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Music & Concerts

A conversation with Vanessa Williams

Actress/singer in D.C. for Howard Theatre double-header



Vanessa Williams, gay news, Washington Blade

Vanessa Williams has dabbled in so many fields, she says she’s always intrigued to find out where fans recognize her from. (Photo courtesy the Howard Theatre)

Vanessa Williams

DJ Baronhawk opens

Friday, March 10

7:30 and 10 p.m.

Howard Theatre

620 T St., N.W.


Star of stage and screen Vanessa Williams makes her Howard Theatre debut performing two shows Friday evening (March 10).

Williams, whose career spans 30-plus years, is known for her roles in the TV series “Ugly Betty” and “Desperate Housewives” along with motion pictures such as “Soul Food” and “Eraser.” Along with her film credits, she has appeared in many Broadway shows and released six solo albums spanning a multitude of hits.

Vanessa has just wrapped up a new series on VH1 entitled “Daytime Divas” and is hitting the road this month for a handful of concert dates.

During a phone interview Monday while in Minneapolis promoting her spring clothing line for Evine, Williams talks about performing, still being starstruck and her signature song, “Save The Best For Last.”

WASHINGTON BLADE: Friday brings you to the Howard Theatre for two shows. Are you looking forward to your first time at the historic venue?

VANESSA WILLIAMS: I’ve been doing dates for a long, long time and it’s always great to do different venues. Every room has a different feel. That’s why live and theater is so exciting because the audiences are kind of informed and I switch up the set on how I feel the audience is leaning. I may do some more R&B if the audience is more of an urban crowd. I might do more Broadway or standards if it’s a benefit or a gala. It’s always curious to see who ends up showing up and tailoring the show to what I feel is going to be their likes.

BLADE: Do you prefer theaters to clubs or outdoor arenas?

WILLIAMS: You know, each venue is a unique experience. My first experience on tour was in 1997 with Luther Vandross and we did arenas. It’s a huge operation and everyone has their tour buses and we’re all pow-wowing before the shows and in-between shows, eating and exercising together. It was a like a little village camping out every time we set up in a different city. That was really wonderful and I have so many great memories of that. I love doing outdoor venues. It’s the summer time and smelling the barbecue off in the distance. It’s hot and balmy but people are in their picnic chairs ready to enjoy the day. That’s a whole different kind of thing. The breeze is blowing through your hair and it’s a lot more casual and relaxed. Then there’s the concert venues where I do symphony dates and I have a full orchestra behind me and feel very professional and classy. It’s also another opportunity to do a different set and do some Broadway stuff with the full orchestra. A theater allows me to kind of interact with the audience in a very intimate way so they can hear the hits, they’re not blasted away by the huge speakers and they can sing along and have a personal experience.

BLADE: One of the last times you were in D.C., you performed for Diana Ross at the Kennedy Center Honors. How did that come about?

WILLIAMS: I’ve done two Kennedy Center tributes. One for Tony Bennett and I did “The Best Is Yet To Come,” which was amazing, then I got the call to do Diana Ross and sang “Touch Me In the Morning.” Hanging out with her afterward at her table with her kids, she asked me if I wanted to buy her house in Greenwich and I was like, “It’s OK I got my own house about 20 minutes away, I’m cool” (laughs). I worked with her on Motown Returns to the Apollo in ’85 and I was playing Josephine Baker and sang “La Vie en Rose” and I think she played Billie Holiday. She was definitely there and that was the first time I met her.

BLADE: Do you still get Starstruck?

WILLIAMS: Oh yeah! There’s plenty of people that are legendary that walk into a room and truly have a presence and take all the air out of the room. I remember the first time I was at acting class out in L.A. studying with Donna Strasberg and one of her dear friends was Sophia Loren and I just couldn’t breathe. She was not only stunning, but she’s one of those movie icons. I saw her couple years later and age for her I guess stopped years ago, because again — she’s stunning and so elegant and has such a presence. That was the same thing I felt when I first met Lena Horne and I could barely speak and she goes “It’s OK honey, it’s OK.” (laughs). I definitely still get starstruck.

BLADE: Do you feel your music career is sometimes overshadowed by your acting career?

WILLIAMS: No. I think there’s a time and season for everything. Particularly when I first started recording, I was 25 years old, had one child and we’re talking 30-odd years later and I’m still in the game. Whatever presents itself to me at the time, I’m up for the challenge. I just finished doing a series for VH1 and it’s kind of coincidental because I started out in my recording career hosting a show for VH1 called “The Soul Of VH1.” Twenty years later I’m back on the network playing a character in a series so it’s nice to be able to do so many different things and have options. I’ve always been able to come back to my music, Broadway, television and find a home in a show that seems to be perfect.

BLADE: You’ve done pretty much everything in your career. How does it feel to have different generations recognize you for different things? Some know you as Miss. America, others as Wilhelmina Slater (from “Ugly Betty”) — how does it feel to have such a broad fan base and continually gain new fans?

WILLIAMS: It always surprises me who recognizes me when I’m walking through an airport or outside walking down the street because being 53 years old, I assume people my age know me, but I got a whole set of young folk that know me from “Ugly Betty.” I go across the world and I was in South Africa and people recognized me for being a desperate housewife and in Australia they know my music. It’s unbelievable! “Elmo In Grouchland” for the young kids growing up knowing me as “The Queen of Trash.” I’m always curious to find out where they know me.

BLADE: Why do you think gay men are attracted to you?

WILLIAMS: Both my parents were music teachers and my mom had many gay friends. Some were teachers, hair stylists and lawyers. My father was completely open and generous and had no issues at all so I came from a family that was completely tolerant and exposed. When I started doing musical theater in high school and college, many of my friends were gay. They helped me choose music and amplified my diva ability to be a chanteuse and be a bigger sex symbol than I probable felt natural to be, but they highlighted it. I’ve always been surrounded by the gay community so there was no real transition for me. I remember my first grown-up gift was a bottle of Opium Perfume which I thought was so, so, so grown up! (laughs). It was from one of my parents’ friends who was a lawyer and drove a gorgeous Porsche and he had a beautiful apartment with padded silk walls and there was a sense of style and elegance that he represented. That was the first time I equated style and panache and femininity with a gay man.

BLADE: Your last album, “The Real Thing,” came out in 2009. Any plans for new music?

WILLIAMS: I would love to have new music come out. I think the past two or three labels I was talking to and in negotiations with, they fell apart. My genre is kind of disappearing. From going R&B to pop to I guess you could call it adult contemporary to smooth jazz is kind of dried up. There’s not many stations that play what’s normally been my lane for the past 10 or so years. It’s difficult to find a place in terms of a new label. The recording industry is completely changing so a lot of people are self-producing and self-distributing so I haven’t quiet figured out what my next move is, but I do have a lot of ideas and I’m definitely open to recording more music. I’d love to actually work with my daughter (Jillian Hervey) who’s a recording artist and doing incredibly well. To do one song with her would be great. The name of her band is Lion Babe and she’s killing it.

BLADE: Does she ever come to you for advice or you give her advice from your experiences?

WILLIAMS: Well you know, my kids are lucky because they’ve been behind the scenes of every genre. They’ve been in my dressing room when I was on the Broadway stage, on tour with me, in my trailer whether it’s television or movie sets. They understand how hard the work is, they understand the commitment, being professional, showing up on time and knowing your stuff. Jillian kind of got her sea legs — not sea legs, but her vocal chops/recording legs when she graduated from college and was looking forward to being a professional dancer. I had some dates in Japan and she said, “I wanna go,” and I said if you wanna go, you have to sing and she learned everything on the plane and learned the in-ear monitors and how to work the mic, do multiple shows a night and take care of her voice, so she started being on the road with me right after college and that was an easy transition.

BLADE: Are you surprised 25 years later that “Save The Best For Last” has becoming your signature song?

WILLIAMS: No. When I recorded it, I knew it was a great song, I knew that it would do. I had no idea it would do as well as it did. I guess those are the best surprises in life when you enjoy it, having a good time and it explodes and you’re not expecting it. That’s when it’s really sweet. It still holds up. When I sing it, people sing along and it’s like karaoke time. It’s great to have one of those signature songs as part of my repertoire.

BLADE: Do you feel there’s anything left to conquer?

WILLIAMS: Hmm … (pauses) … actually, I’m going to be directing season two of “Daytime Divas” for VH1 which is going to be exciting, so that will be my next step. The show’s airing later on this spring and I’m starring in it. It’s about a day time talk show called “The Lunch Hour” and I’m the producer and star of the show. It’s great to be back on television.

BLADE: What are you most proud of?

WILLIAMS: My kids. Ask any mother (laughs). I look at them and it’s great to see what you hope and dream for them all come to fruition. They’re all doing their own unique thing, they’re all very creative and I’m glad I could bring them into the world.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Shawn Sauerwine

    March 10, 2017 at 9:54 pm

    Great interview Brian! I think it paints a great portrait of what it is to be a very successful, professional entertainer who is focused, hard working, and far more flexible and open to change than I ever would have thought- from someone of her stature. Excellent! Thank you!
    -Shawn S.

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Music & Concerts

5 little questions for bounce queen Big Freedia

New tour comes to D.C. on Sept. 29



Big Freedia plays D.C. next week. (Photo by kathclick via Bigstock)

There wasn’t much good news coming out of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in 2005, but bounce music queen Big Freedia changed that narrative when she returned to the Big Easy to uplift community spirits with her high-energy stage performances. 

She was already well known in the area, having made a name for herself on the Crescent City club scene, and she was just starting to break out nationally. Fast forward a decade to 2016 and she was a full-fledged star featured on Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and Drake’s “Nice For What” in 2018. In 2021, after a lengthy hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Freedia is bigger than ever, with a current tour and a new album, “Big Diva Energy.” The D.C. stop on the tour is Sept. 29 at Lincoln Theatre; tickets available at

WASHINGTON BLADE: You have a penchant for purses. What’s a favorite in your own collection, and what’s one you can’t wait to get your hands on?

BIG FREEDIA: Michael Kors is one of my all time favorites, but I can’t wait to get my hands on the new Tory Burch tote that I ordered. It’s burgundy and I cannot wait for it to arrive!

 BLADE: You always have the wildest looks. Where does your style inspiration come from? What’s one place you love to source your pieces?

BIG FREEDIA: My looks are inspired by anything and everything I see. I can be at the grocery store, watching a movie, or touring in a new city and get ideas and style inspiration. My secret sourcing spot is on Melrose Avenue in L.A. I won’t tell you the name though; it’s my secret.

BLADE: You’re also a gun-violence activist. Your brother was killed a few years ago by gunfire, and you’ve been shot yourself. A documentary on the subject called “Freedia Got a Gun” – starring you – is available to stream on Peacock. Was this a cathartic project for you?

BIG FREEDIA: I haven’t the slightest idea how to solve the awful gun violence problem we have in America. I do believe in prevention though, and I know that mental health is a very important part of it for our Black and LGBTQ+ youth – all youth. If kids have hope and opportunities, a life of violence will be much less likely. I am very much an advocate of mental health services and support in our communities. 

BLADE: What do you have planned for your fans that have waited so long to see you on tour? 

BIG FREEDIA: A Big Freedia show is a big party, so they can expect an even bigger party since we’ve been in our homes. Extra energy, extra Bounce! All I can say is please BE VACCINATED if you come to a show and let us all celebrate safely. 

BLADE: Tell me all about your next album. Are there any fire collabs in the works?

BIG FREEDIA: I’m very excited about my new project. It’s called “Big Diva Energy.” I wanted this to be my album and reflect my voice, so I didn’t get collabs. My homegirl, Boyfriend, is on one track. We’ve worked a ton together this year, but she’s the only one.

Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBTQ lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.

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Music & Concerts

Live music returns to D.C.

9:30 club, The Anthem, Fillmore, and more fill up calendars for fall



HER performs at the Anthem on Oct. 25.

Fall is almost here. And, with cooler weather fast approaching and more people getting vaccinated, many venues have decided to go full force with their programming. Here are a few events you should make sure to mark in your calendar. 

The Anthem

Juanes will grace The Anthem’s stage on Tuesday, Sept. 21 for his Origen Tour. The show begins at 8 p.m. and tickets can be purchased for $55 on Ticketmaster. 

Other fall highlights include: Violent Femmes with Flogging Molly on Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m.; Dead Can Dance on Oct. 11 at 8 p.m.; HER – Gabi Wilson on Oct. 25; and former TV anchor Katie Couric brings her book tour to the venue on Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m.

9:30 Club/Merriweather

Bob Mould returns to 9:30 to perform along with Kestrels on Sept. 18; Tinashe brings her “333 Tour” on Oct. 3; Alec Benjamin sold out his first show on Oct. 4 so a second has been added for Oct. 5; and for all the ‘90s fans, White Ford Bronco performs Oct. 15. 

“92Q End of Summer Jam Featuring Future” will be at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19. This event will feature prominent artists including rappers Future, City Girls, Moneybagg Yo, and 42 Dugg. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the concert begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are selling for as low as $99, and you can purchase them on Ticketmaster.

U Street Music Hall will present Luttrell on Saturday, Sept. 25. At 10:00p.m. D.C. DJ Sabeel Cohan will also play a set at the show. Tickets are available on Ticketmaster and cost $20. 


Jack Harlow, who recently featured on gay singer Lil Nas X’s song “Industry Baby,” will be performing at Fillmore on Saturday, Sept. 18 for his Crème de la Crème Tour. Babyface Ray and Mavi will be performing as well. This standing room only event begins at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $29.50. For more information, visit Fillmore’s website.

Tanzanian superstar and BET Best International Act award nominee Diamond Platnumz will perform on Sunday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets are as low as $39.99 for general admission. This event is a standing room only event. More information is available on Fillmore’s website.

Fillmore will also present Nigerian singer Omah Lay on Monday, Sept. 27. Tickets are $27 and doors open at 8 p.m. This is a standing room only event.

Dance Gavin Dance will play at Fillmore as part of their Afterburner Tour on Wednesday, Sept. 29. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets can be purchased for $29.50 on Fillmore’s website. 

Howard Theatre

Jay Electronica and Smoke DZA will perform at the Howard Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. A-King will host the event. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the concert begins at 9 p.m. Advance tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Howard Theatre’s website.

Grammy Award-winning singer iLe will bring some bolero tunes to the Howard Theatre on Friday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets cost $39. Visit the Howard Theatre’s website for more information. 

“The Biggest ‘90s Party Ever” will be hosted on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 8:15 p.m. Join the Howard Theatre in your best ‘90s-inspired attire for a night of nostalgic vibes and ‘90s tunes. Advance tickets are $34.99 and tickets purchased the day of the event will be $60. For more information, visit the Howard’s website.

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Music & Concerts

Musical adventurer Rufus Wainwright returns to touring, plays D.C. Sept. 28

From Judy to Shakespeare to opera, gay wunderkind embraces it all



Rufus Wainwright says critics considered his 2020 album a ‘seminal’ project. (Photo by Tony Hauser)

Rufus Wainwright and Jose Gonzalez
Unfollow the Rules in the Local Valley Tour
The Anthem
901 Wharf St., S.W.
Tuesday, Sept. 28
8 p.m. (doors: 630)

After some artistic detours — in 2018, a second opera; before that, an album of songs based on Shakespearean sonnets in 2016 — Rufus Wainwright returned to his “regular” music in July 2020 with the release of his 10th studio album “Unfollow the Rules,” which was critically embraced and nominated for a Grammy.

A live album of the “Unfollow” material dubbed “The Paramour Sessions” was released Sept. 10.

Wainwright, 48, spoke to the Blade by phone on Sept. 1 from Nashville where he had a City Winery show that night as part of his “Unfollow the Rules Tour.” He joins Jose Gonzalez for the “Unfollow the Rules in the Local Valley Tour,” a co-headlining, 10-city mini-tour, next week. They play The Anthem on Sept. 28. Then Wainwright, who’s been publicly out since his eponymous debut album dropped in 1998, will resume his solo tour next month in the U.K. His comments have been slightly edited. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: You’re back on the road. What have the audiences been like?

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Well, they’re very excited. … There’s definitely a palpable sense of appreciation and excitement. And it’s good to be back.

BLADE: Do you feel safer singing more of the new album now that it’s been out a year and people have had time to absorb it? Is that easier than trying to sing more of it when it’s just out?

WAINWRIGHT: I definitely enjoy the whole kind of common knowledge thing now that exists with this album. And certainly having this other record, “The Paramour Sessions,” to promote as well, which is just another take on some of the same material. One can also go on a bit of a deeper dive. You know, this album actually did very well critically, it was nominated for a Grammy and a lot of people consider it a seminal work for me. I think it can handle that stretch.

BLADE: Do the new songs dovetail fairly naturally with your older songs in a set?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I mean, this album is very much related to my first album. I’m not going to be doing my first album in the show, but it’s kind of a return to my California roots. You know, where I began my career over 20 years ago. The songs are answers in a way to some of the questions raised on the first album. … I’m not singing them back to back or anything, but a lot of my fans have followed me from the beginning so we all get it.  

BLADE: How did “Unfollow the Rules: The Paramour Sessions” come about?

WAINWRIGHT: When the album was released, we still wanted to do something special online so we made this film doing a lot of the songs with a smaller ensemble at this incredible Hollywood mansion. This was at the height of the pandemic, possibly slightly illegally in the sense that we weren’t necessarily supposed to be working. But people needed to do something, you know, to get their heads out of the chaos. This was last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests and just the heat of those fires that were about to ignite, there was a very intense atmosphere and I do feel strongly that some of that drama is possibly on the recording. At least I think there’s this sort of depth there that can only come out of something like that. 

BLADE: Did it seem relatively easy returning to quote-unquote pop music after writing opera? 

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. One of the great gifts of me writing opera, which I will continue to do intermittently, is that it gave me a whole new appreciation of where I came from and all the freedoms I have in the pop world. I’m very grateful for my work in the songwriting universe and all the freedom that comes with it. 

BLADE: Are you co-headlining this tour with Jose Gonzalez?

WAINWRIGHT: Yes. It will be nice to be out with a brilliant songwriter and singer. It’s been a while since I’ve done this sort of thing. When I began my career, it was more the norm to be part of a lineup. 

BLADE: Do you know him? Will you sing anything together?

WAINWRIGHT: We haven’t met but I think it will be a very emotional meeting in a way, because it’s been a long time coming. 

BLADE: What was it like revisiting the Judy (Garland) album last summer and on her birthday no less? (Wainwright recreated Garland’s famous live Carnegie Hall album in 2007.)

WAINWRIGHT: It was a thrill. How many people can claim to have sang the same songs in the same room where she recorded a lot of them and on the actual microphone that she used with Renee Zellweger (who won an Oscar for the 2019 biopic “Judy”) as a captive audience. So yeah, I just felt a lot of gratitude and felt very privileged to be able to go on that journey. So yes, in honor of Judy, but the main thread that I’m actually worshipping is the material itself whether it’s Gershwin or Berlin. They inspire me, as a songwriter myself, to keep the bar fairly high. 

BLADE: You’ve hinted in other interviews that you want to write a Broadway musical and perhaps a ballet. You’ve written two operas. Where does this drive come from to conquer such ambitious and disparate art forms?

WAINWRIGHT: Well obviously with COVID, touring was suspended for a while, so it was a chance to try to advance the Broadway jalopy, which I’ve been trying to do for a while. There are about three or four projects that I have in the works that unfortunately I can’t talk about too much, but what I can say is that there is a wholehearted effort going on to, you know, secure my place on the Great White Way one way or another. It’s something people have been after me to do over the years because they say my music already has that sensibility. So I’m finally kind of doing my homework now. 

BLADE: And whether it’s Broadway or opera, what are the gatekeepers like in those arenas? Since you’re a known entity, is it easy to at least get a pitch meeting? How does it work?

WAINWRIGHT: Well they’re very different. I’m happy that I went into the opera world first. My first opera has been done seven times all over the world and my second one has other productions coming, so it’s been a success. Not everybody adores my work, but it made an impact and it seems to be continuing on so that’s all you can ask for anyway. I’m happy I did it, but it’s a very, very tough battle. The standards are very, very high, which is actually a good thing. With Broadway, I think there’s a whole financial element to it where people are looking to make a fortune off of these shows, so that’s kind of new for me and something I have to be cognitive of. 

BLADE: You said in another interview that the classical world could be poisonous at times. How so?

WAINWRIGHT: I meant it was the opposite of what I believed it was going to be. I had a very nice view of the classical world, and I’ve adored opera for most of my life. I thought I would be able to unleash my talents and it would be accepted and appreciated and I would be, you know, brought into the fold when in fact, it was the opposite. They were very, very dubious to me and very protective of their sacred cows, so it was a real rude awakening. It’s a very cliquish environment and everybody kind of knows everybody. So if somebody wanted to poison the well, they can and then it spreads to this massive disease about you and they’re able to spread it very easily. So the happy story is that it survived and thrived and I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

BLADE: Whether they’re fans or not, most people would concur your songs are fairly intelligent. Are art and culture and society in general getting dumbed down a little more each year?

WAINWRIGHT: I think there are some aspects that need some attending to for sure. I mean in the pop songwriting world, I’d say lyrics are really under threat. When you look at the generation that’s about to exit — people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the ones who have left us, like Bowie, and so forth, lyrics were really kind of the most brilliant jewel in the art form and now they’re just so throwaway. I don’t profess to be the world’s greatest lyricist or anything, but I do try very hard and I wouldn’t say the age we’re in is a golden age of the word. But maybe there are other art forms, like fashion or something perhaps, that are at their peak now, who knows? 

BLADE: Was it hard to maintain sobriety during lockdown last year?

WAINWRIGHT: No. My wonderful husband (Jorn Weisbrodt, whom Wainwright married in 2012), he’s not about alcohol at all. He doesn’t drink because he just doesn’t need to. And I do Zoom meetings here and there. So I thank my lucky stars it wasn’t. It would have been hard to contend with alcohol as well as COVID. 

BLADE: How’s your daughter? What’s she excited about these days? (Wainwright’s daughter Viva is 10)

WAINWRIGHT: Oh, she’s into horseback riding. She loves Tina Turner. She loves to draw. She’s actually really happy to be back in school and hanging out with her friends. 

BLADE: How often do you talk to your dad on average? (Wainwright is the son of Loudon Wainwright III, an acclaimed singer/songwriter.)

WAINWRIGHT: We try to talk once a week. We’ve kind of made it into this calendar item and it works really well that way. Just to touch base and see how we’re doing. Other times we’ll get into more sensitive territory. I think especially since losing my mother, I’m just aware that it’s a finite amount of time these people are going to be around, so you might as well spend time with them while you can. 

BLADE: How closely do you follow current pop music? Is there anybody who particularly excites you?

WAINWRIGHT: I do. I like Perfume Genius and Lana Del Rey. And I like The Weeknd. When those songs come on, I’m like, “Wow, that’s a real hit.” I admire that because I’ve never been able to crack that nut, nor do I think I probably ever will. 

Rufus Wainwright says returning to pop songcraft after two operas was artistically satisfying. (Photo by Tony Hauser)
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