Donna Summer sighs. "It’s hard being a diva these days. There are so many of us around. They used to make you pay your dues but now a kid has one record out and she’s a diva already. Back in the old days you had to earn the title. You had to have some songs and some longevity."
If anyone has the songs and the longevity’s 55-year old Donna. Ranked among the top 50 bestselling chart acts of all time she’s been working her groove since the saucy Love to Love You Baby turned her into a household name in 1976.
With more than 40 hits under her belt she’s been justifiably named the Queen of Disco, but dance music isn’t all Donna does. She rocks out on album tracks sings the blues and gospel, and once wrote a song for Rod Stewart, deciding at the last minute to keep it for herself (a wise move since Dim All the Lights proved to be yet another hit).
"What’s not to like about it?" she says of her status as dance music royalty. "The title isn’t about what’s going on now, it’s about the legacy. I just look at it as proof that I did something really well in my life. When you’re the source of something, when you’re the one who ushers something in, you’re considered the queen."
Does she feel like a queen? Affecting an exaggerated New York accent, she replies: "Not when I’m washing the dishes, I don’t I don’t. Not when I’m scrubbing the toilet, I don’t."
Donna Summer comes across as self-deprecating, down-to-earth and funny, but then she’ll sing a few notes of one of her songs and the voice is astonishing. Disco divas have come and gone, but Donna Summer has staying power.
Even grumpy Simon Cowell had a smile on his face when Donna guest-starred on the latest series of American Idol Donna, who knows about survival in the pop business thinks Cowell is right to be so opinionated. "He likes to cut to the chase and he’s doing some people a favour by letting them know that singing isn’t their gift or that they’re just average."
You could never accuse Donna of being just average. Her music has always been an urgent call to get up and boogie – but there have been half a dozen Donna "best ofs" over the years, so do we need another?
Donna had her doubts too, but the record company persuaded her there was a younger market out there who didn’t know her music. With Beyoncé sampling I Feel Love and Michelle McManus’s version of On The Radio helping her secure a place on the Pop Idol final, not to mention ITV1’s Discomania – a celebration of all things disco that Donna is hosting this month – there’s no doubt she’s poised to find a new audience.
You wouldn’t call it a comeback – she’s never really been away – but it’s the latest phase of a remarkable career. The Massachusetts0 born star (real name LaDonna Gaines) has been in showbiz since the late 60s, appearing in a German touring production of Hair before hooking up with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.
Her subsequent adventures are charted in her entertaining autobiography, Ordinary Girl. The book is full of anecdotes, such as the time she passed out while recording the duet No More Tears (Enough is Enough) with Barbra Streisand. She’d been at a party the night before and didn’t get enough sleep. "I was tired," she says, "and when it came to singing one of the long notes I didn’t get enough air and passed out. I fell off the stool but Barbra was holding a high note and she just carried on – that’s how professional she is. I’m on the floor going "Hello, I could be dying here," and she kept on singing. It was only after she finished the note that she said, "Donna, are you OK? Watcha doing on the floor?"
Another tale concerns the time when stories appeared in the US press that Donna was really a transvestite. "My mum was irate – and she was not a woman you’d ever want to make angry. I found out later how that rumour got started. There was a transvestite singer using my name and singing my songs. I eventually tracked him down. He was pretty cute, actually – cuter than me!"
The real Donna has been happily married to Bruce Sudano, one of her backing singers for more than two decades. They have two daughters – songwriter Amanda, 21, and actress Brooklyn 23. Donna also has a daughter, Mimi, 30 from her first marriage to Helmut Sommer. She has enough money in the bank to live off for the rest of her life, but loves working too much to retire. She is seldom not performing, has written 30 songs for a new album, penned a musical about her life, and also finds time to paint.
She’s not, however, immune to pressure. "People have expectations that you’re always going to look fabulous. When I have my bad days and I look like I’ve stuck my hair in an electric socket and I’m rushing to the store in my jogging pants, it’s like they’re thinking, ‘Boy, she’s really let herself go.’"
But the star whose music hasn’t aged isn’t too worried, "People want you to stay the way they remember you but everyone is going to grow old, everyone is going to gain weight. That’s just part of life, isn’t it?"