Jennifer Holliday is a gracious and easy-going interview. During a lengthy chat, she handles all the softballs with class and is happy to indulge a few could-be-prickly ones too — her weight fluctuations, career stalls, being religious yet gay friendly.
Only one topic elicits exasperation — Florence Ballard, the Supremes founding member who was ousted from the group at its peak and died a decade later broke and on welfare.
The topic of whether the “Dreamgirls” story is or is not a dramatization of the Supremes story is, of course, one of the dicier discussions in all of pop culture. The similiarities are so profound, even describing it as a theatrical roman a clef seems tame. As if its crafters knew exactly how far they could go without getting sued.
But while some connected to the Broadway production and 2006 film version have been eager to draw comparisons, Holliday, whose character Effie has long been associated with Ballard, will have none of it.
Holliday cuts off a question about whether she ever met Ballard’s three daughters to make a few things perfectly clear.
“This is not the Florence Ballard story,” she says. “I was heartbroken when Jennifer (Hudson, Effie in the film) got the SAG and later the Golden Globe and mentioned her. I was thinking, ‘Honey, Florence Ballard had nothing to do with this.’ I didn’t know the Supremes or anybody, I didn’t know Florence Ballard, her story wasn’t the one in ‘Dreamgirls.’ Even Florence herself, I mean, she had a nice voice, and I’m not trying to brag, but any sort of comparison between her voice and the kind of voice I have or Jennifer (Hudson) has, there would not be any kind of comparison. If anything my personal story, because I could have easily ended up like that, could have easily been more like hers than Effie’s.”
Feeling, perhaps, that she came on a bit strong, Holliday backpedals slightly.
“I’m not trying to cut you off on that, but it’s just something they made up, especially with the movie,” she says. “It’s something that would sound better for them as a story.”
Holliday, who performs two shows this weekend with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington for its 30th anniversary and will replace previously announced Kelly Rowland as the Capital Pride headliner, says she wouldn’t have advised Hudson to mention Ballard in her acceptance speeches. She didn’t when she won the Oscar.
“She probably was not very well schooled and very well rehearsed at that time about what things to say,” Holliday says. “If you go back and look at the countless number of interviews, you see a lot of things were said. It is confusing. It confused me at times too. And I can’t really say what she knew or didn’t know because I wasn’t privy to any of that, but whatever information she had was wrong.”
Fellow founding Supreme member Mary Wilson, who said she loved “Dreamgirls” and even called her memoir “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” is another prickly subject for Holliday, though now that the Supremes/”Dreamgirls” ice is broken, she doesn’t seem to mind.
“Oh yes, we all met Mary backstage,” Holliday says, remembering her nearly four-year, early-1980s run with the show. “She was saying how did we know it was her story and that Lorrell was her and all that kind of stuff. I kind of took it with a grain of salt. I’m not gonna call Mary a liar, I’m just saying we all have our own truth and our own perspectives and you see she went on to call her book ‘Dreamgirls.’”
Holliday remembers playing Vegas later at the same time Wilson was in town. She said it only added to the confusion.
“She had a sign up that she was the original Dreamgirl. I was going to be at the Flamingo, and I was thinking, ‘OK, you’re a Supreme, I’m the original Dreamgirl.’ It was like everybody was confused about their own history.”
It was much less an issue with Miss Ross, Holliday says. Holliday knew her because they shared a manager — Motown’s legendary Suzanne DePasse. Ross never saw the stage “Dreamgirls” and told David Letterman she watched the film version “with her attorneys.”
“She refused to come (see the stage production),” Holliday says. “That was fine because it really wasn’t her story. I think the movie made her more upset because they took more liberties with it. I felt she kind of had a right to kind of put a muzzle on them and threaten to sue because they did go a little too far, I felt.”
Holliday is excited about her appearance this weekend. The concert was a year in the making. She’ll perform her “Dreamgirls” standards and the Chorus will back her on two covers — “Lean On Me” and “I Believe I Can Fly.” The concert will open with a one-act musical that explores themes of family. It was commissioned especially for this show. Holliday will sign her latest album after the concerts.
Jeff Buhrman, artistic director, says Holliday has been great to work with.
“Everyone in the Chorus is extremely excited that we get the opportunity to share the stage with someone who is such an inspirational singer,” he says. “She sings from her heart and her gut and you can feel every emotion. It’s raw. She’s got this amazing ability to connect with the lyrics so we’re all thrilled.”
Holliday, a Tony and Grammy winner, echoes sentiments the late Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner also shared — the gays were there when nobody else was.
“I really feel there would be no Jennifer Holliday or definitely no ‘Dreamgirls’ without the gay community,” she says. “The music business is so up or down, if you don’t have a hit, you’re nobody. This community has loved me unconditionally no matter what. I filed for bankruptcy, I didn’t have a hit record for many years, I was off the radio and off the radar in a lot of eyes, but not with the gay community. I was able to work and keep my dignity and this community welcomed me unconditionally.”
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington
30th Anniversary Concert
‘And I Am Telling You’
Saturday at 8 p.m.
Sunday at 3 p.m.
Lisner Auditorim at George Washington University
Tickets — $25-$35