Singer's playful sensuality hides the pain of rejection: David Lister found Eartha Kitt performing in the East End and nursing some bitter memories

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The Independent Online
ON STAGE, even at the age of 64, Eartha Kitt still purrs her way through 'I'm Just An Old Fashioned Girl'. In her dressing room, she snarls.

Last night the American singer, one-time sex symbol, star of the West End and Broadway, author of three volumes of autobiography and the person described by Orson Welles as 'the most exciting woman in the world', played the Hackney Empire in east London. Next Tuesday she plays Middlesbrough and Oldham the following day.

Perhaps she had been put in a bad mood by the dingy dressing room, where just about the only furnishing was a picture of Frankie Vaughan on the wall. But it was a little while before she spoke at all, and even longer before she looked up from one of the tapestries she weaves offstage.

Why was she playing venues slightly off her beaten track? 'It's the producer's decision. All I know is that they are theatres. This one happens to be a very beautiful theatre.

'I think more artists should be working in places like this. I like going to places where the people are and where they can afford the prices.'

Last night she appeared with a newer version of the old American group The Ink Spots in a show called 'A Night At The Cotton Club'. What was the relation with the famous pre-war Harlem night spot?

She weaved on. 'I will be doing my own show. I know they say the Cotton Club. I don't know anything about the Cotton Club. I started in the business in 1945 and it was legitimate theatre.'

And then she looked up with a vengeance. Some people have to be coaxed into talking about their background, especially when, as with Eartha Kitt, it is a particularly painful one - the child of a 14-year-old South Carolina girl raped by a plantation owner's son, given away by her mother when a baby, then abused by an aunt whom she lived with in New York. She was effectively blacklisted by the American entertainment industry for 12 years after speaking against the Vietnam War at a White House lunch hosted by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968.

But with Eartha Kitt there seem to be very few moments when one or all of these events are not in her mind, and expressed with a venom that belies the austere-looking, bespectacled, headscarfed weaver.

'I was lucky to get into show business. A friend dared me to go for an audition as a dancer with the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. I did it to get away from my child-abusing aunt.'

What exactly do you mean when you use the phrase child abusing?

'I mean she was beating the hell out of me,' she shouted, at last discarding the tapestry. 'She would have food in the house from Saturday to Wednesday. The other days I starved. But I didn't have anything to eat as a child down South. I relied on the animals to tell me where the food was in the forest. They say give me the child to the age of seven and I will mould it. Well I was moulded by animals.'

Do you still think about these things all those years ago?

Now the tapestry was put on the table and the spectacles came off. 'Of course I still think about it. How the hell can I forget it?'

Indeed, the rejections loom so large in her mind that they become intertwined.

Do you still look back on those years from '68 when you were ignored in the United States?

'Of course you look back on that time, particularly when your mother gives you away and then your government gives you away. You tell the truth and you get your face slapped, just like my aunt did to me. I told her the truth.

'Once she lost a box of chocolates and she accused me of hiding them and beat the hell out of me. How am I going to forget the fact that she beat the hell out of me and brutalised me and I went to school with a black eye?'

After the '68 luncheon Miss Kitt won standing ovations all round the world but did not play in America for 12 years. She says that government agents visited halls that might have booked her and warned off producers. She is still trying to get her dossier.

Was this an FBI dossier?

She thumps the table as she screams out each letter in answer. 'The CIA. I just spoke the truth. I asked what were we doing in Vietnam. I also said that we had won the war with Japan and Germany but now our jobs were going to the people who had been our enemies. President Johnson told the press about it and said I made his wife cry. Nobody rallied round me, nobody, no so-called friends. But Martin Luther King called and said you should have the peace award.'

There is a large gay element in her following. She thinks this might be because it identifies with her history of rejection. 'When the heterosexuals didn't know where I was, the gay world found me and looked for my records. They saw to it that I stayed alive. It may be that I survived all this rejection, oppression and depression and I know what it feels like to be rejected.'

There is also, of course the campness of her act. It is, she emphasises, sensuality rather than sexuality, the former perhaps not affected by age.

'Sensuality never changes. It's something you cannot help. You play on it because it's a big joke. I don't take Eartha Kitt very seriously. I take myself very seriously, and she's a very lucky person. She came out of nothing.'

(Photograph omitted)