The Donna Summer Tribute Site

Interview With Mary Gaines Bernard

November 21, 2015
Last month the fans received this letter from Mary "The Real Diva" Bernard.

To my many friends known and unknown it's been awhile since you heard from me, so I would like to share my journey with you.

Life without my sister has been a huge transition. I miss her more than words can express. She was not just Donna; she was my big sister, my confidant, my road buddy, and my best friend. The last couple of years have been a difficult transition for my family, myself and I'm certain for many of you. AT first, it was very painful to even hear her music playing. It seemed to be playing everywhere and for a time the whole world was mourning. I could not listen to the music because of the sadness that it brought to my heart, knowing she was no longer on the planet.

Early one morning, I heard Donna's voice whisper to me, "Mary, you don't have to miss me. Remember me through the music. I'm with you and I come to life in the music. In the music, you'll always remember the good times we had and all the incredible places we've been! In the music, you will remember the amazing people we've met from all around the world. In the music, you will remember the wonderful times that we shared with our fans and friends, doing what we loved, singing, performing, laughing, and making wonderful memories. We will always be a part of one another. We are part of a great family and our fans are also part of this family."

Because you have always been there for us, you are the first to be invited to my "Donna Summer Birthday Celebration" on December 31, 2015. It will be a musical journey into the life and music of my sister Donna. You can dance if you want to dance, sing if you want to sing, you can dress in a tuxedo, wear your blue jeans or your best disco dress and maybe even sporting an Afro wig. So unbutton that collar and put on your dancing shoes because we'll be singing all of your favorite songs right into the New Year.

Come join us as we make some new memories together!

Naturally, this caused  just a bit of excitement in the fan community. (Okay, that may be a bit of an understatement.)  So I thought it would be a good idea to talk to Mary and find out a little bit more. And lucky for me, Mary was able to take time out of her busy rehearsal schedule to answer a few questions.  So here we go.


DST: So, most fans know you as "The Real Diva" who has sung back up for Donna for more years than probably any of us cares to admit to. So I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. What was it like growing up with Donna. Were you the type of kids who mostly got along, or were you the kind of kids who delighted in driving each other nuts? Are there any specific memories of growing up together that you like to look back on?

MGB: Of course I'm going to say I was that kind of kid who got along with everybody , really what do you expect me to say Cathy .....But the truth is I really was, I was one of those kids who got along with everyone. I was the one that had the big ideas. Let's do this thing or that - whether we had money for it or not, whether we could really do it. In my brain we could do anything. I never thought I'd grow up to be the real diva but I always knew that I would sing. Growing up with Donna was a lot of fun most of the time - when she wasn't trying to get us to do her dishes so she could go out or something. But we always knew she would be famous and me being the younger sister, she was always trying to teach us things.

DST: I know you sang with your sisters while you were a kid, and I would be stunned if you didn't graduate to singing in church as you got older, but did you do anything professionally before you started singing with Donna?

MGB: Yes when I was in college I had a band in Boston and the name was Osceola. We were a college band top 40 and we used to play anywhere we could get a gig. Back in those days live music was pretty popular, and we got a lot of work. I was the only girl in the group and there were five guys. That's what I was doing before I started singing with Donna .

DST: How did you get the job with Donna? And did you and Dara join Donna together, or did you start separately? And what was it like when Dara left to pursue her own things?

MGB: I started the Donna job before Dara and it happened totally by accident. I was visiting Donna and keeping my eye on Mimi, having a lovely vacation in California, when about three days before Donna's tour was supposed to leave for Caracas Venezuela one of the background singers became deathly ill and went to the hospital for emergency surgery. And I guess and the rest is history. Dara joined us in September and we went on our first European tour.

It was really hard when Dara decided to leave - we had sung together for so many years, Dara was irreplaceable. The sound that we had when we would sing together - I mean honestly I don't think there's anything like siblings that sing together. Words cannot describe how much I missed her. We had amazing singers sing with us afterwards but we always missed Dara.

DST: Yeah, there is nothing quite like sibling harmonies. I've noticed that with other family groups too.

What was it like touring back in the day? You were all young and experiencing fame for the first time – that must have been quite a trip. :-)

MGB: OMG The craziness of new fame! The things that people would say, the things that people would do - it was crazy. I used to think, "Wow, these people are getting so worked up over Donna. I mean she's just my sister, and even though I always knew she would be famous, I never anticipated what that would look like and the craziness that would follow. The amazing part of her celebrity was all of a sudden you were meeting people who you admired musically your whole life and they were standing right next to you. And you tried to stand there and not look like you were going crazy, - you know like cool on the outside but screaming on the inside.

DST: I would imagine it was also a learning experience. Are there any particular lessons you learned that stick out in your mind?

Yes one of the biggest lessons, and a very hard one, was [that] you begin to learn not to trust anyone's motives, and you learn that your family is your true support system. [That] becomes even more important because someone must be able to speak the truth to you - someone [who] doesn't need anything from you.

DST: Yeah, I can see how important that would be. If you are surrounded all the time by people fawning over you and constantly telling you how wonderful you are, you need that reality check from someone you can trust. I think that celebrities who get into real trouble probably don't have that in their lives.

I think a lot of people think that touring is glamorous and fun, but I know that can't always be the case. Can you tell us what a typical day on the road was like? And was it different in the early days (say the Bad Girls years) than it was in more recent years (the Crayons tour)?

MGB: I would say yeah touring does seem glamorous until you wake up to go to the bathroom and you slam into a dresser that you didn't know was there because you can't remember where you are. You long to sleep in your own bed, and you miss your kids and your family. In those days, life seemed like it was moving so quickly and in reality it really was doing six or seven shows a week always in a different state. Luggage off the plane, up to the hotel, back down to the lobby, on a plane to another place. Cold food, funky hotel rooms, and no sleep. I think that was the hardest part for me. The show's always fun for me, but not getting enough sleep gets old. When we started riding on the buses, the tour buses, I didn't think I would like it. But it turned out to be one of my fondest memories because it was like a traveling living room, and we got to talk and chat and laugh and joke and [there was] a lot less of the crazy moving around. It's like our house moved instead of us moving all of our stuff all the time.

DST: Performing live, I know anything can happen and probably eventually does. So what's your funniest tour story?

MGB: I don't know if this one is the funniest tour story - there are so many, and as you know the last show in the tour was always a little bit of a free for all. We could pull as many pranks as we wanted as long as we did not mess up the show. I remember one time when Gene Miller was singing Heaven Knows with Donna, and he decided that he was going to chew a wad of garlic gum. Donna always played that song very theatrically and dramatically, so Gene walked over to her, got very close to her face, and sang Heaven Knows blowing his garlic breath into her face. I thought she was going to pass out. She just burst out in laughter and kept trying to sing, but he kept following behind her saying Heaven Knows with that garlicky breath. It was very hard for us all to keep a straight face that time.

DST: Ok so let's fast forward to 2012 now. I don't want to focus on the sad, but I know you've said that you couldn't listen to Donna's music for a long time after she passed. What turned the corner for you? Was it a particular song that made it okay to listen again, or was it something else?

MGB: What turned the corner for me was I love, I absolutely adore, Donna's Christmas album and I wanted to hear it but I didn't want to cry. And honestly I just prayed and [said] "God I need a strategy to be able to enjoy this music that I love so much again", and He gave me one and it started with the Christmas album, Christmas Spirit.

DST: Christmas Spirit is probably my favorite album too. (Although Crayons is a strong contender now too.) But Christmas Spirit is the one I usually turn to when I need… well for lack of a better word, comfort. The night of 9/11 I must have played it a half a dozen times just trying to settle my mind so I could sleep. But Crayons was the first one I turned to in 2012 Go figure?

And now you are set to take the spotlight to celebrate Donna's legacy in a concert on December 31. What's that like for you?

MGB: Honestly I feel like it is an honor to do this for my sister, to let her know how much I love her. And to let her know how much she is missed and loved. I know she will be there cheering me on.

DST: What's it been like picking the songs? Have you been listening to a lot of music or just mainly relying on your memory (and suggestions) to narrow down a song list?

MGB: I've been asking the fans what their favorite songs are, doing research on what songs were hits, and also songs that maybe were not hits by Billboard's standards, but by the fan standards they were definitely fan favorites. It's going to be quite a surprise. I have a few surprises up my sleeve for that evening.

DST: Any hints about the show you’d like to share? Or are you keeping it all a surprise?

MGB: All I can say is you can dance if you want to dance, sing if you want to sing, and come ready to have fun. Donna was the sound track for our lives, Sorry no chance I am telling my secret.

DST: Hmmmm… I'll have to send my spies out to learn your secrets! LOL

Any chance of some recorded highlights from the show for the geographically challenged fans? (I should warn you that if you give us an inch, we will want a mile. One clip will have us begging for the show on Blu-Ray with an accompanying CD and vinyl audio version, and possibly even an extensive tour where you will have to sing for every fan individually. LOL)

MGB: We are trying to work that out now and I'm sure we will probably be able to have a couple of snippets. We have to work out some things though, so I can't say for certain.

DST: As I'm sure you know, the fans have always loved you. I can see the excitement from the guys about the show, about your letter, and about being able to interact with you on Facebook. What's the fan response been like from your point of view?

MGB: The DS family is amazing that's all I can say, words cannot describe how loving, caring and receptive they have been towards me. Maybe they don't even realize that I miss them as much as they miss me, and I feel like it's time for us to be able to enjoy this music that we love so much again.

DST: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with the fans?

MGB: I know many of you will not be able to come to this celebration of my sister's life and her legacy of music but I would ask you one thing. When we leave 2015 and go into 2016 let's roll the New Year in to a Donna Summer song. Choose your favorite one. One that makes you happy. One that makes you dance. One that makes you feel glad to be alive, and let's all bring in this new year in singing to Donna's music. And guess what? We will all be together. Much love to you all and thank you for loving my sister all these years.

DST: Speaking on behalf of the fans, much love to you too Mary, and thank you for understanding our love for Donna, for celebrating her legacy with us, and for letting us love you too.



Be sure to catch Mary on December 31, 2015 at the Old School Square Crest Theater, 51 N Swinton Ave. in Delray Beach, Fl.  Tickets are available at OldSchoolSquare.org, or by calling the box office at 1-561-243-7922 x1. Seating is limited, so get your tickets as soon as possible.
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