In a business known for its exploitation of women, Tina Turner has managed, for over twenty years, to retain not only the adoration of her fans but the admiration of her peer group, male and female. She is nothing if not a survivor.
Born November 26th, 1939, Anna Mae Bullock first overcame abandonment by both of her parents during her childhood in rural Nut Bush, Tennessee. In the late Fifties, she began singing with Ike Turner, who renamed her Tina; alongside him, she rose to fame as the fiery star of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. Existence in this milieu meant enduring the tortured life of a battered wife as she performed through sixteen years of physical abuse at the hands of her husband. Finally, in 1976, she walked out, buoyed by an increasing faith in Buddhism: "I tested it, and it worked," she says. "When I started practicing, something happened to me inside." Penniless and without career prospects, she struggled financially for the next few years, appearing on game shows and performing in cabarets. In 1979, Turner discussed management with the Los Angeles-based firm headed by Lee Kramer, who introduced her to her present manager, Roger Davies. It was he who masterminded her climb back to the top of the rock & roll heap. In 1984, their work came to fruition with the release of Private Dancer, which won three Grammys and has sold 10 million copies worldwide. Having an ambition to try screen acting, Turner accepted director George Miller's offer to star with Mel Gibson in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome but turned down Steven Spielberg when he was casting the lead in The Color Purple. "It was too close to what I just stepped out of," she says.
This year looks like another good one for Turner. Her autobiography, I, Tina, has hit the bookstores, timed to the release of a new album, Break Every Rule. The title is an apt one for Turner. At forty-six, she has the beauty of a woman years younger – particularly offstage, where a certain graciousness considerably softens her stage image. For her interview in her suite at Morgans hotel in New York, Turner's famous legs were well hidden in baggy black silk pants and an overblouse. At her throat was a single strand of pearls, which she fingered, at times, like worry beads.
Turner is clearly at a pivotal time in her life. With the publication of I, Tina, she hopes to lay to rest the curiosity about her years as a battered wife. She escaped professionally victorious and personally enlightened. If there is one quality that marks Turner, it is her extraordinary freedom from bitterness. Although she says she is still struggling for respect, the fact of the matter is she already has it.
You've come a long way in life, Tina. You must feel very satisfied in how you've pulled yourself together in the last ten years since leaving Ike.
I don't have one debt at the moment. I have a home now. I always wanted a home, but I didn't have one because my parents broke up. I was determined to have that foundation. So I bought my mother a house, and now we all go there – my sons, my sister, her daughter. I'm reliving something I wanted when I was a child. The principal's daughters had homes, and now I have a home. I've made that dream a reality.
I'm self-made. I always wanted to make myself a better person, because I was not educated. But that was my dream – to have class. Now it's too late for that. You can't read a book like my autobiography and say, "She's classy." You can say, "She's a respectable woman," but you can't say "classy." My role model was always Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Now, you're talking about high stuff, right? [Laughs.] My taste was high. So when it came to role models, I looked at presidents' wives. Of course, you're talking about a farm girl who stood in the fields, dreaming, years ago, wishing she was that kind of person. But if I had been that kind of person, do you think I could sing with the emotions I do? You sing with those emotions because you've had pain in your heart. The bloodline of my family didn't come from that kind of royalty. Why I relate to it, I don't know. That's the class I wanted to be. But I wasn't, so I dealt with the class I was in. I have never disrespected myself, and I'm still very proud of myself. But society doesn't look at that as class, that type of woman. Society respects me, I think, because I'm self-made and I climbed to the top. But it was the high-class black people I wanted respect from. So I never let go of that dream.
Basically, your family were sharecroppers. Do you feel you were middle-class?
We were well-to-do farmers – that's as close as I can get to explaining it. To me, it seemed as if we lived well. My sister and I had our own room. Each season we'd get new clothes, and I was always fresh and neat, especially compared to a lot of other people around me. We were never hungry. Of course, we knew the difference between our family and, say, the daughters of schoolteachers – those people were educated. My parents weren't, per se, but they had a lot of common sense and spoke well. We weren't low-class people. In fact, my parents were church people; my father was a deacon in the church.
Both of your parents deserted you at different points in your childhood. Didn't they have a tumultuous marriage?
My mother and father didn't love each other, so they were always fighting.
Your mother left when you were ten. Did you have any idea that she was going to leave?
No, but when she was gone, I knew she was gone. She'd left before, but then she'd always taken us with her, because she would go to her mother's. Daddy would come and talk her into coming back home. But this time he knew she was really gone. He knew it was the end. I thought she was going to send for me, but she never did. She didn't have the money to take my sister and me with her, because she was going to St. Louis, where she'd have to live with people herself.
Psychologically speaking, there really isn't anything worse than being abandoned by your mother, is there?
I think not. But I was different, because I've always been a loner. It mattered that she'd left – but it also didn't matter. What I simply missed was that she didn't love me. And I knew the difference, because I used to watch her with my sister, Alline – how she was with her and then how she was with me. She loved Alline. But, strangely enough, I wasn't sad about it. It was just a fact that my parents didn't care that much for me. See, my mother didn't want me in the first place. She had taken my father away from another girl – which is instant karma right there. She was in the process of leaving my father when she got pregnant with me.
How old were you when your father left you?
I was thirteen. But Daddy and I weren't that close, so that was fine. I didn't mind. I was a little bit afraid of him. He wasn't friendly. He was friendly with everybody else but not with me.
My parents weren't mine, and I wasn't theirs, really, so when they left, it was as if they had always been gone as far as I was concerned. If you ask my sister, Alline, you might get different answers because she might have been affected by it differently. Actually, I've never asked her what she thought about them leaving – isn't that incredible? However, I chose them as parents, because, obviously, those experiences made me what I am today. [As a Buddhist, Turner believes that we choose the parents through whom we enter our physical life.]
Although you've said you were surrounded by white people, you attended all-black schools. Do you recall the first time you felt any prejudice because of race?
No. The only thing I remember is the first time I ever felt like I wanted to be white. There was this pretty little white girl whose name was Puddin'. She had short blond hair and wore a ballerina skirt and shoes. I was in the fourth grade and a tomboy. Suddenly, here comes this golden little fairy, bouncing along, looking pretty, and I thought, "That's what I'd like to look like." It was the first time I remember ever thinking about race. Of course, when we went into town, we'd have to use the back door at many places, but you really didn't want to go into a place where you had to use the back door, because you felt the presence of not being wanted.
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