Listen up, newbies. Before there was
Dreamgirls, the movie, there was Dreamgirls, the
show. And before Dreamgirls was on Broadway, it
premiered in Boston.
That’s how it was back in the day: Broadway shows had tryouts in
And back then, in the autumn of 1981, the word on the street was
that there was this girl…
For months, every theatre queen had been
buzzing about Chorus Line-creator Michael Bennett’s new
show: his take on the Supremes and their meteoric rise to the
top of the charts. And when Dreamgirls opened in
Boston, nearly every theatre queen from all over the States had
begged, bought, or stolen a ticket to the Shubert Theatre. And
when the curtain fell on the first act, when the stunned
audience erupted in near-pandemonium, cheering and yelling,
applauding for minutes on end, there was no question that the
previously unknown 21-year-old singer who had just sung “And I
Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was now a full-blown star.
Welcome to the limelight, Miss Jennifer
When you think back to that time in your life, what do you most
Well, [honestly] I think back [to] how very hectic and grueling
it was trying to put together a new Broadway show. We did eight
shows a week—EIGHT!—evenings and matinees. Plus [there were]
rehearsals during the day and press interviews, too!
You know, of course, that your performance and your singing in
that role had a very serious impact on the lives of gay men.
Why do you think that is?
Well, I know that the bond between my voice and gay men has
always been quite strong, but I believe that the bond [is there]
especially because of the pain in my voice.
That’s extremely perceptive.
You see, twenty-seven years ago, when I first came on the scene
in Dreamgirls, gay men were in the midst of fighting a
devastating disease, which [back then] was labeled the “gay
You’re right. AIDS was initially termed "GRID," for gay-related
Gay men had been fighting for rights, although many were still
“in the closet” and were trying to find ways to cope with their
hurts and the consequences of coming out. So, therefore, I feel
that the character Effie and the song “And I Am Telling You I’m
Not Going” reached down deep into the core of the haunting
sadness that lived within the souls of so many gay men back in
Oh— That’s beautiful. You know your history.
Of course we’re now in the twenty-first century and the gay
community has finally found its own voice and can sing their own
song of hope!
Not without you, we can’t— Remember back in 2001 when you
generously took a frantic call from CareResource and performed
at Vizcaya for White Party, almost on the fly. If we’re not
mistaken, you’re the only singer to perform twice at Vizcaya.
Have you started thinking about your outfit? And your
Actually, I filled in for Deborah Cox who had the flu that
year. This time I asked CareResource to help me select the
songs for this year’s White Party. But as far as my outfit…
Fortunately, since I’ve been able to keep my weight under
control, I can usually just wait and go shopping before a
We know a whole bunch of boys who would love to go shopping with
you, so just give a holler, if you need… You’re working on a
new CD, right? Can you tell us about it?
Yes, I’m working on a new CD of love songs, most [of them]
covers of jazz standards and some R&B songs. Unfortunately, I
don’t have a record deal right now, but I felt like recording
again and since I haven’t released an album in over fourteen
years, I felt like this might be a good time for me to do
That sounds delicious: your voice covering standards. You’re
lucky to have one of those distinctive voices that many people
identify as soon as they hear it. How would you characterize
that quality in your voice?
If I had to choose just one phrase to characterize my voice, it
would have to be “old soul,” meaning that I have a voice that
reminds you of someone you love, or once loved, or long to
love. My voice is like an old friend or a cozy chair and it
allows the listener to snuggle up and smile with relief or just
have a good cry and release.
Oh, that’s good. Who wouldn’t want to take you home? You know,
before the Dreamgirls film was released, Ralphi Rosario
and Abel Aguilera of Rosabel remixed your signature song—and
created a serious dance club hit. It was massive! Have you
ever witnessed a packed club work it out to your vocals?
Actually, you know, I never have witnessed folks working it out
to that particular remix, but I really did love what Rosabel did with “And I’m Telling You.” And of course I was
very grateful for how well it was received by my fans and the
success that we enjoyed on the dance charts.
If we put in a call to Rosabel and got them to remix another of
your charted hits, which one would you like it to be? Or is
there something on your new CD you could see as a dance track?
Wait, guys! [Laughing] First, let’s find out if I can even
afford Rosabel before you make that call. Do they take credit
cards? [Laughing again] Honeys, I ain’t got no Beyonce dollars!
You’re too funny. Of course you know that Abel adores
his big-voiced girls. He lives for remixing them. He never
forgets those voices he loved when he was just coming up.
You know, if I could get a remix on one of my new songs that
would not only be very exciting, but a much needed boost for my
career. It’s been proven that a great dance hit has revived the
careers of many divas much faster than a big ballad.
Can we say Shirley Bassey?
I think I’ll put that on my “Wish List” for 2009. Thanks, guys,
for bringing that positive idea into my universe!
You are so welcome. Because, you know, we were remembering when
you sang at the Paradise Garage. That year, you were basking in
the success of Dreamgirls; you were the toast of the
town, and everyone wanted you—and there you were at the most
famous gay club in New York City.
You’ve always seemed so comfortable with your gay brothers and
sisters. To what do you attribute that comfort zone?
I attribute my beautiful comfort zone experience with my gay
brothers and sisters to one powerful force and that is
unconditional love. For almost twenty-seven years, the gay
community has remained faithful and has never wavered in their
unconditional love for me. And what I mean by that is, with the
gay community, as an artist, you are more than a hit record of
the year. With the gay community, once the flame is lit in
their hearts for you, you’re a hit [with them] throughout your
life. That love is not [just] seasonal. They continue to love
We are kind of loyal that way, aren’t we?
Mark and Robert, I am not ashamed to say that if it hadn’t been
for the LGBT community, there is absolutely no way that I could
have survived—not only as an artist, but as a human being. When
my career reached rock bottom, it was only the LGBT community
that kept me working and allowed me to keep my dignity and not
end up a tragic story for the E! Channel.
Now, you see—hearing that kind of makes our own struggles
So guys, I say with great gratitude—“And I Am Telling You…” that
there would be no Jennifer Holliday [and no] Dreamgirls
legacy without the LGBT community.
We love it when you testify.
That’s why I am praying that the same love and acceptance that
you’ve given me will be returned to you through equality and the
many other desires of your hearts that you have been fighting so
hard for over these past thirty years.
Girl, you better stop right now—you’re gonna make us tear up.
Now, back to that night at the Garage—or rather, that Sunday
morning—Larry Levan was in the booth, and everyone seemed to
regard your performance as the choir singing in our church. Who
were your musical influences when you were first coming up?
ARETHA! ARETHA! ARETHA! Or, when I was growing up,“IRETHA” as we
called her down in Texas.
Love that! IRETHA!
If Aretha didn’t sing the song, then I didn’t know the song! It
wasn’t until I started working on Broadway that I began to learn
of other artists—[and the man who] became my all-time favorite
influence, D.J. Rogers, Sr. I recorded his biggest hit “Say You
Love Me” on my second solo album.
You know, that song has been looping through our head for the
past couple weeks. We’re calling Rosabel now!
Then while I was starting the whole Dreamgirls creative
process, I fell in love with Barbra Streisand and that’s where I
“stole” holding a single note longer than you can hold your
Can you hear your influence in the work of singers today?
Well, let me say that I have not heard of any of today’s artists
publicly stating that I’ve had an influence on their work or
their singing style. Now, of course, I have watched countless
singers compete [on television] with both “And I’m Telling You”
and “I Am Changing” on shows like American Idol,
America’s Got Talent, Star Search, and Showtime At
The Apollo. And I’m okay with that because it means that if
you really want to win, then choose a Jennifer Holliday song. I
love being associated with winning!
You winner! You know, it’s somewhat apocryphal that initially
you weren’t all that keen on becoming a “star,” and that, in
fact, your Dreamgirls director Michael Bennett had to
lean on you to make you see otherwise. How would you counsel
someone today who’s just starting a career?
Show business is a business and you will hear the word “No” many
times before someone might give you the break that you’ve been
looking for. Fortunately, a truly talented artist has a better
chance of becoming a star than in any other era [and that’s]
because of the power of the Internet. Today, an artist takes
their music and presents themselves to the public and lets the
public decide if they have that “special something.” [So that
even if] an executive at a record label tells an artist that
they are not good enough, the [rest of] the world may [disagree
with that assessment]. So the bottom line? Believe in YOU!
It’s always so important to hear from those
who’ve paid their dues.
You must never give up on your dreams and you must stay on top
of your game. If you’re a singer, keep your voice in good shape
and take some voice lessons, just to be familiar with all music
genres and styles. Just be ready. It’s when preparation meets
opportunity that your dreams become your reality.
Girl, you could be behind the pulpit! And to think that back
when you were singing in your church choir in Houston, you were
thinking of becoming a lawyer like your idol, Barbara Jordan.
What did Congresswoman Jordan represent for you back then?
Congresswoman Jordan, who [incidentally] was gay and “outed
herself” in her autobiography, represented so many positive
things for me while growing up back in Texas. First and
foremost, she was an African-American woman amidst a white male
congress, who demonstrated courage and intellect and wisdom
during the Watergate hearings. She made [such] an indelible
impression upon me that I almost chose law and political science
as my major. And [furthermore], for several years during [that
time], I even [considered] that maybe, I, too, was gay.
Now there’s a testimonial. You’re even more of a sister than we
thought you were.
Well, [while] I never made it to law school and [while] I’m not
currently gay, I found other ways to become like her.
[Probably] my most effective tribute to her has been through my
phrasing of lyrics whenever I sing a song.
Those were the days—when a politician’s
language was worthy of emulation.
When Barbara Jordan spoke, you knew immediately [who you were
hearing, because of] her eloquence and diction. My wanting to
speak and sound like Barbara Jordan greatly influenced my
Did you ever get to meet her? What a
fascinating couple you would’ve made: the congresswoman and the
[You know], for decades I tried to get Barbara Jordan’s story
told through film or television. [But the pitch] was always
rejected because she was a gay woman. I wish that she could
have lived to see this day, since there are [now] so many media
outlets that would have embraced her.
She died in 1996. Things had changed a little in the sixty
years since her birth in 1936.
[That’s true, but you know], it’s still very difficult for a
black woman to come out and be accepted and respected within the
black community at large.
Well, as Effie said, “We are changing.” Too slowly, of course,
but still… And speaking again of Dreamgirls, do you ever
see parallels between your life and that of your character,
Effie “Melody” White? For example, that chapter when you and
Michael Bennett butted heads—only to surface on top, happier and
more successful than ever?
First of all, guys, let me set the record straight: I was never
“fired” by Michael Bennett—because I quit! [Laughing] Actually,
Michael and I became extremely close friends in spite of our
tumultuous fights. And as far as my life and my career
paralleling that of Effie “Melody” White’s, I would have to say
that since I helped give birth to the character of Effie,
naturally Effie and I are one and the same. [And in this case],
instead of art imitating life, it’s more like my life has
imitated my art.
You’ve been so fortunate and blessed in your show business and
musical career. A Tony award, two Grammys, five CDs, an honorary
doctorate in music from Berklee College of Music in Boston,
television and film work— What’s left for you to accomplish?
Any pet projects? The Mahalia Jackson Story, perhaps?
The Mahalia Jackson Story, The Bessie Smith Story, The Dinah
Washington Story, The Barbara Jordan Story, The Madam C.J.
Walker Story… [Laughing] I would love to make a movie about
any one of these incredible African-American women. Somebody,
please! Help me get a meeting with Oprah or Queen Latifah!
Let’s send it out there, because change is in
[You know], in spite of my setbacks and heartaches and
disappointments in both my career and my personal life, I
[still] have hope. And with that hope, I believe that the best
chapters of my life are still being written. So here’s to Act
Two of The Jennifer Holliday Story [and] to what I hope
will be the best performances of my lifetime!
We’ll drink to that! Throughout your career, you’ve been such a
proud and strong supporter of the LGBT
community—uncompromisingly generous with your time and your
talent—and we sincerely hope you know how grateful we are to you
for that. Thank you. And thank you for taking the time to
speak with us—and to sing for us at Vizcaya at the 24th
Annual White Party. We can hardly wait!