In a business known for its exploitation of women, Tina Turner has managed, for over 20 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.
It hurts to be a minority. I am looked down upon because I’m black. It’s forever. It’s like a curse on you. We’re moving out of it, of course. We can stand now, but it’s still there – it’s a memory, because you are branded. It’s wishing that we, as a black people, had had a chance to be as fantastic as we were before being knocked down and made slaves. It goes way back, this thing of wanting to be proud, wanting not to feel second-class.
After your parents left, you started working for a white family, the Hendersons, doing baby sitting and housework, did you not?
Yes, I was finally being taught. I would sit with them, and she’d teach me manners. She was young, but she almost felt like my mother. And I saw love in the Henderson household. They were very affectionate. They were always just like a couple who were really in love. It was a perfect marriage scene: the house, the baby, the car. And they never fought. Mrs. Henderson was my role model. I took every mannerism she had.
But there were times I was put in my place. One time – when it was very hot – I took the child walking. I stopped, knocked on a door and asked for a glass of water from the lady who answered. She slammed the door in my face. Suddenly, I remembered, “Don’t get that comfortable. You can’t just stop at someone’s door and ask for water.” But in the Hendersons’ house, I didn’t feel any discrimination at all.
You were left by not one parent but two. I’m surprised that that didn’t leave you more disillusioned, even bitter.
I never allowed that to happen. I was never that person. I made a world for myself. I searched for what I wanted, and when I found it, I patterned myself after another class. When I went to school, I didn’t observe the misfortunate ones, I observed the fortunate ones, people with manners, educated people. So I never became what I was. It’s the same thing that I did with Ike. I never did the drugs, never drank, never stooped to his level. No one, even now, can get me to stoop to be anything I don’t want. I’ve always held my head high. I might not have dressed as nice as the principal’s daughters, but what I had I kept neat and clean. Once at school, I was being naughty, and the principal called me over. He said, “I’m surprised at you. You’re different. You should know better.” I didn’t know what he meant, but I felt it was a compliment. I was very happy that he saw something different.
Did you ever think of leaving home yourself?
Nobody left home in those days. Again, we were church people, and leaving home was a sin. So I didn’t leave; my family just left me. My thought was to get married and have a happy marriage, because that was the thing you did.
Were you a good student?
No, I was a dumb girl. I wasn’t interested in school. I’m sure there was some psychological factor about my home life. Without knowing it, I was afraid and embarrassed, which is why I wasn’t as good in school as I wanted to be. But I was always promoted, because I had manners and personality and I tried. I turned in my homework, even though it was most times wrong. I took hard stuff, like French – anything that would make me a better person. But what I did was the common-sense thing – that’s surviving [laughs]. I was always worried I wouldn’t pass, but I felt I had to graduate, because that was the respectable thing to do.
That’s very admirable, since you must have known that if you did drop out, no one would really have cared.
Except me. I was the only one who saw my report cards. I knew the difference between the girls who got A’s and B’s and me. And it hurt. I did get the occasional A in drama and gym, and those were wonderful! I also worked through high school, for the Hendersons. I had planned to move into the city, I had already found a house, but then I went to St. Louis to live with my mother.
What was she doing at this point?
She was doing daywork – cleaning. She came home for her mother’s funeral, and I decided to go back with her. My mother and I didn’t get along, but I went because it was my way out of the South.
Once I got to St. Louis, I still had to stay away from our house a lot because we argued so much. I had become rebellious. Plus, she was taking care of me, and I didn’t like that because I had gotten used to taking care of myself. But there was no turning back because before I left [Tennessee], I’d had a terrible heartbreak.
I fell in love for the first time with a boy named Harry.
Who was Harry and how did you meet?
It was a basketball game – the school Harry attended was playing my school. I was just graduating from junior high. Well, I looked across the gym and saw Harry, and I fell in love. My heart was beating so fast. I’m a very bold person, so I ran down to the coach and said, “Who is number 9?” I just had to have that guy. And he said, “His name is Harry.” And then he told Harry that I had asked who he was. And Harry looked up at me, and I’ll never forget it; it was love at first sight. That feeling is so wonderful, isn’t it? You’re talking about somebody who had never known that much about love anyway. When I look back on it, it was as if I had found real love, and having found it, I was not going to look away from it.
I hope this love was not unrequited.
Oh, Harry was a playboy, that little bastard [laughs]. When the news came that I would have to move to Brownsville and live with my grandmother, I was ecstatic, because Brownsville was where Harry lived. I knew I’d be with that guy. Harry was real popular and had tons of girlfriends, but eventually I got him, and we went steady for a year.
What stopped you from marrying Harry?
Harry and I broke up because he started playing around. He started dating a girl named Theresa, and by the time he and I got back together, she had become pregnant. He felt he should marry her. I wish he had told me his decision himself, but he didn’t. One morning I got on the bus to school, and my friend said, “Did you hear that Theresa and Harry got married?” I had to go a full day without crying. At the end of the day, I cried it all out.
There but for the grace of God went you. You could’ve been Theresa.
Yup, I was protected by the gods. To actually have sex when you are in love is the best way. I hadn’t fooled around before Harry, and I didn’t afterward, because I’m a very faithful woman.
It was in St. Louis, while you were still in high school, that you met Ike Turner, wasn’t it?
Yeah, I started going to clubs with my sister, Alline. She was a barmaid, and one of the tops. My sister was really pretty. I was skinny, with long legs, and not really attractive. To be attractive with black men, you had to be heavier . . . sexier looking. Alline had big boobs, black, black skin and the same features as mine, but smaller. She had a lot of style. She always wore stilettos and black stockings with a seam. Her hair was soft, while my hair was very full and thick. Alline was really sexy.
Do you recall the first time you laid eyes on Ike?
I thought he was terribly ugly. There had been such a buildup about him because he had the hottest band around. When I first saw him, I remember thinking that I had never seen anyone that skinny. He was immaculately dressed, real clean and all sculptured – the bones and the hair. He wore his hair processed. I didn’t like processed hair, so I didn’t like his hairdo. But when he walked out, he did have a great presence . . . although you have to realize that I was a schoolgirl looking at a man. I was used to boys in jeans and short-sleeved shirts. But, boy, could he play that music. The place just started rocking. I wanted to get up there and sing sooooo bad. But that took an entire year.
One day [during one of the band’s breaks], the drummer came up and set the microphone down in front of me, and I started singing. Well, when Ike heard me, he rushed over to me and said, “Girl, I didn’t know you could sing!” The band came back, and I kept singing, and everybody came around to see who it was. Everybody was real happy for me because they knew I was Alline’s little sister who wanted to sing. I was a star. Ike went out and bought me all these clothes. I had a fur and rings and [motions to elbow] gloves up to here. I was driving a Cadillac and I was still in school. I started dating one of the boys in the band, named Raymond. We didn’t fool around right away, because I was so unsophisticated.
But eventually you got pregnant. Did it occur to you to have an abortion?
I didn’t know about abortion, and I wanted the baby. After my mother found out, I went to stay with Raymond.
Were you in love with him?
I didn’t love him as much as I’d loved Harry. But he was good-looking. I thought, “My baby’s going to be beautiful.” I did feel ashamed and afraid, because I didn’t think my mother would help me. But she did. Raymond broke his foot when I was living with him and had to go home to his family, so she said I could come home. So then I took care of her house, did all the cleaning, washing and cooking for the family.
How did you plan on taking care of your baby?
Well, I went to a city hospital for unwed mothers, so there wasn’t a hospital bill. My mother and sister supported us for a while, so I was taken care of in my early stages. But I didn’t plan on hanging around; I planned on getting a job – which I did, in a hospital. I found a baby sitter, and I did all right. At the time, I wasn’t a show person. I was planning on going to school to be a practical nurse, because the club thing was still a bit shaky. Then Ike lost his singer and asked me if I would sing.
When was the turning point, professionally speaking?
Ike recorded a demo, and I sang on it. He wasn’t trying to sell my voice; he was trying to sell stuff as a producer. The record company said, “Why don’t you record it with the girl’s voice?” As a result, I became, officially, a professional performer. I was twenty, and my kid was about two. Ike said, “Now we have to make up a name.” And that’s when Ike and Tina started. He wanted his name there because he’d always produced people, only to have them get record deals and leave.
When did your sexual relationship with Ike begin?
He had broken up with the mother of his two sons, who I ended up raising. He was without a girlfriend. One of the musicians said he was going to come to my room and have sex with me. I couldn’t lock the door, so I went to sleep with Ike, thinking he would protect me. Shit! [Laughs.] It happened then, but I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll just do it once.” [Laughs.] I didn’t really know what to do because I wasn’t turned on to him, even though [laughs] it was good. I did enjoy the physical part, but I didn’t love him, and I didn’t like it because of that. But I didn’t know how to handle it because I also didn’t want to lose my job. I knew he wasn’t right for me. He was a man, he did serious things, like going to clubs and talking business. I was still used to going to movies and playing basketball. I had a kid, but I was still hanging out with high-school friends.
Who was the Ike Turner whom you knew?
Ike was the son of a preacher and a seamstress. He didn’t like school, so he wasn’t an educated person. I don’t think he even finished grade school. He had a complex about how he spoke. A lot of his fight came because he was embarrassed about his manners and not being educated. So Ike had a built-in anger. And the drugs just magnified that.
I always knew that Ike had talent and was a great musician. He was not a great songwriter, though, because all of his songs were about pain or women – that was his life dilemma. I hated those songs. I knew he was writing about other women. Psychologically, you have to try and make yourself think you like a song when you sing it. When he sensed I was delivering it poorly, he blamed me for not getting involved in the work. He said he couldn’t make hit records because of my lack of involvement. All the blame was put on me. It was all this suppressed anger he had.
Did Ike have lots of other women?
He always did; he never stopped that. I didn’t like it, but I was trapped. We had a hit record [“A Fool in Love,” 1960], and I was the star, so he just grabbed on because he was afraid of losing me. The success and the fear came almost hand in hand. When I finally went to tell him that I didn’t want to go on . . . that’s when he got the shoe stretcher.
And beat you for the first time?
Yeah, I said, “I cannot travel with you, I cannot sing these songs.” So he said, “Okay, we’ll make some allowances, give you a certain amount of money,” and I said okay. That was the trick. So we started traveling, and that’s when I got involved. I didn’t plan it, because he said he was going to pay me, and when he didn’t, I was afraid to ask for the money because I was living with him. I got involved before I knew what to do about it.
That, of course, began sixteen years of beatings. You were a battered wife, controlled by fear.
It was a thoroughly unhappy situation I was in, but I was too far gone. I was trapped into really caring about Ike. If I left him, what was he going to do? Go back to St. Louis? I didn’t want to let him down. As horrible as he treated me, I still felt responsible for letting him down. That was a mental problem I had at the time. And I was afraid to leave. I knew I had no place to hide, because he knew where my people were. My mother was actually living in Ike’s house in St. Louis. My sister was living in an apartment basically rented by Ike.
It’s hard to explain. This man was beating me – I always had a black eye or something, and he had women all over the place, and he wouldn’t give me any money – and yet, I didn’t leave. I felt sorry for him.
Having been left by both of your parents, you were a person who really understood the pain abandonment could bring.
Yes, and at first, I was in love with him. I was afraid, but I cared about him. I cared about destroying his career. And as long as I was unattached, as unattached to him as I had been to my own family, then I was just there.
Still, Tina, this was a man who beat and humiliated you repeatedly. It’s difficult to understand exactly how you managed to stay there and take it.
You could almost say I felt like I was given a mission, trying not to depend on him. I remember not wanting him to have to need me. Isn’t that incredible? I kept trying to find a way that, when I left him, I wouldn’t feel guilty. I felt that I didn’t want to do to somebody what had been done to me. Sometimes you just don’t know why you do things. I just felt so responsible for that person. I wanted to leave and knew that, eventually, I was going to; I just didn’t know when. I kept thinking, “How much longer do I have to go on like this?” I wonder about talking about this because I don’t want to seem like a fool. When I finally did leave him, it all made sense. I couldn’t have left before because I had to finish that karma, and karma is dealing with lessons that you have to learn.
There were many terrible things that Ike did to you, but none more incomprehensible than beating you and then making you have sex with him afterward.
He acted as if that was a normal part of a relationship. But the part that was really torture were the wire hangers. I am so embarrassed that people know that’s what I had to go through. I didn’t want an ugly life, and I got myself trapped into one. I never stopped praying . . . that was my tool. Psychologically, I was protecting myself, which is why I didn’t do drugs and didn’t drink. I had to stay in control. So I just kept searching, spiritually, for the answer.
Did you ever actually try to leave him?
Yeah, a few times, but he always caught me before I left. And that scared me. I knew if I got caught, I was going to get the hanger. The first time he used the hanger I had run off. I borrowed money from the people around me – they always helped me because they knew what was going on – and I took a bus. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I looked right into his face. “Get off, you motherfucker,” he said. It scared the shit out of me. Ike got to my destination before I did.
He had a gun at the time. He always made me feel that at any moment he might put it to my head. Anyway, we went back to the hotel, and he kept playing with the gun. He knew what he was doing. There was a hanger lying there, and suddenly he grabbed it and started turning it in his hand. I couldn’t believe what was happening. He had such control of it, he must have used it on somebody else before.
It finally got so bad that you attempted suicide by taking an overdose of Valium.
Because I didn’t know how to get out. You’ve got to think, you’ve got to use your head, and when I started chanting is when I started using my head. I started thinking, “I’m not going to kill myself, there’s nothing here for me. This person doesn’t realize that I am helping him, that I have tried to be good and kind.” So that’s when I actually went to the spiritual side of myself for help. And I got it.
When you left him, in July 1976, you left with no money, right?
I had nothing. I didn’t even know how to get money. I had a girl working for me who had worked for Ike, because she knew about ways of getting money. I didn’t know how to do any of that stuff. Ike didn’t think I’d be able to find a house, but I did. He sent over the kids, and money for my first rent, because he thought I’d have to come back when that ran out. We slept on the floor the first night. I rented furniture. I had some Blue Chip stamps that I had the kids bring, and I got dishes. Then my sister helped me with food. We also used food stamps – yeah, food stamps. I was doing Hollywood Squares and some of these television shows.
When was the last time you saw Ike?
I haven’t seen him since my divorce. It was in court.
Where is he now?
In California someplace. He still sends telegrams asking for money.
How do you feel about men today? Did your experience with Ike embitter you?
It’s very hard to say what I think about guys. I’m not biased about men. And I am looking for a great relationship when it comes, but I’m not foolish enough to jump onto every Tom, Dick and Harry simply because I don’t, now, have a man in my life. All men are not violent. All men don’t fight. The point is, you’ve got to find your equal.
Still, your life has, in the last few years, appeared – to the public at least – to be free of any serious relationship.
I have relationships, but mainly I’ve been working. People have to realize that I just got out of a very difficult marriage. I’m not the type of woman who needs to jump back into another. I liked my freedom when I got out of that one. I’ve had a few love affairs, but nothing important.
Right now, I want certain things in my life. I don’t want to depend on a man to give me money. I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I used to think I had to get married to help me get the things I wanted in life. When I realized I could get those things for myself, by myself, I began to like that feeling. I feel if I can secure myself, I wouldn’t have to depend on a man; we would only share love. That would be the dependency. I was fortunate to find Roger [Davies], who’s taken care of my career, so he’s taken on the part of a Man in My Life – on the business side. It’s not as if I don’t have men around me, but now I know I don’t want to marry a rich man. Sure, I get horny, I need a touch, but that’s not as important as what I’m trying to achieve for this girl who’s been struggling all these years. I can grow to be an old woman and never have to ask my son for anything. When I wake up in the morning, I feel good and clear. And I’m very good alone. I enjoy the subtlest things now. Since I can’t live with a man I don’t love, and since I travel all over the world and still don’t see a man I want, then I just don’t do anything. When I have boyfriends, it’s always just one at a time. I loved Ike almost like I loved Harry, but it wasn’t beautiful and clean, because Ike was so mean. I’m careful with my love. I can wait; I think it’s coming. I can wait.
What attracts you in a man?
I like a man who is strong but giving. I like them not too fashion conscious, but they’ve got to have their look. They don’t have to be good-looking . . . I like what I call ugly cute. I like for a man to have pretty hands – and I don’t like ugly feet. When I look at a man, first I notice his hands and next his feet. After that [laughs], I’ll talk. But I’ve made allowances – I’ve dated guys who don’t have great feet. I don’t like him to wear fragrances; I just want him to smell clean. And he has to be extremely masculine . . . the kind of guy who can put me in my place just by looking at me.
Some people feel that there is such a thing as a battered-wife mentality, that once you have looked upon battering or beating as a way of expressing love, it’s very hard not to see that as a way of expressing emotion.
I could go with [some] anger in a man. Because you have to allow for it. I mean, I might get angry and slap. We’re human, so I can allow myself to be hit. But I’d have to allow it. However, I’m not looking for someone that will, and I’m not dreaming up someone that will.
I always saw the beatings as terrible. I hated them. I haven’t brought any men into my life since Ike who have hit me. I’m not attracted by that kind of man at all. See, I’ve always wanted to be a classy lady. I wanted a classy husband. I wanted Mr. and Mrs. Henderson’s relationship. And that’s what I still want. It’s my role model. I just haven’t had it yet.
Are you more attracted to black men or white men?
In the early part of my life, I liked light-skinned guys better than dark-skinned guys. The people I’ve dated since my divorce have been white because I haven’t been in a circle where there were a lot of black people. I can’t say that I’m not still attracted to black men. My preference is a very light-skinned black man. And my preference in white men is blond. But I haven’t seen any black or white men that I’ve liked lately. I’ve traveled the world; I’m in Europe a lot, and I don’t see any over there I like, either. I am a rock & roll singer. I am not drawn into other worlds very often.
I am surrounded by white people, but I didn’t handpick them to make sure they were white. I needed new management. And one of my dancers was white. She had met Lee Kramer. She said his company was looking for acts to manage. With Roger I liked that he was young, aggressive and hungry.
You are an exquisite-looking woman. Do you think you’re beautiful?
I’m nowhere near beautiful. Ethiopian women are beautiful: their sculptured faces, their noses, their hairline. And Scandinavian women are beautiful. I love that complete blond hairline. They almost glisten, they’re so white. I don’t have a great figure, but I know how to dress my body. My legs are nice, and I know the right shoes to wear to make my legs look pretty. I know how to make myself look good, but I’m not a pretty woman. I’m in the class with folks who are “all right.”
You do understand that a lot of men might be put off or intimidated by the Tina Turner they see onstage – that sexy, smoldering, leather-clad woman in net stockings and miniskirt.
That’s so funny, because everything I’ve done for my act has really been so practical. I started wearing net stockings because the other stockings ran. I didn’t stop to think whether guys would like them or not. I don’t feel that I dress for men. The short dresses work for me onstage because I’ve got a short torso and because there’s a lot of dancing and sweating. My legs are nice, but you see so much of them because my body is short. It’s not as if I put them out there on display because I’m trying to advertise. I never advertise myself for men. I always work to the women, because if you’ve got the girls on your side, you’ve got the guys. Black women can very easily become jealous. And I didn’t want them to dislike me onstage, so I started working to them years ago. I knew I had the image of being sexy. I didn’t want the guys to think that I was performing for them, so I looked at the women, because I felt less embarrassed. A woman knows I’m having fun and not trying to catch a guy. I’m there for a performance. The leather came because I was looking for a material that didn’t show perspiration. I get drenched onstage, and if I wore regular jeans, the perspiration would show. Dirt doesn’t show on leather, and it’s good for traveling. It doesn’t wrinkle, and it’s durable. When I wore it, I didn’t think people were going to think I was hot or tough.
Also, onstage, you never see me grouch. I smile. My songs are a little bit of everybody’s lives who are watching me. You gotta sing what they can relate to. And there are some raunchy people out there. The world is not perfect. And all of that is in my performance; I play with it. That’s why I prefer acting to singing, because with acting you are forgiven for playing a certain role. When you play that same role every night, people think that you are it. They don’t think you’re acting.
That is the scar of what I’ve given myself with my career. And I’ve accepted that. I don’t hate myself anymore. I used to hate my work, hated that sexy image, hated those pictures of me onstage, hated that big raunchy person. Onstage, I’m acting the whole time I’m there. As soon as I get out of those songs, I’m Tina again.
Still, you can see why performances like your Live Aid duet with Mick Jagger might lead people to think otherwise of you. Just for the record, when Mick pulled off your skirt, were you expecting that? I heard that you weren’t.
Do you want to know the truth? I don’t think Mick would pull off a woman’s skirt . . . and he certainly wouldn’t have pulled off mine unless we’d talked about it before. Mick said, “I’m going to change clothes,” so I said, “If you’re going to change clothes, you might as well take off my skirt.” It was just the spirit of the moment we were creating. I was covered, and he knew I was covered. Mick is just naughty, you know? The first time I ever went onstage with him, he tried to nudge the microphone in my crotch. He’s like a bad boy in school. That’s why the Stones are like boys to me, because I’ve raised sons. When you raise boys, you know how they play. With Mick you always have to be on guard, because you never know what he’s going to do. But Mick is like a brother. It wasn’t as if some guy pulled off my skirt; it was like this boy I knew did it.
You have two boys – one, named Craig, by Raymond, and one, named Ronnie, by Ike. And you essentially raised two of Ike’s boys, Michael and Ike Jr. Are you close to them?
My kids and I are almost like brother and sister, except they respect me as a mother. I love them, in a strange kind of way. I’m not mushy with them. I don’t need them right there every minute. I’m not a mother hen with them. I’m there for them. They can always get to me, but I can’t be surrounded by my family or anyone much. I am a loner. When I speak to my kids, I demand a certain kind of manners. My kids don’t walk off when I speak to them. They don’t talk back to me – I don’t allow it. I told them that I am not going to take care of them; they take care of themselves. I’m here to help you, but do not depend on me. You’ve got to use your own arms and legs, just like I used mine.
How old are they?
My oldest, Craig, is twenty-eight. Ike’s son, Ronnie, will be twenty-six this month. Craig works for Triad as an assistant booking agent; he’s been trained for black music. He’s very happy about that. Ronnie, my youngest son, lived with his father, and they didn’t get on. California wasn’t good for him; he was very influenced by drugs and didn’t want to go back there because of that reason. So he went to Texas. I cut him off financially, but I always had a string to find out what was going on and to get money there to help him if he needed it. Finally, he’s on his own two feet. He wants to record. I saw him recently, and he made all kinds of apologies for all the frustration he caused me. He wanted his mother back. I said, “Then you have to earn it.” And he has. About six months later, I furnished his house and equipped him with what he needed.
Are you surprised by the way your life has turned out?
No. I’m not surprised, because I’ve always wanted this. And I won’t stop until I get that respect. I may not ever get it completely, because my life has been too hard so far. But I’ve gotten a taste of what that respect is probably like, and I like it. I may not be able to get that class, because I didn’t act my life, I lived it. I am Tina Turner. I am raunchy. But I know I’m a lady and that deep inside of me there’s a craving for class. I know I’m accepted, but what I always wanted was the principal’s daughters’ world. And maybe that was my lesson in life . . . . Maybe I had to learn something from wanting that and then not being able to have it. Instead, in this lifetime, I came back, so to speak, a slave girl.
This story is from the October 23rd, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.