When Patti LaBelle appears on stage at the Academy of Music Thursday, chances are she’ll be exactly the Patti LaBelle that anyone who’s followed her for part of the last 50 years expects her to be.
Glam. Warm. Powerful. Petite. Radiant. Righteous.
At 73, the Philadelphian by birth and now by choice shines on as a perfect contradiction. She’s a septuagenarian who sounds 27. She’s A-list yet exudes familiar, favorite auntieness. She’s a big-name brand, yet authentically down-to-earth. She’s outspoken — and soft-spoken.
Now as ever, LaBelle, nee Patricia Louise Holt, feels like our friend. She’s Oprah Winfrey’s pal, too. And in LaBelle’s estimation, her “good girlfriend” Oprah wouldn’t want to run for president — “Heck no,” LaBelle said when we talked last week by phone about her forthcoming gig and much more.
The John Bartram High School grad, Gladwyne resident, seller of 50 million records, leader of the first African American vocal group to grace a cover of Rolling Stone, standout competitor on Dancing with the Stars, diabetes survivor, HIV/AIDS activist, TV actor (American Horror Story, Star, Greenleaf), lifestyle guru, cookbook author, and pie magnate still does more in a day than most people do in a lifetime.
Our conversation with Miss Patti, the Godmother of Soul, covered most of that territory.
You’ve been on tour since Feb. 15. How are you feeling?
Just wonderful. I live to perform. The 90 minutes they might have scheduled me to do, well, I might want to do two hours or 2½ hours. They might not let me, but the older I get, the more I want to do.
How do you maintain your famously fabulous-yet-homey lifestyle on tour?
It’s hard touring, because you have to stay in hotels. But the good life stays with me.
I take my utensils, pots, and pans on the road, take them to my suite. I’ll head to the Whole Foods, pick up a few things, and cook up a healthy meal in 20 minutes. I’ll saute fish, saute spinach, add some tomatoes. I can monitor my meals better that way.
What about your voice? How do you maintain that?
I wake up in the morning and can feel the voice is getting stronger than ever as I get older.
I’m praying like a crazy lady every day, praying that everything is working. The voice has been doing so well.
What else do you do to stay healthy? Do you ever take time for yourself?
Hmmm. Of course, I go and take care of my nails and feet, and go to the spa and get the facials and try to keep my body tight.
I’m not going to lie: I’m not an exercise girl. I walk a lot. I walk my little dog, and keep myself as fit as possible. That’s it.
Can you talk about your role in the forthcoming season of Greenleaf?
I don’t think I can say very much. I can say that I’m playing a pastor.
Any chance you’ll sing in the show?
I don’t know yet. That might be in the other episodes that I haven’t filmed yet.
I can say that I am a bible-carrying pastor, honey.
Greenleaf is just your latest project with Oprah Winfrey.
I’ve done things with Oprah since back in the day, including singing the jingle for her show. She’s my good girlfriend.
Think she’ll run for president?
Heck no. I don’t think she’s into that.
She would be a great person for president. But I don’t think so. No.
Where are you now?
I’m home now. My friend Queen Latifah’s mother passed. I’m doing things for Queen Latifah this week.
I also play Queen Latifah’s mother on Star.
Will you have your own family-and-friend contingent at the Academy of Music?
I sure will. They’d better cheer louder than anybody. It’s going to be nice, going on in Philly.
Philadelphia is a place that will make you or break you. Philadelphia has some of the coldest critics. You have to break your leg almost to make it in Philly.
When they give me a clap or a standing ovation, I feel like a queen. It’s sort of like making it at the Apollo.
Do you do anything different when you perform at home?
I try to. I try to wear different outfits or things in Philadelphia.
I want to please Philly more than anyplace in the world. I’ll put in a few songs that I think Philly would love.
Philly: This is my heaven.
What role has mentorship played in your life?
My job is to pass on any info I have of back in the day. Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton and the Braxton sisters I’ve mentored. Queen Latifah always called me her second mom.
I don’t know. People always come to me like a mother or like an aunt. When I’m in the airport, there are 10 people a day that ask me: “Can I call you mom? Can I call you auntie?”
Who were your mentors?
Nina Simone was like a mentor to me. She gave me a lot of great advice. She was the only woman who I actually talked to who I could remember helping me, telling me certain things in life, about the business, about to always remain a lady — which I try to tell the young girls when they ask.
But my mother was truly my mentor.
Speaking of motherhood: Your son is your manager. How’s that?
Sometimes it’s really, really interesting. It’s great that he’s my manager. Being my son first, he will tell me the honest-to-gosh truth about everything. Sometimes I want to get away with wearing a certain dress or other things. He won’t have it. Or, he’ll tell me, ‘Mom, I love it.’
We have good fights, and we make up, because we have no choice. He’s my son. He’s the best, the best ever for me.
And how’s grandmotherhood?
I love it. Gia, she’s 3, and Leyla, she’s 6 months. They live about 25 minutes away. They are so good for me.
They have given me a new lease on life. I had always heard about how grandkids would make you do a complete turnaround. It’s true. It’s so good for my health, for my mind — for me.
What’s your grandmother name?
It’s ‘Glamom,’ but when [Gia] says it, it sounds like ‘Gamma.’
You’re famous for your cooking: Those pies, that soul food you’ve made for Prince, Mick Jagger, Elton John, and, at last, Questlove. Would you ever go into the restaurant biz?
I had a restaurant about 20 years ago in Philly. It was a bust. The food was decent some nights, and some nights it wasn’t. It was inconsistent. Without it being that great, I had to close it.
With a restaurant, you have to be there 24/7 to make sure the content and quality are there. But I was thinking about doing a restaurant again.
I think I’m going to do that later in life.
Do you ever eat out?
I’m not that girl that goes out to restaurants, at least not when we’re in Philly. I basically cook and stay at home. Pretty square, huh?
How are your pies doing? Anything new?
I have a new no-sugar-added peach cobbler and a new no-sugar-added sweet potato pie [coming out later this month]. Everything is still there at Walmart.
What do you think about the current youth movement, especially the recent marches against gun violence?
That is the most wonderful thing I’ve seen in my life. I’m so proud of everyone who marched and everyone who thought about it.
The kids are going to make the world great again. The kids will. It takes somebody like kids to bring a difference. They did what they had to do.
I think this time — it’s such a necessity this time. Now more so than ever, everybody is aware of how everybody is getting unnecessarily shot.
It’s going to bring a lot of calm to the world, sooner rather than later. The script will change sooner rather than later, I believe.
As an entertainer, do you feel it’s your role to speak out?
I believe that I as a human being, and as a woman of 73 who has freedom of speech, I can and do say everything that is necessary to be heard.
I’m not afraid to speak. I’ve never been afraid.
I’m able to touch many, many people with that microphone. Then I’ll drop the mic.
8 p.m. April 5 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street. Tickets: $45-$125. Information: 215-893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.