Forty-two years after she first told the world “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in her Tony-winning role as Effie White in “Dreamgirls,” Jennifer Holliday is still here, folks.
But now her signature number has a completely different meaning for the 62-year-old diva, who has overcome weight struggles, career setbacks and a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 1999.
“When I first sang it, I was 19 going on 20 years old,” Holliday told The Post. “And as I became a young woman and then a real woman and then a grown-ass woman, the song took on different meanings. It’s a song of survival today. It’s like, ‘And I’m telling you that I’m still here. I’m not going.’ So for me, more so than anything, it’s me telling the world — and telling myself — that I’m worthy to still be here and that I still have a lot more to offer.”
Holliday will be belting out “And I Am Telling You” — along with other show tunes and standards — when she makes her return to Broadway for a mini residency at 54 Below that runs Tuesday through Feb. 26. Part of the cabaret’s Diamond Series, her six-night stand in the intimate supper-club setting was originally slated for February 2021, but was postponed due to COVID-19.
“This is our third time trying to do this. It’s been a ‘Diamond’ in the rough, literally,” said Holliday with a laugh. “So now my show is gonna be more of a personal type of show . . . to reflect how I’m feeling right now. I think most of us feel more raw now. Most of us feel more like we want to be known personally.”
But after shedding some 200 pounds — about half of her weight that had grown to almost 400 pounds — Holliday doesn’t feel the same personal connection to Effie anymore.
“A lot of the association with Effie related to the weight and feeling not attractive,” she said. “And when I first lost the weight [in 1990], a lot of people were upset with me. They were like, ‘Oh, you are betraying yourself by losing weight.’ Even Barbra Streisand told me that I shouldn’t lose weight because that’s what I’m known for. She said that I shouldn’t lose weight because they tried to make her fix her nose when she got in the business and that the things that we are associated with make us us.”
In fact, Holliday has even had to wear a fat suit to maintain the image of Effie.
“When I reprised my role many times over the course of the past 40 years in road companies [performing] ‘Dreamgirls,’ it was the question of, ‘Do I wear a fat suit or do I not wear a fat suit?’ So in the beginning, I used to do the fat suit. Then as I got older, I said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to do the fat suit.’ ”
But some advice from an Emmy-winning actress helped the slimmed-down star to embrace her inner Effie: “Sharon Gless from ‘Cagney and Lacey’ told me, ‘Listen, unfortunately people do associate Effie with being overweight. So here’s what you do: Wear the fat suit, each night take it off, bless it for what it’s meant for you, and don’t let it make you feel down.’ ”
Certainly, Holliday has been on the upswing in recent years. She’s been back on Broadway as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple” in 2016 and as Matron “Mama” Morton in “Chicago” last year. And her multiple sclerosis has been in remission for six years.
Then, of course, there was her triumphant moment at the 2021 Tony Awards when, celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Dreamgirls,” she brought the house down singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
“I wanted to represent [director and co-choreographer] Michael Bennett and all the others who had died from AIDS,” said Holliday, who is now based in Atlanta. “I think it came across so well because it wasn’t about me — it was about the statement that ‘Dreamgirls’ made.”
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