Being Herself Celeda–a Diva With a Difference

By Mary Susan Littlepage

Whether Celeda is singing or talking on her answering machine (“Keep on movin'”) or recalling growing up near 43rd and Cottage Grove, her voice commands attention. Part of it is that she has great range. And she often sounds simultaneously sweet and fierce.

She greets me at her apartment near Irving Park and Clarendon wearing a dark sundress with a red-and-white scarf tied around her head. In the Mixmag photo that’s stuck in my mind–Celeda’s become a big name in the dance music world–she was wearing a fancy purple dress. But she’s still looking good today. As she pours me a glass of lemonade, she tells me that she’s recovering from the Fourth of July weekend and talks with excitement about her recent trip to Portugal, where she performed at a couple of dance clubs for the country’s third ever gay pride weekend.

Listen to Celeda sing on “Music Is the Answer”–her hit single, recorded last year, has sold 300,000 copies–and you might not guess that she is a he. She now uses the name Victoria Sharpe and says “no problem” if folks don’t realize that she’s a gay man. “Honey, you can call me Celeda or Victoria–and if you don’t get that far, you can even call me Vic,” she says.

Mixmag, a British dance-music magazine, reported that Celeda lived in the Cottage Grove projects, but she says that isn’t so. “The neighborhood wasn’t rough,” she insists. Music was in the air when she was growing up. Her mom would sing in the kitchen and throughout their home: “She was smokin’,” Celeda says. And Celeda’s grandma, Beatrice Bess, was a talented gospel singer who made a couple of records.

When Celeda was an adolescent, a choir director told her that her voice would get lower. But it never did. Now she has a five-octave range: when she was performing in community choirs, including the Chicago Children’s Choir, she’d start as a soprano, switch to alto, then help out the bass. Singing some tune–“maybe ‘Jesus Loves Me,'” she says–at church one time when she was six or seven, “I was just getting down and the choir members noticed. The Sunday after that, they said to sing with the big people.”

She did other grown-up things at a young age too. She came out when she was 12 and says, “I was adventurous in getting to know myself.” And when she was about 20 she quit singing in church choirs: She didn’t like the messages the church gave her about being gay. “I had to release myself from that madness.”

Seeing disco star Sylvester on TV helped. Especially popular with the gay community after making such hits as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat),” he died from an AIDS-related illness in 1989. “Sylvester was my idol,” she says. “I would watch him on American Bandstand, and to see him, honey, in full drag…” Watching Sylvester, she saw that “this man decided to live his life the way he wanted to.” Now Celeda may look like she’s spent hours getting ready, but she insists it’s no more trouble to dress as a woman and that it takes her only 30 minutes to get ready for the stage.

At first Celeda didn’t dream of getting into music professionally–it was just a hobby. She took care of elderly people in a nursing home, then became a medical records clerk. But as she started doing more music on weekends, she’d go to work puffy-eyed and fall asleep while filing. And gradually she realized that she could support herself with her music.

When she started singing for a living, the phone began ringing off the hook. Her boyfriend of seven years couldn’t handle the amount of time Celeda was spending on music and left her. But Celeda says she isn’t going to start doing songs like “He Left Me and My Cat.” What people do in the bedroom isn’t anyone’s business, she says–“We aren’t gonna talk about that, honey.” Instead, she hopes her music puts people in a party mood.

When Celeda began to record some of her own music, she sent demos to several Chicago labels, then to three in New York. Her big singles–the more recent “Be Yourself” and “Music Is the Answer”–are pretty housey, but nobody in Chicago offered her a record deal.

“What attracted me the most about her music is that you can hear the honesty about what she’s singing about,” says Rob Di Stefano, co-owner of her New York label, Twisted. “She does use a lot of cliches, but her singing isn’t cliched. You can tell there’s a real person behind the voice. There’s no act about Celeda.”

Celeda wrote “Be Yourself” in response to an acquaintance who was openly gay in front of her but not in front of anyone else, acting like a big macho guy instead. He shouldn’t have pretended, she says. She recorded the song between 2:30 and 5:30 in the morning, singing so fiercely that “when we got done, I had no voice.” She lost her voice after singing in Portugal too. “When I sang ‘Be Yourself,’ they were screaming so much, I thought the stage would collapse,” she says. It was a humbling experience to play there. “We have a lot of rights here that people–not just gay, but people in general–take for granted. We need to be more grateful of what we have.”

Twisted will release Celeda’s debut album of 14 songs, This Is It, July 27. She appears Sunday at Crobar the Nightclub, 1543 N. Kingsbury. And about 60,000 copies of “Be Yourself,” which just came out the last week in May, have already been sold worldwide.

Celeda says she doesn’t believe in heaven and hell. “Whatever supreme beings or energies you believe in, if it isn’t about love, it’s worthless,” she says. “When it’s your time to rise, you’re going to rise. The devil can’t hold you back when it’s your time.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.