Heather Headley: Too Beautiful for Words

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Heather Headley doesn’t think she’s “that cool,” but she’s easily proving herself wrong, as she flashes her megawatt smile while lounging in couture on a green velvet chaise. People peer in the window of The Rickey bar at the Dream Hotel in midtown Manhattan, trying to catch a glimpse of the star, but they don’t phase Headley: She’s used to being in the spotlight.

Rain is falling outside, and when the photoshoto wraps, she trades her ballgown for athleisure, though somehow she makes sweats look red carpet-worthy. She gestures expressively as she talks, though she keeps her voice low, as she has a performance of The Color Purple on Broadway that evening.

Headley’s first introduction to The Color Purple was when she saw the film in high school. Her family had recently moved from Trinidad to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where her father was a pastor at a church, and while she empathized with the story of a young woman’s quest for love, acceptance, and independence, she has not seen the movie that many times since her teenage years.

“There are some movies that I can only watch once or twice,” she says. “I love them, but I can’t put myself through that again.”

Now, Headley is “putting herself through it” eight times a week at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in the musical adaption of Alice Walker’s novel. It’s a long-awaited return to Broadway for Headley who was last on Broadway 15 years ago as the title role in Aida, for which she won a Tony Award. The Color Purple also marks another first for the actress: It’s the first time she’s replaced in a show, rather than originating the role. She took over as the misunderstood temptress Shug Avery when Jennifer Hudson left in May and will continue her run through Oct. 2.

“If you had told me 10 years that you’re going to be Shug Avery, I would have told you you were out of your mind,” Headley says with a laugh. “But she’s been a great gift. She’s been a pleasure to play, and it will always be a pleasure to call her forward as one of my favorite roles.”

Headley says she never expected to play the role because she doesn’t possess Shug’s overt sexuality and biting wit. “I dress like this!” the star says, gesturing to her sweatshirt, joggers, and sneakers. “And she’s more brash. I will miss her sass, which is scary because I guess that sass lives in me. I guess I just don’t access it. My husband would say I access it. He’s like, ‘Your mouth is more Shug than you think.’”

She speaks softly, carefully considering her words, particularly when talking about how Shug is largely defined and judged by her sexuality and appearance by her community, when really she is so broken inside.

“There are women who hear this on a regular basis,” Headley says of the verbal vitriol that Shug endures. “And it affects who you are and it affects who you become.”

Women often have it harder, particularly because women perpetrate the gossip and judgment, according to Headley. “It’s sad that we help with that at times,” she says. “I had to sit down and figure out if there are Shugs in my life and if I’ve helped perpetrate that.”

It’s also made her think about the presidential election and the way the public views strong women, with our first female presidential nominee from a major political party. Headley wants to put the issues aside for a second and consider the double standard women face in the public eye, particularly when it comes to appearances.

‘I always think about Condoleezza Rice. She is a very smart woman and was the first at what she did—and not just a woman, but a black woman,” Headley says. “We can talk about what we agree and don’t agree on, but let’s celebrate that that is an amazing thing. And let’s just not go for, ‘Oh I don’t like her hair, I don’t like her outfit.’”

As a mother to two young boys, Headley thinks it’s important to be a strong and beautiful example for them. She doesn’t like to put a lot of effort into her appearance, but she does want her sons and her husband to be excited to be with her.

“I don’t want people to think I’m trying too hard ever, but I want my boys to see a beautiful mom and to be proud of me when I pull up to the school,” she says. “And besides them, I love the look of my husband turning around and just being like, ‘Yess.’”

One lesson that she has also been teaching her sons, particularly this summer, is that there are times “we sacrifice for mommy.” Her family is based in Chicago, and in order to do The Color Purple, they have to move to New York. (They stayed out of the city, as Headley didn’t want her 2-year-old in Manhattan. “We don’t think that even New York City can handle Chase,” she says. “They’d arrest him because he’d just come in and be like, “Okay, I can destroy all of this.”)

“This summer, my man has come behind me, and I think that’s a beautiful gift that my husband has given to his boys,” she says. “So I want my boys to see that, so then when they have wives that they feel free to say, ‘You go, you do that.’”

Headley brought her boys to the theater, where she had an extra dressing room for them to hang out. And her 6-and-a-half year-old John David became fast friends with her costar Cynthia Erivo, or “Miss Cynthia.”

“When he was coming to the theater every night, he’d go, ‘Is Miss Cynthia there?’ Sometimes he’d be like, ‘I have to get Miss Cynthia a donut,’” Headley recalls. “And I’m like, ‘She doesn’t eat donuts. I eat donuts. I’m your mother. I’m the one who had labor for you.’”

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Headley thinks her son had such a strong connection with Erivo from watching her in the show, which he begged to see. While Headley and her husband weren’t sure that the show’s mature themes were quite appropriate, they sat down and explained some of the elements.

Headley also has a strong connection with Erivo, and one of the memories from her time in the show that stands out is the night of the Tony Awards. “Cynthia came into my room, and I remembered going through that day and I just started hugging her and we both started bawling,” Headley remembers. “We shared this little moment, holding her and having those tears shared and letting her know I’m here for you. I remember going onstage in the show and trying to get through ‘Too Beautiful for Words’ and couldn’t get through it because I’m just crying for Cynthia.”

But crying is an everyday occurrence at The Color Purple—for the performers and the audience. “I want you to leave with your mascara on your tissue, and all your dignity should be in that tissue as well. I want ugly crying!” she says, adding that she enjoys the emotional release as well. “I love crying. I think it’s cathartic that you get a cry in every day.”

Another emotional moment was when she also took John David to The Lion King, which gave Headley her Broadway debut. Headley was understudying for Audra McDonald in Ragtime, when she got cast as Nala in the Disney hit. She dropped out of Northwestern University to pursue the project, but that’s not the decision she reflects on: She almost didn’t go to the audition.

“I had two job offers on that day and the first one was for a Christmas show in Chicago, and we were going to do Once on This Island and I really wanted to do it,” she says. “I said to my agent, ‘I’m not going to go to the other audition’—which was Ragtime. She was like, ‘Just go. They’re going to say you’re too young, but you’re not going to get it. They need to see you for the next time.’ And I always think if I didn’t go to the audition, life would be different. You just thank God and God has stuff planned that you don’t. Because I could never come up with the script.”

And if Headley has anything to say about the script moving forward, she’ll be back on Broadway again in the near future. “It seems like I would be tarred and feathered if I am not back soon enough, and I don’t want to get tarred and feathered by anybody in New York City!” she says with a laugh. “It won’t be that long again. I don’t have that kind of time.”

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Styling by James Brown III
Additional Styling by Aubrey Mae Davis
Hair by Mich Ifill
Makeup by Austin Thornton
Clothing by Sherri Hill
Jewelry by E. Shaw Jewels