Ute Lemper: She who must be obeyed

A German who hates Germany. A mother who can't stand her parents. A popular singer who can't abide Madonna (and don't dare even mention Britney Spears). Honestly, you might wonder if she has a good word to say about anyone
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The singer Ute Lemper. And her wondrous bone structure. It's what everyone goes on about (after the voice, that is). It was once even described as a "Cubist series of fascinating planes". Now, I'm not saying I'm jealous or anything. I'm not saying I mind that my face is less a Cubist series of fascinating planes, and more just a round kind of blob, with absolutely no planes, fascinating or otherwise. I'm big enough to take this on the chin. Or would be, if I could find it. Whatever, I compliment Ute on this wondrous bone structure of hers. "Oh," she says, "but I think I have too much of it." Too much of it? Are you mad? Are you totally bonkers? You can never have too much of it! "But as I get older, my face gets bonier and bonier," she says. "Soon, I will look like a bony old witch."

OK, Ute, I say, how does this sound as a mutually beneficial arrangement? We'll book ourselves in for cosmetic surgery, in twin beds, where the surgeon can take off some of my wretched blobbiness and stick it on to you. My treat. She says: "I don't think so." She can be magnificently cold and disdainful. Is this a German thing? I don't know. Do I have anything against Germans? No. Some of my best friends are Germans. Or would be, if they were.

Ute is in London to sort out her one-woman show ­ Naughty Baby ­ which opens here next month. We meet at her hotel. I arrive first, and then in she slinks and, believe me, "slink" is the word for it. I think if I didn't even know what "slink" meant, I'd still be sure it's the word for it. The other thing everyone goes on about with regards to Ute is this slinkiness, which almost certainly has something to do with her legs. Her legs have been variously described as "impossibly long", "dazzling", "endless", and of the sort "that go right up to the armpits", although not, of course, literally, because that would be hideous and where would her underwear go? Still, I'm big enough to take it on the chin. Or would be, if I wasn't still looking for it. I'm beginning to feel a bit like a Tellytubby, actually. "Hello," says Ute, slinkily, while shaking my hand. "Eh-oh Oo-Ta!" I say, stretching on tippy-toe to shake it back. I'm not sure I've ever felt less slinky and more Tinky Winky, frankly. I wish, now, I could find that bloody chin, so I'd have something to take it on.

We go up to Ute's suite. Ute, it turns out, is quite something. No, she doesn't become any warmer. There is always that rather disdainful froideur. But she does speak her mind, regardless. And, as such, she can be thrillingly bitchy. Honestly, on the bitch front, she makes me look like a complete nonstarter. She makes me look very Tinky Winky indeed. In the end, I just throw names at her, willy-nilly, for the sheer joy of hearing her totally diss them.

"Madonna?"

"A courageous woman, but really not a good singer. I can't listen to Evita at all."

"Céline Dion?"

"She can wail, but the package isn't very interesting."

"Britney Spears?"

"The worst thing is my kids love her, so I have to listen to her all the time at home."

"The Spice Girls?"

"That sort of music should disappear from history. It's nothing."

"Rap?"

"Rap has some value in context, but how many times can you say 'I hate you, you arsehole'?"

"Um... Cherie Blair?"

"What is wrong with her mouth?" And with this she offers an explanation that doesn't bear repeating even in a liberal-minded newspaper.

Is she just being very wicked? Or is this just an example of the famous German sense of humour? It's pure wickedness, I think. But it's this wickedness that makes Ute such a great, dangerous, edgy, performer of great, dangerous edgy material. She first, of course, made her name as a Weimar republic hussy, provocatively crooning the brittle, worrying songs of Bertolt Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill, then made the jump from cult goddess to international fame by playing the murderess Velma Kelly in the hit revival of the stage musical Chicago. She rightly won an Olivier for that. I can't see Ute ever doing Annie. Or Grease.

The thing Ute fears most, I think, is being bland. Ute has always kicked, kicked, kicked against blandness. She might even have always slinked against it, if such a thing were possible. She hated her childhood in Münster, in the former West Germany, a boring town known only for its hams. "It is very good ham, actually, but not as good as the Italian prosciutto." Herr Lemper was a banker while her mother, Elfrieda, was an opera singer who gave up her career when she got married. No, Ute doesn't think she was frustrated. "My mother had no ambition." I don't know why, but I happen to ask Ute if she has a middle name. This is something of a mistake. "It is terrible. Terrible!" she wails. Golly, I say, what is it? Messerschmitt? Sauerkraut? BMW? "It is Gertrude. Gertrude! How bad is that. How dare my parents. How dare they!"

Ute's parents were never to her liking. They were strict, bourgeois and paralysing, she says. "My parents would smell my hands for cigarette smoke when I came home. They wouldn't let me play the music I loved." She was always being punished for something or other. "My father would give me a whacking on the butt. Or, when I became a teenager, hit me across the face."

I imagine Ute was born, 37 years ago, slinking and wearing blood-red lipstick. I imagine, too, that this didn't go down too well in Münster. Certainly, Ute left home as soon as she could and now rarely goes back. She has, as it turns out, little affection for her homeland. "I don't like it. I don't like Germans around me. I've never felt German, in my thinking, in my mind. The language disturbs me." Do you miss anything about it? "No." The ham? "No." Finally, she concedes there is just one thing she does miss sometimes. "German sweets, particularly Haribo gummy bears. When I am in Germany, I eat a couple of packs in one go, even though I don't digest them so well anymore. They give me heartburn and gas."

Anyway, aged 17, she discovered Brecht and Weill and she was off. What appealed to you about their music? "It was wicked, fresh-arsed, rebellious, anti-establishment, passionate, not romantic, political..."

"Like you?"

"Yes."

And Jewish. This Jewish thing is interesting, I think. OK, Ute isn't. But the whole pre-war Berlin nightclub thing was. Brecht, a high-profile, committed Marxist, had to flee Nazi Germany. So did Weill, the son of a synagogue cantor. As is Ute's husband, David Tradesky, a one-time comedian and writer, now a theatre teacher. Is there a connection here? "It is funny, isn't it?" she says. I think maybe there is a connection. As you might already have guessed, she was always determined to do the opposite of whatever her parents might have had in mind for her. And she was brought up to think Jews were sort of naughty and exotic and forbidden. As such, she would inevitably be attracted to Jews. It's in her nature.

Her parents, she says, were in denial about the whole Holocaust business. "If a documentary came on the television, they would turn it off." She didn't learn much about it at school, either. "There, the Second World War was taught as if it was ancient history." She hadn't even heard of Hitler until she went on a student exchange to France, aged 13. "The family I stayed with talked about 'Eetlair' all the time, I didn't know what they were saying. 'Eetlair'. I didn't get it. Then I realised they meant Hitler. They were amazed I had never really heard of him." She says she never met a Jew until she was 18. "There were no Jews in Münster."

What, I ask, did your parents think about you marrying a Jew? "They were maybe a little embarrassed. They grew up in Hitler's Germany, in a very anti-Semitic environment." If you had turned out to be the perfect daughter, what would you be like? "I'd have studied economics, become a banker, been good friends with my mother and got myself a good German husband." What did David's parents think about you marrying David? "In the very beginning it was a little strange. First, he married out of the faith, which was a real issue. Then a German! But when they saw that I was doing the sort of German Jewish music that Hitler banned, they forgave me."

David and Ute live in New York with their two children ­ Max, seven, and Stella, five. Max was circumcised, yes. "We even got a moyl to do it. I did it for my husband's mother. It was painful. Max screamed for a whole afternoon." Stella sounds like a brilliant little madam. "My daughter will not eat any fruit or vegetables. She hasn't eaten an apple in her life. She will only eat French fries and chicken. If you were to approach her with a salad leaf, she'd run from the room screaming." She thinks she is a good mother. "I love my children more than anything. I give them all I can." She's yet to explain the Holocaust to them. "I'm looking forward to telling them. It's such an important thing to know about. But it's going to be strange, telling them that Mummy's people wanted to kill all Daddy's people." I don't think she finds marriage very easy. "I am not an especially good wife. We fight a lot. I think if you are a strong woman you are going to have problems."

Do you ever feel vulnerable? "Sure," she says. "I'm not so sure of anything. Whenever I do a show, I think: can I do it? Will my instrument work?" When did you first realise you had that instrument? "I always loved singing. Loved it. But I had to train and train and train. I'm not a brilliant singer, but I do have a strong sense of musicality. I like that I can do a high, innocent voice and a low, husky, whisky voice. And I like the interplay between the two."

Anyway, time to go. Time for Tubby bye-byes? If you must. Ute has a meeting. She sees me down the hotel corridor. It's not a very stylish hotel. Ute has a go at the rather old-fashioned, formal portrait paintings. "Who wants to look at those? Who?" I shake her hand again. "Goodbye," she says. "Big hug?" I ask. She looks at me perplexed, then slinks off. I make my way home, looking out for my chin on the way. Nope, no sign. "Have you seen my chin?" I ask my partner when I finally get back. "Never," he says.

'Naughty Baby' will be playing at the Savoy Theatre, London WC2 (020-7836 8888), 3-14 July

Comments