Back in 1983, a girl from Queens burst into the pop music world with a fluorescent orange mullet, an outer-borough squawk and a singing voice, blending a rocker’s attack and a soul star’s range, that seemed like it could power all of downtown Manhattan. On her debut album, She’s So Unusual, Cyndi Lauper proved a pop artist could dominate the charts simply by being her kooky self: By 1984, she was the first woman to have four singles from an LP reach the top five of the Billboard Hot 100. Over four decades and 11 albums, Lauper never stopped promoting self-acceptance, whether encouraging women’s liberation on “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” or founding her True Colors Fund for homeless LGBTQ youth (its namesake song is a community anthem). It’s hard not to see her influence in today’s pop stars, from Lady Gaga to Cardi B, who happily let their freak flags fly. And at 65, this year’s Icon is still growing: A Tony Award winner for her Kinky Boots score, Lauper is adapting the 1988 film Working Girl for Broadway. “Deep in my heart,” she says, “I still want to be a great artist. I mean, really great.”
You’ve always seemed to have fun just being yourself. How did you find your tribe?
As early teens, my friend and I were a duet. We met a manager who said, “The only way I’ll work with you is if you get married to two boys.” I was like, “Get married? What the fuck?” So that didn’t work out. Then all my friends in that tribe came out. Because I was straight, I kind of fell out of that tribe real quick. It was like, “Well, she’s straight.” Then my sister came out, and I was like, “Ha! You’re not ditching me! Wherever you go, I’m gonna be right there.” When I joined a folk cover band, all of a sudden I didn’t feel so different anymore. Everybody was kind of messed up. I could do my hair in pink curls like a version of Sir Isaac Newton. When I started to come to Manhattan, that’s when I started to feel more alive.
Having felt like an outcast, it must have been strange when music fans began to idolize you.
When I first became famous, it was very weird for me. Like, girls would scream over me, and I started to feel like a fraud because I thought maybe they thought I was gay, and I didn’t want to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. Then I realized, “Naw, they’re just screaming.” I always wanted to lift people up, especially people who are downtrodden, because I’ve been there.
You’ve always championed women’s rights. I imagine you faced your share of struggles.
[After] my first tour, all the big label honchos took me out to eat and said, “We’re going to make you the next Barbra Streisand.” I looked at them and said, “Could you find somebody else for that job? Because honestly, I really love rock’n’roll.” They were like, “Ohhh-kay, so she’s gonna be tough. We’ll show her what tough is.” Of course, you don’t want to do that with me unless you got 10 years to waste. I’m Sicilian. I know endurance.
The media and record labels manufactured a rivalry between you and Madonna, and successful women are still pitted against each other. Why does that persist?
Who knows? It really hurt my feelings that people would compare [us]. Hey buddy, apples and oranges. What, only one of us can get up and sing? What the hell’s wrong with you?
At the Grammys, you joined the women onstage performing “Praying” with Kesha. What inspired you to do so?
I had spoken to her the year before [about Kesha‘s abuse allegations against Dr. Luke]. And nobody believed her. Listen, we’ve all had our experiences in the business. For my [sexual assault] experience, no one believed me. [Lauper has said it took place in the ’80s.] I didn’t leave because I thought it was a power thing. I was like, “Fine, you’re not going to chase me around, motherfucker.” When I heard her story, I thought, “Yeah, it happened.” Then when I heard Rainbow and how she healed herself with that record — and I’m sure you don’t totally heal from that — I felt, like, OK, I think it’s important. The women who came before me, I stood on their shoulders. The women who come after me will stand on mine.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of Billboard.