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Interview by Danielle Harling/
Photograph by Whitney Thomas
With decades worth of hit songs, Patti LaBelle is internationally celebrated as a powerhouse singer. But if you have a penchant for soul food, you likely also know her as a pie slinger and the author of four popular cookbooks. “I think every morning when I wake up, What am I going to have for dinner? And who am I going to feed?” she says.
Danielle Harling: What’s the most interesting thing about being your age?
Patti LaBelle: That all men look at me.
DH: I love it.
PL: No, the most, most interesting thing is that I feel like I’m 40. I’m 76 and I don’t feel aged.
DH: And what’s your secret to feeling so youthful?
PL: I like to be with people who are fun. And sometimes those people are not my age; the 76-year-old people that I know, they’re not usually like—see, I love Tupac, I love California Love and The Club and Ain’t Nobody, I like dancing to those gangster songs, you know? And I think it keeps me going. My grandkids say, “Oh, Grandma, you know that song?” I say, “Yeah, girls, that’s before your time.” But they watch me for encouragement. As they turn 7 and 4, they’ll say, “Oh, Grandma is old, but she doesn’t act old.” So I feel that doing things like dancing and moving around and, and pranking and all the fun things that I do has kept me happy.
DH: If you could go back to any age, what would it be? And why?
PL: Oh, gosh, I probably would be 30, when my sisters were all living. Back in the day, when we had crab fights. We’d buy bushels of crabs from Baltimore, and then we would fight to get the biggest ones once a bushel was dumped. And I miss fighting with my sisters. Oh, gosh, I miss everything we did together. My sister was my T-shirt vendor at most of the places I performed, she would sell her Patti stuff. And we just had fun doing things with my family. Even my father before he passed. He was a young father also. And we did competition—like, he’s a singer, and I told him I could sing rings around him and we would have father and daughter contests and stuff like that. So when I was 30, that was a good year, when everybody was living.
DH: What is one of the greatest moments in history that you’ve lived through?
PL: I think when LaBelle played the Metropolitan Opera House, being the first Black woman to play the Opera House in New York, and the show was so spectacular. It was a “wear something silver” event. Everybody wore silver. There were people with silver outfits with their butts hanging out, the cycle sluts, they were all undressed, and Debbie Allen was there, Cher was there, it was just a wonderful thing that was historic to me, playing the Opera House.
DH: Was there a decision you made, whether in your personal life or in your career, that shaped who you are today as a person?
PL: Sure. When I was singing with LaBelle, I was pregnant. And of course, there can’t be three outrageous-looking women with a nine-month stomach, you know, so that sort of tested me, because nobody really wanted me to become pregnant. And I did. So there’s a choice, you stay pregnant and stay with the group or you have something bad done to yourself, which I would never do, and stay with the group for that reason. So, no, I had my baby. And it wasn’t comfortable for most people, because I was on stage at eight months, singing at Radio City or someplace. Having my baby was going to be a problem to some people. And I had my son Zuri who’s—oh my God, my manager now—my best friend, my everything.
DH: What was one piece of advice you received when you were younger that has been most impactful to you today?
PL: When I was younger? Oh, when I was younger, I had a nose job. And the reason I had the nose job is—Stephanie Mills was a great, great friend of mine, and we had dinner at my house in West Philadelphia before I moved here back in the day. And she was a Patti fan and Patti friend and I was a fan of her also. So we had dinner at my home. I said, “Stephanie, something looks different on you.” And she kept eating dinner. And at the end of the dinner, she said, “I had my nose done.” I said, “Well, where?” And she told me where. I didn’t go to her doctor, I found a doctor in Philadelphia, and I had my nose taken off, you know. So that was, that was interesting. I mean, if I hadn’t seen her, I wouldn’t have done it. But seeing something in front of your face makes you say, “Well, I can look different also.” It's not that she looked better with her nose done, nor that I looked better. It just made us feel better about ourselves. So that was something that happened in my younger years that I’m happy I did.
DH: So whether we’re famous or not famous, I feel we all have a story to tell. What’s your advice on making sure our stories aren’t narrated by others? How do we get our story to be the one that comes across?
PL: I think I can answer: We get our stories by telling them ourselves. That’s the best way. I mean, it’s like, I can tell my story better than you can. Because I’m a pro with that. I’m a pro with Patti's life, and everything that I’ve been through, so let me tell you my story. And a lot of people have problems with their story being told, and they had no say-so in that story being told, so they’re messed up because some things came out that shouldn’t have, or just ugliness comes out. So tell your own story, always.
DH: When you first started your career, your music career, was longevity always a goal for you?
PL: I had no time in mind, because when I started, I had no clue I was starting it. Longevity was not on my page at that time. I was just anxious, because I used to perform with the broom in the mirror at my mother’s house and pretend that was a microphone, and always say, “Oh, girl, you have a good voice; hopefully one day people will hear that voice.” I kept that voice to myself until I joined the choir. And I wanted to sing with the chorus, background only, and my choir director made me come out. I think that’s why I’m Patti LaBelle today. Because she brought that shy Patti out into the world. And when I did my first solo, I got an Amen and a standing ovation. So thank God to Miss Chapman that I am who I am now, because I would have kept that to myself, I think, unless somebody had pulled it out of me. So if you have a talent, don’t sit down on it, honey, go out there and show people what you can do and who you are.
DH: You have had this amazing, long career. Does it ever get exhausting?
PL: Girl, how can I be exhausted by doing something I love? I do this in my sleep. The last year has crippled me and so many other people because we’re stuck at home, you know, without a microphone, without a stage, and without an audience. And the longer I’ve been in this COVID situation, I think I’m getting stronger as a performer. Because I mess around in my house, you know, pretending I have an audience. So I can say that I can never get tired of this nor bored. I had to start trying to wear five- and six-inch heels again. I’ll wear them around the house every now and then. Because I put them on for some occasion last month and could not walk, honey. So now I have to get back into the walk of those pumps, because that’s what's going to happen when everything opens. And everything is going to open soon.
DH: How do you get into the feel of walking in five- to six-inch heels? I feel like that’s just beyond.
PL: Girl, that’s what I do. In all my life I’ve been walking in pumps, you know, sometimes seven inches, then I went down to six, down to five. Now it’s four inches, but I prefer the block heel because they’re easier instead of the stiletto skinny heel, although I still put those on because you got to be cute every now and then.
DH: You have, of course, a ton of awards, accolades. Is there something that’s more substantial or that means more to you than a Grammy Award or AMA?
PL: Yeah, the birth of my son Zuri. That’s everything. And to have given birth to such a gentle man. Such a caring person. A person who loves to help people. He’s a share person, a person who shares with people. And that was my greatest accolade.
DH: What are some similarities between the two of you?
PL: We like the same foods; we cook the same. I mean, he embarrassed me a couple of weeks ago—he made this turkey chili. And I tasted it, and I said, “That’s better than mine!” Right? It made me angry. Because all my cookbooks, he looks at every one. And as a kid he watched me cook. So now he’s cooking rings around me, but we love the same things. We love people the same kind of way. And we dislike people the same kind of way. We both love to dress, and he’s so much like me and so much like his father also, you know, so I think we’re blessed by having Zuri as a son. And I have four adopted kids also who are wonderful. So I’m blessed. I’m blessed.
DH: Is there anything new in the works with Patti Pies at all?
PL: There’s a lot of new newness coming. A lot of new music also. I haven’t recorded in about 100 years, honey. So I’m working on a new project. And you’ll have new music, new items. More good stuff. I never stop working.
DH: OK, I’m excited. And, now that we’re getting into the warmer months, do you have a favorite barbecue or cookout memory?
PL: Oh, God. Wow. Cookout memory. Well, yes, I use my frozen—oh, I have a lot of frozen items also—like the macaroni, the grains, black-eyed peas and corn, okra, tomatoes. So when we have our cookouts, nobody has to make veggies or sides, because I got 'em for you. The cookouts are fun because I have a swimming pool and—I can’t swim, but my grandkids, they love to come. The 3-year-old, Layla, said to me last week, “Grandma, when is the pool gonna open?” What do you know about a pool opening, little girl? So they can’t wait for water, fun, and barbecues.
DH: Looking back at the life you’ve lived, are you satisfied? Are there any regrets that you have at all? Or do you just appreciate all of it?
PL: I appreciate the regrets. If you have no regrets you can’t go forward. You know, so, so many things that I wish had not happened—but they did, but I think it made me a stronger person for all the bad that I’ve been through. And I’ve been through. But I can say that it didn’t break me. I think it made me.
DH: If you could give one piece of advice just to Black women, what would that be?
PL: Stay Black. Don’t change, because being someone else is not who we really are. We’re the authentic women. We’ve taken so many things and built from nothing, which—we mainly still have nothing, but we built from it. And proud: Stay proud, Black and fierce.
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This story was created as part of Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazine, newspaper, and television websites around Juneteenth 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for the complete portfolio.
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