When you hear Jennifer Holliday launch into her signature song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington in early June, keep this thought in the back of your mind:
Thank God for tonsillectomies.
As a kid growing up in Houston in the early '60s, Jennifer-Yvette Holliday aspired to be a politician. Circumstances changed once she had her tonsils removed. A voice emerged. "A big voice," as Holliday recalls.
(Photo by Corey Reese)
Like all good Baptist children with a singing voice, she was ushered into the church choir. And at some point an actor from a touring company of A Chorus Line happened to hear young Jennifer sing. The actor urged her to get in touch with Broadway legend Michael Bennett. Plucked from the choir, her next stop was Broadway. During a stint in Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God, she auditioned for -- and was cast immediately in -- Bennett's Dreamgirls.
And in 1982, there emerged one of those rare moments on Broadway that attain legendary, almost mythic status. Jennifer Holliday -- a voice as grand as her girth -- was a star. Blazing, bright, brilliant. She won a Tony. She won a Drama Desk. She won a Grammy. Her showstopper, "And I Am Telling You," became synonymous with her persona.
In the ensuing years, Holliday's star faded. Her weight -- which topped off at 400 pounds -- was an issue. "I was awkward and not very attractive," says Holliday. In the parlance of the '80s, it translated to unmarketable. Her record company dropped her. But she kept performing, largely in gay nightclubs. "I was able to keep my dignity, I was able to keep going, because of the gay community," says Holliday.
Two failed marriages, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, financial woes, clinical depression, attempted suicide -- Holliday's life carried that tragic stamp from which gay icons are forged. Except, notes Holliday, "I escaped tragedy."
She lost the weight (via gastric bypass). She got her finances under control. She found a way to manage her MS. And she kept singing.
Because in the voice of Jennifer Holliday, there is power. Power to lift the spirit. Power to stir the soul. Power to rekindle hope, joy and love. Power to leave those listening breathless, in awe.
METRO WEEKLY: I first encountered you at a gay bar in Washington called The Fraternity House. They used to show clips from performances and such throughout the evening and I remember very clearly one night they played a clip from Dreamgirls -- I believe it was from when you sang "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" at the Tony Awards. The entire bar went silent. Every single person was transfixed. Your voice, your emotion filled that room. It was a miraculous performance. In some ways, your Dreamgirls performance of "I Am Telling You" defined your status as an icon in the gay community.
JENNIFER HOLLIDAY: I don't think that performance defined me with the gay community. I think it was Dreamgirls itself and Effie, the character I played. We're looking at 30 years ago. Thirty years ago the gay community was outcast and despised, looking for their own voice. And you had me there at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, which had no name then -- only the gay white man's disease. There were a lot of deaths around the gay community. I think at that time, my character came along and identified herself with the underdog, the loser, the person no one loved, the rejected, the dejected. The gay community, with so many people not even able to come out back then, recognized pain. I think pain recognizes pain. The reason I say that is because when I lost weight, I got a lot of letters from the gay community saying that I had betrayed them.
MW: That's an interesting response.
HOLLIDAY: One thing that people are uncomfortable with in today's society is happiness. If you say, ''I'm getting my life together,'' they go, ''What about me?'' Well, what about you? You can come along, too. It's a long process, finding yourself and finding peace and some kind of happiness that goes with life. I almost took myself out of here. I wanted to die, and at 30 years old tried to kill myself. I know very well what it's like to feel hopeless and unloved.
Had it not been for the gay community, there would definitely be no Jennifer Holliday. Had they not been as faithful and in love as they were, I don't think I would have existed now.
MW: I can't believe that.
HOLLIDAY: Well, you are only looking at music. Look at circumstances. There would be no Jennifer Holliday without the gay community mainly because when I didn't have a record, didn't have a Broadway show, it was the gay community that gave me work. I was overweight -- they didn't care. I didn't have a record -- I sang in bars at 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning. I was able to keep going, because of the gay community.
You've never heard anything about any of the problems I had -- especially my financial problems. I lost everything. But I had the ability to eat and take care of myself because I could always count on something from the gay community. That's all I'm trying to say.
MW: I know you went through some personal difficulties. You had two marriages that didn't work out, for instance, and it was devastating on you.
HOLLIDAY: And I have had multiple sclerosis for over 15 years. I've been blind. I've been paralyzed. I've been through a whole lot of things. And I didn't have to be pitiful because of the gay community. They let me keep my dignity.
MW: We look at celebrities and generally think that they are set for life, that they're untouched by life's problems in some grander scheme. That's a myth, of course, but it's the way we respond to the idea of celebrity.
HOLLIDAY: What's different about today than 30 years ago for an artist, once they make it, is this new branding thing. What did we know about branding 30 years ago? What did we know about getting a perfume or something? These young people, regardless of whether they can sing or not, have tapped into something that could carry them without even having a gift. Had we known about those sorts of things 30 years ago, maybe I would have been more financially stable. Even with my weight loss -- and I've been the same size I've been for a long time, I'm very small -- I kept saying, ''Gee, if I'd only gone up and down, do you know how much money I could have made by now by being a Weight Watcher or Jenny Craig?'' I can't make that money because I haven't had a problem with my weight in such a long time. When I was a big girl, I didn't get any sponsorships and now that I'm small, I missed out on all that. Maybe I should put on 60 pounds and see if they'll give me $100,000 to lose it.
MW: Where were you raised?
HOLLIDAY: Houston, Texas. I had a good childhood in a middle-class neighborhood. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father was a Baptist preacher. Most people in our neighborhood were teachers, principals, lawyers, doctors, that kind of thing. I didn't get discovered until I was a teenager singing in the church choir.
MW: You have an extraordinary voice. Do you remember when it was that you sang your first note?
HOLLIDAY: Around 13. I used to have a lot of ear, nose and throat infections, so I didn't do a lot of singing growing up. I was a bookworm, a nerd. I loved studying and I was very smart in school and had plans on entering law and politics. My idol was Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who grew up in Houston. I just adored her. And that's really what my mind was focused on.
When I was about 12 years old, my tonsils had swollen up and I couldn't really breathe anymore. So the doctor told my mother he was going to have to take out my tonsils. I don't know if you know about down South, but they don't like to have any kind of operation. You want to go to heaven with all your stuff, you know? So that's why it took so long for my mother to get the tonsils out because they just kind of had superstitions about that kind of thing. Anyway, about six months [after they were taken out], I just started singing one day. There was this voice. And it became a big voice. It was like, ''Okay, where did that come from?''
MW: So you got discovered and pulled out from the choir to Broadway?
HOLLIDAY: Yes. My first show was called Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God. I was in that show for two years and while I was on Broadway, they saw me for Dreamgirls. It wasn't called Dreamgirls then. It didn't have a name and it was a totally different story at that time.
MW: Did you have "I Am Telling You…" from the very beginning?
HOLLIDAY: We did not.
MW: Did they write it for your voice?
HOLLIDAY: For the character.
MW: You were overweight at the time.
HOLLIDAY: In my adult life I'd gotten up to almost 400 pounds. The height of my weight was in 1985 when I did Mahalia Jackson's Sing, Mahalia, Sing.
MW: Did you decide to lose the weight for health reasons?
HOLLIDAY: No. I decided to lose it because I'd tried to commit suicide on my 30th birthday. My record company had dropped me and I had already filed for bankruptcy. I just didn't have any work. I couldn't go to Hollywood like some of the other people from Dreamgirls because of my weight problem. It wasn't like it is today, like Queen Latifah, Monique. It's the story of my life – I keep missing everything. When I was a big girl, nobody wanted a big girl. Now they go through a phase, everybody wants big girls -- Loretta Devine works all the time. Man, I can't win for losing.
MW: You tried to commit suicide on your 30th birthday? What triggered the attempt?
HOLLIDAY: Birthdays trigger things – they're happy but they're sad. You look back at your life and everything that has gone before. Birthdays do things to people who suffer from clinical depression.
MW: What was it that saved you?
HOLLIDAY: God's love saved me and has kept me. But even through that time, you have to do your own self work. I had to reach down and say to myself, ''Jennifer, you have to love Jennifer.'' But I couldn't find a reason to love Jennifer. My singing voice wasn't enough and I couldn't identify with anything else because I felt that that all people could identify me with was the voice. I had to spend a lot of time in therapy searching and asking myself questions, trying to see why I was worthy enough for Jennifer to be alive. If I didn't sing for people, could I still be a someone for people to care about and love? I took a while before I could know that I was worthy enough to be loved, even if I didn't sing for people.
I blamed everything on my weight because my record company dropped me [at the start of] the new age of video.
Everything was becoming about your image, and my company was like, ''You are not marketable. You have a great voice and that's it.'' So the reason why I didn't have love in my life, a boyfriend or anything, was because of my weight. So [my therapists] said, ''What if you lost weight. Do you think your life would be better?'' And I said, ''Yes, because I'm growing out of control.'' So, that's how it happened. I was one of the first people to have gastric bypass – the surgery was considered quite dangerous in 1990. They do it differently now, and that's why I think I haven't gained my weight back – you're allowed to eat a lot more with the new surgery.
MW: Barbra Streisand refuses to get her nose fixed because she believes it will change her voice. Were you ever concerned that losing all the weight would change your voice for the worse?
HOLLIDAY: That's so funny. Years ago, Barbra wrote me a handwritten letter to tell me to never lose weight because if I lost weight I would lose both my identity and my voice. I still have the letter.
My voice did change when I lost weight. It changed a lot. I had to do a lot of work to get it back to where it is today. I think that that's why my voice is even more powerful now than it was 30 years ago, because I had to find a different way of singing to pull it back to being this size. You gotta get adjusted to what your new singing weight is, like the fighter or boxer who has their fighting weight. I had to reestablish my singing weight.
MW: Once you were at the weight you are now, did you feel a change in your life?
HOLLIDAY: There were a lot of changes. Some positive, some negative. When you have been overweight for a long time it takes you through a mental change when you lose the weight because you can't really adjust. You're always ''once a fat girl, always a fat girl.'' So it takes a moment for you to kind of live with your new self in your new body and your new image and how people respond to your new self, new body, new image.
MW: You will be singing with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., on June 4 and 5. Will you be singing your signature song?
HOLLIDAY: I definitely will be singing my song. I'll be doing all my Dreamgirls stuff and a couple of other things. I think people will be very, very happy.
MW: Do you ever get tired of singing "I Am Telling You…"?
HOLLIDAY: I've never had the opportunity to grow tired of it because I was young when I first started singing it and then as I became a woman and went through each experience, the song began to take on different meanings for me.
MW: Is there a difference in singing the song out of the context of the play's narrative? Do you bring a different mindset to it when you sing it as Jennifer as opposed to when you sang it as Effie?
HOLLIDAY: I can see you maybe asking Jennifer Hudson that question, but I don't see how you can ask me. I created Effie, so the song was birthed out of me from where I was at that time. I am Effie. Now, as I've grown, the song takes on different meanings. And although I'm life experienced, it has come to take on different meanings but it has never decreased in meaning, in terms of significance and understanding of what it means to other people. A lot of people wait for me to sing this song. I don't want it messed up. I never take it lightly. I take the moment very seriously.
MW: You mentioned that you've lived with multiple sclerosis for 15 years. How is your health now?
HOLLIDAY: I'm doing very well. In my earlier years when I first got it, it was very difficult not being able to walk or coordinate. MS is incurable – it attacks the neurological system. I have managed my MS through developing a less stressful attitude toward things and problems and situations. I exercise, I eat well, and spend a great deal of time on balancing my life.
MW: Your newest album – Goodness & Mercy – features the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, including a 20-minute sermon midway through. Was it recorded live?
HOLLIDAY: It was not recorded live, but it has that kind of effect.
MW: It feels like you're at a church service.
HOLLIDAY: Right. That was what I wanted to do. When I started working on this project, we were right kind of in the midst of the recession and a lot of people were being displaced, losing their jobs, disheartened, feeling hopeless. I wanted to give them some comfort, to find a unique way of introducing the word of God that would be something that would sustain them. With this, which is one of the first of its kind, it's sermon and song together. So many people were just feeling hopeless and I wanted to give them something uplifting.
MW: Is Rev. Warnock a friend of yours?
HOLLIDAY: He is the pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which is the spiritual home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I approached him and asked him about using his words. He never had to go to a studio or anything. I took all of that work from the actual sermons from the church.
MW: You're a devout Christian. You are also very, very friendly with the gay community. There are a lot of Christians who find conflict between their religious teachings and homosexuality. Have you ever had to reconcile your acceptance with your religious beliefs?
HOLLIDAY: I never had to. I don't know the whole rules of church and all of that, but I know one thing – God loved me enough to make sure I was taken care of. It would be hypocritical of God to allow the gay community to feed me, take care of me, give me a livelihood and then turn around and crucify them. I know God loves me and he loved me enough to send me people to love me and support me. He wouldn't do that and let me get well and then say, ''Okay, all of you who took care of me, you're going to hell.'' I just think God is not a hypocritical God. I just feel like I can support and sing of an unconditional love, that I feel that God loves all of us.
MW: This weekend is the 21st annual Black Gay Pride Festival in D.C. The black gay community has come a long way in the 15 years I've been covering it, but there are still many closeted gay black men who just simply cannot find the courage to come out. What kind of inspirational advice would you give them?
HOLLIDAY: That's a difficult one. So many people are living double lives in the sense that they were raised in church, with some sense that they will go to hell. And it's not so much that they're scared of going to hell, but they still have parents, so it's ''How do I tell my mother? I can't tell my father because he will disown me.'' Even in our day and age, I don't know how that's going to change. If you're a black man and you are on the down low and you're afraid to come out and you don't have courage, I would say this: You're living a lie and you're saying that you're not going to be able to make it. And I think that that's not the truth. I think that if you're loved – genuinely loved – then you should have the courage to step out on love and the rest will follow.
I feel strongly that God loves everyone. That person will have to believe that. That person will have to be able to know from their own families, their own inner-circles. When you know in your heart that [you're living a lie], you end up just dying each day on the inside. And you end up hurting a lot more people by not coming out. The Bible itself says, ''The truth shall set you free.''
But it's difficult. Until the church can actually embrace [gays], and until they could get past their own secrets – and the church has so many secrets – then it's gonna be difficult.
MW: What is the best thing about being Jennifer Holliday at this point in time?
HOLLIDAY: The fact that my name is synonymous with winning now gives me a great pride, because I have not won everything in my life. In fact, I've had a whole life of losing. But at 50 years old, I have a new lease on life and this time I am going to win. I don't know what I can win at this particular point, but the world is still open and available to me. I can still pick myself up with every mistake I've made, every heartache I've had, every setback I've had, every disappointment I had – and I can still win. I had no idea that in this 21st century, a little 7- or 8-year-old would know my name, look at a video on YouTube, and smile at me, knowing that if they can sing that song, they have a better chance of winning than somebody who doesn't sing a Jennifer Holliday song. All I can say is, ''Wow.''
Jennifer Holliday appeared with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington for "And I Am Telling You," the group's annual Pride concert, Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 5 at 3 p.m. at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of the George Washington University. For info visit gmcw.org.