Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir
By Cyndi Lauper and Jancee Dunn
2012, 352 pages
Anyone who has ever stepped onto a dance floor in the last 30 years has likely moved to sound of Cyndi Lauper’s anthem for post-feminist girl-power. The 1983 breakout hit was actually inspired by her mother and aunts who never had a chance to follow their dreams. “Girls Just Want to have Fun” was just the first of her many hit songs themed around not giving up and self-acceptance. The way of the artist is to keep “dreaming up things,” she says. Known as a flamboyant tough-talker with an squeaky New York accent, Lauper has clearly lived her philosophy throughout her evolving career. Her style has been toned down a bit as she traded in her cartoonish and offbeat fashion for tasteful and classy clothing more in line with old Hollywood glamour than funky bohemian. Her most recent accomplishment at age 60 is receiving a Tony award for the music and lyrics she wrote for the long-running Broadway musical, “Kinky Boots.”
A well-written personal story has universal truths and a point of view from a particular time in history. I have a fondness for baby boomer celebrity memoirs, but I was slightly embarrassed to be caught by an acquaintance as I checked this one out at the Crane Library on Elmwood. Surprisingly, the book is more than the amusing summer read I expected. A complex story of a woman who began like many of us and grew up during the cultural changes of the 1960s, Lauper’s tale unravels her ordinary girlhood in Ozone Park, Queens through the twists and turns of an artistic life and enduring career.
Her mother worked as a waitress, but shared a love for music, art, and drama that became Lauper’s lifeline. She began her studies at the High School of Fashion Industries with plans to work in the garment district, but dropped out early when she left home to escape an abusive stepfather. In 1970, Lauper was a budding feminist artist. She departed Queens with just a few personal items and a copy of “Grapefruit,” Yoko Ono’s radical instructions for living. She read Thoreau’s “Walden,” traveled in Canada, and lived in Vermont. Through all of it, she played her guitar and wrote songs as she cultivated her signature sound. A fan of the same music of many other young people of that time–Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Motown Lauper began her performing career in a short-lived folk duo called “Spring Harvest.” This led to many late nights singing with rock cover bands–too many nights singing “White Rabbit.” Back in New York, her first “real” band was called Blue Angel. They played at Gildersleeves, a club she describes as “a corny rock place,” but it was just down the street from the infamous CBGB’s.
She had an apartment on the Upper East Side and worked at a five & dime store. During this era of the late 1970s, Lauper began to craft her vintage fashion style by shopping at the well-known thrift shores, Trash & Vaudeville and Screaming Mimi’s, where she had a job for awhile. She attributes the clothing of her childhood as a big influence on her style and sound. At her aunt’s home on Long Island, the women wore mumus by day and cocktail dresses by night at boisterous neighborhood barbeques in backyards decorated with strings of paper lanterns—music blasting. “We lived large in a way that people who really live large don’t,“ she says. "There’s a spice, a richness, a joy that working class people have–even though we were products of misery, we still had vibrance.”
Blatant sexism was alive and well in the music business during the 1980s. She recalls Bob Dylan giving her a compliment about a recent performance and told her “I would have you in my band and that’s saying a lot because I don’t like chicks in bands.” Her motto became “Surround and conquer” when she began diversifying as a survival tactic to secure her success. Partnering with pro wrestlers may have appeared to many as a strange career move, but it expanded opportunities that paid off. She explains…”If you just stick to one thing, whoever the gatekeepers are in that field have the power to stop you.” This strategy has been adopted widely and remains good advice for today. Lauper has had numerous top-selling recordings through the decades, including True Colors, Change of Heart, and Memphis Blues. She created elaborate videos for MTV that included family and friends—even her mother. Eventually, she was replaced on that channel by the younger up and coming acts. Lauper has appeared on television and film–won an Emmy for her role on “Mad About You.” She has been married to actor David Thornton since the 1990s after meeting him on the set of a 2009 film, “Here and There.” The arrival of a child during her mid-40s was an unexpected joy. Their son, Declyn, was named after Elvis Costello (aka Declyn McManus)
Despite her celebrity, Lauper remains a bit starstruck for other performers she has worked with, such as Tina Turner and Cher. They all appeared together in a VH1 2000 special called “Divas Live.” As an established diva, she is openly supportive of younger performers, such as Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj who follow her lead in making themselves into paintings with their costumes and poses. Her audience has always been “the sad people,” underdogs and quirky types. She has aimed to offer a bit of healing to them through her songs. Lauper is most proud of activism work for AIDS and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community in conjunction with her older sister. She has become a tireless supporter of fundraising and helped establish The True Colors Fund and residence for LGBT homeless youth in Harlem.
Her recent work with the broadway show, “Kinky Boots,” the story about a drag queen who joins forces with a family shoe business to design footwear for cross-dressers has been her most meaningful creative work to date. I never owned a Cyndi Lauper record or CD. I did own music by Madonna, but I always appreciated her Lauper’s individuality. Included in the book are a number of snapshots of Cyndi Lauper as a child and young woman before her hit songs—photos much like anyone else’s family pics from that time. She is a real person, down-to-earth and experienced, a woman with a good story to tell…and it is fun to read.