Twenty-nine-year-old Donna Summer became a millionaire largely on the strength
of a seventeen minute record she cut in 1975, in which she repeats the title,
"Love to Love You, Baby," in infinite variations. The song was adopted as
the anthem of the newborn disco phenomenon, and Donna Summer was hailed as
disco's "sex goddess."
Born LaDonna Andrea Gaines, in a conservative, churchgoing Boston family,
she has a background that is an unlikely one for that role. Her father was
a butcher, her mother a schoolteacher. She has five sisters and one brother.
She can't remember a time in her life when she didn't want to sing. She grew
up singing gospel in her local church, listening in her spare time to Mahalia
Jackson, Janis Joplin, Dinah Washington, the Supremes, and Dionne Warwick.
In high school she became part of a rock group, stumbled into fairly heavy
drug use, and then, at eighteen, pulled herself out of it and auditioned
for the Melba Moore part in the Broadway musical Hair. she won a part in
the company's European touring company, dropped out of the twelfth grade,
and joined the Hair cast in Munich, Germany.
She stayed in Munich after the show closed, singing in productions of the
Vienna Folk Opera, where she met and married Helmut Sommer, an Austrian member
of the cast. (They are now divorced.) She did German stage versions of Godspell,
Porgy and Bess, Showboat, and The Me Nobody Knows. She also sang backup vocals
at Musicland Studios, where musicians and producers were creating the
sophisticated, synthesizer-dominated sound called "Eurodisco," which first
caught on in the United States with the East Coast gay community In Munich
she met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, owners of the Oasis label. She
wrote and recorded several songs for Oasis, including, in 1975, the three-minute
"Love to Love You, Baby." The Oasis label was subsequently leased to Neil
Bogart's Casablanca Records, based in Los Angeles. Bogart asked for a
seventeen-minute version of the song and went on to promote it by encouraging
radio stations to play it after midnight. Bogart then aimed it at the discos,
and Donna Summer became a winner. Within a week the album sold 40,000 copies
in New York. mostly to discos. Six weeks later, 400,000 albums had been sold.
That same year Summer returned to America, after an absence of eight years,
and was shocked when screaming crowds met her at the airport. She didn't
know that the album Love to Love You was already number one on the charts.
(It later became "gold.") The sudden, explosive fame almost precipitated
a nervous breakdown. Traumatized by the frenzy and the new identity imposed
on her, she went through periods of forgetting her name, developed a chronic
ulcer, and occasionally checked into hospitals for a week at a time. To this
day she admits that her greatest fear is of losing control of herself, mentally
She went on to record two gold singles- and five gold albums on the Casablanca
Records label: Love Trilogy, Four Seasons of Love, I Remember Yesterday,
Once upon a Time, and Live and More, which became "double platinum." Her
latest album, called Bad Girls, was released in April. She made her film
debut in a collaborative film venture of Motown and Casablanca Records, Thank
God It's Friday. In 1978 Donna Summer collaborated with a group called the
Brooklyn Dreams on a concert tour of the U.S. Summer became romantically
involved with the lead singer of the group, Bruce Sudano, and has lived with
him for almost two years. She now spends most of the year touring the United
States under the management of Susan Munao. Her popularity has expanded,
encompassing everyone from the easy-listening Vegas crowd to the rock-oriented
young. She is now at a crossroads in her career and is uncertain about its
future course. She is considering doing a Broadway show-a stage version of
Once upon a Time, her urban Cinderella album - and she could be lured again
by a film project. But her most immediate task is to break out of what she
considers her confining image as disco sex goddess- the product of the Munich
For this exclusive, Penthouse Interview, Elliott Mintz interviewed Summer
in Los Angeles during a brief respite from her touring schedule. They began
by talking about her image- the myth versus the reality of Donna Summer.
Penthouse: Your image is that of a supersexed, highly erotic
seductress. Is there any relation between that image and the "real" Donna
Summer: I wouldn't say so. I think I'm undersexed, actually I am sensual
and very physical. I'm very erotic. But my sexuality exists on a sort of
a fantasy level.
Penthouse: What are your fantasies?
Summer: Hey, wait a minute, this ain't a free show! Well, I'll say
I have an incredible ability to fantasize- I really do. I don't have to have
things tangible to be able to see them, and therefore I enjoy so many things,
because they're in my mind. I believe that most people don't realize or utilize
enough of their potential for fantasizing. I think people go out looking
to make their fantasies real- they can't just enjoy them for what they are.
But in trying to make them real, they overextend themselves, and as a result
it all becomes a nightmare for them, not a joy. There are just certain fantasies
that cannot be acted out with another human being. I am talking about fantasies
for the sake of fantasies- things that you could never, ever do in your lifetime.
Penthouse: What are yours?
Summer: How can I possibly give you one that I wouldn't mind seeing
in print? Well, let me say it this way. Let's say that, in reality, I'm basically
very shy when it comes to men. I haven't been with a lot of men in my life.
Now I can get off on my thinking what it would be like if I were really like
the person that people fantasize about when they think of Donna Summer. I
get all kinds of letters which stimulate that fantasy. I get letters telling
me about people's fantasies and dreams about me- people have sent me paintings
and pictures. You can't imagine what these people say to me! One guy had
this obsession with seeing Raquel Welch make it with me- oh, and Ann-Margaret,
too. I would have a whip or something, and they would be completely at my
mercy. He went on for four or five pages, telling me how he found my album
in his son's room and took it, and how he plays it when no one is home and
just thinks about these things. It's amazing.
Penthouse: If a fantasy is something that is never really going
to happen in one's life, what is an example of one of your fantasies?
Summer: I could imagine myself in a situation where I'm walking down
a dark hallway, going to do my show, and somebody sexually overpowers me,
Penthouse: Isn't that supposed to be the male-chauvinist version
of a woman's fantasy?
Summer: Oh, I don't believe so. This secret fantasy of being raped
is a part of women because we've been raised that way. I'm not saying that
it's necessarily every woman's fantasy, because I can't really relate to
every woman. But I like to know that someone is stronger than I am. I want
to be able to know that if I get tired, somebody is there to hold up the
fort. I like knowing that I can't pick up a refrigerator alone. God did not
make me strong enough to do that.
Penthouse: You prefer to be physically dominated by men?
Summer: There are times I do- absolutely, 100 percent. And there are
times when I don't want to be mentally dominated. When I think of aggression,
I think of being aggressed upon rather than being the aggressor.
Penthouse: Have you ever had a female lover?
Summer: Never, and I don't really plan to. I must say I've been hit
on by a lot of women in my life. But I found that that was not one of the
things I wanted to participate in- outside the realm of fantasy.
Penthouse: Does it bother you to have a woman whom you think of
as a friend attracted to you sexually?
Summer: No, it doesn't bother me as long as she doesn't touch me.
It's a strange thing about me, like a tic or something, but I don't like
to have people touching me at all. I find it an imposition on my person when
people put their hands on me.
Penthouse: Where do you think that phobia comes from?
Summer: I just don't feel secure around women. I guess it comes from
the time when I started in show business, when I was around eighteen years
old. I was dancing and singing, and it put me around older women a lot- not
girls, but women, around thirty, thirty-five. When I was younger, I was very
physical, always moving. I was very, very thin and moved around with sort
of a snakelike movement. It was obviously very alluring for women. At one
point I started worrying, 'Am I putting this vibe out to women?" I talked
to an analyst about it and realized that it wasn't me. It was them and what
they envisioned me to be. It was my mystique.
Penthouse: Is this same kind of mystique at work in your relationship
with your current boyfriend?
Summer: Well, my boyfriend is Italian. I think of him as my Italian
stallion, and I'm sure I'm his sex goddess. But I don't think his feelings
about me have anything to do with the myth that surrounds me. It's because
our chemistry works.
Penthouse: Does the chemistry have anything to do with the fact
that you're black and he's white?
Summer: I'm sure that he's been with other black women and the chemistry
didn't work like it works with us. I've certainly been with other white men,
and the chemistry wasn't like this. You know, what people consider erotic
or beautiful has to do with what they've been told for twenty or thirty years.
I had a problem with one of my boyfriends once. At the moment of the ultimate
encounter, he became absolutely frantic and couldn't get it together, and
all of a sudden I became a color to him and not a person. I stopped and said,
"Wait a minute. Forget what you've learned in the past. You don't have to
prove anything to me- I am me, not a myth. Look me in the eye and deal with
me, not with a myth, because I'm not a myth."
Penthouse: What do you think about the fantasies some white women
have of black men making the best lovers?
Summer: I don't know ... it's certainly more than the fact that black
men put it somewhere and it feels good. It's the color, the hair texture,
the smell, the difference in the feel. It feels different to make love with
a black man than it does with a white man. It's just a different touch. It's
aesthetics. I suppose for a white woman to imagine a black-skinned man pouncing
on her bones... well, the contrast is a stimulation, I think. I know I attract
blond men like flies. One of my record company people who was traveling around
Europe with me once said, "My God, I never saw so many blond men flock around
anybody in my life!" It's the contrast, the look of it. But, purely sexually
speaking, there's no difference having to do with race. It's just a fantasy
that a black man's penis is longer or bigger or more potent or anything like
that - excuse me for being so technical. And I can't really say that black
women sustain longer. I mean, I really don't know.
Penthouse: Do you have any idea why you're so popular in the homosexual
Summer: Not really. It's funny, but one of my very first boyfriends
was homosexual. He didn't know it at the time, but I had always felt he was
very sensitive. I've always been attracted to homosexual men- I mean physically
as well as in other ways. And sometimes I think my attraction for them is
that I'm motherly.
Penthouse: Donna Summer is motherly?
Summer: I think I have a strange kind of earthiness that might be
alluring for a man who isn't really into women sexually.
Penthouse: What kind of emotions do you go through when you're
recording or performing your songs and having to exude all that sexuality?
Summer: "Love to Love You" was approached as an acting piece, as what
I imagined it to be like for a man seeing his wife for the first time, or
for a woman seeing a man for the first time. I've been in that situation.
There wasn't anything to say. I was in ecstasy without even being touched.
I was breathing heavy just from the thought that my dream was right there,
in front of me. Ecstasy comes in many forms; it's not just physical. But my song conjured up physical fantasies for people. My acting was done well,
and people believed the story I was acting.
Penthouse: You did all that heavy breathing, faking that orgasm,
without thinking any sexual thoughts?
Summer: I know it sounds funny. During the recording of the record,
I had much more romantic thoughts than the record led you to believe. You
know, there are ecstatic moments in life that are physical, that are like
an orgasm. For a mother, I should think, there are moments - touching her
child, realizing that this miracle is hers- that are ecstasy. You know, that
record flopped twice in Europe. I was a clean-cut, funny American girl who
was in Europe doing top European music. That was my image. They didn't even
acknowledge that record. It fell off the charts twice before it was released
the third time and hit. It was hysterical. I just made up the voice for that
song. I found a hole in the market. I found a loophole, and that's how I
got my foot in the door. That was a big foot, I'll tell you that- not your
basic, ordinary foot. And it boosted me up a long, long way from my Boston
Penthouse: What kind of family do you come from?
Summer: I was one of seven children. I came from a lower-middle-class
black family in Boston. My mother and father worked real hard. My father
worked three jobs. He struggled like hell to keep our house. He was a real
dominating father but a very good father. He was a butcher during the war,
so we always had meat. He was also an electrician and a janitor, and in his
spare time he took care of buildings. There were times we didn't have anything,
but my parents just never let us down. There were times when my girl friends
would all be going to school with new skirts, new this, new that, and I didn't
have anything new. But I never envied them. I was always a little different.
When everyone else was thinking about getting married and talking about the
debutantes' ball, I'd be thinking, "Why am I different? Why don't I care
about those things?" I didn't care, because I knew I was going somewhere
in my life. Even as a child, I knew I was going to be something. I mean,
I've got to tell you that I got credit in my neighborhood store just because
everyone believed that one day I'd be successful. I could go down and take
anything I wanted, and they'd write it down on a bill and say to me, "You're
going to be famous one day. You can pay it then." I think I grew up with
a very good outlook on who I was, who I was supposed to be. I lived in a
very mixed neighborhood: Irish, Italian, Catholic, doctors, teachers, students,
regular families- a real melting pot.
Penthouse: Did you ever get involved in drugs when you were
Summer: When I was about sixteen, I went through a pretty heavy drug
scene. That was the Janis Joplin part of my life. I was in a rock-'n'-roll
group, the only female and the only black person in the group. I was the
lead singer. It was that whole psychedelic period when everyone was trying
and testing new things, and I just went overboard. I finally went so far
that when I was eighteen I said, "Enough! God did not intend me to live my
life this way!" And so I quit, abruptly, after two years, and I really haven't
indulged in drugs since. Now I'm unusually sensitive to any type of drug
or medication. I have a hard time taking Tylenol.
Penthouse: Was your introduction to sex during this period too?
Summer: I first had sex when I was eighteen or nineteen. It was quite
disappointing. Reminds me of the song lyric that goes, "Is that all there
is?" It was really a mistake. You see, I was in Boston at the time, and I
fell madly in love- was just infatuated with a man who was very special.
He was sensitivity personified. He was poetic, and I was just more than in
love with him - I would've, committed suicide at thinking that I couldn't
be with him. In any case, we finally broke up, and most of the reason was
because I wouldn't have sex with him. I said I didn't want to until I was
married, blah, blah, blah. So then I was so disappointed, and I thought that
maybe that's what you had to go through to hold on to somebody you loved.
So I had sex with the next man I went out with after the first fellow went
away. I wasn't as much in love with him, but I thought maybe I just had to
do it, that it was what growing up was about. My heart and soul weren't in
it- I was just afraid of losing him. But I was real disappointed.
Penthouse: How happy are you with your life, now?
Summer: I'm always slightly depressive. My whole life is work, and
it's always been work. Even when I'm home relaxing, I'm playing the piano
or singing. I've always got to be doing something creative or constructive.
I hate the feeling of doing nothing. I was on tour for eight months last
year and for about four months this year. I started getting so speedy that
I couldn't sleep at all anymore. I was in a state of permanent insomnia.
I would go from filming to recording, to this, then that, then something
Penthouse: What compels you to be this way?
Summer: I think it comes from the fear of dying, in the sense that
I feel that God gave me a reason to be here. I'm very religious in the sense
that I think there is life after death and that everyone has a karmic debt
to pay back; and whatever that is, I want to pay it back before I go. I want
to do things for other people- and I'm getting to be in a position where
I can achieve things for others. I believe that money talks. Everything else
is okay but money speaks, and if I can save X amount of dollars to build
a community center, for example, I am really doing something.
Penthouse: What would your long-range goal be?
Summer: I've always said it was to setup a community in South America.
I don't know why it's got to be South America, it could be anywhere in the
world. You see, I believe that we, as Americans, as well as the British,
the Germans, the French, have always taken. We've, gone to other countries
and taken, taken, taken, castrating the people, making them second-rate citizens
in their own country. I'd like to go into a country where it isn't expensive
to do a lot of things and just give, let the people of this other country
retain their sense of themselves. I'd like people without any advantages
or abilities to be trained so that they could then use that training in their
own country. It's almost a communistic theory- utopian, perhaps- because
there are certainly a lot of people who are going to be greedy and people
who are not going to want to do certain things. But I don't mind giving up
what I have. My accountants are always telling me, "You're spending too much!"
And I tell them, "Tomorrow will come whether I have a penny in the bank or
not." I'm not afraid of tomorrow and I'm not afraid to be hungry. I can risk
whatever money I have because I know that with my own intelligence, with
my strength, I will get back to where I was.
Penthouse: Would it be fair to say that you made a million dollars
Summer: If you go on tour for eight months, you can estimate what
you're going to earn. I think the potential of what I could possibly earn
in a year would be- God, who knows? Anywhere from $2.5 million to $5 million
a year. I don't know if I earn that, because when you go out on the road
it costs a bundle of money. This was brought to my attention only recently
and I nearly choked when I heard it. Think of just the cost of flying to
do a show. Say you're taking thirty people. Five or six of those people have
to go first-class, and the rest fly tourist, and the cost is enormous. The
amount of money that you gross on a tour is really not that much in the end,
because by the time your fees are gone for your agent and your management
and everyone else, you're not left with so much for the hard work you put
out.Costumes alone last year cost me $70,000. There are high start-up costs
when you get ready to go on the road. You have to pay for four weeks' rehearsal.
You have to get in sound equipment. You have to take out lighting. A tour
is a multi-multi-million-dollar business, really- and not necessarily for
the artist. Most people can't go on tour because it's just too expensive.
My very first tour was a European tour. I was supposedly offered a certain
amount of money for the tour, but it didn't come through, and I came back
owing close to $200,000. Owing- not having made a cent.
Penthouse: Now that you're constantly on the road and in demand,
do you ever feel like just giving up and enjoying yourself?
Summer: Once a week. I swear to you: once a week! Every time I come
off the road, I'm so exhausted for the first week that I swear I'm never
going on the road again as long as I live. I don't want it anymore, I've
had it, my life has been too erratic, I want to live a sensitive and sensible
life, I want to be with my family... Then, about a week and a half later,
I'm bored to death, and I'm off again. It's a masochistic business. It's
in your blood. It's like people who have sea fever. They're driven to go
to sea all the time. They always say that they're going to go dry and go
back on land, but once the sea calls them again, they're off. They love it
and they hate it. Love and hate are what this entertainment business is all
about. People hate you today, and then they love you tomorrow They let you
down, and then they build you back up. You're in, and then you're out again.
There's this constant struggle for admiration, love, and respect that is
a strange kind of love-hatred and a constant attempt at trying to prove yourself.
Penthouse: What is it you're trying to prove?
Summer: I don't know. Generally, I think it comes from a sense of
my desperately needing to be understood and desiring to effect change through
something that I have to say. I question myself all the time. Why am I doing
this? I could just get married and be rich ... Yet I could never settle for
that. It's not even the money. At some point it's just a madness. I don't
know why I have such a drastic need to be understood, but I do.
Penthouse: Is performing the only way you feel that you can
Summer: Not really. I'm always on stage, though- I mean, my life is
a stage at this point, whether I'm at home or whether I'm at the office or
whether I'm on the road or on television or shopping. I'm always on stage.
At this point there are very few moments in my life when I don't feel I have
to be quote Donna Summer unquote. I can't just be a little, black girl from
Boston. It's very funny how people make you jump into being the person they
want to see. But I manage to stabilize myself.
Penthouse: What frightens you most about what you're doing?
Summer: Not being in possession of my own abilities and faculties.
And in this profession it's easy for that to happen. I never want to lose
sight of who I am or what I'm here for, and I think that's probably my biggest
fear. When I say "going insane," I mean becoming so much a part of the machinery
that I no longer see the reality of what I have to do in this lifetime. And
what I have to do is develop my talents and my ability and the ability of
others as best I can. I believe there is a structure to the whole thing.
First, before you can help someone else, you really must help yourself. Second,
you should help your family or people who are close to you. That is why I
feel that some of my greatest achievements have been my work with the Brooklyn
Dreams and with my sister, Sunshine, whose first album I'm producing. And
then you should really do something for the world. When you've indulged your
ego in the things that you've wanted, then it's time to give it all back.
And this is basically my whole philosophy about what I'm doing, one that
I've had since I was a girl.
Penthouse: Do you feel a need to do things for people so that you
will be remembered by them?
Summer: This is a strange thing, but I really don't care if they remember
me. I hope they remember my philosophy, as opposed to my person, because
I'm actually quite insignificant. People remember Jesus, or they remember
disciples. But to remember them as people is not enough. You must remember
what they taught you. That's the important thing to me.
Penthouse: What do you wish your public would understand about
you that they don't now?
Summer: The only specific thing that I think people need to understand
is that I need to be free. I think the thing that bothers me the most about
this thing called success- it is a thing, a monster- is that it changes your
life-style so drastically. There is no longer any privacy in your life, and
you have no choice.
Really, I'm a very regular normal person, and I want to relate to my audience,
to the public, to let them know that I love them or I wouldn't be doing what
I'm doing. At the same time, I want their love and respect and understanding.
They're my fans, and they want X, but they have to know that there are millions
of people chewing away at this one person, saying, "I want this and I want
this and I want that." And it's impossible to accommodate all of these people.
When I say "I can't" to people, I want them to understand that I can't and
not to feel put down by it. It's the one thing that disturbs me: that people
feel they deserve more, and that I can't give it. I even would if I could,
but I can't.
And then they say "Well, we buy your records." Yes, I sang a song, you bought
my record, I got the money. That's the bottom line, and that's not "cold."
I sold a record, but I didn't sell my soul.