Cyndi Lauper Could Only Ever Be Herself

MTV was still in its infancy in 1983, and it was fortuitous that Lauper’s debut album, “She’s So Unusual,” came out just as the network was ascending. She saw her public image as a visual art form. Her makeup artist was a painter, and her stylist was a vintage buyer.

“People sometimes get the wrong idea that it was very thrown together,” Laura Wills, the founder of the vintage shop Screaming Mimi’s, said of the singer’s style. “People just didn’t look like that.” In the early ’80s, Lauper worked for Wills, often bartering her labor for clothes. When her career took off, Wills started styling her, and the pair often constructed Lauper’s outfits as if sliding chips across a poker table, as in, “I’ll see your polka-dot socks and striped capris, and I’ll raise you a plaid top,” Wills said. “I’ll see your polka-dot socks, striped capris and plaid top, and I’ll raise you a paisley hat.”

Lauper seemed to shoot to fame as a fully formed feminist icon. She refused to tell interviewers her age (“I’m not a car,” she said), and she insisted that they recognize the politics behind her aesthetic choices. “I wore the corset to undo the power of the binding of women,” she told the press. She graced the cover of Ms. Magazine and recorded the 1986 song “True Colors,” which resonated with her in the wake of a friend’s death from AIDS.

“I know that I probably lost business because I talked about AIDS a lot,” she said, but figured “I ought to stand up like any good Italian and stick up for my family, you know?” In 2008, she founded True Colors United to help combat homelessness among L.G.B.T.Q. youth. And in 2022, she created the Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights fund to support abortion access and other reproductive justice movements.

In 1985, Lauper won the best new artist Grammy after the release of “She’s So Unusual.” The album — and songs like “Time After Time” and “All Through the Night” — broke records. But something odd was happening. She looked around and saw versions of herself everywhere. “When I first became famous, I felt like the whole world just kind of went” — here Lauper made a sharp slurping noise — “and sucked everything up. The jewelry, the color, the corsets on the outside, the whole thing. And then used it. Spit it out. Next!”

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