Cyndi Lauper’s signature look always involves a different hair color of some sort. These days, it varies from a salmon-like pink to an almost pure white. Although, at the 2014 Grammy Awards, she was sporting a vibrant red look. Nonetheless, she’s unmistakable. The punk-meets-pop princess exploded on to the scene in the early ‘80s and became a permanent icon in music history. Nearly 30 years ago, Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was a summer anthem and ignited girl power all over the world. She went on to sell over 50 million records, win countless Grammys and establish herself as a superstar, but the road to riches wasn’t a smooth one.
Lauper was born in Queens, New York City to Roman Catholic parents in 1953. They divorced when she was 5-years-old. Later on, she dropped out of high school and at 17 she left home, planning to study art. She wound up in, of all places, Vermont and started taking classes at Johnson State College.
“When I lived in Vermont, I worked in a kennel,” she tells Interview. “I was an art major at Johnson State College. It’s up by Stowe and Goddard where all the rich brats went. I was in a special program. All the outcasts in the world went to school there—guys who were in jail for murder, people who had a lot of trouble. I was there because I was on welfare and I told them I wanted to go to school. They said okay, so they sent me to this place and they helped me get my high school equivalency.
“We were passing through it,” she adds. “I was with a friend, and we were camping out in different lots near Lake Champlain. Later, I moved into a runaway hostel, a place where kids could go if they left home. But I was 18, so I wasn’t exactly in that category. They said, “You look young, but you’re 18, so just do the regular stuff that everyone else does.” You had to write your goals out.”
One of those goals was breaking into the music industry, something many people doubted she could do. With her squeaky voice and outrageous fashion sense, it wasn’t looking too promising—at first.
“Things are a lot different now because I came along,” she says. “When I first came out, I had to battle. I framed a piece of paper from a radio program; it said that I was no great shakes, and ‘I don’t know how she’ll do. She’s not going to do well in AOR. She’s definitely going to have a problem with Top 40.’ I framed it and put it next to my gold and platinum records.”
She had some practice before she hit it big. In the early ‘70s, she played in various cover bands around the New York City area, covering songs by Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane and Bad Company. Not only was it horribly unfulfilling for her, but she ended up damaging her vocal chords and was forced to take a year off. Three different doctors told her she would never sing again. Her first band, Blue Angel, caught the attention of several music critics, but it was mostly due to Lauper’s rare four-octave singing range. Blue Angel eventually broke up because of financial stress and Lauper took the solo route. In 1981, while singing in a local New York bar, Lauper met David Wolff, who took over as her manager and got her signed with Portrait Records, a subsidiary of Epic Records. Her debut album, She’s So Unusual, was released in 1983 and peaked at number 4. It didn’t happen by accident.
“I’m a firm believer in concept, so when I did the first record, the look, the sound, and the whole statement, the art around it, was very strong, solid statement, so that when you looked at it and heard it; it made sense,” she explains. “Be creative and be yourself and your emotions—your color! I used to feel that I dyed my hair red because what was in my brains at that time was red.”
Lauper was extremely surprised by her success. In 1985, she won the Grammy for Best New Artist and the video for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” also earned a MTV Award for Best Female Video in 1984. Additionally, she wrote the song “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” for the 1985 cult classic film, which reached number 10 on the Billboard Top 100.
“I was surprised by the amount of success I had because I was being myself and not a clone,” she says. “I guess I was hell-bent on just creating again, because there was a time when I couldn’t create because I wouldn’t bend, and I wanted to make a record again so badly. Just to be able to sing, make a record and have creative freedom is so valuable to me. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t create. I’d probably be really half-crazy. And then to be a success at it in your own lifetime. That’s pretty cool. I wanted to create and inspire other artists and make, like, an artists’ community, and in a small way I have done that, I’ve influenced others. It’s almost as if it was a whole thing that opened up. There were a couple of people who did it, and then it just all happened.”
Lauper went on to release 1986’s True Colors and a slew of other projects, each one of them a massive success. Her most recent album, 2010’s Grammy Award-nominated Memphis Blues, became Billboard’s most prominent blues album of the year, remaining at number one on the Billboard blues charts for 13 consecutive weeks. In 2011, Lauper released an autobiography detailing her battle with child abuse and depression; the book became a New York Times Best Seller. She’s also writing musicals and is on a nationwide tour with Cher. There’s only one thing that really bothers her about all the fame and accolades.
“Sometimes when I want to go out and I kind of feel like, ‘Gee, I look terrible,’” she says. “People are going to be staring at me saying, ‘Oh, look at her! Look at that. She looks sloppy,’ or ‘Oh, look at her hair. Ooo, she’s got pimples,’ or ‘Oh, that’s a rash’ or ‘Look at her. Did you check out her ass?’ or ‘Look at her arms!’ And even if not everybody’s thinking about it, I am. I think about it. I look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh my God!’ It never was part of my image to look perfect anyway.’
At 60-years-old, Lauper is more active than most 30-years-old, especially on Cher’s “Dressed to Kill” Tour (which hits Lincoln May 30), but she also has a very normal life at the end of the day. She married actor David Thornton in 1991 and they have a 16-year-old son named Declyn Wallace. However, no matter what Lauper does, she will always have her legacy—pop icon, LGBT community activist, fashion guru, and that hair.
“When I saw little kids at the concert, that shook me up,” she says. “And you know when I really flipped out? When I saw grandmothers, mothers and their kids, with their hair shaved back on the side, and even the grandmother had a little pink something in her hair. That was the weirdest thing, seeing all three generations, and that’s when I thought I did something really good. I wanted to make world music, and I wanted to make a change in music and I wanted to make a change for the better, just to do something positive in the world, and I think I did a little bit of it.”
Cyndi Lauper with Cher on the “Dressed to Kill Tour,” May 30, at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, 8 p.m. Tickets range from $28.50 to $134. Visit www.pinnaclebankarena.com for more information.