She's Still Unusual: 'Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir'

Press photo

Cyndi Lauper's autobiography is full of crazy moments and smart-ass remarks, but it's also a cautionary tale about strong women vs. the music business.

Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir

Publisher: Atria
Length: 338 pages
Author: Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-09

I don’t know what planet Cyndi Lauper really comes from, but it’s great that she has adopted Earth as her current residence. Her funny, large-spirited memoir is full of crazy moments and smart-ass remarks, but it's also a cautionary tale about the problems strong women encounter in the music business.

She was raised in a working-class section of Queens, the New York City borough that gave us the Ramones and Simon and Garfunkel, and she is half-Sicilian. That’s a combustible combination. Her book begins on a somber note: She left home at 17 because her stepfather was a Peeping Tom. She made sure to leave dinner in the oven for her younger brother.

Her real father played the harmonica and her sister Elen, Cyndi’s first singing partner, played the guitar. Cyndi learned guitar chords from a book, fell in love with the Beatles and the Supremes when she was nine, and always felt like she was an alien. Or perhaps, as she speculates, she suffered from undiagnosed ADD.

For kids from Queens, Manhattan was only a subway ride away yet always seemed out of reach. After Cyndi flunked out of high school, she had to take various dead-end jobs, including one as a “gal Friday the thirteenth” at the same publishing house that is now publishing her memoir.

Lauper recalls her pre-celebrity years with gutsy honesty and an authentic Queens accent, ably assisted by journalist Jancee Dunn. First, she headed for Canada with a sleeping bag and an ax (for chopping wood). Another stop: Vermont, where she was a mother’s helper and wound up on welfare.

Even after she was able to enroll in a local college, she never had enough money. So she sang for her supper in forgettable bands. Back in New York there were numerous misfortunes. She got pregnant and had an abortion. While singing in a cover band, she was raped, a story she tells in graphic detail. Yet she never gave up. She lost her voice repeatedly but found herself a vocal coach who taught her how take proper care about it. She sued to break a bad contract with one band; In the courtroom, the judge “took the gavel, hit the desk, and said, ‘Let the canary sing.’”

Lauper, obviously, was anything but an overnight sensation. In 1983, facing her 30th birthday (although she does not mention her age) she cut the tracks for the album that became She’s So Unusual. She credits her success less to radio or MTV than to the wacky marketing strategy of promoting “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” at pro wrestling matches. It worked.

Finally, Cyndi Lauper was a star. Hoping for a hit, she delivered an anthem in "Girls Just Want to Have Fun".

As a longtime feminist, she quickly discovered blatant sexism in the music industry, not just from executives and producers but from male rock stars. (Two she names are Bob Dylan and Ron Wood.) Men, she feels, viewed her as “frightening because when I saw women being pushed down or objectified I said, ‘Fuck no! That’s chauvinism. I’m not allowing that.’”

Despite winning a Grammy and selling millions of albums, singles and DVDs, she spent much of her career battling producers and record companies for her own vision. “I really should have shut up sometimes. But of course I never did. I mean listen: I’m not Saint Cyndi," she admits. “I used to say I was Saint Cyndi of a Feces, because wherever shit fell, there I was.” She could not believe that after hearing her sing, producers ”thought I was a delicate flower.”

When men fight to be true to their muse, it’s considered creative. When women do it, they are labeled difficult, Or worse. Lauper acknowledges she operated “without a filter”, describing run-ins with everyone from from record company executives to actors, from Bruce Springsteen to Steven Spielberg, A spitfire? Believe it. Diplomatic? Not in her vocabulary.

Four of the songs on She’s So Unusual became Top Five hits. She pioneered a singular style, a punk persona complete with wild costumes and hair, while Lady Gaga was still in diapers. How satisfying it felt once she became a star that “the same mental idiots who threw rocks at me for what I used to wear” wound up buying the same kind of outfits.

The title track of her next album, True Colors, reached number one. Nevertheless, there were plenty of bad moments afterward. The only reason she did not commit suicide, she insists, was because “I never wanted a headline to read, GIRL WHO WANTED TO HAVE FUN DIDN’T.”

Meanwhile, another Italian-American singer, one with as much blonde ambition and a lot more savvy, grabbed the spotlight. At first, many listeners believed Lauper, not Madonna, was the likeliest candidate for megastardom. But Madonna knew how to game the system. Lauper gives her props for that. “She was so smart about business and marketing (I never was) and she always was, and still is, beautiful,” Lauper writes.

Offered every chance to disrespect her supposed rival, Cyndi declines; “My feeling was, you don’t fuckin’ knock another sister, ever.” She does not pretend the two became good buddies. At one industry event she told Madonna she thought “Like a Virgin” was great. “She was nice,” Lauper writes, “but it was a really short exchange. I never could have a conversation with her because she always had lots of people protecting her.”

What might have blossomed into a sensational career became a bumpy ride, personally as well as professionally. The diamond ring given her by longtime manager and boyfriend Dave Wolff “might as well have just been a gold watch for ten years of service.” Perhaps the only conventional side of Cyndi Lauper was that she wanted to get married, and have a house surrounded by a picket fence with a piano in the living room.

Eventually, she found the right guy, David Thornton. (At her wedding, Little Richard was the minister and her grandmother was maid of honor.) Their marriage has lasted more than 20 years and they have a son, Declyn.

Arguably more important than her bittersweet post-True Colors years is that Lauper used her celebrity for a cause very early on. She contributed unstintingly to the fight for gay rights. It went beyond monetary support; she appeared in Gay Pride marches with her lesbian sister, and founded the True Colors Fund, which helped to build a residence in Harlem for LGBT homeless kids.

Sales of her later albums were disappointing. To some critics, nothing beyond True Colors has lived up to her early promise. However, when she watches pink-haired Nicki Minaj striking a pose on Saturday Night Live, Cyndi Lauper declares: “Give me shit all you want, but I inspired stuff like that.” Yes you did, Ms. Martian. What's more, this memoir, wisecracks and all, is just as original as your image.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

In 'Downsizing' Shrinking Means Big Money and Bigger Problems

Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing (2017) (Photo by Photo credit: Paramount Pictures - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

Being the size of a dog's chew toy might not be to everybody's taste, but it's certainly a shortcut to a kind of upper middle-class luxury unobtainable for most of humanity.

Just imagine you're a character in Alexander Payne's circuitous and occasionally perceptive new comedy Downsizing: You were pre-med, but you dropped out of school to take care of your mother. Now you're an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks. You and your wife are treading water both economically and in your relationship. But still, you face every day with just enough gee-whiz optimism that life never quite turns into a grind. But then, something happens. Some Swedish researchers figured out a way to shrink the average human down to a mere five inches tall without any adverse side effects. There are risks to avoid, like not leaving metal fillings in during the shrinking process (exploding heads, you know).

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.