Behind the wigs, couture and seductive life of The Supremes was the dream of a Greenville, Miss.-born little girl who loved to play dress-up. Mary Wilson became the backbone of the musical sensation, the only member who stuck by the group, from its inception in 1959 to when it disbanded in 1977.
Among Wilson's role models was Lena Horne, three decades her senior, a pioneer in the entertainment industry who broke through conventions and danced to her own tune. Horne died on Mother's Day 2010 from heart failure.
"The glamour was more than the look. It was about style and the way we carried ourselves. It's how we were different than other artists."
Wilson stars in Stormy Weather (titled after the 1943 that musical film), set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Miller Outdoor Theatre. The multimedia show is narrated by James Gavin, who authored Horne's biography, and honors Horne's life and her accomplishments as a singer, actress and civil rights advocate in an era whirling with winds of change.
When taking on the role, Wilson saw many parallels between her life and Horne's journey. As such, the whole experience has taken on a more personal meaning.
CultureMap chatted with Wilson by phone from her home in California and she talked about fashion, glamour and her thoughts on the election.
CultureMap: When did you first know of Lena Horne? Do you remember when you met?
Mary Wilson: Lena Horne was talked about in my household. My mother and my aunt would get excited when she would appear on television, so I grew up knowing her and her work. She was definitely a phenomenon we all revered — and I idolized her.
Meeting her was a grand moment. By then The Supremes were famous, though she was way above where we were. We met in 1968 at Talk of the Town (a London nightclub), we saw her show, she invited us backstage and we spent more than an hour having fun together.
I stayed in touch with her through the years. In those days with the variety shows, you would always run into people — not like today where everything is so separate. She was always beautiful, always warm, always friendly — unlike many people may think about her. She was a great lady. We had more fun backstage than the audience, I bet.
CM: What did you learn from her as a celebrity, as a colleague and as a friend?
MW: The glamor. She was always immaculate. Though there were lots of wonderful black female entertainers, her style spoke to us. But above that, she always found time to reach out to other people. Whenever she saw me, she would say, "Mary, how are you doing, so glad to see you!" She wasn't one of those, hello-bye types.
"Though I am a believer, and I do believe dreams come true. This too shall come to fruition. At the age of 68 I am looking for a hit record!"
I identified with her so much, and I think many black female entertainers did also. Being a woman in the entertainment world is a lot harder than for our male counterparts. We have families; we raise the children.
When we were preparing for this show, I could almost put myself in Lena's shoes because I lived through many of the same things. She lost her son; I lost my son. Our marriages were both difficult.
CM: Your career was flourishing amidst a rapidly changing world. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, the Feminist Movement was rising. What was it like to be in the middle of such an era?
It was a time of change — not so different from today. The Civil Rights Movement was in full force; we were all involved in it. We became African-American spokespeople before spokesperson was even a word.
In the tribute we show a clip of her speaking on civil rights. I don't portray her in the piece — it's more of a media documentary with film. I come in between clips and contribute the music and the glamor of Lena Horne.
CM: About the glamor: The Supremes had a fabulous, over-the-top style with couture gowns, many hairstyles and wigs.
MW: The glamour was more than the look. It was about style and the way we carried ourselves. It's how we were different than other artists. As an entertainer you have to find what works for you. For us, we rejoiced in glamour and looking good.
When I was 8 years old, I remember wearing one of my aunt's glamorous dresses that she kept for special occasions to a tea party — and I got watermelon all over her clothes! Tragic!
I've loved to look good since I was a little girl. We know Diana loved to look good. And Flo loved to look good. Lena was definitely a part of that. Motown didn't make us dress up. This is how we really were, and Motown realized that and continued to use that — because glamour worked in our favor.
Glamour showed that this little black girl — and this is how I talk about it in my lectures — had beauty from within. That beauty came out in the way we looked. Glamour was showing that we could be successful professional black women. It showed that black people were beautiful inside and out. Imagine that, that black people could be beautiful and successful (laughs).
There were other beautiful black women too, like Dionne Warwick and Josephine Baker; we were a part of that. Socially, that helped the Civil Rights Movement in America.
CM: There's no avoiding drama in show biz. And through all the challenges and changes in The Supremes, you managed to keep it together. What's your secret?
I grew up with gospel. Having that background gives you faith and strength. Some people around me got very angry with those who talked about black people as being less than human. When we grew up, we were looked at that way. Though we knew they weren't right.
I believe in, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." That has helped me sail through many life's challenges, though at times I just wake up, breathe and keep moving.
I heard someone say that I was survivor; I don't want to think about being a survivor. I believe that life is life. Sometimes it's up; sometimes it's down. And you keep going, not because it's challenge, because that's life.
My mother brought me up in a good environment; she was an angel. I was also brought up by my aunt and uncle, so I had different kinds of upbringing. Life has been good to me.
CM: Isn't Life's Been Good to Me the title of your latest single?
MW: Yes, and I am really proud of it. It's the best one I've produced. Though I can't get it to play on the radio, because there's no more radio (laughs). There's no more mom-and-pop record stores. So I can't get people to hear it. I have to figure out a way to make it work.
CM: Things have changed.
Things have changed. I don't know whether I need to upload, download, send it to iTunes, Amazon, who knows. My daughter just got me this iPhone I am talking on, and I don't know how to work it.
Though I am a believer, and I do believe dreams come true. This too shall come to fruition. At the age of 68 I am looking for a hit record!
CM: You voted (the day of this interview). Any thoughts about the election?
Well no, I keep that personal. For many of us African American it is important to acknowledge the privilege of being able to vote. The people must vote for what's right not just for them personally, but what's right for America to continue to prosper.
H-E-B presents Stormy Weather on Friday, 7:30 p.m. at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Admission is free. Seating is ticketed for the covered area.