This is the uncut version of an interview that appeared on Venus Zine’s website during December 2010, and features additional questions Cherry Vanilla answered that did not appear in the Venus Zine interview.
Interview: Cherry Vanilla
The ’60s and ’70s music scene legend talks about what inspired her to write her new book, Lick Me, raves about the realism of Mad Men, and shares some recollections of her times with Andy Warhol and David Bowie.
By Bess Korey
Cherry Vanilla’s autobiography, Lick Me: How I Became Cherry Vanilla, was released during November 2010, and it is a no holds barred account of her life and career during the ’60s and ’70s. During those decades, she was a successful “Mad Woman” in the Advertising industry; collaborated with Andy Warhol and was one of his Superstars; had a personal relationship with David Bowie while she was doing PR work for him during the Glam Rock era; and had her own music career as a Punk Rocker during the mid-late ’70s. All of these achievements and more are covered in Lick Me, and she touches on some of these milestones from her life in the following interview.
What inspired you to write a book about your life story at this point in time?
The kids who are in the rock scene now have so many more worries than I had when I was young. There’s so much fear in the air. There are real threats, of course, but also I think the government keeps us all in check by making us fearful and promoting the fact that they are our big protectors. George Bush and Dick Cheney really used this tactic a lot. I wanted to promote a bit of fearlessness, at least about art, activism and sexuality for them. And for the older folks like me, I just wanted to remind them of the wild good times we had, when things were not so scary as they are now … make ‘em count their blessings for having had such a fabulous youth and rejoice in the fact that we’ve survived.
Was it tough for you to write about so many personal things that happened to you, and since you name names, did you worry at all about how people may respond to the book?
It was extremely cathartic to write about so many personal things, but also extremely painful at times. I’m a very practical person and I move on fast from failure, tragedy and the like. But all of the hurts and feelings I had buried so long ago came to the surface once again and had to be dealt with in a much deeper way once I started writing about them. But then, of course, remembering all of the fabulous rock & roll nights I’d had, the extreme joy of getting so close to the music and the musicians I loved, really made me feel so extremely lucky. I mean, for a little Irish Catholic girl from Queens, I certainly had some rare and incredible experiences.
As for worrying about what anyone might think, I had to put that out of my mind and try to tell the absolute truth about every encounter and every situation, no matter what. I think that as long as you strive so hard to portray things as they actually were … and it was all so long ago … I don’t think that people should have any reason to get upset. And even though I reveal so much about myself and my innermost feelings, embarrassing moments and such, I really tried hard not to reveal too much personal stuff about those in the situations I describe. I mean, I might tell everything about how fabulous it was to be in bed with David Bowie, Kris Kristofferson and the like, but I would never discuss the size of anybody’s penis or those kinds of tacky details.
Do you watch the show Mad Men, and if so, based on your experiences of working on Madison Avenue, do you feel as if it is a true representation of what was going on in Advertising during that era?
Oh my God, they got it so right, I can’t believe it! It’s exactly as it was. They even mention Rattazzi’s restaurant, where I had my first poetry reading. And what a reminder of just how fortunate I was! I mean, I kind of knew that women had a hard time in that world, but I somehow just didn’t think that it applied to me. I was so naïve, and that might have been my saving grace in a way. I just assumed that if I did my job well and got along with my co-workers, that I would be rewarded with responsibilities, raises and positions befitting my work ethic and my talents. And I think that naïveté kind of saved me. I just seemed to sail through the obstacles and I became one of the very few radio/TV producers and casting directors on Madison Avenue at the time. The only thing they haven’t covered thus far in Mad Men is Fire Island and the LSD scene, which was very big with all of us Mad Avers at the time. I am waiting to see that episode. Maybe they will lift one from my book. Or maybe I could help them write one.
Do any of the female characters on Mad Men remind you of yourself back then?
Well, I see a bit of me in all of them. Peggy certainly captures the advancements I made career-wise, but I wasn’t as dark or dorky as they portray her in the show. Looks and attitude-wise, I was much more like Joan. But I was more independent and ambitious than she seems to be. I certainly wasn’t like Betty. I didn’t want to be anybody’s wife or girlfriend back then. I wanted to be free to screw around all I wanted and to pay my own rent and my own way.
How do you feel working on Madison Avenue influenced your later career and your time doing PR work for David Bowie?
You know, what we did on Madison Avenue was paid advertising. It was the corporate world and it’s where I learned the methods and the rules of promotion. But when I started doing PR for Bowie, what thrilled me most was discovering how much press coverage one could actually get for nothing via public relations. And that’s when I learned how to combine them both. I remember when the great fashion critic, Mr. Blackwell, put Bowie on his Worst Dressed Female List. I saw that as a great opportunity to make a very inexpensive radio campaign out of it, which was then written about and talked about so much in the press and in important social circles, that we got ten times our money’s worth out of it. We didn’t really have huge amounts of money on hand to promote David back then; we just made it look that way to the public. And it was not only my advertising experience that helped me with that, but also the experience I had gained in promoting the underground films and plays I did with my friends. It was so much more challenging to get the word out on something when there was absolutely no budget to do so.
What was it like working with Andy Warhol?
Warhol gave me belief in myself as an actress. He was always so encouraging and so full of praise. He used to tell me that if Hollywood would only recognize what he called “the real stars,” meaning the ones he chose, like me, that we would once again have a golden age of movie stars, like he felt we’d had back in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. He believed that stars were born stars, not manufactured, and that one only had to have the insight to recognize them and then put them in a setting and scenario where they could shine as themselves. My favorite moment with him was when I auditioned for him in order to get the title role in his play, Pork. And instead of him making me read a scene from the play, as most playwrights would have an actress do, he just chatted with me about TV commercials and asked me to sing a hymn from catholic school. I sang “Dear Lady of Fatima” and he loved it. And I got the part.
Do you have any memories from your time with David Bowie that you would like to share?
Well, my favorite memories from my time with Bowie are the ones from the Ziggy Stardust concerts on his early US tours. They were so groundbreaking and amazing, and so entertaining. I really feel so lucky to have gotten to attend so many of them. But, of course, getting to have sex with him that first time, after the concert in Boston is probably my most favorite memory of all … that and the many nights we stayed up talking till dawn, when he was at the height of his cocaine period.
Were you involved with the Feminist Movement at all during the ’60s and ’70s?
Not officially, though I felt I was a natural feminist all of my life. I wasn’t afraid to do anything a man could do, socially, sexually and career-wise. I felt I broke down a lot of barriers, opened a lot of doors and did away with some major taboos. I earned my own money and paid my own way. And I can’t remember ever letting anything stop me from doing something I wanted to do or accomplishing something I wanted to accomplish because of my gender.
Even though you weren’t officially a Feminist, do you feel as if the Feminist Movement affected your life as a businesswoman and performer?
Of course, and I feel it affected a lot of women’s lives that followed. I wonder if there ever could have been such commercial entities as a Madonna or a Lady Gaga, if there had not first been the more underground female characters such as myself.
What influenced your decision to emerge from behind the scenes in the music world to the forefront as a performer?
The Sex Pistols are what got me to go to London in 1977. I had been into both American and UK rock groups for years and years – all of the big ones … Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, Leon Russell and the like – but when I heard the Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK for the first time, there was an energy in it that I just could not resist. I sold everything I owned and got on a plane to London almost immediately. I just had to see what was going on over there.
I have always had such a strong desire to demystify things, to find out what it must feel like to be everything from an ad exec, a DJ, an actress, a PR lady and so forth … it was only natural that I would want to demystify the rock star thing. I was in the music business already, and it was the ultimate music biz role. I wouldn’t have been satisfied had I not gotten up there in front of the drums, the amps and the guitars and found out what it actually felt like to spill your guts out to an audience and control the energy in the room … and to try and raise it to a fever pitch, without it getting completely out of control and causing mass chaos.
Do you think it’s easier to be a woman in the music business today than it was in the past?
Not necessarily. I think it’s hard being in the music business today no matter what sex you are. There’s a lack of focus on any one form, the lack of a movement of any kind, a trend. It’s the long tail thing created by the web. Instead of a hundred artists selling millions of albums, it’s millions of artists selling hundreds of albums, or tracks, as is more likely now. Mick Jagger said an interesting thing in a recent interview and that is that musicians all through the ages never really made tons of money … but there was that one window in time in the sixties and seventies when groups like his were able to become extremely famous and extremely rich by making music. But that time seems to have come and gone. Now a musician is just lucky to be making a living at all by way of his or her music. There are, of course, the Lady Gagas and the Atomic Toms who come along now and then. But most of their success is based on a gimmick, not on the music. And even they are not racking up the sales like a Michael Jackson or a Mariah Carey once did.
How do you feel that you’ve changed the most since the ’60s and ’70s?
As an artist, I am no longer about glitter, glam, sex and seduction. And I guess the same can be said for me as a person. And that’s probably a good thing at my age. Once I lost the desire for sex, I, of course, lost the need and the desire to seduce. And that changes everything about one’s attitude, motives, conduct and style. I feel so free now … free of the need to be sexy, seductive and in fashion. I am what I am and if someone doesn’t like it, that’s their problem. I’m happy to be in my wrinkled 67-year-old skin and confident in my talents, accomplishments, personality, experience, loyalty, integrity and dependability. I’m at that point in life where I can say exactly what I feel and what I think, without the fear of judgment or rejection. As an artist, I’m still financially very insecure, but I understand that sort of comes with the territory and I accept it. But socially, I am way more secure than I ever was when I was young and hot. My aim was always to convey a relatable truth of the human condition through my art. But there was a time when I felt it also had to be a little bit shocking. Now, I just feel like I have to strive to tell the truth. It still may shock some people, but I am in no way consciously trying to do that. I’m just trying to inform and relate. And I think that’s the goal of most artists, young or old, then or now.
What projects are you working on now?
Currently, I am giving my all to promoting my book, Lick Me. I spent two years writing it and I would like to see it get into the hands of as many people as possible. I’ve been traveling around the States, doing readings, signings and interviews. I’m hoping someone will want to make a movie of my story, and that I’ll be involved in that. And I’m beginning to think about my next book, the one that will continue the story from 1977 to present. Mostly though, I’m working on staying healthy, so I can accomplish all of these things. And that’s the most important project of them all … for all of us.