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`Dreamgirl' conquers her demons

Jennifer Holliday, who achieved youthful fame in the Broadway version, speaks to mental health group on her journey of overcoming depression.

February 16, 2007|Ashley Surdin | Times Staff Writer

At 21, Jennifer Holliday brought Broadway audiences to their feet when she sang as the tortured Effie White in the musical "Dreamgirls," for which she won a Tony Award.

But after every eight-times-a-week performance, the young actress went home to an empty apartment. She had no boyfriend and no room for a social life amid her fame. Food was her friend, and weight became her enemy.

By her 30th birthday, the fame that had quickly enveloped the young actress had left depression in its wake, leading to a suicide attempt with sleeping pills.

It was the story of Holliday's troubled private life behind the curtain of her public one. On Thursday, Holliday, now 46, shared that story with more than 1,200 people at the fifth annual African American Mental Health Conference.

"I have suffered with clinical depression for over 16 years," said Holliday, who spoke at the Los Angeles Convention Center. "I felt worthless, even though I had this great, beautiful voice. I was empty on the inside.

"I couldn't function beyond the stage."

The event, sponsored by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and the California Medical Assn., aimed to help health professionals, educators and those affected by mental health issues learn about available services through workshops, lectures and informational booths.

Holliday was one of several people who spoke on this year's theme of "Resilience, Recovery & Reconciliation."

She was arguably one of the most-anticipated speakers, decidedly the most animated. One man said he had come from Texas just to see her.

For many, her struggle with clinical depression came as a surprise, given her successful life as a Broadway star.

"You think people are successful and that they must not have these kinds of problems," said Eric Pierce, a psychiatric social worker.

"If Jennifer Holliday can be depressed, then anyone can be depressed."

Dressed in a blue jacket and skirt trimmed with sequins, Holliday spoke to the crowd in a sweet, humble voice of the "constant haunting" she experienced throughout her career -- the voices, the hospitalizations. She finally sought help after her attempted suicide, she said, and she encouraged others to do the same.

Holliday interspersed her soft-spoken speech with volcanic musical performances, ending with her hallmark "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls."

Her piercing, soulful rendition brought down the house of men and women in business suits, who by the end of the performance whistled, whooped and excitedly swung their teal linen napkins over their heads.

Afterward, Holliday alluded to the makers of the $75-million movie "Dreamgirls," whom she has publicly accused of ripping her legacy away in their drive to put the spotlight on the movie's stars. Holliday is not in the cast of the 2006 film.

"The 'Dreamgirls' movie gave my depression depression," Holliday quipped as laughs erupted from the audience. But "there was no way I was going to stand here today and not sing my song. No way.

"Go get your life back," she said. "I've got my song back."

*

ashley.surdin@latimes.com

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