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November 4, 2005

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Volume 33
Issue 44

 
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Dusty Springfield?
Considered one of the best female vocalists of all time, Dusty Springfield's work spanned the gamut from soul and blues to disco and techno. Though she struggled with her own sexuality, she became both a dyke icon and a diva beloved by Gay men.

Springfield was born Mary O'Brien on April 16, 1939, in Hampstead, London. A bespectacled, overweight tomboy, she considered herself unattractive and lacked self-confidence. But at age 16, she later recalled, she looked in the mirror and told herself, "Be miserable or become someone else."

In 1958, Springfield answered a newspaper ad and joined a girl group called the Lana Sisters. Two years later, her older brother asked her to join him and a friend to form a folk-pop trio, the Springfields, and she adopted the name "Dusty." By 1963, she struck out on her own; her debut, "I Only Want To Be With You," was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. She subsequently enjoyed a string of hits and hosted a television show, Ready, Steady, Go!, which introduced black American music to a British audience.

Making good on her earlier promise to transform herself, Springfield adopted a mod image, with a bottle-blond beehive hairdo and thick "panda" eye makeup. She acknowledged that she took her style from female impersonators, and drag queens ever since have repaid the compliment.

A pioneering woman in the music business, Springfield refused to be pigeonholed into any particular market niche. She also resisted categorization in her personal life. "I know I'm as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy," she told the London Evening Standard in 1970. "It's other people who want you to be something or other - this or that," she would elaborate 25 years later. "I'm none of the above."

According to Springfield's longtime friend and manager, Vicki Wickham, "She would often say that there were footballers that she fancied and a string of men that she'd had affairs with. But...all Dusty's long-term relationships, and most of her short-term ones, too, were with women." Springfield's most enduring relationships, though, were with her beloved cats.

Bored and frustrated with the lack of privacy in England, Springfield moved to Los Angeles in 1972, retreating from performing and recording, and attempting to adopt the life of a Beverly Hills socialite. She moved in Lesbian circles and became interested in women's tennis. Springfield married a woman in a backyard wedding, but the relationship soon turned abusive. She drank heavily and became addicted to drugs, inflicted injuries on herself, attempted suicide, and was hospitalized several times in psychiatric facilities.

In 1981, she moved to Toronto to live with a new lover, singer/songwriter Carole Pope, but the two broke up within a year. Springfield subsequently returned to Los Angeles and embarked on recovery from alcohol and drugs. After several failed attempts, her career enjoyed a revival when British techno-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys invited her to record with them, producing the worldwide hit "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" (1987).

Not long after moving back to England in early 1990s, Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in March 1999, two weeks before she would have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At her funeral, more than 1,000 mourners turned out to pay their respects. "The whole town was out in the street crying," said Pope. "If only she'd known how loved she was."



Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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