Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors, Still Shining Through

Over 40 years into her influential career, Cyndi Lauper is embarking on a reflective new era — one she has more than earned

Cyndi Lauper. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

At 70, Cyndi Lauper’s special place in pop music history can be seen everywhere you look. Look around at abortion rights rallies and you’ll see “Girls Just Want to Have Fun(damental) Rights” signs held high. Look up at a gay Pride float and there she’ll be with her lesbian sister, Ellen. And look at a recent NPR Tiny Desk concert featuring 26-year-old rising pop artist Chappell Roan, with cigarettes tucked into her towering red wig and lipstick smeared all over her teeth, and tell me you don’t see the “she’s so unusual” vibes that made Lauper famous, theatrical mannerisms and all.

Of course, her timeless songs, which she’ll bring on her upcoming Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Farewell Tour, made her a household name too. It says a lot about an artist who recorded songs decades ago that have either taken on new life or speak to our lives currently, which Lauper’s do. Co-written by Lauper, “Sally’s Pigeons,” from her 1993 album “Hat Full of Stars,” didn’t shy away from putting a face on the issue of abortion rights, as it tells the story of two childhood friends — “little girls in ponytails,” Lauper sings, wistfully — and one who dies from a back-alley abortion. That song resurfaced in 2022 after the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade, prompting Lauper to record an updated version.

These days, I can’t help but think of today’s LGBTQ+ youth who, facing the hostility of queerphobic rhetoric and harmful legislation, need what is perhaps Lauper’s most heartening and universally loved anthem, “True Colors,” as much as I did when I came out 25 years ago. When Lauper whispers, “If this world makes you crazy and you’ve taken all you can bear, you call me up because you know I’ll be there,” her voice sounds like a warm hug from a dear friend who hurts for a whole community of people who are still disenfranchised.

It sounds that way because Lauper has been one of the dearest friends anyone could ask for — a true LGBTQ+ community ally. “Let the Canary Sing,” a new documentary that goes behind the scenes of Lauper’s enduring career, looks at her rising stardom in the ’80s and reflects on some of her most seminal songs, including how “True Colors” was inspired by her close friend Gregory, who died of AIDS-related illness. About that whispered message: “I wanted to speak to a human being in the most tender spot,” she says in the film.

“Let the Canary Sing,” which fittingly premiered during Pride Month on June 4 on Paramount+, illustrates Lauper’s close bond with the LGBTQ+ community — just look at that footage of her testifying on Capitol Hill before a Senate subcommittee about youth homelessness in 2015. “I want to implore you not to pray to God to change your kid. I’m a mom. Pray to God to change your heart so you can love and help your kid,” she said at the time. In 2008, she co-founded True Colors United, a nonprofit addressing that very problem in the United States.

As an artist and through her advocacy, Lauper has always been passionate about helping young queer people. Just by extending her allyship into songs, she made me feel affirmed for being gay and helped the closeted, quietly suffering teenager I was grow into the very openly queer journalist adult I became — the adult who could now tell her the part she played in helping me get here. So it’s true: Cyndi Lauper’s place in pop music history, off the charts, where she has perhaps made her most profound impact, can be seen everywhere you look.

Cyndi Lauper. Photo by Laurie Paladino/Paramount+

I’m laughing because at the beginning of the documentary you say that you’re late for everything, and you’re a few minutes late.

[Laughs.] No, we’re very late. This guy that I just did this interview with, the poor bastard, took him for a walk in Central Park, and then he was like, Cyn, we’ve been sitting here talking for a long time, but we didn’t even get up to 1983 yet. I talked him into the ground. Poor thing.

I watched the documentary. I cried like a baby. Your musical history is so embedded in my identity as a queer person, and so I just really felt that come through in the film.

Well, [director Alison Ellwood] has a lot of heart, and when I was first approached I felt like, ah, why do I need a documentary? But we were all sitting there watching documentaries. It was like, it was ridiculous. It was the pandemic, right? You remember.

And I kept saying, look, I’m not dead. There’s no reason. And then they said, “Yeah, but you’re alive, so you can make sure it’s true.” And so then I saw this docuseries called “Laurel Canyon.” It was so beautifully done, and also a wonderful story. And it was obvious that this person that did that documentary was a filmmaker. And I looked her up and I said, “Well, if I’m going to do a documentary, I’d like to do it with this filmmaker because she’s a wonderful filmmaker.” I thought, she really knows how to tell a story. I was excited to work with her.

It’s great to have it on the record, in your own words. It’s also very special to have your sister Ellen be a part of this. After seeing the film, I feel like she’s a big part of your story.

When I went to Washington to sing “True Colors” for President Biden [in 2022] — and actually, I sat next to Senator Tammy Baldwin, who wrote the Respect for Marriage Act — the first thing I started to see was everything we all worked so hard for rolled back to prehistoric times. Some people were very happy, not most. When I went, I met this Republican senator that voted for the bill, Senator Portman (R-Ohio), who has an LGBTQ+ kid. I looked at him and I said, “It’s different when it’s in your family, isn’t it?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “You’re doing right because you really see the truth of it, not the crazy people who are fear-mongers, hate-mongers, God is a white man who hates everyone-mongers.”

It’s a scary thing when you think about it. For me, as a little kid, it was a scary thing, but that’s why I guess I was asked to leave two Catholic grade schools, because when they told me my mother was going to hell, I said, “She’s not going to hell. You don’t even know her. She’s not going to hell. She works hard, loves her kids, and really tries hard to take care of them. She’s not going to hell.”

Cyndi Lauper. Photo by Ruven Afanador.

How big of a role did the LGBTQ+ people in your life —  Ellen, but also your gay friends Carl and Gregory — play in shaping you as an LGBTQ+ activist?

Oh no, it wasn’t that. Are you kidding? What really made me say, “OK, that’s it, we got to do something,” is when I was pregnant with my son, and the shape of a beached whale, so you can’t do much. And it was the beginning of the internet, which I thought was very “Star Trek,” like Captain Kirk, because now, you could type something and somewhere far away, someone else would read what you typed instantaneously. This was “Star Trek” to me because it was so new.
And I just kept reading these letters for the first time about people, because I never had time to read anything. I was always working, working, working, working. And when I read the letters, people were talking about feeling horrible and wanting to commit suicide because they were disenfranchised from everything — from their family, their friends, their school, their job, whatever. And then they heard “True Colors.” And I called Ellen and I read them to her and I said, “Ellen, we’ve got to do something. When the time is right, you and me have got to do something.” And then we started. Started with PFLAG. Poor Ellen, because I styled her, too. She don’t like being styled.

What did she hate most about how you styled her?

The mousse that gave her a pointy head. I thought it was good. She kind of liked it, but I pinned the shirt in the back a little bit. I thought it was too big, and she wasn’t keen on that. But she’s great. Always an inspiration. She is 18 months older than me, and my mother used to dress us alike and people would go, “Are they twins?” And my mother would say, “Almost.” And I used to go to my mother, “Ma, it’s not almost, what do you mean almost? You either are or you’re not. We’re not.” But oh, I was up Ellen’s butt no matter what. Whatever she did, I did. Whatever she wore, I wanted to wear. Whatever she did, I wanted to do. She still talks to me, though, so that’s good.

Despite the mousse! So, you’re somebody who has lived and fought through Stonewall, the AIDS epidemic and the fight for marriage equality, and you’ve been on the front lines during all of this as an ally. And we are obviously going through a very hostile period currently for queer people in this country.

You know what I got to say to that? Vote. Research your voting. Don’t just vote. Don’t just think, “Oh, they don’t have anything on the ballot.” Bullshit. There’s always shit on the ballot. There’s laws, there’s a little this, little amendment, little that, little this, and [it’s] hidden. Vote411.com — that’s what you got to print. Find out who’s running in your district, who’s voting in favor of you, who’s voting against you, and vote for the person that’s your advocate, not somebody trying to squash you.

The one thing I learned about the “True Colors” thing was that if you want to have somebody listen to you, you got to listen to them, too. And if you share your personal stories, you might find that you have more in common than you think.

You were involved in the 2008 election, encouraging people to vote for President Obama. Do you plan on getting involved with this year’s election campaigning?

Yeah, I have to. Because what are we supposed to do? I am supporting Tammy Baldwin because I think she’s brilliant. She always champions families. What do you think was going to happen with all the families that there are now? And there’s all different kinds of families, and you know what? Family is family. And when it’s in your family, right in your face every day, what do I always say? Button up your shirt, your heart’s falling out of your chest. If these people got no heart, they got cold. Cold as can be. But when it’s your kid, are you going to vote against your kid, or are you going to help your kid? You’re going to vote against your sister, your brother, your cousin? No. I’m not. I’m not going to do that. Guess why? Because I was taught blood’s thicker than water. You stand together. You can wear down hate. Hate is not a good thing.

Cyndi Lauper. Photo courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment/Paramount+

There’s an old clip in the film of you talking about how you didn’t want to be an icon; you just always wanted to be an artist. It’s undeniable that you have become an icon in the eyes of many, though. In fact, I can’t recall a time when you haven’t been referred to as an icon of some sort — a style icon, a gay icon, and now you’ve been named a Lifetime Ally Icon by WeHo Pride. What are your feelings on being an “icon” now, at this point in your career?

I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know what that is. All I know is I’ve always strived to contribute to the world to make it better. Make it better for the kids, make it better for the Earth if we can. Although we’re so stuck in plastic, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But you want to stand together. The one thing I learned about the “True Colors” thing was that if you want to have somebody listen to you, you got to listen to them, too. And if you share your personal stories, you might find that you have more in common than you think.

Sometimes there’s people that go, “Oh, you are a liberal.” “Oh, you are a Republican.” But the truth is, we are Americans. That’s what we are. And these party things, I don’t know. I just know I’m an American, and I believe deep in my heart that Americans, deep in their heart, are fair-minded people. And I think that what the Republican Party used to be was Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. I don’t know what’s happened to the party. I’m telling you that even though you may be dismayed, don’t be hijacked. Don’t let zealous religious people force their religion down your throat.

Throughout your career, you have really cultivated this sense of individuality as an artist despite some industry folks trying to hold you back, and then I think of artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift…

Hey, Taylor Swift. That girl, she’s pretty cool. So is Beyoncé. She’s doing all this different stuff. What’s wrong with that?

In the documentary, you talk about how it was so segregated for an artist in the ’80s, and that you felt you could only stay in one lane musically. And look at what has happened: Beyoncé just released a country album — to some controversy, but she still did it.

There’s always controversy, and maybe it will help people like The War and Treaty.

What kind of progress do you feel has been made since you struggled to get out and stay outside of a box in the ’80s? Do you feel like we have made progress since, especially for women in the business?

Well, I didn’t get too far because as soon as 1989 came and the people that really were advocates for individuality were all let go and fired, then they brought all these other people in and everybody was a soundalike, then it was very difficult for me. And none of the music that I made, well, actually it was heard, ironically. Don’t ask me how, but people do know “Hat Full of Stars,” the album. People do know “Sisters of Avalon,” the album, and people know “Shine.” That one wasn’t even released. But you have to just keep doing what you do, and just keep moving forward. And there’s always a way around a brick wall. And there’s a lot of gatekeepers. You just got to find the right one that’s going to let you through the gate.

Cyndi Lauper. Photo courtesy of Laurie Paladino/Paramount+

What has led to your upcoming tour being your last?

Well, hon’, you know, right now I’m strong, and I can do an arena tour. And I haven’t done it in years, like a real bonafide arena — “go see Cyndi, it’s not 50 minutes, it’s a fucking hour and a half,” and you actually can hear a lot of music. Right now, I’m strong and I can do it. But in five years, I don’t know what the heck. Sure, I’ll probably sing. I’ll probably do something because I love singing, but I don’t know that I would have the physical strength to do an arena tour. The people that can, God bless them. I certainly am not a piano player. I couldn’t sit and play piano. I’m still playing my vocal lessons on it.

But I can’t seem to play the “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which is my hidden dream that I want to be able to, on Christmas, play the “The Twelve days of Christmas” on the piano so that everybody can fuck up the song the way they always do, and it’s lots of fun, and everybody laughs, and you get somebody with a very strong accent who can’t sing “six geese a-laying.” I was invited into a family at 17, and the grandmother’s name was Grandma Pepitone, and she was always given “seven swans a-swimming and six geese a-laying and two turtle doves,” because she would always sing “two turkle-a-dubs, seven-a-swans-a-swim….” And always somebody’s going “fiiiiiive!” — just singing out. [Laughs.] So it’s fun. And that’s what my big ambition playing piano would be, just to play a darn Christmas song.

How about a new album of all original music?

Here’s the thing: “Working Girl: The Musical” and “Kinky Boots” took a long time, and I didn’t want to bastardize what I was doing to take my hat off and become Cyndi, when my hat has to be on for “Working Girl.” I’m trying to get the “Working Girl” thing out — go out of town in ’25 and on Broadway in ’26. That would be a dream come true.

And then a new studio album?

Well, yeah. Then I could relax for a second and write for me. Figure out how I feel. I haven’t for a long time. And I realized that when I was a kid, I used to write poems all the time. I just wrote poems and drew pictures. And now, I don’t do that, so I feel like maybe I got to just draw pictures and write poems again, just for me.

If anything, I would want to do a back porch record. Kind of simple. Go somewhere, maybe not Tennessee, because that’s getting a little too hard-headed for me. Some place where you could sit on a porch and just everybody sit around like I used to when I lived in Vermont. After school, at night, I’d run across the cow patches, try and avoid the mud pies, with my guitar. And sometimes somebody else would play your guitar, and you play glasses. You just bang on the glasses and sing harmony, and sing old songs that sound like Grandma sang them on the porch. I’ve always wanted to do that, with a fiddle. I don’t know if that’s what I’m going to do. Maybe I do dance music. I loved doing “Bring Ya to The Brink.”

A Cyndi Lauper. Photo courtesy of Laurie Paladino/Paramount+

As our beloved Lifetime Ally Icon, any last words that you’d like to get out there regarding Pride this year?

Well, I’ve always enjoyed Pride because it gave us the opportunity to celebrate everybody together, and straight, not straight, everybody together. Families, friend families, just everybody. And I want to wish everyone a very happy Pride. It’s been years since I’ve been able to celebrate with everybody because of work. But my sister will be with me. The last time she was with me, my mom was with us, too, on the float. It was a fire truck we were on.
And my sister and I and my mother were able to celebrate Pride together, and that meant the world to me. And in ’94, when we had the “Deadly Cyns” record out, that was incredible; they were so afraid that we were going to be shut down in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral because they didn’t want noise. It was Cardinal O’Connor, and I felt that he was definitely a man with braces on his heart. And I thought, please, please, God. Let them shut me down in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, so the headline could read “Cardinal O’Connor just didn’t want to have any fun.”

Love that you thought that.

Of course I did. Are you kidding? And so I made them stop there, and I did every version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” from the “Hey Now” [version],  to the first one, to Arthur Baker’s version, everything. Because I was like, come on, you see this battery on my shoulder? Go ahead, knock it down.

Like your sister says in the film, you’ve got that “Italian moxie.”

Sicilian, my friend. Sicilian.

Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter.