For Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie White in Broadway’s Dreamgirls, life has had its share of nightmare moments.
Only 19 when the tumultuous Dreamgirls development process began, and 21 when the show opened in 1981, Holliday became an instant Broadway legend as soon as audiences heard her sing the show’s standout anthem, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
Holliday stayed with the show for three years, and though she won the Tony Award for best actress in a musical, she was unhappy and isolated — a long way away from her Houston, Texas, roots.
And her weight was an issue. Holliday has estimated that at her heaviest, she was 330 pounds or more.
After a string of failures — her recording career never took off, a Broadway-bound show about Mahalia Jackson self-destructed, her nine-month marriage ended in divorce — Holliday attempted suicide on her 30th birthday.
“I caught a lot of bad breaks,” Holliday says in a phone interview. “Some of it was bad luck. Some of it was other people’s stuff. And there’s my accountability for my own faults and mistakes. I’m making no excuses for anything.”
Diagnosed with clinical depression, Holliday began to turn her life around. She lost nearly 150 pounds (through diet and, later, gastric bypass surgery) and bounced back.
The bounce didn’t take her to Dreamgirls heights, but she has managed to eke out a career.
“My primary living has been through corporate dates — private concerts — and events for the gay community,” says Holliday, 47. “A lot of people think I disappeared, but I’ve been working.”
When the movie version of Dreamgirls finally came out last year — 25 years after Holliday’s splash on Broadway — she was back in the news expressing unhappiness about having been shut out of the movie (only Loretta Devine, another of the original Dreamgirls, made a cameo in the film).
“My anger was directed against Paramount and (director) Bill Condon, the people who tried to say: `She’s too old, let’s forget about her and everything she did and built and struggled for and fought for.’ ”
But Holliday has let her anger subside. One thing that helped was singing “And I Am Telling You…” on a BET awards show earlier this year with Jennifer Hudson — “the other Jennifer” — who won an Oscar for playing Effie, the part Holliday helped create.
The two divas stood side by side and belted out the song as if their lives depended on it.
“That was a victorious thing for me,” Holliday says. “More like an Ali-Frazier fight. I was like, `OK, we’re gonna part as friends, but one will leave with the other’s ass kicked.’ For me, this was a victory bout — one for the veterans, the people my age and older who don’t want to be forgotten. We can still do what we do and not be put out to pasture.”
All the attention from the Dreamgirls movie has given Holliday’s career a bump. She’s performing more concerts now, and Saturday (Nov. 24) she’s at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
Of course she’ll sing her Dreamgirls songs, as well as some of the R&B selections from her various albums and some jazz standards, including a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.
“Whatever I’ve gone through, for whatever reason, I sing better now because of it,” Holliday says. “I would have liked to have not gone through a lot of those things, but I have to admit, my music and songs have more meaning for me now. I think I sing from a different place.”
A resident of Harlem, Holliday does not have a manager or a publicist. She doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer. She does have a MySpace page (www.myspace.com/thejenniferholliday), and she checks it during weekly visits to Kinko’s.
“I’m rebuilding my career,” she says. “I’m finally learning how to make my life work as a human being, even with my depression, even with my career not being where I’d like it to be. Through MySpace and YouTube, I have made new fans, young fans. I have a new lease on life, if not success. The true success story is that I’m alive. That’s the greatest thing I can tell you at this point.”
This Dreamgirl, Holliday says, is happy at last.
“What the future holds, I can’t tell you,” she says. “But I do know at this moment, I’m the happiest I’ve been for so many years.”
Jennifer Holliday performs in concert at 8 p.m. Saturday