An interview with comedian, actress, author, producer, singer/songwriter, talk show host, director, and ally extraordinaire WHOOPI GOLDBERG.
by Blase DiStefano
Photo by Timothy White/HBO
Whoopi Goldberg was born in 1955 (or 1949, depending on the source) and has accomplished so much since then that space doesn’t allow a proper synopsis. Thus, an “improper” synopsis: she became popular when director Mike Nichols presented her self-titled one-woman stage show on Broadway in the ’80s. Because of her impeccable impersonations of a variety of characters in that show, Steven Spielberg cast her as the main character in The Color Purple, for which she won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar.
She went on to make a slew of films, including Jumping Jack Flash, Clara’s Heart (with child star Neil Patrick Harris!), The Long Walk Home, Soapdish, and, of course, Ghost, for which she took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (it had been 50 years since a black woman had received that same honor—Hattie McDaniel won for Gone with the Wind in 1939).
Then there was the wildly popular Sister Act, which spawned a sequel and a Broadway musical (for which Goldberg was also a producer). More movies—including Corrina, Corrina; Boys on the Side; and The Associate—followed.
In the middle of all of this, she became the first black woman to host the Oscars in 1994 (and the first woman to host solo); she would host the awards show three more times.
In 1998 Goldberg executive-produced Hollywood Squares, while taking on the dual role of the “center square.” In 2007 she replaced Rosie O’Donnell on The View and continues to co-host the show.
Goldberg has won numerous awards and is one of only 12 individuals to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (often abbreviated as EGOT) in competitive categories. In 1999 she won GLAAD’s Vanguard Award, presented to those who have “made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for LGBT people.”
She recently added directing to her list of accomplishments, with Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, an HBO documentary about the first black female comic. That Mabley was a lesbian is an added bonus of the superb film that is now available on DVD.
OutSmart spoke to Goldberg about the documentary, AIDS, and her sexuality.
Blase DiStefano: Hey Whoopi, how are you doing?
Whoopi Goldberg: Good. How are you doing?
Good. I’m a huge fan. I’ve watched some of your movies a million times. The Long Walk Home, Jumping Jack Flash, The Associate, in which you were in heavy-duty drag.
Do you remember how much was involved in being made up like that?
It was hours and hours—literally hours and hours of makeup. I loved being in “Marlon Brando-face.”
Let’s go from that old white straight man to a young black lesbian in Boys on the Side. Do you remember how you got that role?
Yeah, Herb [Ross] asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said yes, and I got it.
Did you know many people with AIDS at the time? [Goldberg’s character had a crush on Mary-Louise Parker’s character, who had AIDS.] Oh yeah. I lived in Berkeley, California, from I think 1979 till I got famous—so the very beginning of it. Suddenly, dancer friends of mine, actor friends of mine, performance artists were suddenly down with something. Then you started to see this insanity called “thrush.” Then you started to learn hospitals wouldn’t take them in, because they were concerned because they didn’t know what it was, that it was gonna pass from person to person to person. Then they gave it a name, and then they wouldn’t take folks and friends into hospitals, and then friends were dying on the street. So yeah, I lived through all of that, through the death of so many of my friends.
Almost all of my support group died. I’m not sure I need to talk about this.
But you’re here. I don’t know if people will take offense to this, but when you survive an insanity like that, you end up with guilt, like “Why didn’t I get sick?” [The reason you’re here is] because you’re supposed to tell it—you’re supposed to testify about it. For all those people who are not here, you’re the only voice they have. And if you don’t tell the stories, nobody will know them, because these kids [today] don’t know much. They think, “We’ll just take the pills, the cocktails,” but they don’t realize that becomes your life. [Editor’s note: The Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than one in two young gay men will be HIV-positive by the time they’re 50 years old.]
But I don’t blame them, because they didn’t have to go through anything like that, so it means nothing to them.
They still have to know. You and I weren’t alive for World War II, yet we know everything that happened. People wrote about it, people talked about it, there were movies made about it. The same thing has to happen with this. This is information everybody has to know, because people need to know what went on and how we never need to do this again with anything that comes down the pike. Barring people from going to the hospital because you can’t identify what it is, so you let people die on the street—that’s not what a hospital is supposed to do—ever.
So here we are, years later.
Here we are. I’m in Houston [both laugh], you’re in New York. You’ve lived there a long time, right?
I grew up here, so I came home. I left California and came back here, because it seemed better for me.
And is it?
I think so. I have more experiences here with varying kinds of people—different kinds of people who have different kinds of work. Sometimes for me, when in Los Angeles, I lost my ability to talk to anybody who was not in the industry.
You do have your Sister Act wax figure in Los Angeles.
Oh child, I have no idea. [Both laugh]
So you weren’t involved in the making of the figure?
I think they measured my face, and that’s all I had to do. So wherever that thing ends up…it’ll probably end up in some strip club or something. [Both laugh]
In doing research on you, it seems that the Internet thinks that you’re bisexual. Is the…
That’s okay. Honey, let them have what they want. It’s hard to find anything about me. Clearly, people are blind—I married a couple of really interesting men, and I’ve run around with interesting men. You never sort of catch me with a chick. Let them have that, sure. But if they wanna believe I’m bisexual, and it makes them feel better, fine.
Maybe it does make people feel better.
I think so, because it will allow them to then make another snap decision about who and what I am.
The Internet is fantastic and horrible at the same time.
You don’t have to be factual on the Internet. Even though there has been nothing but the roles I’ve played to give any indication that I’m bi…every picture in every gossip magazine—always with some dude, some guy. I’m messing with some guy, married some guy—some weird guy shit. But people insist [otherwise, so] I’ve found, in the last 10 years, it’s easier to say “Okay.”
In effect, who gives a f–k?
Really. I don’t understand why it’s so important for them to nail that down for me. But since they insist, I just say “Alright.” They’re not calling me a murderer.
Do you remember the first gay person you ever met or how you came to know about homosexuality? You’re such an ally to the [LGBT] community. How did that come about?
It just was. I grew up with gay men, gay women. Perhaps they knew, but there was no word for it. That was just them. In the ’60s, ’70s, people put a word to it—“gay.” Oh, okay. And then you had to be “gay, lesbian,…” and it was too many letters for me.
I personally like the word “queer.”
A lot of people get very upset when you say it.
It pretty much applies, because everybody can be under that umbrella.
I love that.
Speaking of queers, what prompted you to make the Moms Mabley film?
Well, because I used to do Moms [impersonations], and I had planned on doing Moms on stage. I started with that plan 20-some-odd years ago, and then woke up and it was 20-some-odd years later. It was like, “Y’all don’t know who she is, but you should. Every comic should know who she is.” And then I realized that there [are numerous comedy awards], but there’s no Moms Mabley Award, and there should be, for excellence in humor.
She was the first female comic, right?
Yes, but nobody knew that, apparently. And I don’t think I realized it until I started doing the research. [Her sexuality] also came up. You’d hear rumors, but I’m not a big fan of rumors. I need concrete proof of anything. But I tell you, when I saw that photograph that said “Happy Holidays from Mr. Moms,” it’s kinda hard to say, “Well, I’m still not sure.” [Both laugh] The pictures of her dressed as a guy and Norma Miller talking about [calling her Mr. Moms and sharing a dressing room with Moms and Moms’s girlfriend] and the gentleman who did the tours in the Apollo Theater—he was so embarrassed, he didn’t want to say it out loud, because he didn’t know if anybody else really knew that “she was the first woman I ever saw dressed as a man.”
So that’s three—boom, boom, boom. So this is factual. And she didn’t care. And no one else cared. She was dressed as this old lady. It never occurred to anybody. They didn’t think she had a boyfriend or a girlfriend. They didn’t think there was any sexuality in her, anyway. She would say, “There’s nothing an old man can do for me except bring me a message from a young man.” She would talk about getting with Brook Benton or getting with this one, but you knew she was too old, and that was never gonna happen. And it never occurred to you.
And I think the thing that I believe more than anything is that she was so good that nobody gave a shit, because they were all enamored of her talent.
What I remember most is the song “Abraham, Martin, and John.” I almost cry just thinking of her singing it.
And every time you see her singing it. That’s why I left it in its entirety in the documentary. It was the most expensive footage I had. It cost us a pretty penny, but you couldn’t not have it, because she really changed how people felt about that song. When Dion [first recorded it in 1968], it was like, Oh yeah, that’s really sad…
I actually liked Dion’s version a lot, but the difference is amazing.
It’s really spectacular. So I’m happy that it’s in there, as I am about so much that she said and she did. But we have a lot of animation because we didn’t have a lot of visual, because, remember, she was only visual to most people from like ’62, ’63, to ’75. Most folks didn’t have that much time with her. I discovered that she had been playing the role of that woman since she was in her 20s. But using her records and what we got from her early movies, we got a good glimpse of her.
Gay Pride is coming up. Last year you introduced Cher at an event in New York. Do you know if you’ll be involved this year?
I hope so, if they ask me. You know I love introducing folks.
Because of the heat, our parade here in Houston is at night. So you could just fly in and say hello.
[Laughs] I might. You never know with me. You never know where I’ll show up. They do get annoyed in New York if I go to another parade.
Do you remember when you received the Vanguard Award in 1999 from GLAAD?
Vaguely. I’m lucky if I remember what happened last week [laughs], because my schedule is such that I’m running all the time.
But I will tell you what I do remember: I remember getting a call from Elizabeth Taylor years and years and years ago. And she said, “Listen, I’m doing this thing. Would you please come and emcee it for me? Nobody will do it.” And she said, “I don’t know if you know about this thing called AIDS…” I said, “I will be there. I know all about it. And, yes, you don’t have to worry about it, because I don’t give a shit what they think.” And so she and I did the very first. [Editor’s note: Elizabeth Taylor won GLAAD’s Vanguard Award in 2000, the year after Whoopi Goldberg.]
She was totally unlike anybody else. Her people, her friends, her family—that’s who she took care of. That’s who she cared about. So for her to see someone that she loved like Rock [Hudson] being treated in such a way where he really couldn’t say what was going on, she was like “This is not happening to anybody else. I’ll make sure this shit doesn’t happen again.”
So she started it, and other people followed behind her. But she was the first. I will worship and love her for that till the day I die.
She was sorta the last movie star.
Yeah, she sure was. Now they’re all gone. Mickey’s gone. [Mickey Rooney] was the last one, I think. So now it’s Phase Two.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is available from HBO Home Video (hbo.com). Goldberg is co-host of The View on ABC.