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Original 'Dreamgirl' Jennifer Holliday: 'I'm Not Going Nowhere'

Jennifer Holliday at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Amy Ta
Jennifer Holliday at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Holliday won fame by turning a Broadway show tune into an anthem. With her performance of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" in the musical Dreamgirls, she became a star on Broadway. But Holliday's life and career offstage slipped out of control as she battled obesity and depression. After years out of the recording studio, Holliday is back with the album The Song is You. It's due out in January.

Holliday spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about pushing through the difficult chapters of her life, and the message she's trying to send with her music now.

Interview Highlights

Alcohol, drug abuse are "sexier" than mental illness

I'm 53 years old. I never thought that I would be sitting here talking to you. I used to think, I said to myself, "I probably would've had a much better career if I could invent myself something to go into rehab." Because if you're an alcoholic or a drug addict, it's just a sexier thing. And it's just a more acceptable thing. But mental health problems still gets the door shut.

Not only did I try to take my own life, but those of us who are in the spiritual world, others have tried to take my life as well. But God made the difference for me, in the sense that he held onto me, to love me so much, to keep leaving me here. But I still had to choose life, though. I had to fight for it. I continually still fight every day for my life, not only still battling mental health problems, but battling multiple sclerosis, which also has depression as one of its side effects. So every day I wake up, I don't know what it's going to be. I have been blind. I have been paralyzed. But each day if I wake up, then I know he's left me here for a reason, and I have to say yes. And I have to get up. And I have to make the best of that day.

Too fat for videos

I had just been dropped by Geffen Records, and didn't know what I was going to do with my career. And I just kept gaining more and more weight. I had ballooned up to 345 pounds. It was the age of videos, you know, we had just started. So they said, "Well, Jennifer, you can sing but you're unattractive. So if we make a video of you, we'd have to stretch you, or put you in a shadow box and put people around you." And that was the '80s, so dance music was coming up, and all of this kind of stuff. So they were like, "You know we can't make videos with you. So you got a great voice, but no use for you." So they kicked me to the curb. So I said [losing weight] would help. Probably I could have a boyfriend if I lost weight. I could have a relationship. It would just be all right. So they said, "Well, there's this new surgery. It has not been approved yet." And that was the gastric bypass. I was one of the first to have that. So I did that. I lost weight really quickly. Lost all the weight, found out I still had the same issues! [Laughs] Still had the same problems! Two hundred pounds smaller, same issues, OK? Baggage still there! Back to counseling!

Dealing with setbacks

Haven't a lot of us just missed at a lot of things and thought that we wouldn't have another chance at it? So we give up early. So in the process of recording this album, which took me a long time, again I'm met with setbacks and trying to get it out. I had many missed release dates because of so many things in the way. I have health challenges, I have life challenges, just like everyone else. So I think I wanted to ... mainly just say to people that this album is a return for me, but it's more so of how we want to win at life. So yes, you have near misses in love, but does that mean you give up on love entirely? Does that mean you give up on life entirely?

Returning to the recording studio

It was very difficult. ... When I first went in, my producer — he's a young man, about 20-something years younger than me — and he said, "Jennifer, what's wrong?" I said, "They're disrespecting me!" And he said, "What do you mean?" I said, "They don't have the tape up! They don't have anything ready!" He said, "Jennifer, everything goes into this Pro Tools now." I said, "I don't need my voice fixed! What do you mean Pro Tools? I don't need to be tuned or anything!" They said, "No, no, calm down." ... So now my whole future is in a little box in a safe.

Wisdom: Stay to the end

A lot of times we base everything just on our immediate circumstance. We don't see a big picture for our lives. We don't love ourselves. We don't have a way of kind of gauging the future, so we count it lost. Which is what I think is with the young people. Because they get so much so quick now. So they go, "OK, well it can't get no better than this. Let's just chuck away life. Let's just kill ourselves. Let's destroy because it can't get no better than this. I've already had sex. I've already had drugs. I've already lost a job. I've already seen my parents get divorced. I've already — dah dah. What else is there left?" But there is life left. Something that we don't even know ahead of us. ... Don't try to figure out the ending of the movie. Stay to see it. Don't try to figure out how the book ends, because it takes different twists and turns. ... Just because I'm a singer doesn't mean I'm better than someone else. ... That doesn't mean that the gift that I have is better than your gift. Let's find out what your gift is! And I tell people my favorite thing is: It'll get greater later, but you gotta stick around to see your life turn around.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tell Me More Staff