Jennifer Holliday Overcame Blindness, Depression, A Suicide Attempt And Multiple Sclerosis To Make It Back To Broadway

November 2, 2016  |  

Aside from that powerhouse, one of a kind voice of hers, many of us don’t know much about Jennifer Holliday. We know she became something like a household name for her Tony-award winning role of Effie White in Dreamgirls. We all remember what she sounded like belting out the words to “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

And that’s about it. Today, Holliday is playing the role of Shug Avery in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple.  The journey to get back on stage after a 15 year absence has been anything but easy or glamourous.

In a recent interview with People, Holliday went into detail about her struggles with clinical depression, multiple sclerosis, the issue of her weight, blindness and finding work in this fickle industry.

Holliday’s depression began long before she was officially diagnosed. It started while she was working on Dreamgirls, 35 years ago.

“When I was suffering with depression, people weren’t talking about depression. It had a stigma. Nobody asked me about it.”

As a result of her illness, Holliday started having mood swings and outbursts that made me label her a “diva” and difficult to work with. “No one ever said, ‘Do you want to talk to somebody?’ I knew I was terribly sad, but I didn’t know why.”

On her 30th birthday, Holliday took sleeping pills trying to kill herself. She was rescued and when she woke up she was angry that she hadn’t done it right.

Afterward, she spent three months in a sanatorium. While she was supposed to be healing, she started focusing on her weight. “I had thought I was really ugly. I had just been dropped by my record company because they called me too unattractive and not marketable. They were like, ‘We can’t make a music video of you.’ I told the doctor, ‘That’s the reason for my problems. My record company dropped me, I can’t get a boyfriend- that’s the reason! I’m too big.”

Her feelings about herself and the regarding her weight as a hinderance, Holliday had what was then an experimental surgery called a gastric bypass. Holliday lost 124 pounds as a result, but it didn’t do much to change her career as she anticipated.

“Nobody wanted me small. They only wanted the old Jennifer Holliday. They were uncomfortable with my new look, my new attitude- everything. It was a very hard time for me for about three years. I had no work and no friends.”

As for herself, Holliday liked her new body.

“I didn’t fall for that trick. I like the way I looked and I have stayed that way. I wasn’t going to believe everyone else because they lied when I was overweight.”

Then as she was enjoying her body, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She had been battling symptoms of the disease for years but doctors didn’t know what it was.

“For a long time they thought I had lupus, then they thought I had something else. Finally, when I couldn’t walk, they did a spinal tap and conclusively diagnosed me with M.S.”

Her sore joined and muscle pain made her lose the ability to walk and function. In 2007, she felt a sharp pain, as if someone had taken a knife to her eye. She would lose sight completely in that eye.

She was living without health insurance at the time.

She told her neurologist, “Fortunately, there are a lot of blind singers. There was no discoloration in the eye, so I’m not concerned about seeing out of it as long as I can sing.”

And though she was afraid of how her illnesses might affect her career, she was determined not to give up. “I began to look for more alternative treatments. I said, ‘I’ve got to find out more about this illness and I’ve got to fight. I’ve got to be able to walk and I’ve got to get control.”

There is no cure for M.S. but Holliday is able to treat it now. She’s mobile and after seven months, her vision slowly returned.

Holliday believes it’s been her positive attitude that has helped her survive all of this.

“I really tried to fight to stay more positive.” Holliday said she used daily affirmations and stayed active so her mind wouldn’t linger on her sadness. “If your mind is not willing, everything will go. There’s so much great power of our mind that we take for granted, and how we think and what positiveness can do. There was some purpose that I didn’t die when I tried to kill myself. So I decided I was going to fight for life.”

Holliday has used all of her trials and tribulations and channeled the into the character of Shug Avery.

“It was a very long, hard journey. But now, I do think that I’m ready to come back. And maybe these opportunities will be better than what I thought I missed. But I’ve grabbed it. And I’m not going to let it go.”

You can read Holliday’s full interview over at People.com. 

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.” You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @VDubShrug.

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