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Sophie’s choice

‘90s hitmaker returns after seven years with new album



Sophie B Hawkins, gay news, Washington Blade

Sophie B. Hawkins released her first studio album in seven years last week. (Photos courtesy Trumpet Swan Entertainment)

How hard is it in this day and age to bounce back from a pop music career misstep? One likes to think pop culture — America ultimately voting with its pocketbook of course — eventually rewards and rediscovers the deserving.

One thinks of Kelly Clarkson who managed a comeback after the ill-advised downer (though it still went Platinum) 2007 album “My December.” And love her or hate her, Mariah Carey beat the odds with the monster-selling “Emancipation of Mimi” after her epic “Glitter” failure (both film and soundtrack).

But what if your supposed misstep isn’t even a bad album? Sophie B. Hawkins was well on her way to establishing distinguished career by the end of the ‘90s. She was red hot right out of the gate — “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” which hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1992, is a defining song of the era. She was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy that year (co-nominated with Billy Ray Cyrus, Kriss Kross and Jon Secada; Arrested Development won). She survived the sophomore jinx with another mammoth hit “As I Lay Me Down,” a VH-1 staple from her second album “Whaler” that peaked at No. 6 during a 44-week run on the Hot 100 and a whopping 67 weeks (six at No. 1) on the AC chart. Unless you were in a convent that year, you heard it many, many times.

With that kind of start, the sky was conceivably the limit and expectations ran extremely high for her 1999 follow-up, “Timbre.” But trouble loomed — it’s a famous story, actually: Hawkins’ then label (Sony) only reluctantly released first single “Lose Your Way” with a banjo accompaniment. They argued it was poison for pop radio. Hawkins said it was essential. Though re-released independently in 2001 and followed by an indie follow-up called “Wilderness” in 2004, Hawkins lost her commercial, but not her artistic, footing. “Wilderness” turned out to be an unfortunately apt title — she spent years wandering.

Perhaps this wasn’t a total surprise, though. Anybody who’d paid attention knew Hawkins had a wild streak. She shimmied and writhed like a woman possessed on her duet with Melissa Etheridge on the latter’s VH-1 special in 1995 with a slate of then-hot female singer/songwriters like Joan Osborne, Jewel and Paula Cole. Those who caught Hawkins in concert knew of her penchant for the unconventional. As her audiences got smaller, her jeans got more shredded, her stream-of-consciousness stage meanderings more fluid. She wrangled memorably with Howard Stern about why she doesn’t shave her legs.

Though she’s long shunned labels for sexual orientation, the fact that she’s been in a same-sex relationship with filmmaker Gigi Gaston for several years (Gaston’s “The Cream Will Rise” follows Hawkins on an early tour) is one of the more conventional aspects of her persona. And it’s easy to forget that her wildly eclectic albums are full of intricately crafted and sometimes epic, sometimes disarming power pop that at times rivals Joni Mitchell’s best stuff for complexity and lyrical depth — check out “Mysteries We Understand,” “Only Love” “Help Me Breathe” and “I Need Nothing Else” especially.

Her hit singles are only part of the story. An early MusicHound review said, “Dig (further) than (the hits) and her abilities to seamlessly weave in and out of jazz, folk and dance, all driven by a kind of tribal percussion sensibility (emerge).”

But Hawkins, now 44, is starting to sound her age. Not vocally — her singing still has the luster that struck her chart gold all those years ago, but her insights during an hour-long phone chat last week show a woman who’s thought long and hard about life, pop culture popularity cycles, music making in the Internet age and much more. With no apparent time constraints, Hawkins gamely goes anywhere the questions take her and beyond, from hair tips and why she’s a dog person to the deeper story behind the banjo battles and her still-complicated relationship with her mother (explored memorably in “Cream”). The impetus for all this is her interminably delayed new album “The Crossing,” her first collection of new material in seven years, which dropped last week.

“People were always telling me, ‘Oh, you sold out with ‘Tongues and Tales,’ or, ‘Oh, you sold out with ‘Whaler.’ I’m not saying ‘Tongues and Tales’ was just art for art’s sake, but that was really the best I could to try and reach people,” Hawkins says. “Those albums were the least weird I could possibly be. You want your music to reach people, you want it to get out there to as many as possible, otherwise it’s too isolating. It’s like masturbation, you’re not doing it with anybody.”

Hawkins considers herself part of a group of ‘90s women singer/songwriters — she mentions Paula Cole and Tori Amos as peers — who barely “squeezed through” the music industry gate before the doors shut altogether, from the advent of file sharing to endless label buyouts that left precious few major players in the game. Yes, there are still women hitmakers — Rihanna, Adele — but they’re few and far between and getting younger all the time.

“I think everybody knew what was going to happen, the chilly winds were already blowing,” she says. “I felt with the first album like, ‘Wow, I really got away with something’ in spite of all this. Then with ‘Whaler’ it felt like that again, although that was really the beginning of the fight. … In the ‘90s, it really started turning against the individual artist into this totally corporate thing in every way. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m with this group, I’m with that group, this is Sophie’s sound, this is the lesbian sound, the country artist, the right wing, the left wing — I feel like several of us just barely squeaked through in spite of all that.”

And yes, some of that line of thinking is what’s led Hawkins to shun traditional LGBT labels.

She admits she and Gaston have been in an exclusive relationship (Gaston is also her manager), but says a lack of general perception of nuance causes her to avoid certain language.

“It’s because nobody listens,” Hawkins says. “They just want to say it, and shut up and not hear any more about it. I love the word bisexual but it has such a negative connotation, I don’t know why. It’s like this big, scary thing for people so I’ve tried to come up with something that’s what I really think I am … I’m definitely not heterosexual or homosexual, I love men and women equally and passionately. I’m just having a relationship right now with a woman and I think there are very few men I could have a relationship with. I’m a very singular person. I’m committed to this woman, but if I were not, I’d probably be alone.”

The years since “Wilderness” have not been inactive for Hawkins. She became a mother — her son with Gaston, Dashiell, is 3. She popped up at the Grammys pre-show as a presenter, campaigned avidly for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, released several singles along the way including one (“The Land, the Sea and the Sky”) as a benefit for the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group.

She released a live album and her song “Life is a Bomb” was on the soundtrack for the 2011 Garry Marshall film “New Year’s Eve,” a feat Hawkins says was wildly against the odds. She also tweaked “The Crossing” endlessly as the years went by and various proposed release dates came and went. Hawkins says it’s “a miracle” the album came out at all.

She also worked with Gaston on a musical for Kristin Chenoweth that’s on hold until Chenoweth’s producer of choice is available and she has high hopes for an October musical in Los Angeles (Hawkins lives in Venice, Calif., and has been on the West Coast for more than a decade) in which she’ll star as Janis Joplin.

Hawkins says she knew instinctively, she was supposed to do the Joplin piece.

“My reaction was just, ‘Yes,’ and I never say yes to anything right away. I just think there’s something I can do with Janis that will speak to every creative person out there who feels overlooked or treated in a way that’s not fair. … If we can get this ball in the basket, I have a good feeling about this, I think it could be a slam dunk. It will be so relevant to now, it really gives me a freedom I cannot even tell you.”

Hawkins guesses, counting the Chenoweth musical and “The Crossing” material, she’s written about 300 songs in the last seven years. The album will include acoustic remakes of “Damn” and “As I Lay Me Down.” Hawkins has a distribution deal with EMI for the release.

Hawkins says she’s a huge dog lover because she could never have one as a kid. She loves them because there’s “no barrier” to their affection and presence.

Of her trademark abundant tresses, Hawkins says her only hair care tip is to avoid washing it as much as possible. She insists hers looks best when it’s been weeks since the last shampoo.

“That’s when I always get the most compliments, people saying ‘Oh, you have such great hair.’”

She’s also realistic about “The Crossings” commercial prospects. She says she’ll never stoop to giving her music away but realizes the chances of duplicating her early chart success are practically nil.

On one hand, Hawkins says her art (she paints too) is something she “couldn’t not do.” Conversely, she says it’s Gaston who has urged her to continue against increasingly difficult industry and commercial odds.

“She’s so much more than a manager,” Hawkins says. “Things bother her more than they bother me. Oh, believe me, I would have just gone away by now and written and painted by myself if it weren’t for her. I don’t think I could have survived but she tells me, ‘You’re not giving up, you’re a great artist, it kills me that people don’t see this.’ She really takes it on as one of her missions.”

So in hindsight, was the banjo battle worth it?

Hawkins says the story has gotten oversimplified as a kind of cautionary tale for supposedly overambitious pop singers — as in, “Remember Sophie B. Hawkins? Look what happened to her.”

She says it was more an issue of increasing pressure to write songs in huge groups of collaboration Hawkins found unwieldy and artistically stifling. She says she would have agreed to remove the banjo line for the radio version and kept it on a remix or B-side version (“Believe me, all those scenarios were discussed”), but push came to shove when label execs put their foot down over her using it for a live TV appearance.

“It was really the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she says. “It was such a clear thing to me. They were taking away my horse, in a way. I thought, ‘I can’t ride into battle without my horse. I can’t win without the horse.’ It just made me realize we weren’t on the same team anymore. … They were no longer rooting for me to win, they were trying to destroy me.”

Hawkins says she’s learned to find rewards in non-traditional places. Even though her relationship with her mother is still every bit as complicated as it was portrayed in “Cream,” Hawkins says there are sparks of healing and inspiration there too.

“There are artistic people out there struggling who never make at all,” she says. “So when somebody tells me they get it, it’s like winning an Oscar. My mother called me the other day and told me she’d listened to the new album. She said she’d felt it, whatever it was, this profound thing in the music. If your parents are alive and you get that, that’s my Grammy.”



Quito and the Galápagos on Celebrity Flora: blog #5

Darwin was right, it is an amazing place.



Celebrity Flora

The last full day of our Galápagos cruise dawned bright, with clear skies. The weather would change during the day. After breakfast we boarded tenders and were told it would be a dry landing. That meant we didn’t have to get in the water to get off the tender. Instead, we got to a very nice dock on the Island of Santa Cruz, in the middle of a bustling town. We were informed by the naturalist with us the population of the Island was about 25,000. We then boarded a bus for the short ride to the Charles Darwin Station, Giant Tortoise Breeding Center. We were greeted by a life size seated statue of Darwin. It was really interesting and we got to see more giant tortoises, and baby ones as well. The Center was really close to town and they told us we had an hour to walk back to meet our bus for the next part of the day. I am sure the goal of the walk was to have us shop at the various stores along the way. Some were really nice, while some were typical tourist shops. While I rarely buy anything on my travels, as I have learned after many years, whatever I buy often ends up boxed up in a closet. But many did shop, and a couple of my traveling companions bought some really nice silver jewelry.

We had been told where to meet the group, which was back at the dock, for the second part of the day. We again got on busses, and headed to a tortoise preserve in the highlands. On the way we stopped for a Scalesia tree planting activity. It is a restoration project supported by Celebrity. We each got boots to put on, two baby trees, and a trowel. Then were led into the forest to plant our trees. On the way back to our bus, my group was stuck behind a giant tortoise, who was meandering along the same path we were taking. It was fun to watch him, until we could finally walk around him, and be on our way. 

Then back on the bus to the El Manzanillo Ranch and tortoise preserve. There are a lot of tortoises on Santa Cruz Island. At the ranch we had a great buffet lunch, and were treated to entertainment, a wonderful dance program by kids in a folk-dance group. They were fun to watch. The program for the day called for us to then take a walk through the preserve. But during lunch the rains began, and they came down in buckets. So many of us chose to pass on the walk, get back on the busses, and head to the dock in town. We had been told the tenders would be running regularly and that we had up to three hours to stay on the Island and shop. I don’t know anyone who did. It was still drizzling and we all decided to head back to the ship. We heard later from the final group that came back, those who chose to take the walk through the preserve, that they nearly got stuck on the farm. There was so much rain it was washing out roads, and they needed to bring out two by fours to get the bus, and the people, out of the mud. Thankfully they did finally get out of the mud, and back to the ship.

We had a nice relaxed evening on The Flora and were treated to a slide show of pictures, taken by the naturalists, of our group, which they shared with each of us the next morning. Sunday morning The Flora headed back to Baltra Island, and we headed to the airport. It was time to say goodbye to the wonderful crew of The Flora. Of course, Captain Patricio who I have written about. But then the ship wouldn’t be the same without John Flynn, Hotel Director. From the moment we stepped on board, John was everywhere on the ship. He was always smiling and ready to answer any question someone had. He clearly kept things running superbly. He is an amazing guy. Then Boris Peralta, a Maître D. He is a really nice guy and it was incredible how many of our names he remembered, always greeting me by name. He was smiling at 6:00 am when I went for coffee, and again at the door to the dining room for dinner. Then there was Guillermo, one of the dining room staff. He was charming and also was always smiling. Always ready to bring a coffee, or anything else you needed. As I mentioned in a previous blog, there were nine naturalists on the Flora. They were all great. One who stood out to me, and answered any question I would throw at him, was Sebastian.  Clearly the competence and professionalism of the crew on The Flora, made all the difference to our great week on the ship.  

At the airport we all checked in to our chartered flight back to Quito. But there, some of the group, were heading to Peru, and on to Machu Picchu, while many of us would spend another day, or two, in Quito, before heading home. Those of us in Quito had dinner in the hotel, courtesy of Celebrity, and then on Monday, a group of us headed to the botanical gardens. It was a really nice relaxed day. But for me it was an early night, as a group of us were going to meet in the lobby of the hotel at 3:00 am to head to the airport for our 6:00 am flight to Miami, and connection to DC. That will be a separate column as I got bumped from 1st class on the Miami to DC flight, and am still debating the issue with American Airlines. So far, I have spoken to four people and got four different reasons for being bumped. Not a great look for American. But that small issue, couldn’t stop me from thinking, all-in-all, it was an amazing eleven days in Quito and the Galápagos. I got to spend time with good friends, and meet some wonderful new ones.  I would recommend a trip to the Galápagos to anyone. Darwin was right, it is an amazing place.

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Gay figure skater Colin Grafton shares his story and his dream

Boston native is contestant on British television’s ‘Dancing On Ice’



Colin Grafton (Photo courtesy of Grafton's Instagram page)

For a second year, Boston native and professional figure skater Colin Grafton is carving up the ice on British television’s “Dancing On Ice,” and now he’s doing it as his authentic self. 

“I told my closest friends. I told the people around me and I eventually told my parents,” Grafton, 32, recalled in an interview with PinkNews, in which he discussed coming out as gay. “I was maybe 24 when all that happened. I know there’s a lot of curiosity about my sexual orientation and my love life, but I never actually came out to the public,” said ITV personality. 

“I guess this is me announcing it to you guys.”

Grafton, who has been skating since he was 7, reflected on how watching Tara Lipinski win an Olympic gold medal at the 1998 Winter Games inspired him to pursue this career. But being a male figure skater was “really tough” in the 1990s and 2000s, he told PinkNewsUK.

“I remember feeling so nervous at various points in my childhood,” said Grafton. ”I’d be skating and the hockey players would come and bang on the side of the rink and shout words. That was something all male skaters had to deal with back then. It wasn’t easy but all of it made me stronger because I took it and focused everything on my sport.”

Grafton’s focus catapulted him to competing for Team USA, winning a bronze medal at the Junior U.S. championships in 2012, with his former partner Kylie Duarte. The memory of those who taunted him only fueled him to work harder. 

“When somebody tells you, you can’t do something, or somebody makes fun of you, just prove them wrong.”

Grafton ended his competitive career in 2013 and transitioned to professional skating, leading several European tours, and even becoming a coach. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel very fortunate about the fact that I’ve been able to kind of dabble in so many different areas in the professional world, but tour life is quite hard, all the travel and being away for so long,” he said. “So, when ‘Dancing on Ice’ came up, I jumped on it.” That was in 2023. 

The program is broadcast Sunday nights on ITV’s Channel 3 from studios in Bovingdon, a village in Hertfordshire about an hour northwest of London. During that first season, Grafton made history being paired with “RuPaul Drag Race” star The Vivienne, the first drag performer on the show and the first time “Dancing On Ice” featured a same-sex team. They made it all the way to the finals, finishing in third place.

“Being a part of that representation, being a part of that team, it was just wonderful,” he said. “The support we got from everyone was just fantastic. If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the impact that it would make in the end.”

And at the conclusion of last season, Grafton finally found time to read the many messages of encouragement from fans, as well as from viewers who wrote, “Seeing us helped them and gave them the courage to either come out or be themselves,” he said. “It was truly something.”

And now, as a regular on the show’s 16th season, Grafton has decided he wants everyone to know who he really is, and in doing so, show others they are not alone. 

“If I’m honest, I never really felt the need to announce it before, but the reason I am saying this now, is because I want to show that there is representation in any way I can”, the TV personality explains.

Along the way to self-acceptance, Grafton revealed he had a lot of “small steps and small triumphs” leading him to finally feel comfortable being himself in the public eye. “It was on my own terms,” he said, and feels “blessed” to have found support among friends. 

“It’s been a long journey but now I am proud of myself and I’m proud of my sexual orientation and I want to let other people know that they should be proud of every part of themselves too,” said Grafton, acknowledging he had concerns about coming out publicly. “I was really nervous of doing that to myself. It was like, ‘OK, if I come out as gay then people are going to think I’m this or that,’ when in reality the human sexuality spectrum is so vast and it’s just one small part of the person you are.”

But appearing in primetime on such a popular TV show means that Grafton is the target of speculation about his personal life. He admits to having “lived and breathed skating” until finally getting in a relationship at age 24, around the same time he decided to come out to friends and family.

While that lasted two and a half years, Grafton’s frequent travel commitments and work on the ice left him no other chance for love. “I just didn’t really have an opportunity,” he said. “You might meet someone while you’re on a contract for six months and after that, you’re both off in different directions, so, I wasn’t really able to hold down a relationship because of that.”

But now that London is his home, Grafton told PinkNewsUK he feels ready to settle down. His perfect match? Someone local and appreciative of his business obligations. 

“We live really crazy fast-paced lives as skaters,” he said. “Personally, I want to meet someone who is also fast-paced and able to keep up with that, but they don’t have to be a fellow skater. I just want someone who supports me and I can support them, too.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all just humans doing our thing on this planet and trying to find love.”

Until he does, Grafton said he is excited to keep skating on television.

“I absolutely love ‘Dancing on Ice.’ Every season that I’m asked to do it, I feel like I’m blessed and I feel very lucky to be able to keep doing the show. I would love to continue doing it while I can or while my body allows me to as well,” he said. And when it doesn’t? Grafton imagines he might try his hand at acting. 

“I think that’s what life is all about,” he said. “Learning new things and pushing yourself to do other things.”

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Tony Thomas brings ‘Tempestuous Elements’ to DC

Ann Julia Cooper play will be at Arena Stage through March 17



Tony Thomas (Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas)

‘Tempestuous Elements’
Through March 17
Arena Stage 
1101 Sixth St., S.W.

Tony Thomas isn’t shy about his talent. The accomplished choreographer says, “With every show I work on, the artists continue to grow. They leave wanting to keep moving and to expand that part of their artistry.”

Over the years, he’s successfully carved out a niche as a choreographer of plays with music and/or movement. For many of these “playsicals” as he whimsically dubs them, his creative credit reads “choreography consultant.”

Once an actor who danced a lot, he’s now passionate about helping other actors do the same. Currently, he’s serving as choreographer and associate director for the world premiere production of “Tempestuous Elements,” at Arena Stage’s in the round Fichandler space. Penned by Kia Corthron and staged by Psalmayene 24, it’s the true-life story of Ann Julia Cooper (played by Gina Daniels), a Black principal at D.C.’s historic M Street School who, against all odds, fights for her students’ rights to an advanced curriculum. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Is this a D.C. story?

TONY THOMAS: In part. It’s more a story of its time. Anna understood she was poised to be somebody, but still feel the pushback. Superintendent white doesn’t approve of the classic curriculum she’s created for Black students. Hers is a turn of 20th century Black middle-class life with high tea and much finery. More importantly, Black people are being seen as human beings. It’s an opportunity to really be someone, but the fight isn’t over. People are boxed in another systemic way.

BLADE: And how does choreography work within a play?

THOMAS: With plays, I need to demonstrate the choreography. The actors want to see it. It’s not like with dancers when we speak the same vocabulary. 

I realize energy is one of my selling points. I’ll be 45 in April and apparently my turns and jumps are still on point.

BLADE Is there a difference between beautiful movement and not just actor movement?

THOMAS: There’s a difference. With “Tempestuous Elements,” I taught them a little ballet, warmed them up and imbued them with the dignity needed for the story they’re about to tell. Some of the cast already move like dancers while others understand tempo. When choreographing plays with movement, you have to trust the actors. 

BLADE: Is that tough for a trained dancer?

THOMAS: No, not really. I have a concert dance background — ballet, modern, jazz — and have studied with Debbie Allen, Shawn Cosby and Mike Malone. I don’t expect that level of training from actors. I like the freedom to move and put their characters into it. They’re not like ten concert dancers who need to look like one person. They are moving as characters — students, different adults.

BLADE: For a decade, you stepped away from showbiz? 

THOMAS: I stopped in my mid-20s. I turned Ailey down twice. Then I went to art school and pursued a degree in interior architecture at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. 

BLADE: And you returned theater? 

THOMAS: Now I do both theater and interior architecture, but in 2012 friends dared me to come along on an audition for the Broadway “West Side Story.” Well, I did and I booked a national tour. That got me back in the business. Not long after, I played Richie in “A Chorus Line” at Olney Theatre. And around 2015, I did “The Shipment” with Psalm, and ever since I’ve done all of the choreography and movement for his plays.

            BLADE: Tell me how you connect with “Tempestuous Elements”?

THOMAS: Who was your first teacher? We asked the actors to come to this production with that in mind, and to let that warm their hearts as we developed this original piece.

I grew up as a child actor doing TV, film and theater shuttling back and forth from D.C. to New York, and I took that from my mom who was an actor, singer, and dancer. I watched her teach, dress as a clown and put on parties for kids, and there were all sorts of performance-related things that I learned from her.

BLADE: And does that continue? 

THOMAS: Oh yeah. Increasingly, I enjoy being the process. I’ve grown past the point of just coming in and doing my job. I feel more invested. More and more, I want to be part of the creation process.

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