Holly Woodlawn

Holly Woodlawn talks about art and life

Holly Woodlawn during a photo shoot by the artists BillyBoy and Lala, Lausanne, Switzerland, 2008. (Photo: Robert Coddington)

Holly Woodlawn gained initial fame as one of the Warhol Superstars in the 1960s, and by the ’70s she had also earned a reputation as a gifted actress, singer, and cabaret performer. Now the subject of an in-process documentary, Woodlawn brings her latest work, The Holly Woodlawn Show, to the Laurie Beechman Theater in New York on Friday, May 17, and Monday, May 20. On Thursday, May 16, she will also appear at New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center to read from her 1992 memoir A Low Life in High Heels and screen her 1973 film, Broken Goddess.

I FELL INTO DOING CABARET. It was quite accidental. I fell into all of this accidentally—believe it or not. As the song goes: “Holly came from Miami FLA, hitchhiked her way across the USA.” When I first came to New York, a truck driver drove me in from Delaware or somewhere, dropped me on Forty-Second Street and Tenth Avenue and said, “This is it, honey.” At that time, in the 1950s, being a transgendered, transvestite, trans-this or trans-that was completely illegal. If you wore a mohair sweater and tight pants, and if you put on mascara and Vaseline—we didn’t have lip gloss—the police could arrest you for female impersonation. We had it really rough, but I was lucky because people never figured out that I was passing.

I wanted to be a movie star, but I got no money for doing Paul Morrissey’s Trash and all those other movies. A good friend of mine, Elda Gentile, was dating one of the New York Dolls at the time and she wanted to start her own band. She asked me if I would be a backup girl. I had always wanted to be a backup girl! I idolized the Ronettes, the Supremes, and all those girl groups from the ’60s. Elda called us the Stilettos, and Debbie Harry joined. We auditioned for Reno Sweeney’s, which was the big cabaret club at the time, and the owner, Louis Friedman, said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is I can’t take the band because this is not that kind of club.” The Stilettos were doing punk rock, but I was into singing songs from the ’30s and ’40s. “We’re more a supper club,” he said, “so I’ll take Holly.” So he took me under his wing, and I started rehearsing with him and that’s when I started doing cabaret.

At that time in New York we could get a loft, even if it was in a seedy part of town, and three or four artists could live there. We could all pool our resources to get by. Now it costs a fortune for a dump in this town. These young artists now, they can’t afford it. They have to get jobs, waiting on tables. No big deal—I’ve done everything—but when do they have time to create? That’s the sad part. You know the song from Cabaret, “Money Makes the World Go Round?” Well, no, just two things make the world go round—art and music. Without that, we’re dead. Civilization cannot live. New York City, the center of creativity, and now everything is so expensive.

I moved to Los Angeles in the late ’80s. Studio 54 was raided, Andy died, and New York just crumbled. All our friends, because of HIV . . . I haven’t been back to New York in eight years. I’ve seen many cities and many countries in the interim, just in case you thought I was lying around doing nothing. My new cabaret show is going to play in a space on Forty-Second Street and Ninth Avenue—just a block from where I first got dropped off all those years ago. I’ve come full circle, but my second entrance at Times Square will definitely surpass my first. Both shows are sold out. The club called to tell me that it’s the first time in history that’s ever happened—and Joan Rivers works there! I’ll be singing and telling stories. I’m working with a piano player and two girls as my backup singers. There’s a set, but the audience always requests their favorite songs, like my version of “You’re the Top,” which I rewrote to make the last verse filthy. Of course, I’ll be wearing sequins and I’ll be resplendent. (I love that word).

I’m so happy—well we don’t know about happiness, do we?—but I’m so content that I’ve not only survived, but that I’m going to go on because of the love that I’ve gotten from everyone. I have no intention of filling a plot in a cemetery in the near future, and I’m looking forward to coming to New York because I feel like this city is really my home.