EXCLUSIVE! 'Freak Show's Patti LaBelle on Jessica Lange's 'Cute' Singing and If She'll Rise From the Dead
By Chris Azzopardi
Patti LaBelle can’t be counted out – ever.
When it comes to her career as a legendary songstress, the “Lady Marmalade” singer’s been going strong for over a half century. And even on American Horror Story: Freak Show as Dora, the ballsy maid who – spoiler alert! – kicked the bucket in the drama’s Nov. 5 episode, LaBelle’s seemingly-severed time on the show might not be as short as you think.
Could Dora be resurrected with a new attitude? Could there be more of that side-eye that she throws so well? The self-proclaimed “Shade Queen” teased the possibility of her character's comeback, how she’d handle her onscreen killer in real life, and Jessica Lange’s “cute” singing.
ETonline: My first thought after you got knifed by Gloria Mott’s son Dandy during last week’s episode of American Horror Story was, how you gonna kill Patti LaBelle and not let her sing? Patti LaBelle: Right?! Well, they had me humming a bit when I was cleaning the dining room table the episode before I died, but it was a very, very soft hum. I wanted to, like, belt out before I got killed!
Is Dora gone for good? LaBelle: With this particular show, you never know. I might become a ghost, or something that comes back and scares Dandy’s little ass. He’s a hot mess! But now my daughter, [played by] Gabourey Sidibe, is looking for me, so when she looks for Dora, you know Dora might have to do something, and I might just have to show back up.
What was it like watching your death scene? LaBelle: I said, "Dang, girl, why didn't you close your eyes?" I died with my eyes open because that’s what they wanted. Lying on the floor, dead, with blood coming out of my neck – it wasn’t easy seeing myself like that, but it sure was interesting.
What was it like filming that? LaBelle: Gross! After it was done, I had to take five showers to get all that blood off my body.
Dora doesn’t take crap from anyone, and neither do you... LaBelle: No, she doesn't. [There was] something they let me leave in [a scene where I confront Dandy.] They had written "You can barely wash your own behind" and I said, "Why can’t I say 'ass'?" They left "ass" in. They didn't make me say "behind" – because no, I ain't gonna talk to him like that. So, I ad-libbed the 'ass.'
If you had to personally deal with a Dandy, how would this have turned out? LaBelle: Oh, I woulda killed that boy. He woulda been gone the first time he jumped at me at that dining room table. I would've just knocked him out, but, you know, you gotta go by the script.
Let’s talk how you’ve perfected shade face. LaBelle: I’m the Shade Queen!
What's the trick to throwing good shade face? LaBelle: It's an attitude. You can't say how to make one; you have it or you don’t. I was born with shade face and shade eyes. It’s all in the eyes.
How about the Woody Woodpecker impression – did you have to do research to get his laugh down? LaBelle: [Impersonates Woody Woodpecker] Oh, heck no. I know his sound. I just did it and the directors were very happy with my portrayal of Woody Woodpecker.
Some people on the Internet have expressed disappointment that you were relegated to the "black maid" role. LaBelle: They were upset about that? Why?! I mean, it was 1952; what else is a black woman gonna do in those days? It’s a period of time in the '50s – that could've been my job!
What do you think of Jessica Lange's singing on the show? LaBelle: Jessica Lange – oh, it was sweet. [Laughs] Come on, she’s not a singer, but she was cute. Very dramatic, you know. She was throwing down her own way.
What’s next for you? LaBelle: A jazz project that should be released next year. It’s finished, but I don’t have a title yet. I've done some Nina Simone songs. Oh gosh, who else? I did 12 or 13 songs. Older songs. What are these ladies' names? I can’t think. It's jazz.
You’re a singing legend, Patti. What does it take to be a legend? LaBelle: You have to be here for a while to gain that title. Whatever it is [that I’ve done] to become a legend, I’m very proud of that. A lot of us in our day, we were singing for that reason – singing! – not necessarily for a No. 1 record. It was singing what you felt and making sure you made sense of whatever you did and trying not to become redundant. I don’t know how many ladies are thinking that way these days.
When you look out now, who has the enduring status that you, Aretha, Gladys, even on to Mariah and Whitney, have? LaBelle: Damn. Whoa, that’s a hard question. Beyoncé is doing it well. She’s very talented, and I believe she knows what to do to stay around for a long time. You make sure you stay around with quality, not quantity, and that’s so important for all of us. I think she knows what to do.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female performers? LaBelle: Make sure you can sing, honey.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs 10 p.m. ET/PT Wednesdays on FX.