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International Herald Tribune February 97

Tracy Guilbeau typed this article.


The Breathless Life and Times of Cyndi Lauper
by Mike Zwerin

Paris -----Here to promote her new album, "Sisters of Avalon" (Epic) Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper, 43, tells her story breathlessly. Her New York outer-borough accent is eccentrically consonant.

As far back as she can remember she wanted to be an actress. She'd walk out of the movies imagining herself the star, talking and moving like her. She was considered kooky, she was always in trouble. The nuns in the Catholic school she attended (she grew up in Queens) said, "She's such an actress." Meaning she expected special treatment. Once, as punishment for talking with the boys, she had to eat lunch with them in their cafeteria. The sisters thought that none of the boys would talk to her, she'd feel ostracized and that would be that. While she felt like: "Oh Boy. I get to see how the other half lives".

Every morning the students were awakened at 5. They made their beds, took a shower, got all "the church things" out of the way and then went to breakfast. Cyndi was always sick. She wasn't faking it, she just was not a morning person. Actually she didn't mind getting sick every morning because the punishment was sitting with the nuns for an hour, and she liked the sisters. She was always singing, and they kept saying "she has a professional voice." One way or another, however, she broke so many rules that she thought the sisters were keeping a list of sins. But she could take it. After all it was her first name.

She entertained the other kids at recess with impersonations, and excerpts from Broadway plays. "She should be trained," the sisters said.

Her mother listened to Cyndi change her voice back and fourth to play all the parts - young and old, male and female - and memorize all the lyrics and melodies along with the recording of "The King and I." It was obvious that her little girl had talent. Some kids played with dolls, Cyndi played with records. She played "The King and I" so often her grandmother finally came downstairs, took the record off of the turntable and smashed it.

Sometimes her mother drove Cyndi and her sister to Greenwich Village to look at the hippies and beatniks. Her mother thought they were interesting people.

There was a wild streak in her mother "they" they tried to break. By "they" Cyndi means her grandparents and the people in the neighborhood. She remembers most of them as being nice enough, but "they were conservative people." Her mother tried to fit in but couldn't. Her kids were even wilder. "Thank goodness," Cyndi thought, getting thrown out of a high school she didn't like. She looks up with gratitude: "There is a God."

Her mother was raising her two daughters alone, she was poor. The cards were stacked against her, and her Italian immigrant parents were not about to help because - and this is Cyndi's take - they thought if it got really tough she might get back together with Cyndi's dad.

Her mother took her to every church activity. She liked singing in the choir. She felt safe up there near the paintings of the angels. The images of people burning and suffering were, for some reason she couldn't figure out, lower down. One day her mother said: "Oh Cyn, if only you were born to a rich family. They could afford to train your voice." Her mother was heartbroken. She even sobbed that maybe she should put Cyndi up for adoption by a rich family. Cyndi hugged her mom and said: "Ma, you're going a little overboard here."

She wanted to go to Music and Art High School, but failed the test. She loved to paint too. All told, she was thrown out of 3 high schools. She could memorize song lyrics and melodies but had trouble with the three Rs. Now she knows there's a name for it - dyslexic. But at the time she was sure she was just stupid. She finally graduated from the fourth one. Her uncle, who was a designer, suggested she go to a fashion industry school. The naysayers told her mother it would be better for Cynthia to learn a trade than end up a waitress, like her. "My ma was so manipulated," Cyndi reflects, "It was so sad." She took industrial sewing and then found herself in a shoemaking class. This was really depressing because Cyndi was from Italian stock, and she felt like a walking cliché.

Walking down Jamaica Avenue in Queens one day - "I was on drugs, a mess, I hated everything, wanted nothing" - she spotted a sign next to a beautiful painting in a storefront window. It said "art lessons upstairs." She went in, walked up and met Bob Barrell, a painter who lived "between bouts of great work and too much alcohol," who died in relative obscurity - and who changed her life.

He listened to John Coltrane while painting. He told her about Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. She found herself reasoning for herself for the first time. Perhaps she was not stupid after all. Cyndi could not imagine what Bob was doing on Jamaica Avenue but "lucky me."

She went to art college in Vermont and painted for a while. The trouble was that at night she would dream she was singing. People were still telling her she had a professional voice. She would go to a friends farmhouse in a cow patch and play the guitar and the recorder and sing folk songs with them.

Back in New York, she finally got professional about it. She auditioned and formed bands and worked on Long Island. Performing in Manhattan for the first time, she saw that people at the bar actually stopped drinking and listened to her.

Her first solo album, "She's So Unusual," sold a million copies and produced 4 hit singles. One of them "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," became a sort of cult anthem for independent young women. Another "Time After Time," was recorded by Miles Davis, and Cyndi thought that if Miles wanted to play her songs, maybe they weren't so bad after all.

When she became famous, kids would come to her mothers door on Halloween night disguised as Cyndi.

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