Throwback Thursday: For y'all's eyes only

Updated: Jan 9, 2021




Anyone who knows me well will also know this day in November 2016 - on my birthday, no less - was the most thrilling of my professional life to date.

I've never met Barbra or Madonna and I only got to speak to Donna Summer on the phone. But meeting Sheena Easton, who is right up there on my list of favourite singers, was just as exciting as it would have been close-encountering any of those other divas.

I took the morning train (pun very much intended) to the press launch of the musical 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Interviews were being done in groups and I made sure I was at the head of the table, right next to where Sheena would be seated.

I'm not ashamed to say I dominated the chat, name-dropping her most obscure albums, generally just geeking out in a borderline stalker-y fashion that she seemed highly amused by.

Then, oh joy of joys, I got to meet her again early the following year when she was rehearsing to play Dorothy Brock. This time I had her all to myself, for an hour, and her cheerful greeting of 'Hello again you!' as she entered the room assured me I hadn't freaked her out a few months earlier.

She seemed amused again that I knew more about her career and chart-placings than she did. She was great company - very honest and self-deprecating - and the hug she gave me as she headed back to rehearsals is one I'll cherish forever.

Here's one of the three pieces I ended up doing, which appeared in Gay Times just before the show opened. And what a wonderful show it was, with the most awe-inspiring tap dance routines I've ever witnessed. What I wouldn't give in these locked-down times to be able to go and meet those dancing feet in a theatre again. One day eh!

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Sheena Easton is having a diva moment. “Get my my water!” she yells, specifying that it has to be flat not fizzy and it absolutely must not come from a tap. But Sheena is joking and this most down-to-earth of singers is saving the prima donna behaviour for when she's in character as over-the-hill chanteuse Dorothy Brock in a revival of 42nd Street.

When we meet in a London rehearsal studio Sheena, 57, is joking with her castmates and grabbing her lunch from a communal fridge, very much a team player despite the fact the 80s pop superstar with more than 20 million record sales under her belt, two Grammys and the endorsement of Prince is the biggest name in the musical.

Asked if she has had diva moments for real the wee lass with the huge voice thinks for a minute, then says: “Never in public.” Married and divorced four times, she smiles. “They were probably in relationships, you know? Toss the drink in the face and storm off!”

Sheena came to fame on Esther Rantzen's The Big Time documentary show in 1980, had two simultaneous top ten hits with 9 To 5 and Modern Girl, then became only the third UK female to top the US charts (after Petula Clark and Lulu) when 9 To 5 was refashioned as Morning Train to avoid confusion with the Dolly Parton ditty. More hits followed (We've Got Tonight with Kenny Rogers, the Bond theme For Your Eyes Only), then a professional hook-up with Prince that yielded the filthy innuendo of Sugar Walls and the sizzling duet U Got The Look.

She also worked with Nile Rodgers and Babyface and guested on Miami Vice and when the hits started to dry up she did Man Of La Mancha and Grease on Broadway so she's no stranger to stage musicals, but 42nd Street is her first West End show and she's seldom revisited these shores since relocating to the States in the early 80s.

There was a Top Of The Pops appearance for The Lover In Me, a festival in Glasgow where the papers reported she was booed off stage because of her American accent (“But I wasn't really aware of a fuss in the audience until I read about it afterwards”) and a G-A-Y appearance in 2000 to promote her disco covers album Fabulous that went much better. “Oh that was wonderful,” Sheena recalls. “I know wherever I go around the world I've got a large gay fanbase and I feel blessed by that.”

It's something she shares with her idol Barbra Streisand, who she got to meet after seeing Babs do her One Voice fundraiser in her Malibu garden. “I met her at a mutual friend's cocktail party and she was so sweet and lovely and that concert she gave – my God! She was just flawless.”

She also met Joni Mitchell at an art exhibit in LA and marvels: “I was just blown away that she even knew who I was. It's one of those moments where you want to go 'Do you know I have every album you've ever done?’ but I just stood there and went 'Nice to meet you, like your pictures'.”

Sheena recorded Wind Beneath My Wings six years before Bette Midler. “And I know it would be great if I hated her and there was some big diva fight,” she laughs. “But I loved her version and for me it was like 'I knew that frickin' song was great so thank God someone finally had a hit with it'.”

She'd lost touch with Prince before his death last year. “But it was so shocking, just horrible,” she sighs. No, they were never an item but yes, she did find him sexy. “I think a lot of women and men and straight men felt 'He's a sexy little dude'. Charisma is sexy and talent is sexy.”

Why does Sheena feel she avoided going off the rails the way so many 80s popstars did? “I might have gone off the rails if I'd kept on the rails,” believes the woman who stepped down as a recording artist after the release of Fabulous so she could raise her two adopted children. “Album, promotion, tour, rinse, repeat. It was a very conscious choice to step away from all that and I knew it would take me out of the limelight and I'd be forgotten by a lot of people, but I was OK with that.”

Sheena Easton forgotten? Hardly. She's amused to learn she was referenced by Petula Gordino on dinnerladies and laughs out loud when told there was a character called Sugar Walls on Gimme Gimme Gimme. Just last year she was name-checked in the film Arrival. “And I'll randomly be the answer in a crossword puzzle. I'll get a note from a friend going 'Hey, you were 13 Down this week'.”

She said yes to 42nd Street because the kids are grown up now “plus they aren't writing many parts for 57-year-old women”. What about Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard? “That's an incredible role but it would be a real emotional rollercoaster. Playing Dorothy will be great fun and definitely not a case of 'Oh my God, I need to crawl into bed to recover from all the emotions I've just put myself through'.”

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