Music

Cyndi Lauper: "I did crazy things to scare people"

In a candid interview, Cyndi Lauper discusses her difficulties at school, the downside of fame - and the happiest time of her life

At 16… Wow. I had just got a guitar and I was so excited. I had saved up a long time, and finally I had my guitar. I would stay up all night and sing and write and paint. I thought I was going to be a musician and I got a band together but it fell apart. And I was almost lost then because if it hadn’t been for music I didn’t know what I would do. Sixteen was not easy for me. It wasn’t so sweet. And a year later I really was lost.

My circumstances when I was a teenager were difficult. Maybe my personality didn’t help me fit in either. By that point I couldn’t take school any more. I’d been in high school for seven years. I had been kept back so many times graduation felt like it was getting further and further away. I spent my time humming to myself.

When I became famous everyone started dressing like me. I felt like I couldn’t be who I was any more because it had all gone.

I was in the art class where they hand out rounded scissors to cut out paper. Nothing was connecting. It was very difficult. I didn’t learn the same way as everyone else. I wasn’t like them, though I wanted to be. So I became more of an outsider, wearing things and doing things that frightened the people who laughed at me. People are afraid of crazy people so I did crazy things to scare them and keep the assholes away. I was always a bit psycho, a mild schitz.

Before I was a pop star I used to have people throw rocks at me ’cause I was wearing vintage clothing that didn’t fit very well, and it was different. Someone threw a rock and I’d say, oh really? Where did you get your clothes from? A rack alongside 10 others that were exactly the same? But then when I became famous everyone started dressing like me. I didn’t expect that. I guess they just wanted to have fun. But I felt like I couldn’t be who I was any more because it had all gone. It was like a uniform, this thing I’d put on to empower myself. I’d picked out all those pieces. When we were doing the club scenes everybody had their own space. Madonna dressed her way, I dressed mine, and we didn’t want to look like each other or anybody else.

Cyndi Lauper photographed by Chapman Baehler

If I met her now, I think I’d still like the younger me. Around 17 I worked out you have to like yourself. I would tell her things will work out fine. I’d say, your beginning might not have been so good but you can start again now. And I’d say, don’t be afraid. What would she think of me? I think she’d be proud of me. That I always stood up for what I believed in, even when my choices weren’t popular.

The big changing point for me was when I joined a band. That’s when I stopped being so odd; I’d found my tribe. Were they the quintessential end product of what I was going to be? No, but I was on my journey. I would tell my young self to learn to be patient. It would be a long journey but I was in it for the long haul. When you first join a band it’s all for one and one for all. But as you go you realise, you know what, if the person next to you isn’t going along with you… You have to go your own way.

I always knew I was born to be famous but there’s no handbook that tells you how to do it. It’s a whirlwind. One thing; people are almost too nice to you and you can get away with all kinds of things. Two – you can’t go out any more because everyone jumps all over you. You can’t even sit down and have dinner with someone outside your apartment. I found the whole ‘love you hate you’ thing difficult. I couldn’t deal with that kind of fame, when people go cuckoo over you. I like to go for a walk. I used to write when I was walking, so not being able to go for a walk really bothered me. On the other hand, fame allowed me to do my work, my art, and I learned how to do things I never would have otherwise.

Cyndi with her son, rapper Dex Lauper. Photo: Rex

I’m very grateful for every single thing that happened to me. All the pitfalls teach you something, then you get back up and try again. That’s how life is anyhow.

I have been criticised my whole career. My manager once said that I was like the Rodney Dangerfield [American comedian] of music, until I wasn’t. She meant that I didn’t get the respect until later in my career and sometimes I’m not completely understood I guess. But I’ve always walked to the beat of my drum. Sometimes I’m loved for it and sometimes I’m not.

Of course there have been times when I’ve lost faith in myself. I’m still fearful. But I say to myself, walk forward, keep walking forward. Don’t do stupid, unsafe things but don’t be afraid to try things. I still make mistakes because even at 62, I’m growing.

I always thought clothes were important. I wrote a song once, Hat Full of Stars [released in 1993, when she was 40] about this lucky hat I found. I don’t know where the hell it is now, you lose things as you go. I was so lonely at that time. I had my dog. And I held the hat up to the sky and I imagined taking the sky and putting it in my hat. And every time I wore that hat I could close my eyes and see the sky.

I think I was happiest when I first had my son. Those first two months, to be that close to him. It was fun, playing with him, talking to him. And when he fell asleep I’d dress him up in all kinds of clothes and take pictures of him. That’s the only time you can do that, when they’re very little. After that they start having their own tastes. But those first six weeks, they are magical.

Cyndi Lauper’s new album Detour is out May 4 (Sire Records). She tours the UK in June, with dates in Birmingham, Glasgow, Newcastle and London

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Olly Murs on mental health and losing Caroline Flack: 'She visits me in my dreams – it's lovely'
Olly Murs and Caroline Flack in 2015
Mental health

Olly Murs on mental health and losing Caroline Flack: 'She visits me in my dreams – it's lovely'

Labi Siffre: 'I've had far more difficulties in my life due to being a homosexual than being Black'
Labi Siffre
Letter To My Younger Self

Labi Siffre: 'I've had far more difficulties in my life due to being a homosexual than being Black'

'When I was mentally ill, I could only listen to hard techno': Why is music so important to us?
Music

'When I was mentally ill, I could only listen to hard techno': Why is music so important to us?

Jingoism of Rule, Britannia! has long felt shameful. Is it finally time for BBC Proms to axe it?
A 1990s BBC Proms in the Park concert
Music

Jingoism of Rule, Britannia! has long felt shameful. Is it finally time for BBC Proms to axe it?

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know