There was a rumor going around in the ‘80s that whenever Madonna would frequent the bar at the legendary Pyramid Club in New York City’s East Village, she’d tell people that all she wanted in the world was to be famous — as if the word itself, “famous,” was a noun meaning: “name of the trophy for outstanding achievement in fame.” Around a decade later, in the same East Village and other neighborhoods in New York, another performer named Tammy Faye Lang (who calls herself Tammy Faye Starlite) was playing the alt-cabaret circuit as a comic and singer and, like Madonna, also wanted recognition but nothing as elusive as actual fame. You know that immortal line from “Make Someone Happy”: “Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute / Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?”
After years of auditions and appearing on television as one of the “wacky” maids opposite Allison Janney on the long-running soap The Guiding Light, Tammy Faye Starlite (she took the name after telling someone it sounded like a cheap lounge) had had enough rejections from casting directors, and decided to take the even more unpredictable road of self-reinvention — not only as a comic and singer, but with time and her building of indelible characters, as one of the most acclaimed performance artists in New York, securing bookings at the city’s top clubs, like Pangea, Joe’s Pub and the Atrium at Lincoln Center.
Tammy Faye Starlite’s formidable talent is being able to mesmerize an audience with an assortment of people whom she caretakes as alter-egos, even though none of those characters are remotely like the person known as Tammy Faye Lang. Some of the people she invites to the ongoing party in her mind are well-known — others, not so much. As Tammy Faye Starlite, a loud and derailed potty-mouthed right-wing country and western singer who is searching for life after QAnon, the set list consists of original songs with bent-Christian lyrics like “God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus,” and “Did I Shave My Vagina For This?”
In her act, “Yesterday, Today and Tamar,” Tammy Faye introduces us to Tamar, a lunatic Israeli chanteuse who is almost too famous for her own mind. The idea for Tamar came to Starlite after making posters for Tamar’s “first” non-existent concert. And while Tamar is clearly a different kind of crazy than Starlite, she, along with everyone else in the Tammy Faye Lang troupe, is polarized either way to the left or way to the right, but still shares the fervor for their particular idea of social justice, making absolutely no apologies for who they are or how they think. While Starlite and Tamar were early projects, Tammy Faye is most well-known for her club acts, “Cabaret Marianne” and “Nico: Underground,” where she transforms (reincarnates is a better word) into two of the most iconic singers of broken dreams from the ‘60s, Nico and Marianne Faithfull.
“Nico: Underground” is based on a real interview the Velvet Underground singer did in 1986 and her celebrity encounters with Dylan, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, and John Cale. Of course, the evening includes Nico’s music, which Starlite’s press release advises will be “performed onstage and in Nico’s mind. All true, all not true.” Her ease in slipping into Nico and the other denizens configured as what she calls “blondes with low voices and defiant lives” has a lot to do with her eerily accurate singing voice. But the real magic is in her disappearing and reappearing again in front of an audience as an entirely different persona.
When “Cabaret Marianne” opened at Pangea in New York, cabaret and film reviewer Stephen Holden filed a rave review in the New York Times: “Sometimes it’s necessary for a performer to use a character to express feelings and opinions without the protection of a theatrical disguise. And in “Cabaret Marianne,” her jaw-dropping show at Pangea on Thursday, Tammy Faye Starlite went all the way: impersonating Marianne Faithfull, rock music’s ‘fallen woman,’ with an uncanny accuracy… In what is easily the most revelatory show I’ve seen in this sluggish cabaret season, Ms. Starlite and her alter ego eerily interfuse.”
Holden’s review inspired Tammy Faye to bring Faithfull back to the stage a few years later with “Why’d Ya Do It,” an interpretation/reinterpretation of Faithfull’s classic 1979 album, Broken English, which Starlite, by some miracle in sustaining, sang in its entirety.
So, finally, who is the real Tammy Faye? She lives as Tammy Faye Lang in Hoboken, N.J. with her husband, guitarist Keith Hartel, and is a self-confessed left-leaning good girl who came to sex late and doesn’t do drugs. In other words, she’s different than anyone in her repertoire in every way, except for maybe the somewhat passing resemblance to Debbie Harry (another singer she also takes pleasure in performing).
The temperature of a culture isn’t always taken with an accurate thermometer — especially with decisions around the blurry fate of who gets to be famous. More often than not, fame is that alchemy that only happens when luck, place, and time come together due to a chemical reaction in which a star emerges in a sky of stars. And in talking to Tammy Faye about her career, I kept wondering, as do her adoring and committed fans, why she isn’t more famous? Particularly after Holden’s review in the Times along with the touring, the television work, and other milestones in the life of a performer — compressed into something called a resume, usually printed on the back of a glossy 8×10 photograph.
As existential or even false as it may sound, maybe Tammy Faye Starlite isn’t more famous because, unlike Madonna, she can’t be hypnotized by the voice of fame when it tries to put her under the spell. Maybe, too, there’s a kind of humility there that started back when she was little, making up plays for cousins and friends and giving the bigger roles to them, instead of taking them for herself. Maybe it’s that generosity, along with her vibrant intelligence and obviously blazing talent, that makes her an artist. She don’t look back.
Tammy Faye Starlite just wrapped up a tribute to the Rolling Stones and will again be performing “Nico: Underground” on March 24th, at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. I spoke with her in New York.
Well, Tammy Faye, you are hard to classify. How would you describe yourself as a performer?
I’m drawn towards more fringe people. I just never clicked with the in crowd, and always been the straggler. When I was acting a lot, before the cabaret stuff, I’d go to auditions and would get a lot of, “Oh, that’s great” responses and nothing else afterwards. Years ago, I auditioned for Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and the director said, “That was the best audition I’ve ever seen,” and I thought, Well, okay, I’m clearly getting a call back. And I didn’t.
I did a stint on The Guiding Light for a little bit and I had a manager, and I got my first equity job in 1995. And right after that, unfortunately, my manager died. And then I just was doing Tammy Faye Starlight, and I just didn’t want to audition anymore because I knew I didn’t fit into any kind of look or any kind of role. I never fit. My mother would say to me, “Tammy, you’re a late bloomer.” She probably could have said that yesterday and it would still be true!
Somebody once asked me, “Whose career do you admire?” And I knew Penny Arcade, because of that whole downtown scene and who, at 62, got a rave review for her performance in Tennessee Williams’ The Mutilated. And eventually we met, and she told me how much she loved the way I did the Nico show and helped me get it into Theater for the New City. I’ll always admire her for someone who can be considered as being ahead of her time.
Have you been able to make a living as a performer?
No. And in that sense, I really have been fortunate. My family was well off. I grew up on the Upper West Side and my father was a judge, so I was always well off. But I did do telemarketing like for a specific theater company, which actually was fun, because we ended up doing a play Co-ed Prison Sluts: The Musical that ran for a year and a half. I was an ingénue slut. I was so excited. It really shaped my sensibilities early on, but again, I always had a cushion of family money, but there was also an inheritance. My father died in 1987, my mom in 2009, and my brother in 2014.
My mother had won a malpractice lawsuit against three doctors for not recognizing signs of my brother’s toxoplasmosis returning, so he got money from that. When he passed away, all of that came to me. I’m well off enough so I don’t have to work. And I spend it all on paying the band and touring.
Tell me about your beginnings?
Well, when I was little and making up plays, I would make my parents and their friends sit down for them. I’ve always had this subversive sense of humor, which is weird because I’m really not that cool. I’m not a bad girl. Like, I didn’t have sex for a long time. I was someone who wrote poetry. And I remember standing up on my couch when my grandparents were there and reciting this poem and had the word “Venus” in there, and my mother knew what word I was going to rhyme Venus with and she said, “Tammy, sit down!” That’s kind of how all of it started. Then, I rewrote West Side Story for my friend and I played Tony. I didn’t like the fact that Tony died at the end, so I decided to change it, and the way that I’m going to show that Tony’s still alive without breaking the narrative is to lift up my leg and make a peeing sound, telling the audience that Tony is alive! He can still pee!
It sounds as though you were already leaning towards comedy that was irreverent.
Sure, of course, but eventually I became cognizant of how people respond in different ways. What really spurred me on in the beginning was listening to Howard Stern in the early ‘90s. He would always go over the hump on the roller coaster and you’d feel sick listening to him, which was my goal initially, to make people feel nauseated because that’s the thrill. I would use bad language, and since cunt is my favorite word, I’d use that one — especially if I saw kids in the audience.
I worked with Louis C.K. in the early 2000s because I was performing a lot at Luna Lounge. It was Janeane Garofalo and Jim Gaffigan and Marc Maron and Louis. And he had me perform in his weekly show called “Louis C.K.’s Filthy, Stupid Talent Show,” where he once had me hula hoop to surf music and just suddenly start spewing racial epithets — you know, just hula hoop and say things like, “Filthy jews,” that kind of stuff. And, of course, being Jewish, that’s my favorite thing. Louis was always so sweet to me, and I remember thinking when all that stuff happened to him… But, Louis, you didn’t ask me?
Do you revise a script based on how you think audiences might respond to something they’re not sure is meant to be funny?
Cutting something that isn’t up to the material around it is really my only consideration. Doing Nico is my favorite because her energy is so different than Marianne’s, which is very forward. Mick Jagger’s energy is very forward, and Nico’s is more receptive. She needs somebody to initiate the dialog and then she’s very present. But there’s stuff that I wonder about doing now because it might stop the audience or make them think, am I allowed to laugh?
Is there any subject or language that’s off limits?
I don’t use the N-word, which is sort of the only boundary. In the recent Stones show, there’s a bit where, as Marianne Faithfull, I start ranting about the recent excision of Patti Smith’s rock and roll N-word, which had just happened, and the fact of it being taken off streaming platforms and saying that Patti didn’t take any side on it — walking a moral or ethical tightrope. Then I do Patti launching into her rant, which is “Well, I haven’t fucked much with the past, but I’ve fucked plenty with the future.” This Stones show is slightly different in that I’m being the Mick who goes back to his cabaret roots. He didn’t listen to Big Bill Broonzy or Muddy Waters. He listened to Mabel Mercer and Liz Callaway and Karen Akers. Cabaret is really his genre of choice.
I bet a lot of Stones fans didn’t know that, or have ever heard of Mabel Mercer or Liz Callaway.
Absolutely. That’s all deeply buried in Mick’s unconscious mind. For the Rolling Stones show, I did a few songs as Mick. And then, because I do Marianne Faithfull so much, I decided to become Marianne Faithfull commenting on Mick. And then Marianne Faithfull comments on Patti Smith and starts going off on her — how she doesn’t take responsibility about “Jesus Died,” while Marianne has had to live with her own fuck-ups and never be forgiven. I’ve been thinking about doing Patti Smith. I’d probably approach it as Tammy Faye Starlite, and doing Patti Smith’s whole album Horses but imagined as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
When did you introduce Tammy Faye Starlite to audiences?
Tammy Faye Starlite was created in the ‘90s as a reaction to the right wing, so it made sense that she had to be a country singer. I knew I couldn’t be a real one, so I decided to be a fake one beginning with just doing the song “Stand By Your Man,” where I interspersed between the two choruses a monologue about being happily gang-raped.
You mentioned before when talking about Howard Stern the thrill about being uncomfortable. What thrills you nowadays?
Well, I’m excited to do the Nico show again because she’s someone I’m not like in any way. I don’t look like Nico, but I try to sing as much like her and talk like her and bring out the defiance of life she had inside her. I gravitate to the kind of songwriting and poetry where things don’t have a logic, which is something I learned from Marianne Faithfull’s last record, Negative Capability. That every story doesn’t need a little bow that ties everything up at the end.
The term “negative capability” was first used in a letter the poet John Keats wrote, where he defined it as the ability “to accept uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
I had an acting teacher once who said that the most interesting part about doing a play is when you have a line and look around and the other actor doesn’t know what’s going to happen and the first actor doesn’t know what’s going to happen and the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen. And then, it happens. It’s so electric, that kind of reality.
My impression is you want to perform and be able to say something about the culture more than you want fame. Would that be a fair thing to say?
Well, of course, you would want mass recognition. But my whole dream is to perform at Café Carlyle whenever I wanted and not to worry about filling the room, just be able to do what I want and say it the way I want to say it.