Dressed head to toe in black, with spiked stilettos and ever-present sunglasses, Donna Summer walks into her suite at London’s exclusive Berkeley Hotel and looks like she could out-diva Maria Callas. But fierce is not the word. No, really. It isn’t. Goofy is probably more applicable.
She’s soon checking out my mini-disc player, complaining about the state they’ve left the room in, though it’s of course, immaculate, and putting on a cod-English accent. “Would you like a drink?” she asks. “No, I’m fine, thanks,” I reply. “How about some peanuts?” “No I’m fine, thanks.” “Some chips? How about a sandwich?” She proceeds to reel off a room service menu until you feel like replying, “Enough already!” If Donna’s doing the diva-thing, she’s doing it with her tongue firmly in her cheek.
However looking back to the beginning of her career, her image was such that you wouldn’t have been surprised to find her tongue somewhere else. After all, she was the Madonna of her time, and though she admits, “I think Madonna’s gone further than I have,” she still went the distance. In 1975, “Love To Love You, Baby” made her a star, but the, erm, orgasmic nature of the track meant the record was banned in the UK. What followed were even more sex disco hits and a concept album about hookers, Bad Girls, all of which helped define her as both the First Lady Of Love and the Queen Of Disco.
Though her career has picked up since, with “Dinner With Gershwin”, “Miracle Of Love” and the collaboration with Stock, Aitken and Waterman, things went pear-shaped in the early 80s, when her career took a post-disco dive, and it was alleged she made a remark along the lines of saying AIDS was God’s punishment for gays. It’s a comment she said she never made, and sitting opposite her today, I find it hard to believe she ever would have. She’s too camp for a start. She’s won court cases on the basis that no footage has ever been found containing the remark, and has since shown her commitment to her bender brethren by playing AIDS benefits, gay events and the like.
She knows she’ll have to talk about the blot on her career, but her reaction is, “Hey,whatever, it’s your interview.”
Let’s go back to the beginning of your career: when you left the States to perform in Germany with a role in the musical, Hair, it hardly looked like a surefire way to make it big.
I had no clue. I did think I was going to be famous, but I don’t think I knew when or what way it would take. Hair was the break that brought me to Europe, which I did for a year and a half, then I went to the Vienna Folk Opera and did two musicals there. I recently found footage, photographs and stuff for a show called The Me Nobody Knows, which is really funny, really sick. You don’t want to see yourself like that!
Did you go naked in Hair?
I did once or twice, but then I guess the official people discovered they were doing a nude scene there, and they made us stay within the restrictions. There were a few of us that were under 21, and we weren’t allowed to do it. But we could look. And we did!
You started your career with sex disco. Were you as sexy as the image suggested?
Let’s put it like this: one on one, that’s one thing, but in front of people, that’s another. I should say I was not as overtly sexy, sexual or suggestive as that image was at the time.
So there’s no truth to the rumor of you having six orgasms on “Love To Love You Baby”?
Let’s just say that I wasn’t having sex when I was singing! So, unfortunately for those that were there, there was nothing going on in the studio at the time. I was just singing. I’m sorry.
Did you have any idea “I Feel Love” was going to be such a resonate song?
No, when I recorded it with Pete Bellotte, we sat around thinking, “What do we write on this one?” When I listened to it, I said “We shouldn’t put that many words on the song. It’s chanty.” So it took us about three or four minutes to write those simple lines. Originally it was a B-side and we started laughing, ‘cause we were like, “But this is the hit!”
What was your obsession with hookers?
I had no obsession with hookers at all. “Bad Girls” was written in the days when my record company was on Sunset Boulevard. At night, there were a lot of clubs there, so there were always a lot of girls on the street trying to pick up guys. One day, a friend of mine was coming back from lunch, and the police harassed her for no reason. The song evolved out of my own aggravation towards what happened, but also out of the feeling that “Who am I to throw stones?” We’re all the same really: whether she’s getting paid and I’m giving it away, we’re all out doing it. Who is a bad girl? In some ways aren’t we all even if it’s only in our minds?
What’s your take on movies like 54?
[pulls a face] It was much more glamorous than that. I don’t want to talk badly about other people’s movies, but the real thing was much more vivacious. Just imagine: you’re going into a club and there’s Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, there could have been two of the Beatles there, Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson… It was like the meeting place for all these different levels of creativity, it was unbelievable. It was just not something you can really describe the energy of.
Did you ever not get in?
Don’t be silly, I knew the owner.
Throughout the interview, Donna’s manager and press officer have been sitting next door, and there’s been the hum of talking. Hardly intrusive, but suddenly Donna decides it is. She says, “Go tell them to hush up a bit.”
“You’re the diva, you tell them,” I reply.
“No, you go tell them ‘The diva said SHHHH!’” But then she stands up and works an empty room as she walks over to the door and bangs on it. When the PR puts his head around the door to ask if they’re being too noisy, Donna looks over her shades and says in drag-speak, “Like, hello!”
So you can do the diva thing.
I only do it to tease. I don’t take myself seriously on that level. I make a joke of it. I think it’s nice to be called the Queen of Something. I don’t think it’s an insult at all. I just think that today the word is used so loosely that to be called a diva doesn’t mean anything. Back in the day, divas had to earn their stripes: you don’t have one hit record and get called a diva.
In the early 80s, is it true that you were paranoid and hooked on prescription drugs?
Yeah, somewhat. It started kicking in from the moment I first became successful. There’s not a lot of time to regroup in this career. Every day is moving forward, and I think just by getting caught up in all the activity, the hype and the parties, everything, you get burnt out. And it’s real. It’s something that can cost you your life, and it pretty much cost me mine.
When there were AIDS remarks allegations, didn’t that send you over the edge?
Whenever somebody tells stories on you, and the press decides they want to do a lynching, whether there’s a mob or not, it’s always difficult. There’s no question about it. If I said to somebody they were an alcoholic and they weren’t – as stupid as it may seem – the minute you say it is the moment people start to question: maybe they’re doing it secretly. Just because I didn’t see it, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
I was pretty introspective in that period. I was going through a lot of changes at the time. There were a lot of deaths in my family, I was separating from my record company, and there were things I was schlepping around with me that I felt very guilty about: I’d left my husband for another man. Everything was chaotic in my life, so I grabbed my faith again and resurrected my inner self, which gave me the stability to deal with things that were going on.
My managers had tried to keep me insulated, because they knew I was going through so much internal stuff, they didn’t want me to do something crazy, but when I surfaced, that was when we went to the press and said “That’s not the truth.” I don’t know where the story even started or ended. It’s very difficult to follow and find out who, what, when…
Why do you think it happened?
I don’t know. Probably because people heard I was a Christian and they were fearful that I was going to judge them. That wasn’t the case at all. I didn’t have any preconceived notion of changing my relationship with anybody. My religion was for me, to get my life back on track. I just live with it and deal with it.
Did you ever get so tired of having to address it that you thought gay people can go to hell?
I got fed up with it at the time. But if it keeps coming up, obviously there are people who want to know something and I try to answer it to the best of my ability. But some people want to provoke you, and I don’t know what they want from me, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be.
I read in an old Penthouse interview that your first boyfriend was gay.
Oh definitely. I’ve had gay friends all my life, since I was a young girl. Of all the people in my neighborhood who didn’t shun them, it was me, and yes, one of my boyfriends was gay. We were extremely close, and we used to kiss and make out, then obviously at some point, as he began to know himself, we weren’t so close! [laughs]
But we became best friends, and he went to live in Sweden when I went to Germany. That’s why, when people say to me I’m homophobic or whatever, it’s really offensive on a lot of levels. I just thought people knew me better than that.
The single, “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)”, is due out on Monday 18 October.