LaBelle of the Ball

Patti La Belle sings from the heart at the annual black-tie gala benefiting Desert AIDS Project.

When a charitable cause comes calling, Patti LaBelle dives in headfirst and asks questions later. She admits she isn’t even sure which benefit she’ll be headlining in Palm Springs on Feb. 3. She heard it’s to fight AIDS, and that’s all she needs to know.

“I’m a yes girl,” the legendary performer explains. “I don’t know when, nor do I know where I’m going. I just get in the car to take me to the airport and we go to wherever I’m going. I don’t even look at my itinerary anymore. I know there is a microphone, and that means Patti will pick it up and start singing.”

LaBelle takes the stage next month at the 13th Annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards Gala to benefit Desert AIDS Project. The black-tie event is always a big draw in the valley, and no doubt her presence will only add to the buzz.

Although LaBelle has been to the desert in the past, the details are a little fuzzy: “I love Palm Springs. I’ve been there before, I just don’t know where,” she says. “I’ve done some private affairs there and something else. I just don’t remember. But I love Palm Springs! I just hope that I have one extra day to spend there.”

LaBelle is a longtime supporter of AIDS charities, frequently performing at benefits. She is a spokeswoman for the National Minority AIDS Council’s “Live Long, Sugar” campaign and earned its lifetime achievement award; she also received an Award of Courage in 2004 from the American Foundation for AIDS Research. The fight is personal, she says, “because of all of the people I’ve lost to AIDS.”

In fact, most of the humanitarian causes Labelle supports stem from her own life story: Within a 10-year span, she lost her mother to diabetes, her father to Alzheimer’s, and her three sisters to three different types of cancer. LaBelle adopted the four children of two late sisters, whom she and her now ex-husband raised along with their biological child. LaBelle herself was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the early 1990s.

“The personal experiences that I’ve gone through have made me stronger — losing my mother, father, and my three sisters before they turned 44 to cancer — I just really say, ‘Thank you, God, for an-other day’ every day I wake up,” she says. “And I’m going to go out there and find another cause or somebody else to fight for.”

On top of her HIV/AIDS activism, LaBelle is a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association, and one of her two cookbooks offers healthy recipes for diabetics. She sits on the boards of the National Cancer Institute and the National Alzheimer Association. The University of Miami’s Sylvestri Comprehensive Care Center dedicated a laboratory to her for her tireless work against cancer, and she has dedicated all proceeds from her new album, The Gospel According to Patti LaBelle, to cancer research.

Her extraordinary career as a singer, actress, author, and clothing designer aside, LaBelle’s humanitarian work consumes much of her time — and her heart.

Born Patricia Louise Holte 62 years ago in Philadelphia, she stays as musically relevant today as she was early on in her career, working with such contemporary heavyweights as Kanye West, Babyface, OutKast, and Wyclef Jean. After scoring a hit in 1961 with “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” with the Bluebelles (later named LaBelle), she racked up nearly 30 albums and such hits as “On My Own,” “If Only You Knew,” and the ’70s glam-rock anthem “Lady Marmalade,” which was covered by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Mya, and Pink for the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge. Along the way, LaBelle has garnered two Grammys and eight nominations, seven NAACP Image Awards, three Emmy nominations, two American Music Awards, and the Soul Train Lifetime Achievement Award, among others. And yes, audiences still request “Lady Marmalade” at nearly all of her shows.

“It’s like a song that’s stuck in the minds of America and they want to hear it,” LaBelle says. “It’s OK with me.

“And you know, it’s funny,” she con-tinues. “When I recorded the song, I had
no clue it was about a hooker. We just liked the way voulez-vous coucher avec moi sounded.”

She’s quick to clarify that this is simply an observation, not a judgment. In fact LaBelle, who began singing in a church choir, thinks churches need to be less judgmental and more accepting.

“I would never, ever say that a hooker is a bad person. She’s living her lifestyle. And if she was to want to come to one of my church shows and maybe change her way of living, I think the church should accept her,” she says.

“Some churches push away gay people; they push away prostitutes, pimps, gangsters. … I always say, ‘Churches, open your arms and your hearts to all kinds of people, because we’re all God’s children. There is nobody better than anyone.’

“I’ve seen the underdogs talked down to and just beat up. It’s just not nice. That’s my downfall,” she says. “I will fight until the end for the underdog. I’m that girl.”

“I’m praying that we will just stop the prejudice, period, when it comes to whites and blacks, when it comes to gay and straight, when it comes to people who are poor and people with money. I wish we could just start doing real things in the real way that God would want us to do them. And that’s to love your sister and brother and protect them. If you have something more, pass it on.”

Read More
Desert AIDS Project executive director David Brinkman faces the challenge.

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