The first in a six-part series called The Judds aired last night on Oprah’s OWN network. It was filmed as Wynonna and Naomi prepared for their 2010 “Last Encore” tour, the first they would perform together in ten years.
As I watched the show, I was struck by both women’s honesty, openness, and willingness to be vulnerable with each other especially knowing that millions of people would be watching. It’s impressive anytime anyone is willing to let go of their ego, but in Wynonna and Naomi’s case, it is extraordinary, because when you are famous it’s even more difficult to give up the facade.
I had my own personal experience with Wynonna back in January 2006 when I interviewed her for my monthly celebrity column called “Up Close and Personal” in Luxury Las Vegas Magazine. She blew me away then just as she did last night. She touches my heart in a very profound way. Here is my recollection of that experience and excerpts from that interview:
It was January 2006, a new year, and I was looking for a celebrity to interview who had faced some difficult challenges, who would serve as an inspiration to others.
I’d seen Wynonna on Oprah in February 2004 and been so impressed with how incredibly brave she was when she let her guard down in front of millions of people and shared how “sick and tired” she was of being overweight.
Wynonna also admitted that she wasn’t fat simply because she ate too much; she was overweight because she’d spent her life using food to stuff the pain from the unwanted feelings of anger, shame, guilt, and fear.
Wynonna is not alone. An estimated 58 million people in the United States are overweight; 40 million are obese and 3 million are morbidly obese.
I contacted Wynonna’s publicist and after trading emails back and forth for a couple of weeks, she finally confirmed the interview, but said I would only have 15 minutes.
Usually I spend at least an hour talking with the people I interview and I wondered how could I possibly ask 20 thought-provoking questions and get any worthwhile responses in 15 minutes. I agreed, hoping that once Wynonna and I started talking we would create a connection and she would give me some extra time.
LIFE LESSON – Don’t accept defeat! Work with what you are given and turn it around to your advantage.
In preparation for our interview I read her autobiography, Coming Home to Myself. In this no-holds-barred memoir Wynonna opens up about the years of deception and lies told to her by her mother, Naomi, about who her real father was. It’s a story of conflict, self-doubt, feeling left out, and not belonging, but more important it’s ultimately about the road to forgiveness and self-acceptance that Wynonna has traveled.
Forgiveness is a hard thing to master. It doesn’t matter whether we are disappointed by a friend, devastated by a cheating spouse, or betrayed by a parent who didn’t tell the truth; when we hold onto the pain, we pay the price. Wynonna Judd knows more about forgiving others than most of us will ever be called upon to do.
Sincere forgiveness isn’t colored with expectations that the other person apologize or change. Don’t worry whether or not they finally understand you. Love them and release them. Life feeds back truth to people in its own way and time.”
– Sara Paddison
As fans know The Judds are a rags to riches, welfare to millionaire story, and one filled with secrets. Naomi was 18 when she found out she was pregnant with Wynonna. After being abandoned by her boyfriend, Charlie Jordan, she quickly married Michael Ciminella and let everyone, including Wynonna, think he was her father. Four years later sister Ashley was born.
In 1972 the couple divorced and in 1979 Naomi moved to Nashville with 15 year-old Wynonna and 11 year-old Ashley. Naomi and Wynonna were often at odds. Wynonna wanted to be in a band, while Naomi wanted them to be a duo. Wynonna wanted to play at clubs, while Naomi wanted a record deal and a hit on the radio before they played in front of a crowd.
It was a long, hard haul, but Naomi had an “I’m not giving up until we make it” attitude. She worked a double shift as a nurse at a hospital, then she’d come home and change clothes before going down to Music Row where she distributed demo tapes they had made on their K-Mart recorder.
Finally they got their big break in 1984 when they auditioned for an RCA Records executive. In a short period of time, The Judds went from their dirt-poor beginnings in Ashland, Kentucky to being named “Best Country Duo” eight years in a row. They sold more than 26 million albums, had 14 number one singles, and earned over 60 industry awards including five Grammy Awards, nine Country Music Association Awards and eight Billboard Music Awards.
Then in 1990, Naomi was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, a life-threatening disease, and after finishing their “Farewell Tour” in 1991, she reluctantly retired. Having achieved mega-success as a duo, Wynonna was suddenly faced with the possibility of losing her mother as well as her singing partner. Filled with doubt, she stood alone on the stage for the first time.
LIFE LESSON: Most of the time, the thing we fear never turns out as bad as what we imagine.
Wynonna had nothing to worry about. Judd fans embraced her. So much so that in 1992 her first album as a solo artist sold over 5 million copies and became the highest-selling debut album by a female artist at the time.
Fast forward to 2006 as I was about to interview the famous red-headed country singer. I dialed the phone number I’d been given and immediately recognized Wynonna’s deep, earthy voice. I started by saying how much her book had touched my heart and soon we were talking and laughing like old friends.
She asked me to call her Wy and she called me “sister-friend,” an expression that reminded me of the movie, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It’s a term more commonly used in the south, but it feels like it has roots in the African culture. When Wynonna said it, I felt like I was part of her tribe. It conjured up images of women in a simpler, though not easier time, who watch out for each other. Sister-friends give you counsel, keep your secrets, take your hand and hold your heart.
She asked me to call her Wy and she called me “sister-friend.” When Wynonna said it, I felt like I was part of her tribe. It conjured up a images of women in a simpler, though not easier time, who watch out for each other. Sister-friends give you counsel, keep your secrets, take your hand and hold your heart.
When I mentioned the 15-minute time constraint, Wynonna laughed and said that her publicist was trying to protect her. “She knows when I start talking, I can keep going.” Sure enough 15 minutes turned into 90 as Wynonna opened her heart and shared her personal thoughts, feelings and pain.
She talked about learning the truth about who her real father was in 1994 when she was 30 years old. She said, “I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. My heart started pounding and my ears started ringing. I felt sick to my stomach. I think my spirit left my body because I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t anything. All I knew was that I didn’t belong to anyone. Suddenly I was faced with having to forgive my mother for keeping the truth from me for so long.”
For six years, Wynonna put off meeting her biological father fearing that he wanted nothing to do with her. She thought it would happen someday, that there would always be time. In 2000 time ran out when she got the news that Charlie Jordan had died. Now Wynonna faced the even bigger challenge of forgiving herself.
Anger, grief, guilt, and regret take their toll in various ways. It doesn’t matter whether we ignore or deny the pain, or dwell on it and relive every moment. It doesn’t matter if we forgo responsibility and play the victim who cries “poor me” or if we mentally beat ourselves up over and over again for relinquishing our power. To relieve the pain we usually engage in some kind of obsessive, destructive behavior that involves too much eating, drinking, shopping, sleeping, gambling, working, sex, or whatever else you care to fill in the blank.
In Wynonna’s case she admitted that her way of dealing with the pain was to stuff her mouth and her closets until she was not only in danger of having a heart attack, but she was facing bankruptcy.
LIFE LESSON: Many times we hit rock bottom before we are willing to address the problem and make some tough decisions that lead to positive change. The sooner we are willing to recognize the truth, the quicker we can begin to heal.
One of the things Wynonna said she had to do was muzzle her ego. It takes a lot of strength and self-love to stop worrying about what other people think about us. And if it’s hard for the average person, imagine how difficult it is for those who are in the public eye where everything they say and do is under a microscope.
We have little patience with ourselves and sometimes even less for the people we idolize. We elevate our celebrities to superstar status only to tear them down when they don’t live up to our expectations. We stand ready to attack at any given moment, incapable of understanding how those who have been given so much could abuse it.
It doesn’t matter whether we are a household name or simply the star in our own life; it’s only when we are able to quiet that little voice within that bombards us with negativity, criticism and judgments about ourselves and others that we will ever be free. It may take a lifetime to subdue the ego, but it is only in mastering it, that we can stop being enslaved by it.
Wynonna inspires me with her courageous fragility, her powerful tenderness, and her complex simplicity. After we hung up, I just sat there quietly basking in the spiritual glow that comes when two human beings connect heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul, even if only for a brief time.
I was saddened when news broke that her second husband, D.R. Roach, was arrested on March 22, 2007, while at a rehab center in Texas, and eventually indicted on three counts of aggravated sexual assault and battery against a minor. Roach had been Wynonna’s long-time security director and road manager, and I met him when I went backstage after one of her concerts at the Las Vegas Hilton.
If I knew anything after talking with Wynonna, it’s that she is nothing if not truthful. That’s why it didn’t surprise me when she admitted that like herself, Roach had issues with addiction when she married him. She said she knew what she was getting into, but she thought she could change people by loving them enough. She learned that it doesn’t work that way.
Wynonna had her husband out of the house within an hour and filed for divorce within days. “It blew the door open to my soul,” she said. “In this moment, this heartbeat, this breath, I’m okay. Everything’s not all right, but I’m all right with everything. And when you surrender, which is where I live right now, you find serenity.”
During the healing process, Wynonna went to hell and back, emotionally and physically. In March 2010 doctors found blood clots in her lungs, complications from a surgery she had to repair damage to her stomach muscles. Four months later she was in a head-on collision while in Salt Lake City for a show.
But Wynonna has Judd-strength running through her veins. She said, “I can be a victim or a victor. I’m willing to teach through my mistakes and my victories.” Wynonna’s beautiful home in the hills of Tennessee is surrounded by wilderness. It was there that she started taking daily walks and watching what she ate. On September 14, 2010, Wynonna went on Oprah and announced she’d lost 60 pounds with more to come. It was good to hear her say, “I feel more alive.”
Wynonna has Judd-strength running through her veins. She said, “I can be a victim or a victor. I’m willing to teach through my mistakes and my victories.”
Here’s an excerpt from my 2006 interview with Wynonna that is so poignant and touching:
Marsala: Describe yourself in three words.
MR: You’ve written an incredible book called Coming Home to Myself where you totally bare your soul about your weight, your finances, your career and your relationships. Was it a cathartic process?
WJ: Instead of focusing on my issue with food, I’d like to address my addictive behavior because it’s about so much more than food. That’s the symptom not the problem. I don’t want people to think that’s it.
While writing this book I spent a lot of time in my pajamas and something happens when you walk into the wilderness alone. It’s deafly quiet and that’s the opposite of my life, which has been loud and very vocal. Writing this book made me have to get quiet. The world yells; God whispers. I found my inner voice in the silence. Holding up a mirror to your soul, getting real, is a very scary, necessary thing. No bullshit today. It’s freeing, but here’s the catch. You’re not responsible for what you don’t know, but once you do know, then you become responsible for changing. Some people aren’t willing to do the work. The question is, “Which is worse the pain of changing or the pain of not changing?
MR: What in life are you passionate about?
WJ: I’m working on giving without expecting in return and loving unconditionally.
MR: What makes you angry?
WJ: People who have, and who are without compassion for the ones who have not.
MR: What would you change about yourself and your life?
WJ: The way I criticize myself. I’m really hard on myself. And not putting things off in my personal life because of my career. I regret that I waited so long to meet my birth father and that he died a month before I was to meet him.
MR: You talk in your book about how overspending almost left you bankrupt. How have you changed and what do you still splurge on?
WJ: The UPS guy doesn’t visit nearly as often. I’ve made an effort to think about the future. If I don’t spend it today, I can save it for tomorrow. That’s a huge deal for me. I do that a lot more now. I work so hard and am gone for long periods of time and when I come home, I feel much like people do the day after Christmas. I used to soothe my sadness with food and buying things. Now I allow myself to feel the emotions. I’ll take a nap or sit in a chair and look at photographs that make…no, help me cry. I allow myself to be in nature. It’s so beautiful where I live. I’ll go outside and sit in what I call my Feeling Chair, and I’ll look at the trees and sometimes I’ll weep. I won’t plan my life around it, but I can certainly plan a day around my sorrow, meaning that if I’m really sad, I allow myself to stay there. It’s in that sadness that you get clarity about what you want to change.
I’ll go outside and sit in what I call my Feeling Chair, and I’ll look at the trees and sometimes I’ll weep. I won’t plan my life around it, but I can certainly plan a day around my sorrow, meaning that if I’m really sad, I allow myself to stay there. It’s in that sadness that you get clarity about what you want to change.”
MR: That’s profound. You wrote that you used to protect yourself with sarcastic humor, but talking with you, there’s such a vulnerable tenderness about you.
WJ: I didn’t want to reveal it. It was much easier to be tough, or so I thought.
MR: Are you tired of talking about your weight?
WJ: I am, but I know it’s necessary. I’ve opened up that door and it forces me to be real and truthful about it. If I get off the phone from a conversation that’s upsetting, instead of going to the kitchen, I’ll go to my Feeling Chair or go to my room and have a dialogue with myself by saying, “I’m pissed” or “I’m really sad about this.” Sometimes the pain’s pretty deep and I don’t feel like dealing with it so I use food as a distraction and fail miserably.
MR: If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
WJ: That my mom hadn’t kept the secret about my father for 30 years.
MR: In your book you talk about how much you and your mom argued. How’s the relationship now?
WJ: Stabilized (laughter).
MR: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
WJ: How much I laugh and how childlike and mischievous I am.
MR: In the book you wrote that when you watch American Idol you pray that “God be with them, because their lives are about to completely change forever for good and bad.” What’s your take on the fame that so many people strive for?
WJ: It’s definitely an illusion. I went from welfare to millionaire. Talk with people who’ve won the lottery and they’ll say it’s done more damage than good because success takes you away from who you are authentically. You begin to believe your own press, that you are a magical being because the spotlight is so bright on you. It separates you from reality because you’re caught up in the fantasy.
MR: Is there a way to achieve fame and stay the same?
WJ: Nope. I don’t know one person yet, that I’ve met, who’s been unaffected. When you have money, people want to be near you; when you’re famous, people expect you to live up to their expectations. I was at the mall last night shopping with my son and all he wanted to do was find some shoes and a couple of shirts and this woman was convinced I was the Queen of the parade and all I wanted to be was Elijah’s mother. For the first 30 minutes I wasn’t able to be a human being. She assumed things about me. She didn’t realize I wasn’t as bright and shinny and perfect as t.v. makes me out to be.
WJ: Most people don’t. They assume I have it all. When I took out my little bank envelope and counted my cash the saleswoman was like, “You don’t have a credit card?” I said, “No I don’t use credit cards. I have a budget. What’s in this envelope is what I get every month and when it’s gone, we stay home.” And she looked at me like that didn’t jive with her thoughts about who I am. People think we (celebrities) all hang out together and that we live on this magical island of the beautiful people. ‘What do you mean you drive your own car? You don’t you have a bodyguard? No!
The other day I was flying Southwest Airlines and this woman almost started arguing with me. ‘You’re not her,’ she said. I said I was and almost had to whip out my drivers license. “What are you doing flying Southwest?” she asked. I said, “Saving money.” She just looked at me. People think that success, money and fame take you away from everyday problems. They assume that you’re separated from life’s hardships and you don’t have to deal with negative things. That we have all these people to take care of our lives for us and that all we do is sit and eat bonbons and count our cash. In country music it’s a lot easier to be yourself, thank goodness, than in the pop world where the videos portray the limos and the champagne.
MR: You’ve been friends with Bono for many years and in your book you even call him your mentor. He’s an example of someone who uses his celebrity to raise consciousness and make a difference in the world.
WJ: What we realize, and I say we, as in Bono and myself, is that our name can get a good seat in a restaurant. But if that’s all it’s good for, then it’s laboring in vain. What you realize is that it gets really narcissistic and anyone who has a heart and a conscious thought realizes it can’t continue like that or it gets uncomfortable, although some people can’t get enough of it. Thank God my mother was with me for the first ten years and she’d say, ‘Do you realize riding in a limousine is a privilege?’ You start to realize as a celebrity you can get people’s attention and thank goodness Bono has the heart he has to be effective.
MR: What charities and organizations do you support?
WJ: I have about 30. I’m an ambassador for YouthAIDS. I’m also helping raise money for Katrina victims through Habitat for Humanity. I’m proud to say, as in proud of spirit, not proud because it looks good on my resume, that I do a lot of stuff because being a mother has broadened my horizons. I do things on a county, city, state, national and global level.
MR: What was it like opening up about your weight on Oprah?
WJ: Painful, yet enlightening. Necessary. I couldn’t have done it in a therapist’s office. It’s much more fun helping others, while I’m helping myself. It allowed me to be a giver as well as a receiver, which is what I was raised to be. I got 800,000 emails from that show.
MR: What advice would you give people?
WJ: When you lie down in bed at night, celebrate the things you did that day rather than complain about the things you didn’t. Know that you are loved for who you are, not what you do. And may you learn how to dance outside the box.
When you lie down in bed at night, celebrate the things you did that day rather than complain about the things you didn’t. Know that you are loved for who you are, not what you do. And may you learn how to dance outside the box and strive instead of just survive.”
I love Wynonna’s determination to thrive instead of just survive. We all have disappointments and regrets. In some way, we’ve all inflicted pain upon ourselves and others. We all have people we need to forgive and things we need to ask forgiveness for. So when you’re feeling discouraged and the road seems bleak, put on a Wynonna song like “New Day Dawning” or “Love Will Build a Bridge.” By example, Wynonna shows us that like a Phoenix we can rise out of the ashes, above the pain, above the sadness. We can learn to love and respect ourselves and create a meaningful life filled with happiness and appreciation.
Here’s to all of us Sister-Friends. Thank you Wy. You’re such a special lady.