
Holliday spends a lot of her time on the road singing three nights a week in different cities, different venues, doing gigs with symphonies, corporate events, clubs and other places where her talent is appreciated and still celebrated. She says that the road is what she has always done and she doesnít tire of the constant peripatetic existence.
ďOnce you get off Broadway you have to go to the world, the world doesnít come to you,Ē she explains.
Holliday sang at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Columbus on June 16. Given her story, she should also have spoken, because she has so much to teach.
She began the conversation by apologizing for being a bit difficult to track down because she doesnít have a cell phone and doesnít do email.
Kaizaad Kotwal: So, letís start with why you donít have these two inventions that most people are obsessed with.
Jennifer Holliday: Everything I do is towards the energy I need to perform. If people only used cell phones for emergencies then Iíd be okay, but we know that people donít. I was never caught up with the whole thing so I know it takes people quite a minute to get a hold of me.
KK: Why have you chosen HRC as an organization you want to support?
JH: I have been a supporter for six years now. Basically the gay community has been my sole source of survival, especially when I was really down and out. So this is my way of giving back. If lending my name can help them then thatís great. I wish I have money of my own to give but Iím not wealthy.
KK: Can you say a little more about how the gay community has been your survival?
JH: Well, show business is an up-and-down business and the music industry has changed. The older you are, the quicker you are cast aside and no longer deemed a product thatís important. The gay community has been my constant supporter. I used to sing in wet bars at four a.m.--I am not even sure such bars exist anymore. Not only did they have respect for me but they also paid me well. I have had many, many setbacks, heartaches, losses and even though I have been very, very low I have never seen rock bottom and that is because when the rest of the world didnít want anything to do with me, the gay community supported me, they literally kept me from a life on the streets. But for them I would not exist. They have been very faithful to me. God is faithful too. So itís God and the gay community that have kept me here.
KK: What was the lowest point in all your ups and downs?
JH: It would have to be 1990 when I filed for bankruptcy. I had made a few CDs and was caught up in the whole disco thing. I was also overweight and in the age of video, video was not kind to me. The music industry executives would say to me your voice is great but we are not going to sink a hundred thousand dollars into a video.†
KK: You originated Effie on Broadway but never got to do the film Dreamgirls. Do you feel like you were in the wrong place at the wrong time when it came to the movie?
JH: Iím not sure about that. Things happen when they happen. We can desire for them to be. And there were attempts to make the film before this one, but it never happened. I did want to participate in this film version, we all did--all of us who had created the original. Not in the roles we created but in some way. We were all quite disturbed when we were not approached.
KK: In her Oscar speech for winning Best Supporting Actress for playing Effie in the film, Jennifer Hudson acknowledged you. How did you feel?
JH: I thought finally someone is going to say something to acknowledge me. It felt good to be recognized.
KK: Have you watched the film, and do you feel comfortable commenting on it or Jennifer Hudsonís performance?
JH: The film was, as adaptations are, good. They took away too much from the soul of the musical but thatís their privilege. And if I say that Jennifer Hudsonís not good then I am saying that I am not good.
Her performance has me in it. Unlike me, who created the role from no history, she had something there for her.
KK: How does that make you feel that so much of what you did has become the standard for that role?
JH: It makes me have mixed feelings. At one level you feel I have been copied, I have been ripped off. But at another you feel that youíve done something that is put in print that will live on. I have elation and sadness all at once, if thatís even possible.
KK: Since your Broadway fame, there have been many Jennifer Holliday impersonators and entertainers--women and men in drag. What do you think about this phenomenon?
JH: It has been going on for twenty-five years. Back then I didnít like it because I was severely obese and whether it was women or men in drag I realized I was being laughed at. Now Iíve seen all kinds and I say to them, youíll have to lose some weight too. But back then it was hard to look at.
KK: You say you are deeply Christian and yet you are so open and accepting of the gay community. Unlike so many Christians, how have you reconciled the two?
JH: The clearest way I see this is that if I am a Christian and God loves me and he has been faithful to me, why would he choose a community that other Christians say are not good to have been my sole support? This community fed me and allowed me not to be on the street. Iíd be a hypocrite if I said yes, I need their money, but I am not going to accept who they are. I wouldnít be able to live with myself. God created gays as he created everyone and he loves them as he loves everyone and as I know he loves me. What kind of person would I be if I didnít love them and what kind of image of God would that be?
KK: You have been very frank about your struggles with depression. How are you managing these days?
JH: I take medication and continue with therapy. I have found a way to balance life. I realized that prior to this I was just a voice but now I am just beginning to live and learn how to balance the two, my life and my work. And I am singing better than ever because I am happier. I donít have any hobbies, so I am trying to learn to golf and learning how to de-stress. I am trying to become a whole woman and in this new millennium putting the pieces together to become a whole Jennifer Holliday with my mind, body and spirit. I am also speaking to others to let them know that they are not alone and [in doing so] am hoping to save a life.
In 1990 I did try to commit suicide by taking a lot of sleeping pills. In the entertainment business we have lost so many to suicide and there are so many in America whose names we donít even know. I want to be more active with that and tell people not to worry about the stigma. We have lost too many--white, black, young, old.
KK: How did you make it through your attempted suicide?
JH: With God, of course. That was when I also began to lose the weight. I had gastric bypass surgery and lost two hundred pounds. I had always assumed that all my problems were connected to my weight. And then when I lost the weight I realized I still had the problems. I didnít have a career, I didnít have a boyfriend, I canít get along with people. And even recently I have had many losses, many heartaches. I lost my mother to cancer, a couple of relationships that failed. But I am trying to move on. I am beginning to find out how to make it all work, hoping I will survive, that I will make it.
KK: You said you are singing better because you are happier. But having been through so much pain in your life, does that help you bring out the raw emotions in your singing?
JH: All that has given me a renewed passion and determination to live more than ever. Because I have been through so much I have defiance and confidence to fight. I spent so many years not knowing that people loved me, that I was liked for my work. I remember someone saying, ďGive me my flowers while I live.Ē I donít care if I have a big funeral. I know finally Iím loved and not just for singing ďIím Not Going.Ē
KK: Have you ever thought that ďIím Not Going,Ē which defined you and your career, would become about what you have been through in your life--that is, with all the struggles, youíre still here?
JH: I never thought of it that way until this year. Before I viewed it primarily as a love song. I would have people come up and tell me that the song saved their marriage, or that they had got back with their boyfriend. But now itís my own anthem. I want to live.