All smiles at Ms. Tootsie’s
|TOP: She’s still got it: Waving to the crowds at the Rachael Ray Show; BOTTOM: Hit kings: With Boyz II Me|
Patti LaBelle’s suburban Philadelphia home is much what you would expect of the legendary singer. It is an expansive, cheery yellow house on a secluded street, with landscaped grounds and a comfy patio set and chairs that invite a glass of sweet tea on this early fall day. Patti is wearing a flowing paisley caftan while being made up in her kitchen, at the moment more of a makeup/ sitting room, where Patti is holding court for a reporter; her publicist, Aliya; her two best friends (one of whom is also her hairstylist); one of their daughters; and Mr. Cuddles, her beloved shih tzu. Still, the feeling is more family home than celebrity mansion, a mere shouting distance from her old Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood.
Despite her global travels and worldwide fame, Philadelphia is where LaBelle has lived her entire life. Born Patricia Louise Holte, she celebrated 50 years in entertainment this year and was recently honored by Black Entertainment Television with a Lifetime Achievement Award. At 67, LaBelle’s golden voice is as pure and clear as it was a halfcentury ago. She recently granted Philadelphia Style access to a full day in the life of a bona fide diva, a throne she has no intention of giving up anytime soon. In fact, she says she never will. “They will wheel me out or roll me out,” she says. “And when I do go, I will have my red soles on.”
Her makeup artist, Nadine, is transforming Patricia Holte into Patti LaBelle. Norma, “family” of more than 40 years, has cut a wig into a chic bob, which Patti calls her “young hair.” “You don’t stop playing when you get old; you get old when you stop playing,” she says. When asked what she is getting a newly pregnant Beyoncé for a present, a photo of whom is displayed in the kitchen, she says adamantly, “I’m going be that baby’s godmother. I can’t get that baby any material thing, but I can be its spiritual godmother.”
Three SUVs worthy of a presidential motorcade depart LaBelle’s home on the way to the Rachael Ray Show shoot in South Philly. E, her security guard, joins the entourage. LaBelle’s 38-year-old son and manager, Zuri Edwards, still one of Philadelphia’s most eligible bachelors, will meet her there. When asked how she has maintained her vocals for so long, LaBelle says she has no specific rituals. “It is a blessed voice that God has given me. I can still sing like I am 20 years old.” Her greatest professional accomplishment, she says, was being part of the first black group, with LaBelle, to play at The Metropolitan Opera House. “I was flying from the ceiling way before Lady Gaga.”
On Ray’s hot outdoor set, LaBelle completes local interviews, poses for pictures, and waves at the growing crowd. On the way back to her trailer, she stops for almost every photo op, picks up babies, plants kisses on others, and chats up the adoring crowd. None of her interactions are contrived, and the crowd is friendly. “What I love about Philadelphia is they either love you or hate you,” she says. “And they love me in Philadelphia—black, white, Asian, tall, short, it doesn’t matter.”
E dips his head into the trailer to say Boyz II Men wants to come in. “Oh, they want to talk to me now?” LaBelle says. (Apparently, at one of their last appearances together, she was snubbed by the group—or felt she was.) She lets them have it, and they take the verbal lashing meekly, apologizing for the perceived slight.
Patti arrives at Ms. Tootsie’s Restaurant Bar Lounge, the South Street soul-food eatery owned by local boy Keven Parker. The shoot is taking place in the restaurant’s Red Room upstairs, where contemporary décor, huge black-and-white photos of local acts like Carol icon days “You don’t stop playing when you get old; you get old when you stop playing.” Ms. LaBelle with Mr. Cuddles at Ms. Tootsie’s She’s still got it: Waving to the crowds at the Rachael Ray Show Hit kings: With Boyz II Men All smiles at Ms. Tootsie’s LaBelle’s final stop of the day Riddick and Kindred the Family Soul, and red banquettes are plentiful. LaBelle has changed into a top and shawl and is working it like a supermodel, telling the photographer, “I like the way you work. If you were boring, I would have cut you by now.” LaBelle does a promo shoot for The Dr. Oz Show in between setups, hitting her marks expertly once some makeshift cue cards are fashioned.
“If I had music, I could really hurt you,” LaBelle says to the photographer, and her publicist summons a laptop. Her requests: Tupac’s “California Love” and Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” “I like that song ‘Otis’ by Jay-Z,” she says. “You have that?” When the music comes on, Aliya has instead queued up LaBelle’s own “Music Is My Way of Life,” an appropriate choice.
The day ends. Parker packs up some of his delicious fried chicken and cornbread for everyone to take home. The gorgeous pink stargazer lilies Parker has procured for LaBelle are going with her. Zuri says that despite the long day, his mother will stay up “cooking and cleaning.” It’s just another day in the life of one of Philly’s greatest treasures. Music is her life, and LaBelle just keeps on dancing.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE MOSER; Dave moser (ms. tootsie’s); hughe dillon (rachael ray)