I’m still incredulous that we were the only media to interview the lovely and amazing Idina Menzel after her performance with the Jacksonville Symphony during last Saturday’s Starry Nights concert…but it’s true.
She pleased the crowd with her choice of songs – the usual fan favorites, and some new work from her latest CD. What resonated with me was the way she easily chatted up her audience, without pretense, as though she felt comfortable enough with us to share funny personal stories. Idina went on to talk freely about breastfeeding her new baby and the challenges that any lactating mother faces when she’s separated from her child. She laughingly told of pumping her breasts on the flight to Jacksonville while an attendant asked her, “Aren’t you famous?”
She flirted with the audience so sincerely, confessing a weakness for cussing so that when she later blurted the f-word it was just so adorable I felt we could be instant friends if our paths had crossed in a different way. Idina sang a swing style number that she and her husband, actor Taye Diggs, had created for their son, Walker. And yes, she did sing the heart-stopping Defying Gravity, after which I said to Nick, “That’s it; there’ll be no encore. How can she top that?” but I was wrong, she returned to the stage for one last song. The next day I happened to talk with a guy who’d worked the show as security, a moonlighting job for him. He’d never heard of Idina Menzel and thought she was fantastic, but was taken aback by her candid, casual audience banter: the cussing, the breastfeeding chatter – the very things that made her so endearing to me. (psst! JimBob, it’s 2010! can you say anachronistic?)
She was so lovely and elegant and ethereal, but strong and commanding and laughing and real – yes, she was real and real women do swear and do breastfeed and can also put on an evening gown and sing, if they’ve got the pipes to do that, too.
Afterwards, we were granted a backstage interview! An exclusive interview, which my colleague Nick Lulli conducted. We were led away to her nondescript dressing room, where he set about readying the area for the shoot. There we were introduced to a very casual and friendly Idina, who had slipped out of her white and silver gown and into her comfies: jeans, mules, and a slouchy gray sweater.
I made small talk with her while she did what I would have done if I’d been waiting to be filmed: touched up her makeup. For the record? She likes Laura Mercier and Nars. She brushed her cheeks and applied her lipstick, dabbed at her eyes, and fixed her ponytail, which had probably been knocked askew from slipping into her pullover sweater. She apologized for having changed, but it was fine because while I would have loved seeing her up close in that gorgeous gown, the interpersonal dynamic was as casual as our clothing, just friends hanging around in our jeans, shooting the breeze.
Of course I asked who designed her dress, and she told me, but it wasn’t a designer I recognized so I knew I wouldn’t remember it. But! Her shoes were Guess, with very high heels. I saw them on the floor next to the gown, hanging in its zippered bag, while she wore a pair of comfy mules with her jeans. Soon she and Nick settled into their interview while I snapped photos of them throughout.
I knew it of course, and I couldn’t help but smile hugely in my heart, photographing this moment as it played out for Nick.
And now here he was, sitting in his chair like a pro across from Idina Menzel herself, having gotten this exclusive interview, eliciting her laughter and answering his questions.
And there I was, the only photographer in Jacksonville in her dressing room, photographing her after her concert. Idina was without pretense in every way. When she answered Nick’s question about what she’d like to do with her career going forward, and she said something along the lines of truly, being grateful for the work she is doing, I believed her. She loves being a mom and really wants to be available for her son. The role on Glee has been fun; she’ll be in several episodes and had one left to tape. I felt as though she was just one of us – someone with a dream who’d had success, and was grateful for whatever would continue to come her way.
She felt like a girlfriend. Stars! They really are just like us. Scuffed shoes and comfy clothes and a baby at home who needed his mommy. And willing to pose with this fan, too, at the end of it all.