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Original 'Dreamgirls' star Jennifer Holliday makes return to music

Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images for the Jackie Robinson Foundation

With her first solo album in two decades, Jennifer Holliday is on the comeback trail. But the singer, best known for her Tony-winning performance as Effie in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls and the iconic rendition of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, wasn’t always sure she wanted her career resurrected.

The spotlight had been difficult for her: She has dealt with clinical depression, multiple sclerosis, went blind for three months, filed for bankruptcy and attempted to commit suicide on her 30th birthday. The Grammy winner was dropped by her label when her weight went up to 400 pounds.

“It was devastating for me as an artist and human being,” Holliday told The Associated Press. “People say you have a gift from God, but still saying, ‘No.’ Things went terribly downhill. Not having a label, being overweight, music and life in limbo. Those were very hard times for me.”

Big expectations were set for Holliday’s career after her success with Dreamgirls in 1981. The singer’s 1983 debut album, Feel My Soul, which was produced by Earth, Wind and Fire bandleader Maurice White, received positive reviews. Two years later, her follow-up album, Say You Love Me, featured Michael Jackson as a co-writer and producer on the opening track, You’re the One. But she was unable to generate any major hits to boost her career as a solo artist.

Holliday believes she came up in the wrong era of music when being overweight was unacceptable, especially during a time when music videos were beginning to become popular.

“The music industry turned [against] those of us who were real artists,” she said. “When I was with Geffen Records, I weighed almost 400 pounds. The label told me that I had a great voice, but wasn’t marketable having a weight image. It’s not like today where Adele could come out, sing and be popular.”

Yet over the years, Holliday survived without producing another hit record. She had theater and symphony performances along with a recurring guest star role on Ally McBeal and appearances on Touched by an Angel. She teamed up with the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock for a joint gospel album, Goodness & Mercy, in 2011.

“I’ve been able to work without a record,” she said. “So in some way, I got a little comfortable. … But music itself had changed. So, I didn’t see much purpose. But when it comes to getting your music out there or your story out, it’s a lot easier.”

So at 53, Holliday has just released her sixth album, The Song Is You. These days, she’s more at peace through her faith and prayer. She’s lost more than 200 pounds and trimmed down 20 inches after gastric bypass surgery in 1990 and years of living a healthier lifestyle.

Holliday said appearing on American Idol with finalist Jessica Sanchez in 2012 breathed new life into her music career.

“It fueled me a lot,” she said. “Even though people Google me all the time, I didn’t want them to look back so far to see some recordings of me.”

When Holliday first returned to the studio, she felt like a “dinosaur.” It took some time to learn some of the contemporary audio workstations such as Pro Tools, but eventually she became more comfortable.

Holliday has gotten more involved with social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. She had trouble at first because it was hard for her to take the harsh criticism dealt her way. But in time, Holliday saw the benefits of promoting her music without a major record label. It gives her hope.

“Back in the day, if someone at the record label didn’t care or like your music, it never got to the public. It just got shelved,” she said. “You can take your case to the public such as YouTube and other forms of social media where they can vote on you. If nobody likes you, then that’s just fine. If 20 more people like you more than the other 10, then you have a chance.”

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