Is there a singer more real than Patti LaBelle? The 73-year-old legend of song (and shade) is a firehose of strong-minded opinions, and in an age that has some tight-lipped “divettes,” as LaBelle calls them, refraining from saying “too” much, the ever-honest LaBelle is, refreshingly, that rare freewheeler who revels in being blunt AF.
In 2014, she told me she no longer considers herself a diva because “all these little heifers who can’t sing are called divas.” The word, she observed, is not “cute anymore.” Now, after our recent warm phone reunion while doing promo for her new jazz album, Bel Hommage, she who has given the gays so much, from music and pies to a bevy of side-eye-serving GIFs, still has more to give – even her own precious pie-making time.
“I really like talking to you,” she tells me when I start to wrap the interview. My allotted time has long passed, but she’s not done. And by the end of our 25-minute interview we’ve covered generous ground: why she’s “still standing” thanks to the LGBT community, President “Trumpette” and his Twitter-proposed ban on transgender people in the military, her music-biz foes (and how Aretha Franklin is not one of them) and how you “may see me as a diva and that’s a compliment to those who think it’s a compliment.”
Q: Last time we had a gay press chat it was shortly before you had me twerkin’ on your stage here in Detroit. I still can’t believe you let me do that. What’s the craziest thing a gay fan has done on your stage?
A: Gosh, I don’t really know! Maybe you! I know I’ve had a lot of gay men on my stage during Lady Marmalade and they go way out because once they’re up there they say, “I’m here with Ms. Patti’s microphone and I’m gonna wear it out.” I’ve had so many do so many things that I can’t tell you specifically one.
Q : I don’t know if he was gay, but in Vancouver last year, a fan got frisky on your stage and…
A: Showed me his ass?
Q: Is that what he did?
A: Yeah! He mooned me! Because he came up and I was looking at him through the whole show and I said, “Oh, he’s an enthusiastic fan,” right? I try to look at the people that I’m gonna bring up, so I brought him up thinkin’ he was cool. He did his little shake and then turned around and pulled his pants down. I had on high pumps. I kicked that ass.
Q: You even called him a “bitch.”
A: I did! I did use a curse word. And I felt so bad. He took me to that limit. I said, “How could he take me there?” And they had it on TMZ or whatever. I said, “It’s true.” Gotta protect myself. (Laughs)
Q: I was happy to see that you did NYC Pride this summer. Is there something special about performing for an all-gay audience?
A: That night it poured, so when Deborah Cox was on she did three songs and then had to be rushed off the stage. It could’ve been shut down ’cause it was so bad. Everybody got drenched. So instead of my going on at 9, I went on at about 10:15… and they were still there!
My whole thing is, when I knew I was doing gay Pride, I said, ‘I’m gonna wear something beautifully outrageous, and I’m gonna have that old Patti LaBelle hair that I used to do with the fans and all that jazz. I said, I’m gonna wear that hair! And from the time I went on until the end, they never stopped yelling for more. I mean, when we were pulling out in our car, they were still, “More, more, more!” They were so enthusiastic. But what I did: I wore that old hair, and a lot of people who didn’t know me from the ’80s – we got some bad press for it – and I said, “You know what, I did that for my queens. They understand it.” It was for you guys. But I enjoyed doing it. And then the wind knocked that sucker down. I said, “OK, I’m gonna have to kick it up.” (Laughs)
Q: Ha! Who would give Patti LaBelle crap for her hair?
A: People who didn’t really understand where I was in the ’80s. You know, some of the younger kids – they don’t have a clue who Patti LaBelle or Labelle was.
Q: So what do they know you for?
A: I have no clue.
Q: I’m thinking, “But that is part of your legacy.”
A: Yeah, they’re Patti latecomers.
Q: Speaking of Deborah Cox, a lot of people don’t know that Montell Jordan wrote “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” but you didn’t love it and then it went to Deborah…
A: Deborah always says I’m her reason for being in show business because I let the song go and she got it. That’s her start. After that, I started performing that song at my show and told the audience, “This is the song that got away.” But I’m happy it did because I love her.
Q: Have you given up a lot of songs that became hits?
A: Right?! Well, this is the first time for me. But I’ll know the next time to hold onto something that sounds halfway decent.
Q: I read Hello, Dolly! came your way years ago, before it hit Broadway, but that you passed on it. When the role ultimately went to Bette Midler, were you kicking yourself for not jumping at the chance?
A: Nope, I didn’t. ’Cause you know what: That’s a big piece of work and I think Bette Midler can do it much better than Patti LaBelle. I thought about it after she did it. Might I do it in the future? You never know.
Q: Do you pay attention to the memes and GIFs of you throwing shade that people love to share on the internet?
A: Yeah, I see them. And you know what, I’m honored! (Laughs) And whenever I see something that’s not totally positive about me, I say, ‘God, at least they thought about me.’ It’s really the way to look at these situations. But at the end of the day I know who I really am… and that’s a cool chick! (Laughs)
Q: Has your son given up on keeping what you say in check?
A: Well, he tries. Lately, he hasn’t had to because I’ve not been saying anything out of order. But I know he’s always waiting and when I do he’ll take me to the side: “Mom, could you not say that ever again?” I say, “OK.” Something happened about two weeks ago and I’m trying to remember what it was. This time it was about… God, what did I do? I’m always doin’ something and he’s always reprimanding me for it.
Q: Do you ever regret things that you say?
A: My God, about 50 million things. I’m full of regrets. But you know what, I’m honest. So it will come out and I’ll say, ‘God, I didn’t mean to say that.’ But it’s too late. And I’m not gonna whoop myself up for it. I did it and I’ll do it again. I know I’ll do it! I do have my little cop son watching me, so I try to be nice.
Q: Three years ago you told me you don’t call yourself a diva because “all these little heifers who can’t sing are called divas.” But then, after that interview, you did VH1’s Divas Holiday: Unsilent Night last year and then Daytime Divas this year. Now, Ms. Patti, I feel like you’re sending me mixed signals here.
A: (Laughs) No – no, mixed signals! If I do Daytime Divas, which I did, and if I did Divas the concert, of course, I’m gonna be in it, but I’m not saying, “I’m a diva.” People look to me and may see me as a diva and that’s a compliment to those who think it’s a compliment. Like I said, Lena Horne and Dinah Washington and all those beautiful dolls back in the day, they were divas. These little divettes walking around – I don’t wanna put myself in the same sentence with some of these little kids. So, I’m not a diva; just a singin’ fool.
Q: People are under the impression there’s rivalry between you and Aretha Franklin, but you recently quashed that rumor when you said, of anyone, you’d most want to duet with her. Why do people think you had a beef? And what’s the deal with women constantly being pitted against each other?
A: I’m not gonna be pitted against any lady in this industry. I do my job, I sing hard and I sing well, and I love what I do. If another lady finds that as being too much for them, or whoever might feel I’m being too much, that’s their problem. But I’ve never had beef.
Now, there are a lot of ladies in this industry who don’t care for Patti LaBelle – and some gentleman, also – but I look at them and I smile. Because what can I do? I can’t change your mind, boo, because I don’t wanna change your mind. You go on thinkin’ about me the way you think. No – but I haven’t had beef with anyone. I’ve had a lot of dislikes. But I pay no mind. I keep moving and I don’t stop to talk about the ones who talk about me.
Q: Let’s talk about food. You know how people say gays don’t eat carbs?
A : Gays don’t eat carbs – who said that?! Every gay guy I know, they eat carbs. (Laughs)
Q: And they eat your pies?
A: They eat my pies, honey! And my peach cobbler. You have to go to Walmart, or I’ll have to come and make you one personally. One more thing about food: I start taping my cooking show soon and Laverne Cox is one of my cooking buddies.
Q: Regarding Bel Hommage: If there’s ever an album that pays homage to you the way you pay homage to artists such as Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra on this album, who would get your blessing to cover your songs?
A: Oh, I would give Fantasia blessings. And Ledisi. The little singing girls. The ones who can really, really sing.
Q: What does it mean to you to be able to “really, really sing”?
A: Someone who can sing without someone in the studio tweaking what they just sang because it was so flat or whatever. Sing straight out in the studio, record without all those little gimmicks. Some of them are lucky because they end up selling a lot of music, but a singer is a person who goes out there and throws down. Just get on a microphone and sing. Phyllis Hyman was that girl.
Q: Would you still regard a “singer” as someone who can throw down in the studio but lip-syncs live?
A: Oh, a lot of them lip-sync. But they lip-sync and they do it so well you can’t tell that they’re doing it. But I can always tell. I can always tell. I’ve never done that.
Q: What gives them away?
A: Their mouths sometimes miss the movement! (Laughs) Your mouth should be making a certain movement when you sing a certain note, and they miss sometimes. But that’s what they do for a living. I don’t do that.
Q: So we’ve got Fantasia – who else is on this covers album?
A: Ledisi, Andra Day, Emeli Sandé and Leela James – my God, that girl can sing. I love these ladies.
Q: Why have you never duetted in the studio with your goddaughter, Mariah Carey?
A : I don’t know. We always talk about it when we see each other.
Q: Maybe you two can hook up for a song on your dance album, which I believe is in the works. Hopefully we don’t have to wait as long as we waited for this jazz album.
A: Right?! Not 10 years, that’s for sure. I have not started working on it. I’m working on a Christmas album at the moment and old R&B favorites of mine from back in the day. And that… the uptempo music, I call it (laughs)… that will be done as soon as I do something with these other two projects, but it’s definitely in the mix.
Q: Will it be for the gay clubs?
A: Oh yeah, for the gay clubs. You know what, I was so angry with myself when I did NYC Pride. There was a song that I recorded many, many years ago called “Land of the Living.” I meant to do that that particular night and we didn’t have time to rehearse it, but I’m gonna put stuff like that back in my show.
Q: Why did you want to perform that song at NYC Pride?
A: Because there are so many gay men who were there who might be going through something with life. You’re in the land of the living, so act like you’re living. I just know what gay men go through and I wanted to put that song in the air, but I will.
Q: There couldn’t be a more perfect time. There is so much happening in the world. Maybe you heard, but Donald Trump said trans people are no longer able to serve in the military.
A: I know! My friend told me. They’re banned from service, according to the Trumpette. Ain’t that a witch.
Q: Do you think about your legacy, Patti?
A: I just want to be honest and truthful, and I want people knowing that when I did whatever I did, it was all the way. Never half percent, always 100 percent. One-hundred percent in everything: my cooking, my dressing, everything. If I can’t go all the way, I won’t go halfway. I have to go all the way. And just how honest I am – they can remember that. The more honest I am, the better I get by, the more things come to my plate. Everybody knows that if you give Patti something, it’s gonna be quality. That’s just how I work.
Q: Any last words for your gay fans?
A: I just want all of my gay fans to know that I will always be here for them the way I am: honest, to the point, and loving my gay fans even more and more each day. I mean, when I think about it, the gay fans are some of the reason – one big reason – I’m still standing, ’cause they loved me when other people tried not to. Everybody always says, “What makes gay men like you?” “I have no clue,” I say. I still don’t. But I know that love has lifted me up for many, many years. As long as I can stand on stage and my gay men and lesbian women see Patti LaBelle as someone who’s always been honest on stage – you know, I’ll stop and have to go to the bathroom and I’ll let them know I’ll be right back. A lot of cutie girls stand up there and they pretend for the hour or however how long and that’s just gross. It turns me off.
Q: They pretend like they wanna be there?
A: Yes! And everything you see of them is gonna be mechanical. Gladys Knight – she’s a raw girl. And whenever you see Gladys, you’re gonna see a different Gladys. If you just saw her show five nights in a row, she will not do everything the same.
Q: You just want something real.
A: It has to stay that way.
Chris Azzopardi is editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service, and has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).