Original "Dreamgirl" Discusses Film

Jennifer Holliday
CBS
Newcomer Jennifer Hudson is up for an Oscar for her performance as backup singer Effie White in the hit movie "Dreamgirls." In the film, the overweight singer is pushed out of the group, out of the spotlight and out of her relationships despite her extraordinary singing voice. Jennifer Holliday, who originated the role on Broadway, says her own life echoes Effie's.

"I am Effie," she told Sunday Morning correspondent Russ Mitchell. "I am not the essence of Effie. I am Effie."

Holliday has been struggling to emerge from Effie's shadow ever since she won the role at just 21 years old. Eight times a week for three years, adoring, standing-room-only crowds would come to Broadway to hear her belt out the musical's trademark song, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" at the end of the first act. She won a Tony for the performance in 1982. But the crowds couldn't see was that Holliday and Effie White were becoming one and the same. When the curtain fell and the cheering stopped, Holliday's own insecurities shifted from Effie to herself.

Holliday gained 100 pounds in one year and became more and more isolated.

"[I] just would eat all the time," she said. "It needed no explanation; it needed no apologies for not being social. And it wasn't that I didn't want so much to have a lot of friends; it's just that I felt such an obligation to the people that were coming to hear me sing. I'd rather not be in a show where people say, 'Well, I went there and I don't know what all the talk is about.' I don't think there's anyone that can say that."

Holliday grew up in a middle-class neighborhood outside Houston, where her mother was a schoolteacher and her father was a minister. By the time she was 12, her voice was turning heads at the Baptist church where she sang in the choir. She was moved from the children's choir to the adults' — a move she said hurt her ability to make friends.

"I think that from an early age I have always not been able to establish relationships, friendships, things, so even though the singing moved a lot of people and people in church would be crying and they would be moved and stuff, I just kept wishing I could you know be with my friends and sit with them and get fussed at for talking and chewing gum like everybody else," she said.

Not long after Holliday graduated high school, a Broadway scout asked her to move to New York. She didn't even know where Broadway was and had planned to go to college. But the scout's churchgoing aunt convinced Holliday's religious mother that Holliday would stay with her in Brooklyn and go to church every Sunday.

"Mom said yes and I auditioned that day and got hired that day," Holliday said.

After a brief stint in the musical, "Your Arms' Too Short to Box with God," she received a call from famed Broadway director Michael Bennett. He had just enjoyed a huge critical and box office success with "A Chorus Line" and was developing a new musical called "Big Dreams," which he later renamed "Dreamgirls." For the first year of rehearsals, the actors fleshed out their own roles.

"I said, 'I don't know anything about being a star or being famous on Broadway or anything like that, but I do know that the fact that Effie doesn't come back sucks,'" she said. "That's all I know."

Holliday and Bennett's battles while creating Effie became legendary. In the original version, Effie disappeared from the musical after the first act. Holliday didn't agree with that idea and she quit. Bennett would say he fired her. But in the end, Holliday said Bennett called her to come back. Effie returned in the musical's second act. Holliday says her arguments stemmed from a deep devotion she felt toward the overweight, overlooked Effie.

"Effie has to win something," she said. "I was just like, 'She can't become nothing,' you know? No one's gonna understand why she couldn't make something of her life."

Meanwhile, Holliday's spirit was plummeting. Despite her success at an extremely young age, she said her stint in "Dreamgirls" was one of the unhappiest times of her life. After three years, Holliday left the show — but Effie wouldn't leave her. "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" remains her only hit record. In the mid-'80s, music videos featuring thin, beautiful women and fast dance beats were the fashion, and Holliday said there was no room for her.

"It hurt a lot, you know, it hurt a lot," she said. "I think I got bigger actually. I think because, instead of saying to yourself, 'I'm gonna go on a diet and I'm gonna show them, I'm gonna be beautiful,' whatever, you kinda go, 'OK, well if they don't want me and if nobody appreciates what I do, I'm just gonna stay the way I am and love me for who I am.'"

But Holliday didn't love herself for who she was — and on her 30th birthday, facing no prospects and rising debts, she purposely overdosed on pills.

"I actually thought my life was over anyway because I basically had gotten so big — I was well over 330 pounds — I had no record company, I had lost everything — really didn't have a clue of how I could lose the weight," she said. "I was struggling so much that it was like, I don't think that there's any need to stay here."

She was diagnosed with clinical depression, a chemical imbalance in the brain that is treated effectively with medication and therapy. Soon she became dedicated to speaking about her own suicide attempt and mental health issues.

She dropped nearly 150 pounds with the help of gastric bypass surgery. One day, David E. Kelly, the creator of the television hit "Ally McBeal, and a Holliday fan, called. She played the choir director at Ally McBeal's church, and that guest spot grew into a recurring role. When the show went off the air, other offers did not come. But the role struck a chord with Holliday and renewed her faith in God. She joined the choir at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Her faith was tested this past year when word came that "Dreamgirls" was being made into a movie. At first, Holliday was thrilled. She yearned for the acknowledgement often given Broadway actors in motion picture remakes.

"I thought that I might get a call, just to get a call," she said. "I don't know what it would say. Like we're gonna do the movie and you know we might wanna look at you and you would have to do a screen test. Something like that, even for my own role ... never came. I couldn't believe it. I kept saying, 'They're not gonna even call me for anything? Not even a cameo?'"

All along, the movie's producers have declined to comment on why Holliday was not offered a role.

"I think I became very hurt and bitter in terms of just, how could you do this? And why would you do this?" she said. "Why? I think that was more of my question. Why would you even do something like this to me after all I've done? Because I have nothing else but the legacy of 'Dreamgirls' and this song."

She said she reluctantly went to see the movie only because everyone was going to ask her about it. As soon as it opened, Holliday slipped into a matinee at a local theater and sat in the back, alone. She said she started having a panic attack and had difficulty breathing.

"There's no way that I could say against what everyone's saying, that Jennifer Hudson is definitely good in this role. All I could say though, for myself — I didn't look at it as 'This is a great performance,' 'This is not a great performance.' I was like, this is our performance … I saw myself up there," Holliday said.

Hudson is nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Effie White, and Holliday says she has no resentment towards her. But there is one aspect of Hudson's success that haunts Holliday to this day.

"She got to take Effie off and I never got to take Effie off," Holliday said. "I always had to be Effie, and that destroys me more than anything else."

But she says she is not bitter and is now finding a new fan base through YouTube, the Internet site where users upload their favorite video clips for others to see. Just as "Dreamgirls" opened in theaters with Hudson's version of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," Holliday's performance of the song from the 1982 Tony awards ceremony appeared on YouTube. It's been viewed by more than 1 million people, making it one of the site's most popular clips.

"These beautiful fans, these people who have … and I don't even have a computer or anything like that, and here I am, someone who didn't step into the 21st century and the 21st century has rescued me," she said.

Suddenly, the woman with no publicist, no manager and no agent has a full dance card. She's been invited by the E! Network to be on the red carpet tonight, where she will sing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going."

"I sing it with a greater source of determination, a greater source of love that would set me on a course to a new destiny," she said. "And so yes, I am definitely singing 'And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going' like never before."