Eartha Kitt possesses one of the most seductive and feline voices ever known. She is the textbook diva — a woman who acts with divine providence as high as her cheekbones. She has danced for the Katherine Dunham dance troupe, acted on Broadway with Orson Welles and on film with Sidney Poitier, recorded pop hits and taken a place in the kitsch history books for her portrayal of Catwoman on the Batman TV series. Her American career came to a halt in January ’68 when she made an anti-Vietnam remark at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. Kitt soon found herself blacklisted from performance venues and recording. By the early ’80s, she was fully restored and hitting the comeback trail with several huge Euro-dance singles, including “I Love Men” and “Cha Cha Heels” with Bronski Beat. The rush continued into the ’90s with her donning Isaac Mizrahi duds in the film Unzipped and popping up in a supporting role in Boomerang and recording a Grammy-nominated jazz disc, Back in Business (DRG). In the past several years, she’s been appearing regularly at Manhattan’s famed Cafe Carlyle where I caught up with her reposing in her dressing room.
Your persona has often overshadowed your singing talent. Do you find it comforting that people are rediscovering your voice?
I don’t care how they discover me as long as they do. I haven’t thought about it. If I can still sing, I’m glad that they are now realizing that there’s a singer in the persona as well. When I was with RCA they wanted to sell one side of me — the naughty girl — the materialistic side [found in songs like]: “I Want To Be Evil,””Old-Fashioned Girl,””Santa Baby.” They never sold me as a singer, they sold me as a characterization.
Was there a particular moment when you knew you had found your voice?
I think that comes with maturity. I’m experimenting constantly in front of the public because the public has encouraged that. When I find that they like it, I try to hold onto it and enhance it. Maybe in the younger years I was afraid of experimenting with the voice as much as I do now. Now I’m not afraid because it’s wonderful that the voice is still there and it’s richer even. And of course my fans also find that it’s richer, stronger today than it was.
How much control did you exercise over your latest record, Back To Business.
My daughter was the executive producer, but I picked all the songs because they have to fit my voice, songs that I can have a feeling for. I like songs with a story and meaning and feeling that have something to do with my story and meaning and feeling.
Are you over your house music phase?
I only did that stuff because [Jacques Morali] asked me to. I sing songs but not because it’s going to be for one particular group of people.
Do you feel the weight of the late-’60s blacklisting even now?
Not so much from the public, but behind the scenes, they feel that I did something that was not quite kosher even though I was right in telling the truth. [Robert] McNamara came out with his book saying I was right for saying we should not be involved in that war. It was alright for him to be responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of our boys because he wanted to keep his position. When you stand up and tell the truth, it will set you free, providing the truth eventually comes out.
Did you perform at the luncheon where you made the remark? Were reporters there?
No. Lady Bird Johnson invited me and 49 other women to give opinions about why there was so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America at that time. The main problem was our involvement in Vietnam. She asked me a question and I gave her my opinion. There was no ranting and raving and screaming and I was not out there to sing songs.
What was your greatest setback due to this blacklist?
That I couldn’t work. What could be more setting back than that? It stopped me from working because President Johnson said, “I don’t want to see that woman’s face anywhere. Out of sight, out of mind.” And it locked the door to working at theaters and clubs. They didn’t want me to work there because they did not want the CIA and FBI on their doorstep.
What is the greatest triumph you learned through all of this?
That we have to endure all the nonsense that the politicians are throwing at us all the time. You have to stand up and fight for what you know damn well is right. We happen to be living in a wonderful country, but if people are not willing to take care of business and be responsible for their own government, then [those same people] cannot be crying about what’s happening.
Compare your lasting beauty to the beauty of the models in Isaac Mizrahi’s movie Unzipped. What does it say that’s different from theirs?
I don’t need all this artificial cosmetology to sustain what I am. It’s not what you put on your face but in your face. Everybody knows that I must be at least 70 years old and I say I’m 70 years old. And I say 70 because I don’t know the exact number, but I know I’m around that age.
Are you a religious woman?
No, not in the conventional sense. I’m in contact with the forces.
Stephen Holden of the NY Times once compared your stage alter-ego to that of Mae West’s bawdy man-eater. How do you feel about that?
I know where Eartha Mae ends and Eartha Kitt begins. When I come offstage, Eartha Mae has had a lot of fun playing with the personality of Eartha Kitt and we both have had a lot of fun working with one another together onstage, but we separate when we leave. Once the makeup has come off and the wigs are gone and my costume is gone I go right back to being my ugly-duckling self.
Eartha Kitt will bring her purr and prowess to town on Sunday, March 2 at 6 p.m. at The Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, Broad & Walnut Streets, 893-1776; call the American Women’s Heritage Society at 763-9620 for info.