For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed multi-talented and acclaimed cabaret singer-actor -performance artist Tammy Faye Starlite. She will be reprising her acclaimed show Nico: Underground for one night at Lincoln Center’s David Rubinstein Atrium in New York City on on July 21. To see an excerpt of Tammy as Nico and read some of her rave reviews, click here, here and here.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
On July 21, I’ll be reprising my show Nico: Underground for one night at Lincoln Center’s David Rubinstein Atrium. It’s a scripted show about Nico, née Christa Paffgen, who was a German singer who’s most famous for singing on the first Velvet Underground album, titled – appropriately enough – The Velvet Underground and Nico. The script is based on an interview she did on a Melbourne radio station in 1986, two years before her death. I added and subtracted from the original interview, putting in lines she said in other interviews and making up things she might have said. And there’s a band for the songs we intersperse in chronological order. She was a fascinating woman and had … some might say controversial views. In a sense, she was a nihilist and perhaps that spurred her heroin addiction, which lasted from the early ’70’s through her death in 1988, although she was supposedly on methadone at that point. What was the question again?
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
I’ve loved Nico’s voice ever since I heard that first Velvet album when I was 17. It was so deep, so low, as if it came from some otherworldly visceral Valhalla. And then I learned her story – born in Cologne in 1938; disowned by her father – who fought for the SS and was then killed by the SS because he was injured and of no use anymore – then moved with her mother to her grandparents’ place in the German countryside during the war; moved back to Berlin with her mother after the war; alleged that she was raped by a black American soldier – maybe, maybe not; became an international model; was in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; had a son by Alain Delon – a child he never acknowledged, history repeating itself; recorded a single with the Rolling Stones’ producer; became a superstar of Andy Warhol’s Factory; and slept with Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Jackson Browne – she was the first person to record his songs on her debut solo album Chelsea Girl, Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop and more. Then she decided she wanted to write her own songs, which she composed on the harmonium; put out brilliant but some would say, extremely bleak, proto-Goth albums; moved back to Europe; did some art films with her boyfriend Phillippe Garrel; became a heroin addict and, to my mind, willfully destroyed her own preternatural beauty; and continued to tour in Europe but never became a success in the conventional sense. And she was reported to be racist and anti-Semitic but I think her often scabrous nature was a defense against a profound, cosmic ennui. She was not of this earth – maybe a cousin of this planet. She’s fascinating to me.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
Well, Nico (I’ll shut up about her), Debbie Harry, Linda Ronstadt, Marianne Faithfull, Loretta Lynn, Judy Garland, Goldie Hawn, Gilda Radner, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe – performers who are sui generis, unique, and who essentially created themselves and were unlike anyone else. I just want to be them and I can’t, but I try to use/steal what I can and put all those qualities into my internal blender and God, I sound pretentious.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
I never wanted to do anything else. It’s almost not a choice – I can’t live without being onstage. Ego, emotional need for approval and the joy of subversion.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
I created the character of Tammy Faye Starlite, a right-wing evangelical country singer in the mid-’90s, to embody what is basically everything that is antithetical to who I am (liberal New York Jew). And it’s fun to be someone so horrible and to be able to say the most hateful things with impunity – “It’s the character!” – and in that way try to espouse my own views by presenting the opposite, if that makes sense, which it probably doesn’t. But I do love country music and I’ve played Nashville and many other places in the South and it’s a joy, unironically. And she’s coming back for the election – I’ll be doing six Tammy Faye shows in September and October at Pangea, where I recently did my cabaret show about Marianne Faithfull, cleverly titled Cabaret Marianne.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
Oh lord – getting the two New York Times reviews for the Nico and Marianne shows. I felt such relief, and, of course, validation, which should come from inside but please …
And getting to work with and become friends with so many of my heroes: Penny Arcade (who’s helped me tremendously), Steve Earle – so generous of spirit, and Diamanda Galas and Debbie Harry, both of whom I met through my incredible voice teacher Barbara Maier Gustern. I also am lucky beyond words to have the amazing Bob Merlis as my publicist – he’s a dream and has done so much for me, for which I’m forever grateful. And being friends with the legendary Danny Fields is one of the greatest pleasures of my life. As is my wonderful musician husband Keith Hartel.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
As many shows in as many incarnations as I wanted, all across the globe,and getting paid well and having a fabulous apartment to come home to.
Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
Probably something in myself but I’m not aware enough to know exactly what it is. And doing such weird stuff.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
Listen to new and different music, reading biographies and watching as much TV as I can. Especially politics but only superficially. I like to know the surface and imagine the inner workings because I think I’m too lazy to really delve into global or even American history.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
This may be TMI, but the damn eating disorder that has plagued me since I was 18. The need to be what society deems acceptable. But it’s not society that’s really doing anything to me, it’s my own stubborn brain.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
Some Like It Hot and Exile On Main Street.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
I don’t know – all those I mentioned above and, to be maudlin, my late mom. And the biblical Tamar (Judah’s daughter-in-law). That’s my real name, but nobody calls me that.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
My performances, without question.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
Don’t be afraid.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
Central Park West.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Central Park West.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
Worldwide approbation. My husband’s love. And Central Park West.
Q: Final Thoughts?
I thank you so much!!!!