Legends: Cyndi Lauper Remembers The Art Of “She’s So Unusual”

It has been 30 years since Cyndi Lauper proclaimed that "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Her voice, the sheer, unique New York-ness of it, has become an icon of the '80s, but Lauper herself has transcended decades and has become a polymath: Activist, Broadway composer, producer, and even an actress, Lauper has harnessed her brand of spunk-pop for three solid decades. For the upcoming anniversary of her seminal album, she reminisces on how she created one of the most defining images of not only an era, but of New York City, as well.

As told to Leila Brillson.

unusual-front-1Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.
“Well, the cover came, at that time, from looking from photographs, a book of photography, that a friend, my producer from the Blue Angels video, gave me. He said, ‘Have you thought about what you are going to do for the cover?’ And, I said, ‘Actually, no.’ And, he said, ‘Well you should. You should look at photography books.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re right.’ So, I was looking and I saw this really wonderful picture of a South American girl, in a colorful dress, skirt, and hat. I thought it was really interesting. I realized that, okay, I would like to do a picture that is a study of mid-daylight.
One of the photographers that I loved, because of one of the Rolling Stone covers she did and what she did for Bruce Springsteen's Born in The U.S.A — it was Annie Leibovitz. The work was striking and she had such a strong sense of composition. I went out with Janet Perr, the art director. We went out to Coney Island. We saw Coney Island; it was very much a part of my life. So, we looked and looked and we found this place that just seemed right: Robert Clemente. We walked through blocks and blocks that were closed and going to be torn down because they were trying to build a casino there. So, what they did was light fires everywhere so that it was all burnt out. There was this one place that wasn’t burnt out and it looked really awesome.
I felt that I should be in red because red would pop from the blue. They were primary colors. I was an art major, so I took the art with me. I was working at Screaming Mimi’s at the time and putting a lot of clothes away on layaway. (After a while, they told me that my layaway cost more than my salary.) But, I loved those clothes, what they had and what they picked out. It was my favorite, secret place. I loved to shop there. I had also seen all the girls come in from all over the place and they were so put together. I took a few photographs like Jane Russell in the 1950s, with a specific South American feel. I found the same skirt she used, except in red instead of green.
I liked the whole idea of it being a bathing suit underneath or a bodice. I always had a great figure and the bodice outside made me look more slender. I always, at that time, felt that we should dismiss, disrespect the corset and make it an outer garment anyway. So, part of what I wore was the bathing suit and the little flower, Bakelite, a flower necklace. I wanted to put flowers in a certain spot.
unusual_back-1Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.
I had this idea, because of the famous parachute jump ride that was defunct at the time. To me, it felt like it was the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn because it was there for a hundred years. I had this idea to paint my shoes. I always painted my shoes in college. ‘Why don’t you just paint on a canvas?’ I would ask myself. These shoes were just different objects. So, I had this idea to paint these shoes. I didn’t have time to paint anything on the soles of them so I decided to cut out pieces of Van Gogh’s "Starry Night" and put it on the soles of my shoes. Because the soles of people’s shoes…the fact that it’s called the sole. Or the fact that sometimes, in your imagination, you could look through the bottom of the sole of your shoes, to see where that person was going or where they came from, or what they were thinking, or about their life. I thought "Starry Night" would be a wonderful image, in your mind, to have something in your sole. I always thought Vincent Van Gogh, who was just trying to make that one-hit painting, never accomplished it in his life. I decided to bring those and wear yellow socks because you are going to want to pick up the yellow from the painting, really punch the painting.
We did the outdoor thing and kept saying, ‘Oh, pick up your skirt; pick up your skirt.’ We were playing the music and dancing to the music from the album. But, I didn’t really want to, like, pick up the skirt, in a coy, innocent way. I wanted to show movement, to dance. Have fun. And then, in the back, Annie was running around. ‘I want the umbrella here and the flowers here.’ I had this thing on my ankle, and I wanted it to be prominent, to symbolize how we remain still and enslaved from the laws that they make to even the language. Those are the things that had to change and adjust if we were to have equal footing with a man. No matter what color we were, that every race and creed, no matter what should have equal footing and be able to breathe some free air. Freedom of thought. Have a free spirit. To have that lift and inspire you and be able to think outside the box, and be free enough to think outside the box.
Then when I went to Annie Leibovitz and told her I could put my feet over the umbrella, so I can get to the bottom of my shoes. She looked at me and said, ‘Well, first of all, we could move this big trashcan and I’ll lay on the floor. That’s how we can do it.’ And then, she took the picture and she said, ‘You know Cyn, you’re nuts but it’s actually really great. It really works.’
CyndiDeluxecover-1Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.
It was so exciting to collaborate with someone like Annie Leibovitz, who — in my heart of heart — I still believe is one of the great American photographers, because when she takes a picture, the graphic thing that she does, it’s almost like a sculpture. She’s just a great photographer. There are many great photographers that I have been allowed to work with, to have them take a picture of me. But, I've always wanted them to be able to make a piece. To use color. To grab the eyes. For this, I knew that blue and red would pop out, like a strobe. We had to grab their eye. And, I used color to do that. I used two colors that form a strobe naturally.
Then you know, the content, the fact that we had these songs and I had this idea of what I wanted. I was enamored with this electronic sound that had come over from Europe. I was in love with it. Well, The Police had this first album that sounded groundbreaking to me. If I had a guitar player that played like Andy Summers or The Clash guitar sound — paired with this new electronic sound, it would be like heaven. Visually, I was working on that balance. It was something old in a new way. You have to be very careful now, what vintage clothes you wear, because there is no irony anymore. A young girl in a new dress is like two young things together; there is nothing to really consider. It has to be timeless.
As for the photo, it was the right time of day. I was working with Janet Kerr. We definitely worked really well together, we were on the same page. She took a photograph and she said, ‘Write the 'Time After Time' lyric on this and it will look really good in your handwriting. It would be something.’ And, she was right. It definitely was. Her personality was all over that, along with mine, along with Annie’s. It was very important that the art and the music were tied together because that was definitely who I was. I still am. You know I didn’t start becoming a great painter. I never did exactly what they did.”

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