“I wanna rock ‘n’ roll, I wanna be a punk.”
—“The Punk” by Cherry Vanilla
Cherry Vanilla is my hero. Here’s a woman who, through sheer force of personality (and a forceful sense of sexuality) was a success on Madison Avenue in the early ‘60s and an in-demand DJ in the late ‘60s, before deciding that what she really wanted was to be a groupie. Then she starred in Andy Warhol’s infamous Pork on the London stage and became head of Public Relations for Bowie during the early ‘70s before finally realizing her own rock ‘n’ roll dreams by becoming a recording artist in her own right. Did I mention Sting was in her backing band?
Cherry Vanilla has created quite the fun and fabulous life for herself, which she shares in great detail in this irresistible book. Its full title is Lick Me: How I Became Cherry Vanilla (by way of the Copacabana, Madison Avenue, the Fillmore East, Andy Warhol, David Bowie and the Police), and that mouthful is just the decorative swirl on top of all the delicious things Vanilla dishes about in this book.
It will come as no surprise, once you begin reading her story, that she was able to remake herself in the image of the rock stars and artists she admired. She started in advertising, she was a pioneer in publicity. It was her job to reinvent and re-imagine people, and she was, after all, publicist to the most chameleonic artist of them all. If she could help to create complete personas and manage myth-building for Bowie, why shouldn’t she do the same for little Kathy Dorritie?
Kathleen Anne Dorritie was the youngest of four. Parts of her childhood in ‘40s and ‘50s Brooklyn were brutal and abusive, which makes the beginning of the book a bit difficult to read. However, her youth also had moments that shaped her positively. Her mother was a hotel switchboard operator, so she often got to meet the famous guests and attend glamorous events. This is the Copacabana era mentioned in the title, and it gave an impressionable, imaginative girl a taste for the spotlight. Vanilla recalls this as the period in which she first became obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll music. Not coincidentally, this is also when she first felt the pull and power of her own sexuality. Of course, at the time, none of that was acceptable for a good Catholic schoolgirl, so upon graduation, she fled to the city and took a job in an ad agency.
By 19 she was a radio/TV producer and a casting director with several big accounts, because, as it turns out, Kathy had a knack for the advertising business. She also had a talent for getting wild on the weekends. Think Mad Men, only with more sex and psychedelic drugs. This was the dawn of the sexual revolution and she threw herself into the role of revolutionary with equal measures fervent allegiance and fanatical abandon. She discovered that she had OCD, which usually presented itself in picking at sores and scabs, but may have also contributed to her drive and determination in whatever arena she was interested in.
In 1968, Van Morrison and his music became her obsession. As she had drifted away from Madison Avenue, Vanilla started DJing and joined the Theater of the Ridiculous, as well as beginning to hang out at the Fillmore East and really reconnect with rock and roll. She made up her mind that she was going to figure out how to get backstage in the hopes that she might someday meet Morrison in person. As a result of that decision, Vanilla discovered her desire to become a full-fledged groupie.
For many readers, this part of Lick Me will be the most satisfying, because she describes in juicy detail her trysts and affairs with several artists. What sets this apart from other groupie memoirs is that Cherry Vanilla has a stunningly clear vision of her own part in these interactions while they were occurring, as well as goals to which she remains unswervingly devoted. Not to say others who have written about their groupie adventures didn’t have lives, just that they were perhaps less aware of themselves and their lives as individuals while involved with rock stars than Cherry Vanilla seems to have been.
Cherry Vanilla still craved the spotlight, and she was able to use all of her connections and considerable talents in finding it. This is how she got involved with the group of people around Andy Warhol and was eventually cast in his play Pork as the lead, a necrophiliac nurse who spends much of her stage time in the nude. The whole company went to London, where cast members were a big hit with the tabloid papers and Cherry Vanilla refined her gifts for saying the most outrageous things and grabbing the most attention. This was when she initially became close with Angie and David Bowie. Though she had tried on different names before (“Thistle” and “Charlotte Russe” were two), it was also when she began using the moniker Cherry Vanilla.
Back in New York, she started working at Bowie’s Mainman US offices laying the groundwork for his Ziggy Stardust tour. It’s a particularly fascinating period in Cherry Vanilla’s fabulously fascinating life, not only for the Bowie stories themselves, but for the tales of the people and the practices behind the building of a legend. Many of the star-making rumors about, and outlandish quotes attributed to, Bowie during that time came straight from the mouth of Cherry Vanilla. She often wrote pieces for magazines as though she was Bowie, himself, exercising her formidable talents in creative visualization while simultaneously providing another outlet for her writing (she counts Poet among her many titles, and examples of her verses are sprinkled throughout the book as well).
It was with the rise of punk rock that Cherry Vanilla once again felt the desire to be in the spotlight rather than backstage or behind-the scenes, and she began to write and perform cabaret-style nightclub shows based on her poetry and groupie experiences that evolved into shows focusing mainly on her songs. The shows were a hit with crowds, and a couple of years later, Miles Copeland set up tours for with his brother Stewart’s band—yep, the Police—as her backing musicians. She played songs song on these tours named things like “The Punk” and, in a poignant callback to the first name she was ever called other than the one given at birth, the one that probably affected her the most, “Bad Girl”.
The book effectively ends at this point, though Cherry Vanilla of course has gone on to find many more adventures since then. In the epilogue she relates that she finally got a recording contract and released Bad Girl, but she soon after concluded that the thing that had always made her happy was writing. So that’s what she did, she wrote. She’s had other jobs in the past 30 years, including starting a phone-sex business and being a make-up artist. She has run Europa Entertainment, the US office for the composer, Vangelis for two decades. She gave up sex at the age of 40, and says she doesn’t miss it. She still wants to meet Van Morrison.
Lick Me: How I Became Cherry Vanilla is guilt-free pleasure for fans and those mesmerized by the myths surrounding the rock scenes of the ‘70s. Cherry Vanilla’s open, refreshingly frank remembrances of her experiences with rock ‘n’ roll reinvention make this transformative tale all the more delicious. It’s definitely a decadent indulgence, but one which I encourage everyone to taste.