Diva la Vida
As a revised biography of Dusty Springfield is published, Maggie Gruner looks back at the pioneering chanteuse and gay icon
31 October, 2019 — By Maggie Gruner
BORN Mary O’Brien in West Hampstead, singer Dusty Springfield became a trailblazer, taking a stand against apartheid and speaking out in support of gay rights at a time when few dared put their heads above the parapet.
The head she raised to face the world was strikingly distinctive. Mary O’Brien reinvented herself as the diva with the trademark blonde beehive and lashings of heavy black eye make-up.
Now Dusty, a biography of the star by Lucy O’Brien (no relation), has been published ahead of a new film about the singer, So Much Love, starring Gemma Arterton.
The biography, revised and updated – the first edition was published in 1989 – also marks the 20th anniversary of Dusty’s death from cancer, aged 59.
“What is remarkable is the enduring nature of her legacy, that her pop icon status has grown,” writes Lucy, adding that Dusty’s fierce loyalty to her gay fans meant she was one of the first LGBT icons.
Dusty was born on April 16, 1939, in a large Victorian house in West Hampstead’s tree-lined Fordwych Road.
Her Irish mother and Scottish father argued constantly and little Mary, disturbed by the tension, would grasp the hot water pipes until her hands were burnt.
The author vividly describes Mary’s teenage decision to ditch her chubby-faced tomboy persona with “National Health glasses, short mousy-red hair and an awkward smile.” Telling herself: “You’ll never make it, Mary,” she resolved to become someone else, and created Dusty.
“Within the next 10 years she would metamorphose into a glorious parody of femininity, with a tall blonde beehive wig and layers of heavy black mascara around her eyes.”
Lucy writes that Dusty “injected a feisty soul sensibility into moribund British pop”, and suggests: “Maybe the pain of hiding her gay sexuality was expressed in her singing, and that fine sense of melancholy.”
After years of hiding her sexuality, in 1970 Dusty acknowledged she loved women as well as men. At the time such openness risked commercial disaster.
One of the first performers to speak out and put gay sexuality on pop’s agenda, she had a number of lesbian relationships.
As her appearance became more exaggerated, Dusty took make-up tips from male drag queens, admitting later: “Basically I’m a drag queen myself.”
The image was a front. She said: “The bigger the hair, the blacker the eyes, the more you can hide.”
Her friend and secretary, Pat Rhodes, said that onstage Dusty was “a frightened woman who never thought she was any good”.
After a spell in Los Angeles marred by drink and drugs addiction and suicide attempts, Dusty found that with her return to the pop world in the late 1970s her most loyal fans were among the gay community.
Starring in a charity performance packed out with her flamboyantly gay fans and attended by Princess Margaret, Dusty offended the princess by mischievously announcing: “It’s nice to see that the royalty isn’t confined to the box.”
“Evidently HRH wasn’t amused by Dusty’s veiled reference to the ‘queens’ in the audience,” Lucy writes.
Princess Margaret snubbed Dusty after the show and the singer was sent a typed apology for her to sign and return.
Fervently anti-racist, Dusty refused to play to segregated audiences in South Africa. In 1964 she was the first British artist to include a “no apartheid” clause in a South African contract. She was deported from the country before she finished her tour.
She introduced Motown artists to Britain, spoke up about civil rights and condemned the racism of the Ku Klux Klan.
Author Lucy – who lives in Willesden, not far from Dusty’s earliest home – told Review: “What we know now about mental health issues, and the much more open discussion of LGBT issues, throws her career and life into a new perspective.”
She said she was struck by “how strong Dusty was, achieving what she did despite obstacles, particularly in the 1960s music business which was extremely sexist and very hard for a woman to get on as a producer and real architect of her own music”.
The book traces Dusty’s fledgling career with the Lana Sisters, the Springfields with her brother Tom, her rise to international stardom, the making of the classic album Dusty in Memphis, her doldrums years in Los Angeles and her resurgence.
In 1987 she had a huge hit with the Pet Shop Boys, What Have I Done to Deserve This?
Her version of Son of a Preacher Man on the soundtrack of the film Pulp Fiction in 1994 helped her resound with a new generation.
She received the OBE at her bedside in the final stages of her illness, remarking: “It’s a nice medal. But couldn’t they have got a better ribbon? It’s a bit frayed.”
The book will be a hit with Dusty fans, and has wider appeal in the engaging insight it gives into a highly talented, perfectionist, insecure woman who had wit, courage, and was ahead of her time.
• Dusty: The Classic Biography. By Lucy O’Brien. Michael O’Mara Books, £16.99