Cyndi Lauper is worried about her hair. "Doesn't look like a mohawk," she mutters in her signature Noo Yawk-ese while walking through the grimy underground of Manhattan's 168th St. subway station. "It looks like one of those old ladies." She takes a moment to tease her gravity-defying mane, today streaked raspberry red. "Now," she says, "that's better."
Yes, at 60, the '80s punk princess - who helped define a generation with her breakout 1983 album She's So Unusual
and instant classics like "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Time After Time" - is still reaching for new and unexpected heights. Despite her megahits, "I was the Rodney Dangerfield of music," she says of her roller-coaster career. "There were people who said I would never have that success again. Billy Joel could, they said. But not women, not me. But it didn't matter, because here I am now."
Indeed, on June 9, the Grammy winner - who has racked up 50 million album sales - became the first female solo artist to win a Tony for Best Score for the Broadway smash Kinky Boots
, about a drag queen who saves a shoe factory. (The show won six Tonys overall, including Best Musical.) "I knew she understood outsiders and had that kind of music in her," says Kinky Boots
book writer Harvey Fierstein. "But I didn't know she was going to be superlative. She kept hitting it out of the park."
Over a series of rambling conversations carried out while walking arm in arm down rainy streets, over hot toddies at Broadway institution Sardi's and, finally, over chamomile tea while curled up on a velvet sofa in the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband of 22 years, actor David Thornton, and their son Declyn, Lauper is as charmingly offbeat as her storytelling. But amid the twists and tangents, a consistent thread emerges: Lauper has always been a street fighter. "I've fought my whole life," she says. "If anyone got in my way, I figured out how to climb over them. I'm a survivor."
Her grit was forged while growing up in the working-class neighborhood of Ozone Park, Queens. Her fondness for striped socks and red clogs led "kids to throw rocks at me for dressing funny," she remembers. "I always felt like an outsider." Her home life wasn't much better. When she was 5, her mom, Catrine, and dad, Fred ("He was kind of absent," she says), divorced. Two and a half years later she gained a stepdad, whom she described in her recent memoir as an abusive sexual predator. "The women in my family were derailed, forced into marriages and weren't given a chance to do anything with their lives," recalls Lauper. But her mom, whose own parents had forbidden her from accepting a high school singing scholarship, encouraged a precociously talented Lauper to follow her dreams. "My mother brought music into our lives," she says. "I learned how to sing by listening to her records."
At 17, Lauper left home with her belongings in a paper bag and worked a series of odd jobs, even posing nude as an art model. Penniless, she suffered from malnutrition (and once skinned and sautéed a squirrel her boyfriend had shot for dinner). She joined a band, but one night, she says, one of her bandmates raped her at a party as his girlfriend held her down. Those dark times would give her the strength she needed later in life. "It didn't matter what happened to me," she says. "I would be like, 'Yeah, you think that's bad? I'm alive. I'm here.' " As her close friend Rosie O'Donnell
says, "Surviving her childhood created an internalized steel that is unbendable. Anything else was easy by comparison."
For over a decade she sang in local dive bars that served cheap drinks until she signed her first big record deal in 1982. Although Lauper scored six Top 5 hits off her first two albums, she faced more battles ahead. Fighting to record her own material, she alienated high-level execs, who, she says, then declined to promote her albums. "I was told, 'Look at what happened to George Michael. They ruined his career. They will ruin yours,' " recalls Lauper. During her early foray into acting (she would later win an Emmy for a guest stint on Mad About You), she made disastrous career moves by turning down starring roles in Working Girl
and Steel Magnolias
. Fresh off a "difficult" experience filming the 1988 failed comedy Vibes
, "I was afraid I'd fail again," explains Lauper. "I'm not a good business person. I studied art, not business."
But even her work in long-forgotten films brought unexpected rewards: She met and fell in love with Thornton on the set of Off and Running
in 1990. "We made each other laugh," says Thornton, 59. (Little Richard officiated at their 1991 wedding; "I'm not sure it's legal!" jokes Thornton.) Their son Declyn, 15, who loves hip-hop, electronic music and ice hockey, "is really proud of his mom, but like any teenager, your parents are a little embarrassing," admits Thornton. At their elegant and eclectic apartment in a famed Manhattan building, family dinners have a rock and roll twist. "Cyn would start cooking at 8, with the Italian arias on, and go till 11," says Thornton. "Then Declyn and I both realized, 'Let's grab some cereal and start the homework.' " Still, Lauper - who is often away for work and is currently on a 23-city tour - made it to the hockey rink at 6 a.m. for her son's practices when she could. "You can't really say she blends in," says Thornton, "but she tries. She's a proud parent." To this day, he says even he isn't sure of her original hair color. "Light brown?" he guesses. "She'll never grow old. She thinks the best always lies ahead."
Her blockbuster comeback with Kinky Boots
certainly proves that. "It's girls just want to have fun," says Lauper, a passionate LGBT activist who's proud of the show's message about acceptance. "But this time, everyone is having fun." And standing up for dreamers everywhere, the quirky girl from Queens continues to let her true colors shine through. Laughing off retirement, Lauper says her intention for the future remains the same: "I always want to try to do something that will live beyond us. If I'm going to leave something behind, might as well make sure it's good."