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Sophie’s choice

‘90s hitmaker returns after seven years with new album

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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.”

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Arts & Entertainment

Rehoboth Beach welcomes Christopher Peterson back

Drag legend to perform weekly beginning July 4

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Christopher Peterson, drag, gay news, Washington Blade
Drag legend Christopher Peterson. (Photo courtesy Peterson)

Christopher Peterson will celebrate 25 years of performing his brilliant show EYECONS when he brings it back to Rehoboth Beach this summer. He will be at Clear Space Theatre every Saturday at 10 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m. from July 4 to Sept. 5.

I have seen the show a number of times over the years from when he performed at the Renegade showroom (youngsters may not remember the Renegade out on the highway) to now at the Clear Space Theatre, so I am biased in saying it is always worth the price of a ticket. In fact it is worth a lot more because Christopher is an amazing talent. In addition to his own show he can be seen in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” at Clear Space.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Christopher. He has lived in Key West, Fla., for years and performs there during the winter and when he isn’t booked around the country. Christopher told me he was born Moncton, New Brunswick but grew up in Halifax (actually Dartmouth across the harbor) Nova Scotia, Canada 58 years ago.

We talked about gay life today and I asked him when he came out and he responded: “in the womb.” He told me he always knew who he was even before he knew you could call it gay. He told me he was lucky and grew up in a family that always accepted him for who he was. I asked him if he was excited about coming back to Rehoboth and he told me he sometimes thought of this as his final ‘widow tour’ as it is his first time back at the beach since he lost the love of his life, James Mill, in September of 2019. They were together for 35 years and James was not only his partner in life but in business. Many in Rehoboth knew James and will miss seeing him at Christopher’s side. He was a beautiful man.

Christopher has been called North America’s greatest female impersonator and though I haven’t seen all of them, I have seen enough to thoroughly concur with that. He not only impersonate the characters, he seems to become them. He never lip-syncs but sings their songs and talks in their voice. Christopher once said his only vocal training was in high school and in church choirs but you would never know that when listening to him sing. Christopher also designs all of his own costumes and they are incredible. It’s amazing how quickly he can change from Marilyn Monroe and become Cher with just a new gown and new wig that he has stashed in the closet at the side of the stage. The transformation is mesmerizing.

Over the years he has impersonated so many iconic women, including Marilyn Monroe, Carol Channing, Madonna, Joan Rivers, Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Cher, Bette Davis, and Lucille Ball. He will add a new character once in a while if he feels comfortable having tried them out — one being Lady Gaga.

I asked him if he has a favorite character and he said, “That’s like asking me if I have a favorite child. These are all my children and they each represent something special to me.” He said, “as an example Streisand is the voice and Garland is the heart.” I remember he was once quoted as saying Judy Garland is his favorite to do and since he told me she represents the heart it didn’t surprise me as Christopher has a big heart. He often saves her for the end of the show and when you see her you leave wanting more.

I asked Christopher about the weirdest thing that ever happened during his show. He told me the story about an evening during the show, when he talks with an audience member, he leaned over the stage and began to chat with a table on the right of the stage and asked an older gentleman, Christopher called him Mary, how he liked the show. After saying he loved it the next thing Christopher saw was Mary keeling over. Turns out he had a heart attack. Christopher said he told the audience there would be a pause in the show and asked if there was a doctor in the house. One came forward and attended to the man and called 911. The gentleman seemed to recover and after they took him out on a stretcher the show went on. Christopher said this has happened more than once at his shows. Maybe it’s the excitement.

I asked him if any of the women he impersonates have been to see the show and was surprised when he said no. I would think any of those still alive would be honored to see how Christopher does them and shows them off so well.

This will be an exciting summer in Rehoboth and Christopher is prepared for visitors to come to the show and still follow any restrictions in effect for the pandemic. The theater has said it will continue to abide by all COVID restrictions in order to ensure the safety of both the actors and the audience. Clear Space Theatre has been doing this all winter and doing it safely.

I urge anyone who has never seen Christopher Peterson to get your tickets early as anyone who has seen him will be buying tickets to his shows and you don’t want to miss this chance to have a great fun evening in the theater.

Christopher Peterson as Lucille Ball. (Photo courtesy Peterson)

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Television

‘Halston’ promises sumptuous look at rise and fall of a fashion icon

Gay designer defined women’s style for an era

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Ewan McGregor as Halston and Gian Franco Rodriguez as Halston’s sometime lover, Victor Hugo. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

When we hear the name “Halston,” our first thought is not likely to be of his status as an LGBTQ hero – except in the sense that he designed clothes for best friend Liza Minnelli.

Yet Roy Halston Frowick, who became the first “celebrity designer” in a career that defined women’s fashion for an era and paved the way for the age of influencers by making his identity synonymous with his brand, can be clearly seen today as a queer pioneer. A gay midwestern boy whose grandmother gave him a love of sewing, he rose to fame after designing the famed pillbox hat worn by Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s 1961 inauguration, and spent the next decade building a reputation fueled by the celebrity of a growing list of famous clients while honing a style that combined functionality, elegance and comfort in a way that seemed perfectly in tune with the rising women’s liberation movement.

The empowering ease and “effortless” sex appeal of his designs came to epitomize ‘70s style, a signature feature of the Disco Era that has cast its not-so-subtle influence on every generation since, and the fashion house he started became legendary in an industry that was still tightly controlled (like every other industry) by straight men. It was an accomplishment that might have gone unheralded by most at the time, but which historical perspective reveals as a groundbreaking moment in the LGBTQ community’s rise from the shadows.

Unfortunately, Halston’s fall from glory – marked by his loss of control over the company he started, through a series of corporate acquisitions that might fairly be described as nefarious – and subsequent 1990 death from AIDS-associated Kaposi’s sarcoma still largely overshadows his reputation (if not the fashions he created) in the popular imagination. But thanks to the arrival of the new Netflix limited series “Halston,” which drops on May 14, that is about to change.

Created and directed by Emmy-winner Daniel Minahan, the five-episode biographical portrait stars Ewan McGregor as Halston, and follows the legendary designer as he leverages his single, invented name into a worldwide fashion empire synonymous with luxury, sex, status, and fame, literally defining the ‘70s and ‘80s era New York in which he lives, before a hostile take-over forces him to battle for control of his most precious asset – the name Halston itself. McGregor is joined by a cast that includes Bill Pullman (as Halston’s business associate David Mahoney), Krysta Rodriguez (as Minnelli), Rebecca Dayan (as Elsa Peretti, another close Halston friend), Gian Franco Rodriguez (as Halston’s sometime lover, Victor Hugo), David Pittu (as Halston illustrator and creative director Joe Eula), Rory Culkin (as Joel Schumacher), Kelly Bishop, Sullivan Jones, and Vera Farmiga – and as even a quick look at the publicity shots of each of them in full costume for their roles is enough to verify that the series has gone out of its way to meticulously recreate the look and feel of Halston’s glamorous world.

The series found its way to the screen thanks to Minahan’s interest in “Simply Halston,” a bio penned by Vanity Fair writer Stephen Gaines. Working with producer Christine Vachon, he began work on adapting the book as a feature-length film, but the scope of the story made honing it into a two-hour-ish running time a daunting task, and the idea was shelved. The option on the book then passed through a series of other hands, but when the rights became available again, Vachon approached Minahan with the idea of revisiting the project as a mini-series, and, as Minagan says, “it just clicked.” It wasn’t long until Ryan Murphy reached out (through Alexis Martin Woodall, president of his production company) to express his interest, and things “started moving very quickly.”

“Working with Ryan is a unique experience,” says Minahan, who previously worked with the powerhouse producer on “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” “He draws the best out of people, and he demands excellence from everyone who works with him. He has an uncanny sense for story, and I’ve been fascinated for years by the tone he’s able to strike in his work and the depth of emotion that he’s able to express.

He also says Murphy had “a unique relationship” with the material that helped inform the end product. “[He] grew up in Indiana […] then he worked building an empire as a gay man in a corporate world as Halston did, so he was really generous with his experience. A lot of that made it into our scripts. We were very lucky to have him be involved.”

As for McGregor, Minahan says that although he had considered a whole list of actors for the starring role, the “one and only meeting” he had was with the popular and prolific Scots actor. Though McGregor identifies as straight, he has long been an LGBTQ ally, with a history of sensitive and insightful performances in gay roles (most notably the fictionalized amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed he portrayed in Todd Haynes’ glam-era fantasy, “Velvet Goldmine”), and according to Minahan, his work as Halston is nothing short of immersive.

“Watching Ewan transform into Halston was fascinating,” he says. “When he arrived in New York, he asked for a room where he could work undisturbed with some props — True cigarettes, which are the same brand Halston smoked, cigarette holders, Flair pens like Halston used, scissors, fabric, a black turtleneck, a tape measure, and some yellow lined notepads.” The actor also worked with costume designer Jeriana San Juan, acquiring a detailed familiarity with the technical minutiae involved with designing and assembling clothes – even going so far, according to San Juan, as studying her eye movements while she worked “so he could better track his eyeline when he’s designing as Halston in the show.”

Of course, it’s one thing to capture the physical reality of a true-life character, and quite another to infuse that character with an inner life that honors their experience. From the fabulous ferocity he displays in the show’s trailer, the versatile star of movies as wide-ranging as “Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge,” and the middle “Star Wars” trilogy looks to have delivered a career-topping performance – and if there’s any doubt whether he can convey the authenticity required to illuminate the drive that took Halston to the pinnacle of the fashion world when it was still run by a conservative and closed-minded “boys’ club,” his delivery of the line, “I’ve been an outsider my entire life, till one day I just stopped giving a flying fuck,” should put it to rest.

With what could become one of the season’s most acclaimed performances at the center, and its sumptuous depiction of an iconic era through San Juan’s costumes and the world-building of production designer Mark Ricker, “Halston” looks to be a benchmark for “prestige” TV in 2021.

In any case, thanks to the enduring fascination its subject and his legacy still hold for millions of fans and admirers, queer and straight alike, it’s sure to be at the top of a lot of “must watch” lists when it debuts on May 14.

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Books

Laundry is his love language

New book explores author’s fascination with clean clothes

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‘Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore’
By Patric Richardson with Karin B. Miller
c.2021, Flatiron Books $25.99/185 pages

Tomorrow’s outfit is on a chair over there.

That’s where it’s been since you last washed it. What you wore today came from a basket and off a hanger, the shirt needed ironing, there was a tiny stain on the pants but who noticed? and you just bought new socks, so there’s that. Time to do the wash? Yeah, but get a load of this: “Laundry Love” by Patric Richardson (with Karin B. Miller).

In one of his earliest memories, Patric Richardson’s uncle holds him aloft so that Richardson could watch laundry swimming in the washer. He was almost a baby then, but the fascination was set: at age three, Richardson was “over the moon” when he received a toy washing machine as a birthday gift. He remembers that it was Harvest Gold.

Growing up, Richardson absorbed washday secrets from an extended family of women and he learned the appeal of laundry hung on a line outside. While at the University of Kentucky, he met three professors who taught him about textiles, and employers educated him further. Love of fabric eventually became Richardson’s career and laundry is his love-language: “caring for your loved ones’ clothes shows them love.”

The first thing to know, Richardson states, is that “our clothes are bossy.” If something you enjoy wearing says “Dry Clean Only” on the label, lay it on the kitchen counter, grab a pair of scissors, and cut that label off because, “anything can be washed at home.”

Here, you’ll learn how to save time on wash day. Find out why big-brand-name detergents are unsafe, and see what you need to care for your clothes properly. Learn to iron, eliminate horrible stains, wash woolens and other awkward-to-clean items, and see how to rescue yellowed linens and special-event clothing like a pro.

Remember, says Richardson: “You don’t have to do laundry – you get to do laundry.”

These days, though, author Patric Richardson doesn’t “get to” very often. His husband, he says, does their wash while Richardson runs a clothing store and offers “Laundry Camp” at the Mall of America. But since not everyone can be a happy camper, there’s “Laundry Love.”

If you’re thinking that a book about joyfully washing clothes would be a mighty skinny book, you’re right but laundry is only a part of this story here. The rest is biography, and a love-letter to Appalachain and southern women. In giving props to the women who raised him, Richardson shows how his interest in fabric grew, too; the subject of textiles, which may be perceived as mundane by many, is treated in this light as something precious and accessible.

If you come for the biography, you’ll be glad you stayed for the hints as Richardson shows how even the most delicate items can be safely home-cleaned. That fur you love? Done. That stinky-perfumed vintage item you found? Clean. Ahhhhhhh, so pick up the undies in the corner, use grandma’s linens, shop thrift stores with impunity. Go ahead, fear-free. Having “Laundry Love” should take a load off your mind.

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