Jennifer Holliday wants to clear something up: When she performed her signature song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” on “American Idol,” those facial contortions weren’t a joke. She wasn’t exorcising a demon or doing them to out-diva “Idol” finalist Jessica Sanchez, who she sang the number with. Holliday’s been showing that song who’s boss since 1981, when the “Dreamgirls” actress originated the iconic role of Effie on Broadway.
Over 30 years later, Holliday, 53, still feels Effie’s raw emotion – an emotion that’s conveyed on her first solo secular album in 23 years, “The Song Is You,” a collection of R&B standards.
In this new interview with Holliday, the singer recalls the death threats she received after that “American Idol” performance two years ago, the backlash from the gay community when she lost weight and how she celebrated when Jennifer Hudson won her “Dreamgirls” Oscar – she bought her own.
Why has it been so long since you released a solo secular album?
The music business kept changing when I started making music in the ’80s, and I got lost because my record company, Geffen Records, felt that I wasn’t attractive enough back then. They were like, “You have a great voice, but you’re not really attractive to do what we need to do.”
So you weren’t marketable according to them?
Yeah, that’s what they were saying. It’s so strange, too, because it used to be big voices were associated with big bodies – I’m 200 pounds smaller now than I was in the ’80s. Then the little girls with the big voices slipped in – Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston (laughs) – you know what I’m saying? So I just felt I missed some things, and some people would probably disagree on terms of “whatever’s meant for you is meant for you,” but I just felt I missed out on a lot.
It sounds like mainstream success was something you hoped for.
Yeah, but it never happened. I only had the one big hit, “And I Am Telling You,” and then I just didn’t make a lot of albums. Fortunately, because I had a diversified career, I did more theater and some television acting – I was on “Ally McBeal” for five-and-a-half seasons – so it did allow me to have a more diverse career by having to find other ways (to work) besides recording.
Where do you keep your Tony award?
With my Grammys. I have everything together.
In a special glass case?
They’re just out. Yeah, I’m not that wealthy or anything – not for a case.
So no armoire?
Child, no. They’re just out with everything else. (Laughs)
Would you have gone the music route if “Dreamgirls” hadn’t happened?
I don’t think I would have had an opportunity to do that. My first show was called “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God” and I was on board with that when they saw me for “Dreamgirls,” so I basically would’ve just been a theater baby. Actually, I’m glad about it now because having to do eight shows a week, you learn how to preserve your voice – so thankfully, 32 years later after “Dreamgirls,” I still have my instrument intact.
I don’t know if I would’ve actually pursued a recording career because image was beginning to become everything, and I was an overweight girl and quite self-conscious about it. I didn’t aim to be a recording artist. I came straight out of the church, out of the Baptist choir, onto the stage. I was discovered in Houston, Texas, while I was singing in the choir, so I don’t know what my fate would’ve been had it not been for “Dreamgirls.” I just don’t know.
Because “Dreamgirls” was created with you in mind, do you think a lot of people see you as Effie?
I think so. Of all the accolades that I got for my “American Idol” performance two years ago with Jessica Sanchez, I also got a few disturbing comments from people laughing at me because of the facial expressions that I made when I was performing the song. I wish I could’ve explained that the song came out of a play and I still have the emotion of Effie when I do the song. I think that’s why I’ve been able to sing it and sing it well – because I’ve never tried to make it all about Jennifer Holliday. I’ve always tried to stay true to the character, and to some people it did look a little over-the-top or awkward, and so there were some very mean comments people made. Someone even threatened to kill me. I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute, what’s going on?”
Did those comments make you self-conscious about your face when you sing?
It did. Actually, I took my Facebook and my Twitter page down because the comments had gotten so ugly about the facial expressions, and I felt they didn’t understand. When they started circulating my Tony Awards performance from back in 1982, people kind of eased up off of me once they saw it. They got it. But before they were just very hard on me, saying, “Why did it take all of that for her to sing the song?” And it wasn’t that it takes all of that; it’s just that I go to another place so that it’s real and so that the emotion is real, and I stay true to what Effie gave us. I’m still connected with Effie.
Were a lot of your friends gay when you first started your theater career?
Well, you know I’m in the theater, so of course – everybody’s gay in theater pretty much! (Laughs) So yes, I did make a lot of gay friends. Unfortunately, I also lost a lot of gay friends because the ’80s was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, so I saw firsthand how devastating the illness was. It was a very devastating time, so yes, I knew lots of gay people, and was dear, dear friends with them, but I also lost so many dear friends as well.
Was it during “Dreamgirls” that you became aware of your gay following?
No, I think it was afterwards. Back then I didn’t do anything to have a following. It was after the show had pretty much ended – after the AIDS epidemic had quieted down – and then that’s when it came forth. I think when you go through a certain tragedy with people, you’re closer to them. Once people were beginning to assert themselves, and gay men started taking a stand and coming out, I became more so associated with the gay community because my music, I think, is the kind that pulls you through. A lot of people say to me, “Your album got me through this particular time when I was just coming out.”
It’s about empowerment.
That’s right – empowerment.
Why do you think “Dreamgirls” and the character of Effie has resonated so strongly with the gay community all these years?
The gay community has seen themselves as outcasts, as freaks and as something to be ashamed of. They associate with Effie because of the weight problem – she was overweight, she was awkward and she was trying to fight for herself. Nobody loved her. That’s what I’m thinking they identified with, and the reason why I say that is because when I lost weight I got a lot of backlash from the gay community – from the ones who were performing my songs – that I had betrayed them by losing weight. I was like, “No, you all need to go ahead and just come out and not be ashamed of who you are.” I’m not gonna end up a tragedy so that gay people can live and feel comfortable with me. It was almost like I had to have a tragic end like Judy Garland, or the ones that they were attracted to, in order for them to feel connected. I’m not gonna put on no weight so you can like me again. You go ahead and be who you need to be and don’t be ashamed of it.
You’ve said that without the gay community you would have no career at this point.
Oh, I don’t think I would. I don’t think that I would because they’re the ones that carried this “Dreamgirls” thing on. Even when they were trying to impersonate me and it was like, “OK, she lost weight now, she’s not gonna put it back on, what do we do?” I was like, “Lose weight, child.” But for the most part, they’re the ones who carried the legacy of “Dreamgirls” way beyond with impersonations and pageants, so it lived in the gay community for many, many years. Otherwise it would not be a movie. It wouldn’t have been anything if it had not been for the gay community.
For myself, I used to be able to work with the gay clubs without a record and not work anywhere else. I would go on at 3 or 4 in the morning and they allowed me to hold onto my dignity, and that’s what I wanted for them so much – to be able to have their dignity, because they loved me so much.
When you first heard Jennifer Hudson’s take on “And I Am Telling You,” what did you think?
I don’t know if I can really look at it like that. But having it portrayed on the screen, I couldn’t help but be proud, because I created it. That’s something that I created. And that’s a part of history now – twice! Not only did it make Broadway history, now it’s made movie history because she won an Oscar – or, we won an Oscar. Yeah, “we” won an Oscar, honey! (Laughs) In fact, they sell little Oscars in LA and I got one. I got a little one. I bought me one. It’s one of those little plastic ones they have at the gift shop.
And it’s right next to your Tony?
That’s right! And my Grammys. I have a little Oscar now.