ears ago, a colleague suffered the worst of journalistic embarrassments: he interviewed Meryl Streep for the London Sunday Times and failed to notice that she was not Meryl Streep. He’d been told she was Meryl Streep, so he believed it: how was he to know he was the victim of a practical joke?
Since then, I’ve always worried that I could find myself in the same position and now, confronted with this small lollipop woman in a hotel suite in Knightsbridge, central London, I panic: how do I know this is Liza Minnelli? She looks like no picture of Minnelli I’ve ever seen — neither Minnelli in her gorgeous young Cabaret bloom, nor the bloated Minnelli of recent years, nor anything in between.
She looks slim and well-preserved for 62, but the great dark eyes that used to be her trademark have vanished into the surrounding orange mask. She could be almost any woman who has had extensive plastic surgery. I suppose it would be rude to ask to see her passport. It doesn’t help that there is an audience in the room — her publicist, a woman she introduces as a friend and a television crew waiting to film her for a British culture TV show — who make me feel like the maid coming in to do turndown and taking too long about it.
The other problem is that although Minnelli has been famous for ever — born into Hollywood royalty and a star in her own right from her teens — I seem to have missed her career entirely. I saw her in Cabaret and that’s about it. She is a year younger than me, but always seemed to belong to an older generation; she was singing with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr while we were listening to the Beatles. And she was always, even in her twenties, a “gay icon,” just like her mother. When I asked why she thought that was, she said it was because “gays have good taste!” but maybe it has more to do with the fact that she shared her mother’s predilection for marrying gay men — her first husband, Peter Allen, is supposed to have been the lover of Judy Garland’s fourth husband, Mark Herron.
Anyway, she has a huge, devoted fan base, which has already snapped up most of the tickets for her forthcoming UK tour, which starts at the London Coliseum on 25 May. It is billed as her first British tour for 25 years, though actually she did a tour here in 1986, and has been back for concerts in London many times. The first half of the show is, she says, “just songs that I like and a couple that people ask me to sing. Because I’m not a record act. The only hit record I ever had was with the wonderful Pet Shop Boys here [Losing My Mind, 1988]. I never had one in America. But it’s all right, I sell out anyway!’
The second half of the show is a departure, a 45-minute piece called The Godmother and the Goddaughter about her relationship with her real-life godmother Kay Thompson. Thompson is probably known now, if at all, as the author of Eloise at the Plaza but, according to Minnelli, “She’s an underground hero in show business. She was the first one ever to understand a certain kind of harmony in a song.” She did all MGM’s vocal arrangements in their golden years and had a hugely influential radio show. Later, she did a nightclub act that Minnelli remembers seeing when she was three: “It was amazing. I was sitting on my mom’s lap across from my father to see Kay Thompson at Ciro’s. And I always remember this energy force, this woman flying around the room and singing these harmonies so everyone went, ‘Wow!’ So I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ People who don’t even know about Kay, I want to show them what I saw — that incredible drive, that sense of humor, that wit. She was so funny.”