A Chat with Tammy Faye Starlite, Nico Impersonator Extraordinaire

by BUST Magazine

One of the most interesting and underrated pop culture figures ever was Nico. This past week in New York two very different events took place in her honor.
The first event took place Tuesday night at The Cutting Room. Chelsea Madchen is NYC musician and performance artist, Tammy Faye Starlite’s take on Nico’s life and work as an all-around icon.

Chelsea Madchen is based on an interview Nico did in the mid-80s.  Nico (Ms. Starlite) is asked questions by a journalist which she answers in her slow Teutonic speech and performs varies songs from Nico’s very eclectic career. Ms. Starlite is obviously a very well-informed fan of Nico’s and integrates many on Nico’s famous quotes into her answers to her interviewer. Like many on Nico’s thoughts when asked about Lou Reed like “He is a usurper of souls.” Or when speaking of their personal relationship, Nico broke up with Lou by saying “I can no longer make love to Jews.”

It was well-documented that Nico was not happy with Tom Wilson’s production of her first solo album Chelsea Girl. Mr. Wilson arbitrarily added strings to it and also, what offend Nico the most, a flute. During the performance of the album’s Lou Reed written title track, there’s a hysterical bit with Nico trying to silence the flautist by an means possible. At one point Ms. Starlite jumps on the flute players back, grabs the flute and dismantles it throwing the pieces into the audience and then finishes the song.

Upon first glance at Tammy Faye, you might think this wouldn’t work. Ms. Starlite is at least a 1/2 foot shorter than Nico’s 6 ft. frame. But what she lacks in height she makes up for in talent. Ms. Starlite has got down Nico mannerisms and places them sporadically and organically through out the performance without going overboard. Vocally Tammy Faye has a broad range and really gets Nico’s singing style, including her later work which has a middle eastern influences to it. 

Ms. Starlite has been performing Chelsea Madchen since 2010 and I highly recommend this show to not just Nico fans but anyone who digs cool shit and wants a fun night out. After the gig I had the pleasure of speaking with Tammy about the piece. This is what went down.


When did you first become aware of Nico?

I first became aware of Nico when I was 17 – I read the book “Edie” and immediately I had to go out and buy a Velvet Underground album – actually, a cassette of “The Velvet Underground And Nico.” (Alas, the banana is less suggestive on a tiny little box. Ok, that sounds a tad salacious.). And I was fascinated by the depth of her voice, the earthy-yet-ethereal quality she had. Then a few years later I found another cassette – a live bootleg – I snapped it up (figuratively – I paid for it, I swear) and that’s when I truly fell in love with that voice and the woman behind it. I think it was the way she sang “Heroes” – how she pronounced “dolphins” as “daulfins.” I was sold. To paraphrase Nico, I had “explosions, multiple explosions in the brain.”

Why did you pick this particular interview that is used as the through line of the show?

I wanted to do a show about Nico – she being an icon that I loved to emulate, and someone I wanted to be and knew I never could – to start with, I have no cheekbones. But there was something in her that I felt so drawn towards – the idea of the willful destruction of her own beauty, the paradox of self-annihilation yet being completely herself, without pretense or falseness. And I had this track of this interview, and I found her so beautifully cryptic – so many elegant, non-sectorial moments. And they spoke about almost every song I wanted to do! I had to edit it a bit, throw in some quotes from other sources and also make a few things up (those being the fouler things in the script.). But this interview was almost a “This Is Your Life” – it went from her childhood through the present day (the present day being 1986) without seeming expository.

What preparation, such as research, speech, and/or accent, have you done as a performer to help you become Nico for the show?

I’ve studied acting and voice for a long time – I’ve always acted and sung, maybe inappropriately at times – and I just kept listening to her singing and speaking voice (voices?) over and over – I still do – the 1986 radio interview, and some interviews that are on various DVD’s – and my publicist, Bob Merlis – who has been a godsend and whom I cannot thank enough – invited Danny Fields to the first show, which was at Joe’s Pub in 2011, and I got to know and adore Danny (Danny was kind enough to play me a tape he had of a phone conversation he’d had with Nico in ’71, I believe – it was so incredible to hear her voice, filled with so much need yet so proud. And our director, the brilliant Michael Schiralli, gave me a good overall perspective of what might be driving her, at least at that moment. And I had to practice singing very, very low. Very low, but also maintain the lightness of her Velvets/Chelsea Girl vocals. My voice teacher, Barbara Maier, has been invaluable. Oh – and re-reading the Richard Witts biography of Nico,The Life And Lies Of An Icon and the James Young memoir of his time with her, The End. I love both books so much. Very different perspectives. And watching every episode of “The Closer” that I can find. God, I love that show.

Has anyone who actually knew Nico ever attended one of your performances? And if so what was their impression of it?

Danny! I think he’s seen the show more than I have! He’s been such a wonderful friend and inspiration – his approbation means the world to me. And many people who’d seen her perform have seen it – I love to hear about her performances – I so wish I’d seen her. I imagine there were some very in-the-moment moments – my favorite kind.


What do you think is the biggest misconception about Nico?

I think some people thought that she couldn’t sing well. I think her voice is astounding – rich and deeply evocative, dark and light, chiaroscuro – she had tremendous delicacy and great power. I also think she was superlatively intelligent – almost preternaturally so.

Are there any muscians that you think are influenced by Nico or remind you of her?

I don’t know – maybe Hope Sandoval, and you mentioned Kendra Smith – I know from my husband, Keith Hartel (who plays bass and acoustic guitar in my Nico band) that Elliott Smith would listen endlessly to “The Marble Index.” Maybe Johnette Napolitano, too, though I don’t know for sure. I think I read that Cate LeBon was influenced by her. I like Cate LeBon.

What do you want people to get from this piece?

I just hope people like it, either for the music or the dialogue or both – I hope whoever sees it will see what a unique human being she was. She was truly sui generis. And I hope I don’t make any spurious moves, because, to my knowledge, Nico never did.

-Michael Levine
Photos by Bob Gruen and Lisa Raymond.

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