She is a Tony and Grammy award-winning singer/actress, Billboard chart-topping artist, and a self-described “Broadway Baby.” She may be best known for originating the role of “Effie Melody White” in the groundbreaking play “Dreamgirls.” Her career has spanned 30 plus years, with her battling personal health issues, including being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 17 years ago. I am, of course, speaking of the legendary Jennifer Holliday, who released her latest project The Song is You back in January.
This is Holliday’s first secular project in 23 years, and the first since her 2011 gospel collaboration with Reverend Raphael G. Warnock, “Goodness and Mercy.” She graciously agreed to discuss her journey as a person living with MS, including her focus on her health, how she incorporated beneficial lifestyle changes, and the motivation behind this latest project.
I want to start by asking you to describe what was physically happening prior to your MS diagnosis, and when did you know something was wrong?
Well, as you know it can take a long time to get a final diagnosis. For me, it took a few years. It started with my hand coordination, I was dropping and wasn’t able to hold things. Eventually I started falling. It took doctors quite a while to diagnose me because it is so similar to other autoimmune illnesses, like Lupus.
You’ve been public with your battle with clinical depression, which is also correlated to MS and related symptoms. Was MS a major contributor in your experience with depression?
No, I had suffered many years with clinical depression before I was actually diagnosed with MS. Depression is one of the symptoms (of MS), but I find that to be more with the medication.
Can you describe how MS impacted you as a celebrity and someone in the public eye?
I was working on the television show “Ally McBeal,” and it frightened me a lot in the sense that I had one episode I wasn’t able to do because I was so sick. It really did frighten me to think I wouldn’t finish being on the show but, unbeknownst to me, the show was ending at the same time I had begun to suffer the most with the illness.
Now, you became focused on improving your health and targeting weight loss. Did that occur before or after your diagnosis?
The weight loss happened before and, there is no proof of this, I think the MS was brought on by my weight loss. I was one of the first to have gastric bypass surgery and, not being able to get proper nutrients, I became severely malnourished. Nowadays, people who have the surgery can get more nutrients, and can gain weight back faster than I was able.
What would you most like to share with others who are living with MS?
Unfortunately, it is an illness that affects each person differently. Even though a lot of progress has been made, there are more people being diagnosed with this everyday, which is of concern to me. One should focus on his or her MS because each case is different. Some of the symptoms and circumstances maybe the same, but each case really is different.
Doctors told me I wasn’t going to walk again, and were telling me I should retire. And I said I appreciate your diagnosis, but I’m not the one that can determine the prognosis of what’s going to become of my life and what’s going to become of me with this illness. And that’s what I had to do. It’s not an easy thing to live with, but it is the way I was able to cope with the illness and move forward – by taking their information and continually searching for alternative treatments.
In acknowledging that each person’s experience with MS is different, Ms. Holliday is careful not to recommend any specific treatments, but shares that she made sure to take better control of certain areas of her life such as her diet and how she managed stress.
I had to make changes so I moved, from New York to Atlanta, to learn how to relax and get stress under control. I misunderstood stress as dealing with pressure, fighting, or something like that. But stress can be as simple as getting up everyday, and I wasn’t aware of that. And I didn’t realize that as much as I loved living in New York, it caused me a lot of stress because it’s a high energy city and I was staying up all the time. When I moved to Atlanta, it was the first time I actually slept through the night, because the whole city is sleep (laughs)! I really had to learn how to get stress under control and relax a lot more.
What was the inspiration and the motivation behind your latest project “The Song Is You?”
For me the inspiration has been young people who do my stuff on these reality shows. They are motivated and that inspired me. They’re saying “if I do a Jennifer Holliday song I have an opportunity to win,” and I said to myself I want to win too (laughs). I’m sitting up here looking at them on TV and I should be trying to do something for my own life! So it’s sort of like the teacher stepping forward from behind. Many of us have had great teachers, who for some reason have chosen not to do whatever we’re doing for a living but have inspired us. So I said maybe that’s what I’ll do, I’ll be like the teacher stepping forth.
Now you’ve portrayed the great Mahalia Jackson and Bessie Smith in separate musicals. What artist/singer would you most enjoy portraying on the big screen or stage if given the chance?
Given the chance, it would still be Bessie Smith because I did it but I didn’t do it as much. A lot of people enjoyed my performance of Mahalia Jackson, and I did enjoy that too, but Bessie’s life was far more complicated so it would lend itself to being more of a challenge for me as an actress.
Read my companion Examiner article, featuring Jennifer Holliday, here to find out more about her project and how she maintains her voice for multiple performances (shout out to Snow Michelle for the voice question). You can also get additional information and updates about Ms. Holliday on her Facebook page here.
Check out the next MMT MS Awareness Week piece this Friday, featuring Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Eric Roberson, and help my team with our Philly Walk MS campaign by clicking the logo at the top right of this page or click here.
Until next thought family, Thomasena