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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.