It may not have the aura of Oscar or the grandeur of Grammy. In fact, the new statuette being handed out this week at the 1st Annual MTV Video Music A wards doesn't even have a nickname yet (Gramscar? Scrammy?). But this much is known about the new prize from cable TV's largest rock music channel: It will resemble the MTV moonwalking astronaut logo, and it will, naturally, be forged of heavy metal.
The MTV awards gala at New York's Radio City Music Hall will celebrate nothing quite so much as MTV itself. The three-year-old cable channel now boasts 22 million subscribers and recently announced plans to clone a sister station aimed at 25- to 49-year-olds. Yet if any one performer can steal the show's spotlight, it may be Cyndi Lauper, a 31-year-old belter from Brooklyn and Queens who has suddenly emerged as the undisputed clown princess of video pop. Lauper's videos for "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Time After Time" (both from a debut solo LP of astonishing range, She's So Unusual
) reaped eight nominations—more than any other artist. Moreover, they have propelled her into a state of heavy rotation on MTV, which has helped boost Unusual sales past the three million mark. "It's clear she's for real as an artist, not just a novelty," says Les Garland, vice-president for programming at MTV. "Look, she's up for Best New Artist for Girls and one of her toughest rivals in that category is herself, for Time After Time."
Indeed, if the nominations had stayed open any longer, the show might well have turned into a Lauper special: Her third giant hit off the album, She Bop, has now flashed up the charts as well, making Lauper's debut album the first by a female to put its initial three singles in the Top 3. Not bad for a former high school dropout who in 1983 was declared bankrupt and reduced to stints working at a Japanese nightclub in New York and at a vintage clothing store.
The MTV awards, expected to be syndicated on about 100 stations, will surely showcase Lauper as an amusingly loopy, strenuously eccentric original. The video savants have boldly entrusted to Cyndi the reading of the rules and regulations governing voting procedures, and the critical moment may at least provide some comic relief. "I'm supposed to read them," says Lauper, "and make 'em funny 'cause I can't read so good out loud."
Few artists know better than Lauper how dramatically the vidbiz has revived the rock industry and many of its stars. (Indeed, there are many who should be giving prizes to MTV this week instead of the other way around.) Lauper, behind her goofy getups, is a shrewd tactician who sees videos as electronic canvases on which she imposes her own design and her own handpicked cast of characters—including her mother, Catrine Dominique, boyfriend-manager David Wolff and assorted relatives and friends. Though Edd Griles is nominated for one MTV heavy-metal moon-walker (Best Director for Lauper's Time After Time video), Cyndi keeps on top of every detail. During the She Bop shoot, for instance, she meticulously dabbed tint in the hair of some 20 dancing extras, color coordinated from eye shadow to outfits. "I don't want no Howdy Doody lips, ya hear?" she frowned, shaking her head disapprovingly at one of the dancers.
Obviously, Lauper has mastered the primary law of '80s rockonomics: Don't go on tour till you've gone on location. She has worked hard to beam a complex image, that of a klunky, kitschy, tough, free-spirited romantic girl/woman. Excluded from the mainstream by her eccentricity, she learned to turn her singularity to advantage, with clothes clashing hilariously, enough oversize plastic and metal trinkets to cause bursitis and enough eye paint to deface a subway car. Her chopped-up coif is part blond Marine cut, part flame-and-fuchsia-colored eruption—physical betrayals of a lifelong shriek for recognition that's almost punishing in its intensity, all magnificently matched by her alarming, four-octave vocal range. In Lauper, MTV has found the purest, perhaps most commercial embodiment of what rock video is all about. With her antic, cartoonish image, she has helped the rock industry colonize a preteen minination that virtually formed itself around video.
"MTV," says Lauper, "must be to the '80s what Sesame Street was in the '70s. I try to be free and not have any inhibitions, qualities kids have that we lose. I love doing the videos. These little ones come right up to me. They can mime my songs, even though they can hardly talk. My work is full of emotion. It's real, you can touch it. In the Girls video you saw Cyndi's real mother, her brother, real people from her life. I mean, you knew who Cyndi was."
Back before she was on a third-person basis with herself, it took Cyndi long enough to find out. She spent an often lonely childhood as a quirky outcast looking in—a devoted daughter who watched her mother struggle to feed three kids with waitressing jobs—after her parents divorced when Cyndi was 5. She coped by singing "as soon as I could talk." She says facetiously, exaggerating her accent, "I was always artistic, or was it autistic? There was always that drive to sing like God knows what. My voice has always been stronger than my body."
She tested the latter (5'3", 108 pounds) as a "wild," sometimes "self-destructive" teenager, with alcohol and drugs. She survived several car wrecks as a passenger, endured bouts of dehydration and malnutrition, ran away from home at 17 and all but failed Catholic and public schools. Finally, after earning a high school equivalency diploma, she split for the serenity of northern Vermont with her dog, Sparkle. There, she was a housekeeper, kennel worker and waitress. "I spent years not accepting who I was," she says, turning reflective. "In high school I felt out of step. Everything became unreal for me. I felt there just wasn't any room for me in this world. But you can't escape yourself. 'Why was I alive,' I'd ask. I didn't fit in, didn't have nobody to do things with that I liked. I did them by myself."
After a year at a small Vermont college, she returned to New York to test her one irrefutable gift. "I knew I could sing. No one had to tell me." She sang with "copy" bands, mimicking Motown and Beatles, Jagger and Joplin. By 1977, if she hadn't yet set the world on fire, she had scorched her vocal cords. She rebuilt her voice with a coach and formed a promising rockabilly band, Blue Angel, with composer-saxophonist John Turi. Their first LP in 1980 "went lead," says Cyndi, who once briefly took a temp job in the office of Blue Angel manager Steve Massarsky to work off the living allowance given to her. "My filing system is still recovering," sighs Massarsky, "from what she did because of her spelling."
Massarsky recalls that Cyndi's Blue Angel moods ranged from tempestuous to tender. There was, he says, the "total shrieking tantrum" when Cyndi learned that her hair dryer wouldn't work on European current; the time she accidentally dumped a tongue-load of food in a win-a-date-with contest winner's lap; and the evening she brightened Massarsky's bathroom with a new shower curtain and towels before a date arrived. In 1981 the pair parted ways, and Massarsky sued the band over a financial squabble. Soon after, Cyndi filed for bankruptcy under Chapter Seven (no assets).
Chapter eight, things picked up: She had met manager Wolff, 35, at a party in 1981—on the 40th anniversary of Pearl Harbor—and they soon began their assault on the American mainstream by land, air and cable. Her first recollections of Wolff, a onetime exterminator, messenger and Babson College business graduate struggling to succeed in the rock industry, unleash a stream of pure Lauper consciousness.
"So I seen Dave and we start talkin', and he's funny and wacko. The guy's got a car, so right there I figure he could save me a four-buck cab ride home to the Upper East Side. He'd done a rap record as Captain Chameleon called Grab Them Cakes. I thought he was WASPy, then I found out he was Jewish. He's from Connecticut, and he's got flare pants. We're talking '80s, right? So that's two major drawbacks right there—Connecticut and flares. But we get talking about rock pygmies that live underground and come up for wampanini juice, so I says to myself, 'This must be the kind of new manager I need.' "
The pairing proved symbiotic. "We filled a void in each other," says Wolff, who six months later was both boyfriend and manager. When he eventually took Lauper home to visit his family in Connecticut, "My parents thought she had a Continental or European accent," he recalls. "I said, 'She doesn't have an accent. She's from Queens.' "
Together the couple have steered steadily toward high visibility. Their most recent publicity gambit took place at Madison Square Garden before a sellout crowd that had come to see not rock but wrestling. It seems that a onetime member of Lauper's eclectic entourage included the ear-ringed, goateed wrestling behemoth, "Captain" Lou Albano, whom Lauper had met while with Blue Angel. In cozier days Albano had appeared in Cyndi's Girls video and, at his own insistence, in She Bop, but he had caused a much-hyped rift with his ludicrous sexist slurs about the singer ("Women belong in the kitchen getting pregnant").
Lauper/Wolff countered with a mano-a-Albano challenge to put his Moolah where his mouth was—his Fabulous Moolah, that is, the woman wrestling champ managed by Lou. Her Lauper-sponsored opponent would be a svelte 25-year-old named Wendy Richter, a Dallas wrestler who describes her physical attributes as "150 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal."
The match lasted 20 minutes, and Richter—miracle of miracles—emerged as champ. Moolah flailed in disgust; Albano's blubber jiggled in rage; Cyndi squinted and stomped to She Bop. Naturally it was all carried live on MTV. There had been a half-hour MTV debate on the Lauper-Albano crisis the week before, which one MTV staffer dismissed as "97 percent hype." The sushi banquet afterwards was taped and used later by MTV, which picked up the bulk of the $6,000 tab, with a little help from CBS and the World Wrestling Federation. "It takes a ——load out of ya," concludes manager Wolff of his rock-manager duties in the more complicated video era. "If you want to build a major superstar nowadays, you gotta deal with an amazing number of problems. And we aren't even very far yet either."
But they're getting there. Although Lauper will be touring through November, she and Wolff have their sights set on a sizable loft in downtown Manhattan (her voice could fill some counties, given the right wind conditions). Asked what she does in her spare time, she replies: "Sleep, if that." As for hobbies: "I don't paint any more. I get dressed instead. I can get carried away with the chains and the belts, the this and the that. By the time you finish you go home and you're tired and you're so done up you need a chain cutter just to get undressed. So it's rough." Her "junking" expeditions for baubles and duds continue, of course, as does her fondness for old movies and TV reruns. And, she says, card games and miniature golf. But isn't it true, as the title of her LP's most exhilarating cut states, that Money Changes Everything?
Nothing much has changed," she says. "I don't want a Porsche, a Rolls. My gift to society is not getting a driver's license. I have trouble concentrating on the road. And I ain't buying no cocaine." But what does that leave in the way of rock-star indulgences? Her riff on the subject could be Edith Bunker after bagging the state lottery.
"After watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, I decided on all linoleum floors, maybe even the kind that look like brick. Forget parquet. Linoleum you wax and it shines. You don't get splinters." Also: "Only Checker cabs. And as for those guys who won't change a $10. Forget it, wave 'em on. I'm callin' my shots now. I'm tough and rugged. No more abuse. And I'm gettin' a washer-dryer 'cause if I don't have time for laundry I get depressed and cranky. My girlfriend says I should have slaves by now, to wait on me hand and foot—and hair."
And perhaps to dust the MTV moon-walkers that Lauper is likely to cart home after this week's awards show. Pondering the reasons for her success, Lauper thinks there's a message in her madness that MTV's young viewers have been quick to comprehend. "I'm no doctor or miracle worker. I'm an entertainer, trying to express the fact that you can liberate yourself, and say, hell, yes, I can do it. Life is not a prison sentence."