only specific thing that I think people should understand is that I need
to be free"
(...) For this
exclusive Penthouse interview, Elliott Mintz interviewed Summer
in Los Angeles during a brief respite from her touring schedule.
They began by talking about her image: the myth versus the reality
of Donna Summer
Q: Your image is that of a supersexed,
highly erotic seductress. Is there any relation between that
image and the "real" Donna Summer?
I wouldn't say so. I think I'm undersexed, actually. I am sensual
and very physical. I'm very erotic. But my sexuality exists on
a sort of a fantasy level.
Q: What are your fantasies?
A: Hey, wait a minute, this ain't a free show! Well,
I'll say I have an incredible ability to fantasize - I really
do. I don't have to have things tangible to be able to see them,
and therefore I enjoy so many things, because they're in my mind.
I believe that most people don't realize or utilize enough their
potential for fantasizing. I think people go out looking to make
their fantasies real - they can't just enjoy them for what they
are. But in trying to make them real, they overextend themselves,
and as a result it all becomes a nightmare for them, not a joy.
There are just certain fantasies that cannot be acted out with
another human being. I am talking about fantasies for the sake
of fantasies - things that you could never, ever do in your lifetime.
Q: What are yours?
A: How can I possibly
give you one that I wouldn't mind seeing in print? Well, let
me say it this way. Let's say that, in reality, I'm basically
very shy when it comes to men. I haven' t been with a lot of
men in my life. Now I can get off on my thinking what it would
be like if I were really like the person that people fantasize
about when they think of Donna Summer. I get all kinds of letters
which stimulate that fantasy. I get all kinds of letters
telling me about people's fantasies and dreams about me - people
have sent me paintings and pictures. You can't imagine what these
people say to me/ One guy had this obsession with seeing Raquel
Welch make it with me - oh, and Ann Margret, too. I would have
a whip or something, and they would be completely at my mercy.
He went on for four or five pages, telling me how he found my
album in his son's room and took it, and just thinks about these
things. It's amazing.
Q: If a fantasy is something
that is never really going to happens in one's life, what is
an example of one of your fantasies?
A: I could
imagine myself in a situation where I'm walking down a dark hallway,
going to do my show, and somebody sexually overpowers me, attacks
Q: Isn't that supposed to be the male-chauvinist
version of a woman's fantasy?
A: Oh, I don't believe
so. This secret fantasy of being raped is a part of women because
we've been raised that way. I'm not saying that it's necessarily
every woman's fantasy, because I can't really relate to every
woman. But I like to know that someone is stronger than I am.
I want to be able to know that if I get tired, somebody is there
to hold up the fort. I like knowing that I can't pick a refrigerator
alone. God did not make me strong enough to do that.
You prefer to be physically dominated by men?
There are time that I do - absolutely, 100 percent. And there
are times when I don't want to be mentally dominated. When I
think of aggression, I think of being aggressed upon rather than
being the aggressor.
Q: Have you ever had a female
A: Never, and I don't really plan to. I
must say I've been hit on by a lot of women in my life. But I
found that that was not one of the things I wanted to participate
in - outside the realm of fantasy.
Q: Does it
bother you to have a woman whom you think of as a friend attracted
to you sexually?
A: No, it doesn't bother me as
long as she doesn't touch me. It's a strange thing about me,
like a tic or something, but I don't like to have people touching
me at all. I find it an imposition on my person when people put
their hands on me.
Q: Where do you think that
phobia comes from?
A: I just don't feel secure
around women. I guess it comes from the time when I started in
show business, when I was around eighteen years old. I was dancing
and singing, and it put me around older women a lot - not girls,
but women, around thirty, thirty-five. When I was younger, I
was very physical, always moving. I was very, very thin and moved
around with sort of a snakelike movement. It was obviously very
alluring for women. At one point I started worrying, "Am
I putting this vibe out to women"" I talked to an analyst
about it and realized that it wasn't me. It was them and what
they envisioned me to be. It was my mystique. Q: Is this same
kind of mystique at work in your relationship with your current
A: Well, my boyfriend is Italian. I
think of him as my Italian stallion, and I'm sure I'm his sex
goddess. But I don't think his feelings about me have anything
to do with the myth that surrounds me. It's because our chemistry
Q: Does the chemistry have anything to
do with the fact that you're black and he's white?
I'm sure that he's been with other black women and the chemistry
didn't work like it works for us. I've been certainly with other
white men, and the chemistry wasn't like this. You know, what
people consider erotic or beautiful has to do with what they've
been told for twenty or thirty years. I had a problem with one
of my boyfriends once. At the moment of the ultimate encounter,
he became absolutely frantic and couldn't get it together, and
all of a sudden I became a color to him and not a person. i stopped
and said, "Wait a minute. Forget what you've learned in
the past. You don't have to prove anything to me - I am me, not
a myth. Look me in the eye and deal with me, not with a myth,
because I'm not a myth."
Q: What do you think
about the fantasies some white women have of black men making
the best lovers?
A: I don't know...It's certainly
more than the fact that black men put it somewhere and it feels
good. It's the color, the hair texture, the smell, the difference
in the feel. It feels different to make love with a black man
than it does with a white man. It's just a different touch. It's
aesthetics. I suppose for a white woman to imagine a black-skinned
man pouncing on her bones...Well, the contrast is a stimulation,
I think. I know I attract blond men like flies. One of my record
company people once said, "My God, I never saw so many blond
men flock around anybody in my life!" It's the contrast,
the look of it. But, purely sexually speaking, there's no difference
having to do with race. It's just a fantasy that a black man's
penis is longer or bigger or more potent or anything like that
- excuse me for being so technical. And I can't really say that
black women sustain longer. I mean, I really don't know.
Q: Do you have an idea why you're so popular in the
A: Not really. It's funny,
but one of my very first boyfriends was homosexual. He didn't
know it at the time, but I had always felt he was very sensitive.
I've always been attracted to homosexual men - I mean physically
as well as in other ways. And sometimes I think my attraction
for them is that I'm motherly.
Q: Donna Summer
A: I think I have a strange kind
of earthiness that might be alluring for a man who isn't really
into women sexually.
Q: What kind of emotions
do you go through when you're recording or performing your songs
and having to exude all that sexuality?
TO LOVE YOU BABY was approached as an acting piece, as what I
imagined it to be like for a man seeing his wife for the first
time, or for a woman seeing a man for the first time. I've been
in that situation. There wasn't anything to say. I was in ecstasy
without even being touched. I was breathing heavy just from the
thought that my dream was right there, in front of me. Ecstasy
comes in many forms; it's not just physical. But my song conjured
up physical fantasies for people. My acting was done well, and
people believed the story I was acting.
did all that heavy breathing, faking that orgasm, without thinking
any sexual thoughts?
A: I know it sounds funny.
During the recording of the record, I had much more romantic
thoughts than the record led you to believe. You know, there
are ecstatic moments in life that are physical, that are like
an orgasm. For a mother, I should think, there are moments -
touching her child, realizing that this miracle is hers - that
are ecstasy. You know, that record flopped twice in Europe. I
was was clean-cut, funny American girl who was in Europe doing
top European music. That was my image. They didn't even acknowledge
that record. It fell off the charts twice before it was released
the third time and hit. It was hysterical. I just made up the
voice for that song. I found a hole in the market. I found a
loophole, and that's how I got my foot in the door. That was
a big foot, I'll tell you that - not your basic, ordinary foot.
And it boosted me up a long, long way from my Boston roots.
Q: What kind of family do you come from?
I was one of seven children. I came from a lower-middle-class
black family in Boston. My mother and father worked real hard.
My father worked three jobs. He struggled like hell to keep our
house. He was a real dominating father but a very good father.
He was a butcher during the war; so we always had meat. He was
also an electrician and a janitor, and in his spare time he took
care of buildings. There were times we didn't have anything,
but my parents just never let us down. There were times when
my girl friends would all be going to school with new skirts,
new this, new that, and I didn't have anything new. But I never
envied them. I was always a little different. When everyone else
was thinking about getting married and talking about the debutantes'
ball, I'd be thinking, "Why am I different? Why don't I
care about those things?" I didn't care, because I knew
I was going somewhere in my life. Even as a child, I knew I was
going to be something. I mean, I've got to tell you that I got
credit in my neighborhood store just because everyone believed
that one day I'd be successful. I could go down and take anything
I wanted, and they'd write it down on a bill and say to me, "You're
going to be famous one day. You can pay it then." I think
I grew up with a very good outlook on who I was, who I was supposed
to be. I lived in a very mixed neighborhood: Irish, Italian,
Catholic, doctors, teachers, students, regular families - a real
Q: Did you ever get involved in drugs
when you were young?
A: When I was about sixteen,
i went through a pretty heavy drug scene. That was the Janis
Joplin part of my life. I was in a rock 'n' roll group, the only
female and the only black person in the group. I was the lead
singer. It was that whole psychedelic period when everyone was
trying and testing new things, and I just went overboard. I finally
went so far that when i was eighteen I said, "Enough! God
did not intend me to live my life this way!"And so I quit,
abruptly, after two years, and I really haven't indulged in drugs
since. Now I'm unusually sensitive to any type of drug or medication.
I have a hard time taking Tylenol.
Q: Was your
introduction to sex during this period too?
I first had sex when I was eighteen or nineteen. It was quite
disappointing. Reminds me of the song lyric that goes, "Is
that all there is?" It was really a mistake. You see, I
was in Boston at the time, and I fell madly in love - was just
infatuated with a man who was very special. He was sensitivity
personified. He was poetic, and I was just more than in love
with him - I would've committed suicide at thinking that I couldn't
be with him. In any case, we finally broke up, and most of the
reason was because I wouldn't have sex with him. I said I didn't
want to until I was married, blah, blah, blah. So then I was
disappointed, and I thought that maybe that's what you had to
go through to hold on to somebody you loved. So I had sex with
the next man I went out with after the first fellow went away.
I wasn't as much in love with him, but I thought maybe I just
had to do it, that it was what growing up was about. My heart
and soul weren't in it - I was just afraid of losing him. But
I was real disappointed.
Q: How happy are you
with your life now?
A: I'm always slightly depressive.
My whole life is work, and it's always been work. Even when I'm
home relaxing, I'm playing the piano or singing. I've always
got to be doing something creative or constructive. I hate the
feeling of doing nothing. I was on tour for eight months last
year and for about four months this year. I started getting so
speedy that I couldn't sleep at all anymore. I was in a state
of permanent insomnia. I would go from filming to recording,
to this, then that, then something else.
compels you to be this way?
A: I think it comes
from the fear of dying, in the sense that I feel that God gave
me a reason to be here. I'm very religious in the sense that
I think there is life after death and that everyone has a karmic
debt to pay back; and whatever that is, I want to pay it back
before I go. I want to do things for other people - and I'm getting
to be in a position where I can achieve things for others.
I believe that money talks. Everything else is okay, but money
speaks, and if I can save X amount of dollars to build a community
center, for example, I am really doing something.
What would your long-range goal be?
A: I've always
said it was to set up a community in South America. I don't know
why it's got to be South America; it could be anywhere in the
world. You see, I believe that we, as Americans, as well as the
British, the Germans, the French, have always taken. We've
gone to other countries and taken, taken, taken, castrating the
people, making them second-rate citizens in their own country.
I'd like to go into a country where it isn't expensive to do
a lot of things and just give, let the people of this
country retain their sense of themselves. I'd like people without
any advantages or abilities to be trained so that they could
then use that training in their own country. It's almost a communistic
theory - utopian, perhaps - because there are certainly a lot
of people who are going to be greedy and people who are not going
to, want to do certain things. But I don't mind giving up what
I have. My accountants are always telling me, "You're spending
too much!" And I tell them, "Tomorrow will come whether
I have a penny in the bank or not." I'm not afraid of tomorrow,
and I'm not afraid to be hungry. I can risk whatever money I
have because I know that with my own intelligence, with my strength,
I will get back to where I was.
Q: Would it be
fair to say that you made a million dollars in 1978?
If you go on tour for eight months, you can estimate what you're
going to earn. I think the potential of what I could possibly
earn in a year would be - God, who knows? Anywhere from $2.5
million to $5 million a year. I don't know if I earn that, because
when you go out on the road it costs a bundle of money. This
was brought to my attention only recently, and I nearly choked
when I heard it. Think of just the cost of flying to do the show.
Say you're taking thirty people. Five or six of those people
have to go first-class, and the rest fly tourist, and the cost
is enormous. The amount of money that you gross on a tour is
really not that much in the end, because by the time your fees
are gone for your agent and your management and everyone else,
you're not left with so much for the hard work you put out. Costumes
alone last year cost me $70,000. There are high start-up costs
when you get ready to go on the road. You have to pay for four
weeks' rehearsal. You have to take out lighting. A tour is multi-multi-million-dollar
business, really - and not necessarily for the artist. Most people
can't go on tour, because it's just too expensive. My very first
tour was a European tour. I was supposedly offered a certain
amount of money for the tour, but it didn't come through, and
I came back owing close to $200,000. Owing - not having
made a cent.
Q: Now that you're constantly on
the road and in demand, do you ever feel like just giving up
and enjoying yourself?
A: Once a week. I swear
to you: once a week! Every time I come off the road, I'm so exhausted
for the first week that I swear I'm never going on the road again
as long as I live. I don't want it anymore, I've had it, my life
has been too erratic, I want a sensitive and sensible life, I
want to be with my family... Then, about a week and a half later,
I 'm bored to death, and I'm off again. It's a masochistic business.
It's in your blood. It's like people who have sea fever. They're
driven to go to sea all the time. They always say that they're
going to go dry and go back on land, but once the sea calls them
again, they're off. They love it and they hate it. Love and hate
are what this entertainment business is all about. People hate
you today, and then they love you tomorrow. They let you down,
and they build you back. You're in, and then you're out again.
There's this constant struggle for admiration, love, and respect
that is a strange kind of love-hatred and a constant attempt
at trying to prove yourself.
Q: What is it you're
trying to prove?
A: I don't know. Generally, I
think it comes from a sense of my desperately needing to be understood
and desiring to effect change through something that I have to
say. I question myself all the time. Why am I doing this? I could
just get married and be rich...Yet I could never settle for that.
It's not even the money. At some point it's just madness. I don't
know why I have such a drastic need to be understood, but I do.
Q: Is performing the only way you feel that you can
A: Not really. I'm always on stage,
though - I mean, my life is a stage at this point, whether
I'm at home or whether I'm at office or whether I'm on the road
or on television or shopping. I'm always on stage. At this point
there are very few moments in my life when I don't feel I have
to be quote Donna Summer unquote. I can't just be a little girl
from Boston. It's very funny how people make you jump into being
the person they want to see. But I manage to stabilize myself.
Q: What frightens you most about what you're doing?
A: Not being in possession of my own abilities and
faculties. And in this profession it's easy for that to happen.
I never want to lose sight of who I am or what I'm here for,
and I think that's probably my biggest fear. When I say "going
insane", I mean becoming so much part of the machinery that
I no longer see the reality of what I have to do in this lifetime.
And what I have to do is develop my talents and my ability and
the ability of others as best I can. I believe there is a structure
to the whole thing. First, before you can help someone else,
you really must help yourself. Second, you should help your family
or people who are close to you. That is why I feel that some
of my greatest achievements have been my work with the Brooklyn
Dreams and with my sister, Sunshine, whose first album I'm producing.
And then you should really do something for the world. When you've
indulged you're ego in the things that you wanted, then it's
time to give it all back. And that is basically my whole philosophy
about what I'm doing, one that I've had since I was a girl.
Q: Do you feel a need to do things for people so
that you will be remembered by them?
A: This is
a strange thing, but I really don't care if they remember me.
I hope they remember my philosophy, as opposed to my person,
because I'm actually quite insignificant. People remember Jesus,
or they remember disciples. But to remember them as people is
not enough. You must remember what they taught you. That's the
important thing to me.
Q: What do you wish your
public would understand about you that they don't now?
The only specific thing that I think people need to understand
is that I need to be free. I think the thing that bothers me
the most about this thing called success - it is a thing,
a monster - is that it changes your life-style so drastically.
There is no longer any privacy in your life, and you have no
choice. Really, I'm a very regular person, normal person, and
I want to relate to my audience, to the public, to let them know
that I love them or I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. At the
same time, I want their love and respect and understanding. They're
my fans, and they want X, but they have to know that there are
millions of people chewing away at this person, saying, "I
want this and I want this and I want that." And it's impossible
to accommodate all of these people. When I say "I can't"
to people, I want them to understand that I can't and not to
feel put down by it. It's the one thing that disturbs me: that
people feel they deserve more, and that I can't give it. I even
would if I could, but I can't. And then they say, "Well,
we buy your records." Yes, I sang a song, you bought my
record, I got the money. That's the bottom line, and that's not
"cold". I sold a record, but I didn't sell my soul.