“Should I wear my hair in a ponytail? Should I dress myself up in Chanel?”
If you did most of your gay coming of age or coming out in the latter part of the 90’s, those lyrics are all too familiar and will probably be in your head for the rest of the day. Sorry about that.
If you’re not familiar with the song “Absolutely Not” or “Things Just Ain't the Same,” or “Nobody’s Supposed to be Here,” visit your gay anthem dancefloor remix roots and turn up the volume because Deborah Cox was an icon way before Sia, Gaga or even before the LBTQ were added to the community acronym.
Deborah is currently touring the country with the touring musical "The Bodyguard.” In it she plays the role of fictional diva Rachel Marron, a role originated by the late Whitney Houston for the 1992 film of the same name.
She is also working on an album, such great news for all of us who want or need a great anthem in their lives at this moment in time.
As for “The Bodyguard,” it is certainly an intriguing concept. It appeared almost out of nowhere, and odds are, you think it’s just a retelling of the movie, and it is, but much, much more.
“I think people are going to be surprised that it’s a thriller and suspenseful,” Deborah told me from the lobby at the Civic Theatre in downtown San Diego, “and I also think they are going to be surprised by the fact that there’s a lot of Whitney’s catalogue in the show as well.”
That’s right, not only are the songs in place from the Mick Jackson film, Whitney’s standards are used to progress the story. Think of it as a tribute to Whitney with an edge.
Deborah says that was intentional from the writer’s perspective, “They wanted to help tell the story through song. So it gives the audience an opportunity to hear all these iconic songs sung in a different way and performed in a different way, and help to establish each character.”
She adds, “That’s one of the things I thought was pretty clever.”
Deborah is still as beautiful as ever. When I met with her she was the epitome of elegance and wonderfully easy-going. She smiled and kept silent through all of my awkward attempts to engage her as we walked to where we would hold the interview.
I found out that she wasn’t speaking too much, not because I was being too intrepid, but she had to rest her voice.
With over a dozen vocals to do during the two-hour and twenty-minute runtime, Deborah, when she did speak, barely went above a whisper.
She tells me she wasn’t aware of how extensive the Whitney catalog was in the musical at first.
“I actually didn’t know,” she laughed. “It wasn’t until I read the script that I said ‘wow!’ You know, as the songs were in there, I read the lyrics and I was surprised at just how lyrically it can help to tell the story about each of these characters and who they are, and how they felt about each other; how they relate to each other. So I was surprised myself --but pleasantly surprised in a way that I thought was going to be done really well. I think what was probably most surprising to me was just how much suspense it has. I didn’t realize the stalker would be so prevalent visually on stage as well.”
There are quite a bit of frightening moments in the musical, in fact, spoiler alert, just as the lights go down, there is a heart-stopping jump scare. The villain is so creepy, that at his curtain call, he gets a collective boo from the audience.
The show is filled with stunts too. Deborah starts out the show by doing a free-fall from high atop a stage prop into the ensemble of dancers below.
It took a little while and a lot of worked nerves to get it right, but she eventually perfected it.
“When I was part of the choreography I was like, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was going to be doing that every single night, like oh my gosh,” she says. “But we have never had a problem with that, ever. I think that’s part of what informs the audience that Rachel is so brave and courageous just going out there and facing the danger and doing what she has to do and keeping her cover you know. Yeah, at first I was like mortified by it, but then I’ve grown to understand that it’s part of telling the story.”
Deborah showed up for our interview in a coral colored form fitting dress. On the night I saw her perform as Rachel, I noticed that her arms were really defined and muscular. In order to prepare for the physical strength it must take to perform every night I wondered how she kept her body so fit.
She says the show started rehearsing this past October and then opened in New Jersey Thanksgiving weekend; played there for six weeks, “So now I’ve found my rhythm, I’ve found my place and am comfortable with it, but in the beginning it was really like trying to get used to doing a marathon, you know.
“So physically, I’ve had to be extremely super-disciplined about everything, about what I eat; no cheese no – you know all the good stuff I love, I can’t really have. It’s about keeping a very lean, healthy diet: my only vice is sweets,” she laughs.
Before “The Bodyguard,” before every other success, she has had in the US the past 20 years, Deborah was perhaps first and foremost a gay icon.
Dance remixes were big in the 90’s. DJs such as Hex Hector, Thunderpuss, and Junior Vasquez were taking slower ballads and speeding them up to be sold as maxi cd's at Virgin Megastores and played at nearly every gay bar in the country.
“Absolutely Not,” one of Deborah’s more notable singles was adopted by remix genius Hex Hector and turned into an uplifting anthem with a message: I don’t need anyone to tell me who I can be. That was a great message at the time. Remember this was before marriage equality, the destruction of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and large corporate sponsors at Pride events.
“It was…I met it with complete surprise,” Deborah says of her success in gay clubs. “I mean I came to this business just to sing and I had no idea that – first of all, the songs could even be remixed and that they would have their own life. And so that’s essentially what happened is, I did the ballads, [DJs] did their thing. And the remixes had…they were just stand-alone versions as well and I think by going to the circuit parties and going to the gay Prides and stuff and supporting those remixes, I think it just helped ingrain them in the community, where they told their own stories as well.”
Some of these stories included people finding the strength to challenge themselves and others. To become empowered enough to accept who they are even if that meant fractured relationships.
“A lot of people have told me they’ve come out,” she said. “My music has been the soundtrack to their lives. And so, I feel like that’s my purpose you know. I just kind of go with it, I never questioned it – I just went with it.”
As we wrapped up our short talk, I asked Deborah if we can expect a new album soon. In these uncertain political times, I told her, we could use an uplifting reprise of great dancefloor anthems.
“Oh yeah! That’s kinda what my agenda has always been is to infuse something positive anyway because there’s enough stuff going on that’s very heavy and deep. It will always come from a place of positivity.
“I’m working on it. I don’t know when, but soon. Very soon.”
The beautiful singer is forever grateful to the LGBT community she says. In some ways, they are like family to her, and have never let her down.
“The way the LGBTQ community has embraced me has been just, unconditional. It didn’t matter whether I wanted to stop for a few years and do musical theater, or whether I wanted to record a jazz album, the community has been with me and for me over twenty years.”
We cannot wait to see what you have planned Deborah.