Sophia Loren (Seven Magazine, Sunday Telegraph, Nov. 09, 2014)

Sophia Loren has always seemed to epitomise glamour, pure sex and the Hollywood state of mine, even though many of her movies were in fact Italian including Two Women, for which she won an Oscar.
There is probably no greater on screen chemistry than Sophia Loren and Cary Grant in Houseboat (1958). They met when they made The Pride and the Passion in 1957. They were really in love. Or at least she was enthralled with him. And he was besotted.
I loved the chapters about Grant in her autobiography Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life as a Fairy Tale. They shimmered with charm. The book is poetically written and reasonably entertaining. It is a detailed account of her life in movies. Forensic details about actors, actresses, directors, sets. Sharply contrasted with the poverty and desperation of her war torn childhood without a father.
I have gone to Geneva where she has lived for the past 36 years to meet her. In a quiet chi-chi hotel penthouse suite I am ushered in and there she is. She handles herself with grandeur.
She is wearing a black and white trouser suit. Her late husband Carlo Ponti once told her she should always wear suits. She is slim and voluptuous. A great body, even at 80. Her breasts still buoyant. Her eyes brown like chocolate melted over honeycomb. Giant eyelashes, giant lips.
She has always had the giant lips. After her very first photo shoot she was told that her facial proportions were wrong. That her nose was too big. And she wouldn’t dream of changing anything. She knew who she was.
So it is with sadness that I note the evidence of some facial landscaping and her hair is in fact a rather stiff wig. Nonetheless it is still her. She is still full of Italian mama warmth and spiky charm. She misses nothing and gives the impression that she is fresh and tireless.
Has she always been a write? ‘I used to write in my diary every day. I am a Virgo, so annoying and boring. I found the diary and I said let me see how many years ago I wrote this? And I saw many things in it. Many things that I didn’t want to ever let go from my own intimacy. So I tore out the page. And then another. And then another.
‘And then I thought I don’t want these books to be around if I’m not there one day. I would like to keep my privacy. All these things have to be finished. So I burned them. All of them.
‘So every year when I write my diary. A phrase here, a date there. A note about meeting someone. And every year I destroyed them. There are some things I want to keep just for myself.’
I’m rather puzzled at why she’s written an autobiography and she’s here to promote it and she tells me first off she burned the juicy bits. It’s not that the book is bland or without detail. Her childhood for instance lays out so many details you can practically smell the Parmesan cheese being grated. That’s if there was a cheese. Most of the time they were too poor for cheese and had to beg people in the street for a crust of bread.
Later on where she talks of her desperation for children and her endless miscarriages, it’s gruelling and after that when she was wrongly imprisoned for tax evasion, her prison diary reads like a scene from a prison B Movie. Now I want to know what she’s left out.
‘The book is a story of my life read as a story. I think you put other things in a diary. Just feelings, not facts. Perhaps nothing to do with your life. Anyway, why should I give it all out?’
She comes over as an interesting mix of shyness, reserve, confident to the point of fearless, open and wary in equal parts.
‘I wanted to give in the books the facts of my life. How I succeeded. How my life was during the war. I wanted to do that with all my heart because people have written books about me and sometimes it was not real, people completely made it up. Sometimes they put in something they read in the papers.
‘It’s not like I wanted to put the record straight, just that I wanted to say what happened to me, because I am proud. I was really a nobody, a little girl, unhappy, in desperation because of the life I was living with my family and no father. Everyone was starving during the war.’
Her voice trails. What she was starving for all her life was a father. She had a father. She knew him. But he never married her mother. Her mother looked like a starlet. It was her dream to be an actress. Her mother Romilda Villani won a contest held in Italy by MGM Studios to find the new Greta Garbo when she was just 17 and the prize was to go to Hollywood. Her parents said she was too young and wouldn’t let her go. Romilda, according to her daughter, ‘oozed allure.’
Instead she had a passionate, calamitous on off relationship with Riccardo Scicolone Murillo and became pregnant with Sophia. Riccardo came from a good family but was one of these aristocratic losers. He gave his name to his first child but Sophia had to buy his name with her first pay cheque for her sister Maria.
The older authoritative male figure is something that she was always searching for, which is perhaps why she felt so instantly at home when she met Italian film producer and director Carlo Ponti, who was nearly 22 years her senior. Cary Grant was 30 years her senior.
She doesn’t remember ever thinking she was beautiful or special, but she found her old school book, part of the inspiration for writing her memoir. On the first page it was written in Italian “Sophia Scicolone will become a great star.” It was some kind of premonition that she would be famous. ‘Why did I write that? I don’t know. I have no idea.’
The book must have been some kind of catharsis for her. She looks blankly. I’m not sure she understands the word. Sometimes she answers in Italian. She does perk up when I talk about her father, as he seems to haunt the book. He buys her a present, she loves it, she’ll keep it forever. Then he disappears. He gets back together with her mother and then they break up. They get together again and he leaves her again and again and again. At what point did she decide he was a useless human being?
‘When you are five, six, seven, you follow what your mother tells you because you want to make peace. You want the normality, which we didn’t have. My father would always comes to see me when my mother sent him a telegram saying, “Sophia’s very sick. Come.” It didn’t matter why he came. What I always wanted, because all my friends had it, was a father. I wanted to be like them, to be normal. But this was not possible. ‘So you see these things when you’re 13, 14, when you’re almost grown up. You see it for what it is.’
Does she think this lack of a father is what attracted her to men who were older, that they were fulfilling a mentoring role? ‘No,’ she says abruptly. ‘I was never attracted to men like that.’ You see her nostrils flare slightly, still expressing disgust at her father.
She agrees though she did want to learn. ‘And I had a lot to learn because I lived in a small town. There was no opportunity for me to have experiences even with younger men. It was all impossible, impossible.’
The first time she met Ponti ‘I felt at home. When I was leaving him to go home after we’d seen each other I would feel calm. I would ask myself why do you feel like that? Because I trusted him. I was terribly young. I was 17 and we didn’t have anything together until a long time later. It’s not like today.
‘He gave me confidence. He taught me many things. One day he bought me a suit and he said, “You should always wear suits because it suits you very well.” But he was always saying stuff like that. I cut my hair to look like an actress who was very successful at the time, Lucia Bosè and Carlo said, “You should always wear short hair.”
‘Each time I did something that he liked he would always say “You should always do that” and yes, this gave me confidence. He was protective and he… took my insecurities away, yes. He looked and sounded like he would take care of me which no other man had done.’ And did he take care of her? ‘Oh yes.’
By the time she met Cary Grant on the set of the Pride and The Passion (1957) she and Ponti were definitely an item. They were together but couldn’t marry because Ponti couldn’t get a divorce. The laws in Italy at that time were extremely high end Catholic. This was a source of great frustration to Loren because of course all she ever wanted to be was normal.
At this vulnerable moment enter the gently seductive impossibly charming Cary Grant who courted her on set with many intimate little dinners and then proposed to her. Why on earth didn’t she take Cary Grant?
‘They were very different men. It was difficult. I was doing my first American language film and my American language was so very terrible I was upset. Many times I needed help with the language and Cary would help me.
‘Cary belonged to another world in America. I felt that I would never fit in there. I would never have a future there because of my nationality. I was scared to change completely in life without knowing if this relationship or quasi relationship was going on.
‘The picture finished. We exchanged numbers and he said he would call. In fact he did come on to the set of Two Women and then when I was doing a picture in New York he came to the house. I was together with Carlo and already had my son.
‘One day he called me in New York where I was for another film. “How are you?” I’m fine I said, why are you calling? And he said, “Because I wanted to say ciao.” That was it. He died. He must have known he was dying.’ Her voice is shaky with sadness.
Something in the book that puzzles me. On the day her second film with Grant wrapped he sent her a giant bunch of yellow roses. She was leaving with Ponti on the plane and boasted about the yellow roses. ‘Yes, it was not a nice thing to do. Maybe I wanted to test him, to test how he felt. I was young and thought if he got angry and jealous it meant he loved me.’
In fact Ponti was so angry and jealous he hit her. ‘Yes he did. Very softly. Let’s not exaggerate it. But that’s what made me feel okay. That made me feel I’d made the right choice.’ I tell her I still don’t understand and that jealousy doesn’t equate to love. She is quiet, which is unusual because she’s extremely chatty.
What about all these other iconic men that she worked with – Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Burton? Was she ever daunted by that?
‘What is daunted? I was friends with them, never nervous. Richard was having a very difficult time in his life. He was suffering a lot and we took care of him. He would play with the children and have a wonderful time but then Elizabeth would come and have lunch and it would not be good.’
Was she attracted to him? ‘I admired him and he was very handsome and he had a beautiful voice. And when he was acting he was the end he was so good. So I learned a lot from him.’
Were there any other of your co-stars you felt passionate about?
‘You ask me these things so simply. You think you can ask me that and that I’m going to answer you? Very funny. You sounded naïve but you’re not naïve.’
This is probably the most charming put down I’ve ever had in an interview and now I realise what might be missing from the book. She is certainly not going to tell me.
I also found it hard to fathom when she was nominated for an Oscar in 1962 she didn’t want to go to the ceremony because she’d be too upset if she didn’t win, so she waited at home. It was many years before live telecasts and while she waited she went to make sauce to calm her down. She was up against Audrey Hepburn for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass.
She aged up over a decade for her character in Two Women. She played a mother in Italy during the war and put every emotion from her starving and sometimes terrified childhood into it. It was a big deal. It was an Italian language movie. She felt it didn’t have a chance.
‘Cooking is something that gives you a sense of home. If you have a sense of home you feel fine, or at least I do. I feel protected.’
What is her signature dish? ‘Eggplant parmesan.’
I tell her that I had that very dish last night.
‘Oh, but in a restaurant. It’s something you have to do at home.’
So she made her tomato sauce instead of going to the Oscars because if she won she might faint and if she didn’t win she’d be too upset? ‘Yes, that’s true.’
But later that night. In fact in the early hours of the next morning, she got a call from Cary Grant saying, ‘Darling, you won.’
Soon after this in 1964 she and Ponti moved to Paris because there was still no divorce in Italy. ‘In fact Carlo and his wife had to become French so we could get married. The situation was very complicated.’
Years before she thought she was married by proxy in Mexico. She says that it made her feel better. It alleviated her pain. It wasn’t a valid marriage but at least made her feel that Carlo wanted her as a wife. ‘It was very stressful but I thought that Carlo loved me and that was what counted. Life is not easy when you have the law against you and you can so easily get yourself in trouble and that was the last thing I wanted for our harmony.’
Loren of course always wanted to be a proper wife, have a proper family, be normal. ‘It took a long time but it happened. And then I had a bad time because I couldn’t have children. Or at least I got pregnant but I lost them.’
Heartbreakingly a doctor told her she’d never have children. ‘But then I met this wonderful doctor who realised the miscarriages were coming because of a lack of oestrogen. He gave me oestrogen and then I got pregnant.’
Her two sons Carlo Jr, 45, and Edoardo, 41. One is an orchestral conductor, the other a writer and director are very much adored. ‘No, I don’t like to exaggerate. Two boys are fine. They made me so happy with my life. And I have four grandchildren. Carlo’s son is very much like Carlo. And the girl is like his wife who is Swedish. They have blue eyes,’ she says flashing me her enormous golden brown orbs.
Does she think her eyes are her best feature? ‘No. No, I don’t. My character is my best feature.’
She jokes that for a long time she had to live with a newspaper who claimed her beauty and her figure was all down to eating lots of spaghetti. The quote went viral. ‘I never said that. I think the quote was “Everything I am I owe to spaghetti.” How rude,’ she says laughing. ‘I like to eat simple things. Yes, like eggplant Parmesan. Yes, like ragout. It’s very heavy. I suppose I like things that are not light.
‘I exercise every day for about 20 minutes. I think it’s important to do that instead of just lying in bed.’
What makes her happy? ‘A good day when I can do what I want. When things work. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and something suddenly happens, a breakthrough.’
She is happy with her life in Geneva. She may love Italian food but the Italian authorities and religion and tax regime certainly don’t please her. Was it painful for her to write about her time in prison?
‘It was painful because all the time I was innocent. It was bad management but they went on with the trial. They gave me a month in jail and released me after 17 days.’
Because they realised you were innocent? ‘No, it took 40 years and 40 years later I won the trial. It was not true. I had paid every penny. It’s not really true that that put me off Italy but I made a lot of films outside of Italy and it was convenient so we moved.’
Does she have work coming up? ‘Yes. I do have something in mind that I’d like to do but I can’t talk about it because we’re still working out the rights or at least the producer is. I’m just doing the acting.’
She won’t hint at what the role is but it feels good to know she’s not giving anything up. She is still tireless, still charismatic and unswervingly warm. As I leave she promises she’s going to make me her eggplant Parmesan. Can’t wait to have her in my kitchen.

Aretha Franklin (Sunday Times Magazine, Nov. 09, 2014)

Aretha Franklin has been called the Queen of Soul since she demanded Respect in 1967. That’s a lot of years to be regal and I suppose you can’t expect someone who is constantly revered not to feel a little distant from the world, a little divaish.
Her new album after all is called Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Things like I Will Survive, People, You Keep Me Hanging On, and I Am Every Woman mashed up with Respect. Basically an album where she out divas every other diva.
It’s a compelling album. Her voice on it at 72 is not effortless. It no longer swoops and soars with dexterity, but instead it delivers something else, something that shows struggle, grit, terrifying emotional strength and triumph.
Of course I was excited to meet the diva of all divas. She rarely gives interviews. She hates giving interviews. For a large chunk of time she hated leaving her house.
Her last album with Arista Records – the company that first released her – was in 2003. Sure, there was a Christmas album after that merely to fulfil a contract and in 2011 there was a studio album made for Wal-Mart stores. But the Diva album is a proper return with music impresario Clive Davis at its helm.
The album has been generally applauded, as has her refreshed energy and weight loss. For some of those silent years where no one saw her it’s been said that she became huge. Her weight ballooned in the 90s after she stopped smoking because it was hurting her voice.
Last year she had a mysterious illness and undisclosed medical treatment. She came back after it fitter and thinner. Certainly there was a sense she was ready to take on the world again. What I wasn’t ready for was to take her on.
The interview had been on and off several times in several locations. Over a period of weeks. Finally it happens- within an hour of it being confirmed I find myself en route to Detroit, to the suburb of Southfield and the Westin Hotel, close to her home.
The interview is to be at 7.30pm. Would I go down and meet her to try to charm her? There was a fear the interview would be cut to ten minutes. Of course I would. At that time I didn’t realise she was uncharm-able.
It turns out she didn’t want to meet me first. She wanted to do the interview at 8.30pm, so I decided I would take a restorative bath. Five minutes in the bath I get a call she wants to do the interview now. Still wet I drag on clothes to meet her in the lobby. As the lift door opens and I go to get out she gets in.
She is wearing a black leather blouse, black trousers, black and gold trainers and a zebra print rucksack. She looks a little plus-sized but you don’t see her as fat, you see her as a presence. I would guess she’d be a UK size 16-18.
I wasn’t there at the exact time. Had she decided to leave completely? Was she angry? Will she come back? A few tense moments. Apparently she will come back and she will give me as close to my full hour as possible. The PR warns that I should ask any important questions first which does not bode well because you can’t really ask first off: Are you an emotional eater? What pain were you trying to bury? You can’t ask who in fact was the father of the son you had when you were 14? Or the next son a couple of years later?
You can’ t say how did it feel when your first husband Ed White used to rough you up and why did she want that bit deleted from her autobiography.
Her father was a super preacher who had a turbulent marriage with her mother who left when Aretha was six and died shortly before her 10th birthday. Just after her mother’s death Aretha began singing at her father’s sermons. She debuted with the hymn Jesus Be A Fence Around Me. That fence never came down. Can you even begin to ask her why? No, you cannot.
People become interviewers because they want to ask the questions we all want answers for. Asking questions requires a kind of fearlessness which has always come naturally to me. I have faced plenty of divas – pop stars, prime ministers and wannabe presidents. None of them have awed me. There’s something about Aretha. She’s absolutely terrifying.
I’ve seen her on TV interviews making mincemeat of fawning reporters. One look, an ever so slight roll of the eyes, reduces them to gibberish.
We are in the grand ballroom of the semi chi chi hotel. Me and Aretha poised opposite on low under-stuffed armchairs. There is her son, her granddaughter, a record company person, the British PR, and another man to whom I was not introduced.
There is a sort of wall around her. Later I learn from the staff at this hotel where she regularly comes often for omelettes they have dubbed her The Wall. One staff member who begged not to be identified says, ‘You just can’t get through to her and she makes everyone feel scared. It’s hard to be normal with her. Once I asked her son for tickets to her show but he said even he was afraid to ask her.’
Aretha is sat in front of me with the beginning of an eye roll and I am afraid, I am petrified. But unlike the song I Will Survive I fear I won’t. I tell her that her album is great. And it is. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says.
I tell her when Sinead O’Connor sang Nothing Compares 2 U you felt she was going to kill herself, but when Aretha sings it with her own lines added, that not even ‘a strawberry sundae or ham hocks and greens, or roller skates or garlic toast,’ compare, you feel she is expressing triumph and joy and power. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says, which I’ve come to learn is Aretha’s very succinct way of expressing what she feels which is that I’m full of shit.
She tells me, ‘That was Andre 3000’s idea to take the tempo up and just refresh that song.’
I tell her that on I Will Survive she sounds particularly empowered. ‘No. That was the basic thing that Gloria Gaynor did. Then we mashed it up with I’m A Survivor (Destiny’s Child) which is one of my granddaughter Victorie’s favourite songs. So I said “Hey, let’s put that there”.’
Victorie is here with us. I think she’s about 17. Hair in a ponytail and a striped T-shirt. ‘Victorie is going to be a singer. Every time I type her name in my phone it comes up Victories with an s. Maybe she’s going to have some victories. I hope so. I’m taking her there. I’m mentoring her. She performed for me on the BET tribute.
Does she coach her because she sees herself in her, because they have a special bond? Her eyes swivel and look through me. ‘I coach her because she’s my granddaughter and she wants to sing.’
I laugh nervously.
‘I’ve been around a while, so in terms of coaching her as a vocalist why not, hmmm? I did have vocal coaching at one time when I was a teenager and I was also taught choreography by Charlie Atkins who taught most of the Motown artists.’
I’d read that she wanted to be a dancer at some point. ‘Well, I could have been a prima ballerina. I took classes at the Academy of Ballet where I would do plies, semi-plies, grand plies.’
The barre workout is very popular now. Is that what she does for exercise? ‘No. Really. Is that what people do?’ She looks incredulous. ‘I walk. I have my fitness regime where I walk the big superstores. – K-Mart and Wal-Mart. I walk the whole store. Sometimes twice if it’s not a superstore. I don‘t do it with the cart. Security people mind the cart and I do the walking.’
Do fans recognise her and come up to her? ’Sometimes.’ Pause. Do they ask her to sign something? ‘Yes. Peaches or a lettuce.’ We laugh. ‘They are usually very nice and they want an autograph or a selfie.’
She smiles sweetly and for a moment she seems relaxed so I ask her why was there a period of no albums for a while? ‘Because I was between record companies and during that time I did a lot of concerts. I noticed somebody the other day, I’m trying to think who it was, and they said they hadn’t recorded for nine years, and I understood that perfectly. I love recording, but if you’re in concert as much as I was you’re just not thinking about it and of course you’re minding the store at home. I have four children, so that’s what was consuming my time.’
This puzzles me. Her four children, all boys, or rather men, are fully grown up. The oldest, Clarence Franklin, is in his late fifties, followed by Edward Franklin and Ted White Jnr., who by all accounts is a wonderful kind person, and Kecalf Cunningham, a musician who is known professionally as KPoint.
I want to ask her about why she still feels she needs to look after them but this is the first time in our interview there’s not been a silence. It’s been question, answer, silence. Her talking about walking the superstores is the nearest thing we’ve got to a conversation.
‘I love walking the superstore. You can shop, pick up things you need, and it’s good exercise.’
What is her favourite thing to shop for? ‘I love beautiful things, beautiful clothes. Pretty much what the average woman likes.’
The silence returns suddenly. There is no twilight moment. No cooling down, segueing in. There’s warm friendly and then cold silence. This is not your average woman. So I change the subject. She grew up near here, then moved to New York and Los Angeles.
‘Well, I had to come back to Detroit because of the incident that happened to my dad.’ She had been performing in Las Vegas when she got the news in 1979 that her father Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as CL Franklin, was shot twice at point blank range in his Detroit home. He spent six months in hospital and was returned home needing round the clock nursing care. ‘I came back to stay with him and my sisters and my brother so we could alternate looking after him.’
That must have been a terrible shock? ‘Yes.’ Long pause. Did they ever find out who did it? ‘They did and they were arrested.’ How did it happen, was it random or planned? ‘I couldn’t tell you, but let’s move on.’
Now there’s not just a silence but a silence with pins and needles in it. She was always extremely close to her father. ‘Yes, of course, sure. I travelled as a young featured vocalist. I would sing before he preached.’
I’ve read that his sermons were mesmerising, it was like going to a concert. ‘No. I would not say it was like a concert at all. My dad was a theologian and he ministered the congregation, very enlightening and educational.’ He had a compelling speaking voice? ‘Oh yes. He was famous for that.’ He recorded 39 volumes of sermons and he was quite the singer as well.’
Is she like him? ‘You could say that with respect to certain things.’ She was a daddy’s girl? ‘You could say that.’
And he had great friends? ‘Yes. Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Dr King. These people came into the city to perform on Saturdays and on Sundays knowing about his sermons came to our church.’
I want to know more about what it’s like growing up with all these legends and how does this compare to our modern divas like Beyoncé and Miley but before I can say the word twerk my throat closes up. I know she’s not going to talk about these things, I just know, and I’ve never had that feeling in an interview before.
I wonder if she too is afraid. When I heard that she was terrified of flying it seemed ridiculous that an artist of her magnitude with her 18 Grammys and over 75 million records sold and her constant breaking of Billboard records should have any fears at all. She is a legend.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ she says, almost savouring the moment that I’ve grasped she has fear. ‘Aretha is a woman like every other woman. Everyone has something.’ She looks at me sweetly. ‘I flew for 21 years and it’s just ridiculous for me not to fly. I’ve started working on it. One of these days you’ll see me back in London.’
Will she take a boat? ‘I don’t think so. There’s too much water. I’ll take eight hours on the Jumbo jet. I am thinking about that.’
What happened to create this fear? ‘A bad flight. A small plane. Two engines. Up and down, up and down. And I decided I would not fly again. I was not happy. Not a happy camper.’
It is at this point it strikes me Aretha has the wall because she feels pain like no other. She had a bad flight. She decides she can’t bear it. And that will never happen again.
The wall is not so much a fortress but a place where she traps herself inside herself. The wall I think would have come anyway, due to the tragedies in her early life and how in order to be the Queen of Soul she is the queen of sensitivity. Fame and being feted didn’t cause this wall, it just helped it stay in place.
‘I have a custom bus that I very much enjoy. I can go from city to city and see points of interest, get out and stretch my legs. If we go to California we have all these different things in the desert that you can see. I can do things on my bus that you can’t on a plane. You can’t stretch your legs at 30,000 feet.’
Does she have a bed on her bus? ‘No. I don’t want that. That’s too much bus. I get a good night’s sleep and then get back on the bus.’
Is it true the things she fears most are airplanes and interviews? ‘Where on earth did that come from? Never even heard that. Here we are in an interview and the planes as I said I’m working on it.’
Does she see a hypnotherapist? ‘No, no, no. I would never do that. I went to a fearless flyers class organised by US Air. I missed two classes. Last time I was standing at the gate when the rest of my class flew away because I’d missed a few lessons, but I am determined that I will graduate from that class. You do things like a rejected take-off where the plane goes down the runway, they start the propellers and everything, but then they stop and come back. We do that and actual classes where you watch films and find out a lot of things about planes.’ There’s another silence now.
Later on I speak to Versa Manos of Gorgeous Media Group. Manos was her PR at Arista Records 25 years ago. She looked after Aretha and Whitney Houston. I wonder was she like that then? ‘She is extremely sensitive, so if an interview becomes intimate or is about to discuss any of the big tragedies in her life it might make her cry, so it probably would be stopped before it got to that point.
‘She has had a very harsh early life. She expresses it in her voice all the time. Her detachment from the world is because she is so sensitive. That’s why she became slightly agoraphobic at some point.’
When she sang about demanding respect in 1967 it was when a black woman was rarely granted such a thing and now she is a legend she can demand it.
She sang for President Obama at his inauguration. ‘It was a tremendous moment. Certainly a historical one and I was delighted to be part of it. Throngs and throngs of people that morning as far as you could see. Unbelievable.’
She met him at Rosa Parks’ funeral. ‘Yes. That’s exactly where I met him. He was on his way out of the door and someone saw him leaving and said “Hey, Barack, you haven’t met Aretha and said hello.” He stopped, turned right round and came back. And that was a nice moment. He’s a very nice man. He’s very much in person as you see him on TV, charismatic.’
Did she maintain contact with him? ‘No, no, of course not.’ The eyes roll again. Did he ask her to sing again? ‘No. There is only one inauguration.’ But there’s a second term. ‘Oh. Well, how can that be an inauguration the second time? That’s not the same thing. The moment that was historical will only happen once in history and it happened when I sang the National Anthem. That’s the first time it ever happened. How can it happen again? I was there at one of the greatest moments in history. I was touched. That moment was the fruition for many who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly when we saw Reverend Jackson and there were tears flowing. I’m sure many, many things went through his mind, Dr King being one of them. It was the fruition of the hopes and dreams of a nation. Ah-hum,’ she says triumphantly. It’s an ah-hum that says her father would be very proud. ‘Ah-hum-hmm. Absolutely.
‘They were great friends Dr King and my dad. The march in Detroit was a precursor to the march in Washington. He actually did the “I have a dream” speech here before Washington. The applause was so thunderous the walls were shaking. There have been so many gains, but there’s certainly still a way to go.’
She says this with such passion I wonder how close she was to Dr King? ‘He was a guest of my dad’s.’ Not a personal friend? ‘Oh, please stop, definitely not. I understand exactly what you mean. None of that.’ She says this with a quiet ferocity, but then the moment passes and she becomes sweet again.
‘When he was a guest of Dad’s in our home we had a housekeeper who I used to call Catherine the Great because she was such a great cook. She asked Dr King what he would like for breakfast. Bacon, omelette, grits, or sorjetses because she couldn’t say sausages. Dr King thought for a moment and he says, ‘Well Catherine, I’ll have some bacon and I’ll have some of that sorjetses. He was such a gracious man he didn’t make fun of the moment or try to correct her, he just went along with it.’
At this point a voice comes in and says the interview must stop but Aretha is having none of it. ‘I love cooking. I do a great chicken and dressing and I do good spaghetti and omelettes. I also like banana puddings and peach cobbler. You know, these days I just very lightly taste. I don’t over taste when I’m cooking. If you mess up there you can gain a lot of weight. My favourite food to eat and cook and the most difficult thing for me to give up was ham hocks and greens. I just love ham hocks and greens.’
Maybe she should just stick to the greens? ‘Well no, I’d rather have the ham hocks with a little hot sauce, some cornbread. What could be better?’
A voice cries out, “The interview must stop.” Aretha says, ‘No. Let’s have another give minutes. She came all this way.’
So this is the even weirder thing. The minute she knows the interview is going to end she doesn’t want it. She becomes relaxed and super chatty. She tells me there are three deals on the table for the biopic movie of her life. ‘There might be Audrey MacDonald, Jennifer Hudson, or a gospel unknown playing myself. I don’t know yet.’
What about Alicia Keys? Aretha covers Keys’ No One on the Divas album so I thought there might be a connection. ‘That’s so interesting,’ she says animated. ‘There a possibility of Shonda Rhimes (writer and producer of Grey’s Anatomy) writing it. Uh-hmm,’ she says savouring it. Would she control the script? ‘I would certainly have edit approval and I don’t think you could beat that except maybe with the ham hocks.’ She giggles.
Her posse want the interview to finish and now we have passed a few sticky moments I think Aretha doesn’t want it to finish. The hot and cold is perplexing.
I ask her if we can have a picture. I sit on the floor before her and it looks as I am kneeling at the feet of a queen. ‘Do stop with that,’ she says. ‘There’s only one Queen, your Queen, and she’s still handling it. I really admire that Queen of yours. Such maturity from such a young age, and such great walking shoes.’
The tape recorder is off now and she is much more relaxed. She wonders if the Queen walks around the palace maybe as she walks around the superstore. She admires my eye make-up, which is dark and glittery, just like her eye make-up, which is dark and glittery.
Suddenly there’s an incredible warmth to her, or maybe it’s relief that I’m going. Puzzled I speak to Roger Friedman, columnist and friend of Franklin. Sometimes she’s sweet, sometimes she’s not.
‘Yes,’ he concedes. ‘She can be a puzzle.’ He tells me that changing her mind about interview dates and times is just because she changes her mind a lot and nothing more should be read into it. He tells me that she comes to New York to learn classical piano and teaches her teacher gospel piano in return.
‘A critic in the New York Times had accused her of using Auto-Tune on her Divas album. I asked her if this was true. I heard her ask, “Do we use Auto-Tune in the car?” She had no idea what it was. Of course she doesn’t use Auto-Tune.
‘What you have to remember is Aretha is a living legend. James Brown is gone, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. She wanted to do this album as they were her idols. It’s so easy to make fun of celebrities. They are so daffy or whatever. But we have to appreciate who we’ve got and what they mean to us. Every singer wants to be Aretha Franklin and they never will be. She is singular. She can still make an album with all the trills and whoops and everything she adds that no one else can do. It’s easy to make fun of her as she is the ultimate diva, but all the other divas who are legends are dead. We have to treat her with respect now.’
She is indeed the ultimate diva and respect is something she not only demands, but has earned.