If you still think of Cyndi Lauper as the rainbow-haired, helium-voiced pop music confection who defined ’80s girl power with tunes like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “She Bop” — well, you’re partially right.
Her hair remains a canvas for her mood, and the voice is unmistakably Lauper. But in the decades since she burst into the pop culture lexicon with 1983’s platinum-selling “She’s So Unusual,” Lauper has evolved into an actor, author, Broadway composer and tireless philanthropist — all the while continuing to make music and a home life with her actor husband David Thornton and their precocious teen son Declyn.
Now Lauper welcomes fans into that cross-country, round-the-clock existence in WE tv’s irreverent docuseries Cyndi Lauper: Still So Unusual, which premieres with back-to-back episodes Jan. 12 beginning at 9pm.
I spoke with Lauper — the inspiration for my 1984 Halloween costume — about her crazy, busy life.
CGM: With a new autobiography, acting gigs, your True Colors Fund and a Broadway play to tend to, what convinced you to throw a reality show in there, too?
Cyndi Lauper: Because I thought the reality show would be kind of like a documentary — you get all of the stuff that goes on, the good, the bad and the ugly. I mean, when you think you’re doing something really good, something ridiculous always happens. So I thought the reality show could highlight a life — because everyone thinks they know how I live. But they don’t really know! A lot of it’s very funny. Some of it isn’t. But it’s never boring.
And I’ve been involved in every single thing I ever did in my whole life — like all the things that you’ve seen. The “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” video. The “Time After Time” video. The Goonies video. The “Money Changes Everything” video. “True Colors.” “Change of Heart.” All of that [stuff] I had a big say in, and I was able to work them and I learned a lot. So a part of me doing this was so that I could learn more of the media that I love. I love edit day. I love shooting. I love the whole medium. And this is a whole new medium — reality TV. It’s very very young. And I’m very excited to be part of it because it’s a young medium and there is room for people like me.
And you got to film with your husband and son.
With my son, the deal was, “When you don’t want to do it anymore, you say so and you leave.” We made that deal and I stuck by my deal. Because you have to. I didn’t want to serve my kid up on a silver platter — because he’s my baby. He was my baby. Now he’s so much taller than me! I remember when he was so little and he grabbed the mic and sang on my Christmas album. I wrote a song called “New Year’s Baby” and I was singing it and he was watching me sing and he grabbed the microphone. He was 7 months old and trying to use his voice. He was singing. And it was so fun. It was so unbelievable! He’s such a great kid. And he’s smart. And then efore you know it, he knows how to take apart computers and he’s realigning the whole house in a way that more suits him [laughs]. But that’s how kids are. All of a sudden, they’re taller than you and their life is separate.
He’s especially amusing in the episode that features the incident in which you accidentally swore on live TV at the Kentucky Derby Pegasus Parade.
The parade thing — I didn’t know I was going to be in that parade. I thought I was just singing at the top of the parade. I had no idea I had to ride in the parade. And I never went because I didn’t know what it was. But now that I have my kid, I thought, “You know what? We should do something that’s part of our American heritage and that is like an American institution. Let’s go to Kentucky and see what this is about” For me, I worked in the race track growing up, so all of a sudden, I was on the other side of the track. And I just thought it would be nice to have my kid and my husband see this, and be part of this. Fun! See Louisville!
I worked really hard on that sound check; I was working on the sound check all day. And I went to rehearsal the day before. The little girls are dancing to “Girls Just Wanna To Have Fun” — and it was very moving to me. I was crying the day before, because it was so moving. But “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” was “Girls muh muh muh fuuun!” — because the P.A. was all screwy. So then I went to sound check and the P.A. finally worked and I thought, “OK, I can do this” Because you shouldn’t have to sing through a mic that sounds like Mr. Microphone, you know what I’m saying?
So we went through all of this action and then I had to go home and change and get ready for the performance. Now earlier that day they said this was going to be live on television and your mic will be live on TV. I said,”OK, you’re going to get that feed from my sound guy.” Everything was cool. The guy said go walk and talk to the kids and be careful what you say because it’s live to TV when you’re talking. So I tapped the mic to do what he said — and this after driving around being lost trying to get to the parade — and said, “Great. It doesn’t work” And then I said f***ing idiot. But I didn’t know that was on TV! And I was like, great — along with everything else here that doesn’t work.
But it wasn’t the guys fault. And I was tired. And I had no idea that when they turned on the TV, that was the first thing they saw. But the stuff I always find interesting is the behind-the-scenes yelling. Well, [the parade organizer] wasn’t yelling, per se. It was just a very Southern way of telling you off. A very calm and quiet way of basically saying, “You Yankee bastard!” But he didn’t use curse words — because that was what I was getting in trouble for.
How did you become the composer for Kinky Boots, which we’ll see launching in Chicago on Still So Unusual?
Harvey Fierstein called me. And I don’t know about you, but I really know about Harvey Fierstein. I’ve always admired him and I’ve always wanted to work with him. And he also happened to call at a time when it was quiet. I had just finished a tour and it was quiet and I was restless. And the whole idea of a play — I kept asking him things. He started calling himself “Mommie Dearest” and me “Christina.” CHRISTINA! [laughs.]
And [director/choreographer] Jerry Mitchell? Really, honestly, you never get to see him the way I get to see him. He’s really brilliant. And of course he worked with the best of them, like Jerome Robbins. So I look at him and think he could be, like, that guy. I’m excited to work for him and to serve him — and Harvey. Because the music has to serve the story, and those guys are the story masters. So what they need I try and give them. And what the tempo needs. It’s an interesting balance, how you do this stuff.
And I wanted to do it because it’s a little story with a big heart. This story is about a guy who thinks outside the box and saves a factory and saves people’s jobs. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that? And also it’s about people who couldn’t be more different from each other who, as they work together, realize that they couldn’t be more alike. Not in every way, but in the common denominator way we all have in common whether we’re straight or not straight, or wear a dress or wear men’s suits.
I’m such a nut because I should have realized then what I’m realizing now talking to you: I was working on Kinky Boots and I went to do a Dalai Lama benefit and he was talking about the basic common denominator of a person is the same. And then I thought about my play and it’s the same thing. I just thought the whole dynamic was timely. And the fact that the Dalai Lama said that, now looking back it must have been more than timely. It happened. It actually happened. It’s a true story.
We also see you working on your True Colors Fund’s “Forty to None” project.
We launched the True Colors Fund to help the gay and transgendered community in their fight for equality. We work with the HRC. We work with the Matthew Shephard Foundation. We helped to get the hate crimes amendment passed. We just wanted to be able to help. We tried to help the HRC and Centerlink and PFLAG on one tour. We helped the Matthew Shephard Fund on another tour. And then when we stopped the tour, we realized that we still needed to continue to help. So we started the True Colors Fund. I have no time for a vanity project. So I decided life is short. Get on with it.
[True Colors executive director] Gregory Lewis strong-armed this for us. He went out on the road and did the research because I kinda can’t. I sometimes can, but because I’m famous, all of the attention will go to me instead of my being able to watch what the hell’s going on. So through the kindness of a grant that was given to us by a very generous donor, Gregory went and traveled to different agencies across the country to find the blueprints that work and what the real issues are in the LGBT community. And he found that, say, in any given year, there are 1.6 million homeless kids which range from the age of 12 up. Up to 40 percent of homeless kids are gay or transgender — and the only reason they are homeless is because they were thrown out because they’re gay or transgender or they ran away out of fear of rejection.
So being a mom, I felt that that really isn’t right. And being a mom, I realized that, well, maybe parents need some help. And what Gregory came back with was that there was research done in San Francisco where they took families in crisis and put them into family therapy, and what they found out was if you’re honest and tell your kid, “Listen, I love you, but it’s going to take me a minute to wrap my head around this,” the kid will stay. They won’t run. Any inkling of, “I love you.” Some hope. They’ll stay. And let me tell you, you don’t want your kid living on the street, ever. Kids don’t come with money-back guarantees. They were born that way and there is nothing they can do. As Gaga said — born that way.
You yourself once said that you didn’t think you’d live to be 21. What would Cyndi Lauper now say to the Cyndi who thought that then?
I would say, “Stick around. You never know what’s around the bend. Take it easy. It’s all gonna work out!”
Cyndi Lauper: Still So Unusual premieres Saturday Jan. 12 at 9pm.
Image: WE tv