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The Big Chat - June 19, 2004

Queen Of Disco

The 70s are back in an ITV Saturday night spectacular – Karen Hockney got the lowdown from host Donna Summer

As one of the biggest pop stars of the 70s, Donna Summer's reputation as the ultimate disco diva precedes her. So it's a surprise to find she is much more friendly, funny and dry than you'd ever imagine.

In the last 48 hours, she's flown through four American cities but you'd never know it from her good humour and down to earth chat.

This week, she stars alongside Kool & The Gang, Jamelia, Rachel Stevens, Westlife and Girls Aloud in ITV1's homage to the music and fashion of her 70s heyday, Discomania.

"It sounded like a lot of fun and that period was very successful for me. Plus, I love London, so I couldn't say no," says Donna warmly. "The fashion and music of the 70s was about having fun and doing things differently, it was so colourful."

Donna has come a long way since her humble beginnings as one of  seven children who grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. At seven, she was singing in her local church choir and her voice was outstanding even then.

"I was always a bit cocky when I was young, very confident and I had this sense of self assuredness in my spirit that meant no matter how bad it ever got, I was going to make it," she recalls.

"I told my mum and dad that I was going to be famous because I knew it would happen. It didn't meant that I wasn't going to go through anything bad, it just meant that the end result was success.

"That attitude helped me to get through a lot of quite unpleasant things that came along on the way."

While her career soared thanks to hits like Love To Love You Baby and Hot Stuff, privately Donna was fighting her own demons. She suffered bouts of deep depression and even tried to commit suicide by stepping out of an 11th floor hotel window in New York but was saved from a fatal fall when she was disturbed by a hotel maid.

"When you are depressed, you don't have any desire to be around people," she says quietly.

"Sometimes you have a problem and it's so heavy it's like two people have sat on you. It's a heaviness that's unbearable.

"It's more than just a state of mind, you physically feel strange too. At its worst, I never thought about what anyone was thinking about me, I was just trying to struggle through.

"The solution was to sing one thing every day to get very happy about. It could be the smallest thing like a flower, or a letter, something to build on until I could feel more happy.

"Now when I feel something like that coming on, my husband and I will pray and I'll go see someone to get to the bottom of it. The problem is that so many things happen that you can't deal with because you're busy – doing shows, working. All this stuff is going on around you but you can't stop, you have to keep going.

"Then, when you do have a moment to stop, the things you didn't take time for just come back to haunt you."

Last year, she laid the bad times to rest for good with her autobiography Ordinary Girl which has also been made into a musical.

"I often hear how writers are in pain and I thought what could be so bad about writing a book? But months later, I was still writing it and I though I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

"There were days when I'd start crying and feel like I couldn't stop. Every day you have to live through the bad times again and that's what's so very painful. And afterwards, it was like, I don't have to carry this any more, and you can let it go. It was  like a weight was lifted off me."

Times are much happier now for Donna, who is 55, but looks more than 10 years younger. She lives in the Nashville countryside with her singer husband Bruce Sudano who she describes as "my biggest support".

She has just released a greatest hits album called The Journey and is working on another album full of new material.

A mother of three, her daughters Mimi, 30, Brooklyn, 22, and Amanda, 21, are all following their mother into the entertainment business – Donna who is also a grandmother to six-year-old Vienna and  three-year-old Savannah, and says she is relishing getting older.

"I'm a grandma and I'm really loving this stage of my life," she says happily.

"I've put on a little weight compared to how I used to be but I think it's important not to be too skinny when you get older because it doesn't look good.

"You might be a bit plumper on TV but your face looks much better. I've seen so many women trying to be 15 years old  and I'm so like, oh my god, you look terrible.

"If I felt like I really needed to do something done, maybe I'd consider cosmetic surgery. But black people's skin doesn't wrinkle at the same rate, which is a good thing. Not that it's perfect, but I can get away with it with make-up on.

"I just don't feel the need to remove every little thing on my face, I'm really not that vain. There are some people in this business that I know very well and I don't even recognise them when I see them close up.

"It's okay to get older. Why should I compete with a 20 year old? I don't want to be them. I want to be me at 55. I feel great."

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