The girl still wants to have fun

Twenty years ago, Cyndi Lauper hit the big time with a string of feminist-inspired pop anthems. She tells Glyn Brown about the dark times since then, and why she's ready for a comeback

Here's the thing about Cyndi Lauper: you ask her a question and she gives you the answer in chapters. Not just that, but the chapters can seem strangely unrelated to each other. Added to which, as you sit there dazzled by the family tree of each sentence and wondering where it might end up, you're genuinely intrigued by the subject matter. Because hey, she's very funny, with a wise-ass demeanour and gum-chewing Noo Yoik (sorry, Queens) delivery. She's sensitive, too, which some may not have anticipated. Ah, and she's a firm feminist. It's like talking to a cross between Bugs Bunny, your best friend and Simone de Beauvoir.

Lauper strolls into the interview suite at London's Grosvenor Hotel sleek in black-leather drainpipes and immaculate white shirt, blonde hair in a chignon, unlined face pale and scarily red-lipped. Final surprise: she's 50. Looking good, Ms Lauper. A handshake and, in a Judy Holliday twang, "Thenk you. It's those creams."

Which ones? "Tracie Martyn. She's an English dame, works in the States, she does this amazing facial, makes you look young, and this cream that heals your skin. It's a serum - and between you and me [lowers voice, leans forward conspiratorially] they all do it. Every frigging famous starlet ["stoilet"], they all go there. Plus queens and princesses, they walk in and you hear [snooty voice], 'Her Hoighness will be riddy for her car soon.'" Lauper relaxes. "Yeah right. Get out there and hail a kyab like everyone else." Taking out some cotton wool, Lauper begins to remove her nail varnish, coughing daintily. She's apparently had flu since October. "Still have a cowf. And, y'know, I been doin' these concerts, and it's like, 'Laydeez and gennelmen, now from La Bohème, Mimi's death scene...'"

It's good to see her in resilient mood, especially since she's on V Graham Norton that night. "He's hilarious." But he does look a wee bit tired. "God bless him." She furrows her brow, attacking a wayward nail. "At least he gets to meet famous people. More than I do. Even the guys in my band get out more than me." Sigh. "I could hire myself out as a dulcimer player, but..." Shrugs. "I feel like Gracie Fields sometimes, y'know?" Suddenly, in Dick Van Dyke-style Cockney patter: "Oi took me harp to da party but nobody axed me to play."

Phew. OK, let's take a moment here. After several false starts (she once thought she might be an artist), Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper burst on to the pop scene in 1984 with her debut album, She's So Unusual, a work so fresh and exuberant it wiped the floor that same month with another debut, Madonna's vacuous, self-titled effort. La Ciccone, however, masterminded the career that followed with a grim concentration on fame. Lauper's an idealist; added to which, though she insists she's been lucky, the fits and starts she's endured to get to where she is now mean she probably has to see it that way, or go mad.

Unlike Madonna, Lauper was surely never sexy (a male friend I asked raised an eyebrow: "Not even in my wildest dreams"). DayGlo hair, an abstract make-up technique, interesting costumes: it was a brave, post-New Wave approach that, in our current insipid climate, would never work. The face itself had Betty Boop-style pop-eyes, a caricature mouth. There's (Pseuds' Corner moment coming up) a Pagliacci feel to that drawn-on grin.

Listen to "Time After Time", the vulnerable, self-penned and much-loved ballad (even Miles Davis has covered it), and you can't keep believing she's nothing but a genial scatterbrain, the Lucille Ball of pop.

And then there's the voice - not the speaking voice, or even the skin-peeling howitzer of the early days, but the multi-octave, pitch-perfect instrument that, on slower numbers, can deliver startling emotional depth. Due to that voice, she's won several Grammys and sold more than 25 million records. Still, after her second album, True Colors, there was a two-year sabbatical during which she managed wrestlers, split up from her partner David Wolff, and sank into depression. She returned with A Night to Remember (critically acclaimed; no one remembers it), married actor David Thornton, released more albums which sold steadily and remained low-profile. During the Nineties she flirted with movies, co-starred in a sitcom with Michael J Fox but failed to get her own sitcom off the ground, lost her deal with Epic and turned to indie label Edel, which went bankrupt.

She started on the comeback trail in 1999, touring with Cher. In 2000, still unsigned, she went back into the studio, working on a set of standards. When Epic heard the music, they offered her a new contract and now here she is, promoting a collection of torch songs called At Last. From the Etta James title track to "Makin' Whoopee" (a fantastically embittered version with Tony Bennett) we've heard them all before, but now they're somehow slightly different, dark and resonant, and the perfect vehicle for those whacking pipes. And they tell the story, obliquely, of Lauper's growing up, in a low-income row house in the shadow of the Singer Sewing Machine factory. Lauper's father lit out when she was five; her mother, a would-be musician, supported three kids by working as a cocktail waitress.

Cyndi, at six or so, took to visiting a nearby empty Catholic church to sing to God. It's a Dickensian picture, I tell her. She screws up her face. But then, she's got a hidden visionary tendency. I read somewhere that she went camping in Ontario's Algonquin Park in her teens, spending a spiritual month alone there following in the footsteps of the 19th-century naturalist Henry Thoreau.

"Yeah. Well, I had a great teacher." At school? "Naw. I was thrown out of four schools." She considers a finished nail and puts away the file. "I lucked out. When I started to sing, I'd already had the fortunate experience of failing at everything else first." Brightly: "At that point, you got nothing to lose."

So where does Algonquin Park come in? At 16, Lauper met a painter 50 years her senior from whom she took art lessons. The relationship was inspirational and platonic, although "at one point I saw a picture of him as a young man and just bust out crying, thinking, how could I have been born so much too late?" However. This chap drew her attention to politics, and to the book that Martin Luther King and Gandhi took with them to prison, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. He then helped her plan her camping retreat, where she would read it. And?

"I got there. I opened the book. And I just couldn't believe the sexism." Her disappointment clearly wasn't just with Thoreau; however, from this point the author was out, and The Female Eunuch was in. Catholicism got the push, too. Lauper attempted to relocate her beliefs. "But the Hare Krishnas made the mistake of telling me women eat in the kitchen with the children, after the men. Women were basically cattle." Her eyes narrow. "I said, 'This is not heaven, it's another little hell. You can keep it, and thanks for nuthin'. Sayonara, baby.'"

This no-quibble attitude informed the number she's most famous for, and its video. "I'd watch MTV when it started, I knew exactly what it was like." Which is, in Lauper's view, incredibly sexist too, and she may well be right. "So I intended to make an antidote to that." For the video for "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", where Cyndi sports the most extraordinary hair colour in the known world, she recruited "all races, all generations. There's strength in numbers." Her mother even had a part. "I said to her, 'We're gonna contribute something, we're gonna change things for the better.'" It may seem naive or over-earnest now, but in those days there really were such things as young feminists, and the song played its own small, anthemic part.

Lauper's still fighting, in her way. The subject of her son, born when she was 44, comes up, and I mention her luck in conceiving at that age. She nods. "And I'd had endometriosis [a condition where bits of womb come loose and re-grow throughout the pelvic region] during my thirties. So I would do an album and go to hospital, then do another album and go to hospital." This puts the career in something of a new light. "When you have an operation, they give you a contract to sign. Well, I looked at the stuff and I crossed out what I didn't like, and I called the doctor over and told him, 'We're not doing this, and we're not doing this. You are not touching one tube, or one ovary, you're not doing anything but getting rid of all the bad stuff.'"

She still couldn't get pregnant, and eventually, at 43, visited a fertility doctor in Chinatown. "He gave me acupuncture. Teas to drink that tasted like dirt. I couldn't even understand what he was saying sometimes. He'd say [assumes cod-Chinese accent] 'Yo yuray!' And I'd go, 'What?'" She blinks for comic effect. "He'd shout louder and louder. Apparently, all the guys at the end of the counter, where they were selling Lotto tickets, could hear him real well. Finally it would occur to me what he was saying, and I'd look down at those guys and yell [big smile]: 'Didja get that? Cos I just got it. It's uterus, right? Glad to share with you!'" Genial scatterbrain, then? Well no, not really. But quite fortunate after all. Because, if attitude is what counts, Lau-per's is remarkable. "You gotta be open-hearted," she's telling me. "And be grateful about what ya got."

Indeed.

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