From rough beginnings to stardom, Eartha Kitt rose out of the fiery ashes of an abusive childhood like a Phoenix reborn when she discovered her love for entertaining on stage. A neglected little girl found love and true appreciation for her talents every time she hit the stage and performed in front of an audience. With natural true beauty the spit-fire dancer/singer embarked on a legendary journey worth praise and admiration.
After researching this extraordinary woman to whom I already was a huge fan of, I learned so much about the woman behind the graceful, beautiful, intelligent, sexy vixen who went on to become one of the top black female international entertainers of her time. Eartha Kitt’s childhood story is dark and very emotionally touching but the way she endured and overcame her tragic upbringing and became an amazing woman, mother and international entertainer is even more inspiring. In celebrating Black History Month, SayWhatNews pays tribute to Eartha Kitt by remembering her life, career and accomplishments by doing a One on One interview with the one person who knew her best, her daughter Kitt Shapiro:
SayWhatNews: Good morning Kitt. Thanks so much for interviewing with SayWhatNews for our Black History month feature on your mother, the amazing Eartha Kitt. In your own words who was Eartha Kitt?
Kitt: There was Eartha Kitt, the international, versatile performer, who was one of only a handful of performers to be nominated for a Tony (three times), the Grammy (twice), and Emmy Award (twice).
And then there was Eartha Mae, my mother, a real, complex, and at times, flawed, human being who often introduced us to people, saying, “I’m Eartha and she’s Kitt”, as if I completed her. And, in some ways, I guess I did. Her mother had died when she was very young. She didn’t know who her father was and was disconnected from any of her relatives, so I really was her only family. And she clung to me with an intensely deep, unconditional love.
I feel so blessed to have had such an incredible woman for a mother.
She taught me to be true to myself; to live honestly and with respect for everything and everybody. To possess calm in place of panic and to remember that humor is one of life’s most precious gifts.
SayWhatNews: During the early beginnings of your mother’s career at the age of 20, Eartha won a spot with the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe as one of the lead vocalist and dancers and toured the world. How did this opportunity present itself?
Kitt: Miss Kitt was ostracized at an early age because of her mixed-race heritage. At eight years old, she was given away by her mother and sent from the South Carolina cotton fields to live with an aunt in Harlem. In New York her distinct individuality and flair for show business manifested itself, and on a friend's dare, the shy teen auditioned for the famed "Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe." She won a spot as a featured dancer and vocalist and before the age of twenty, toured worldwide with the company. She said she was always interested in trying to communicate. As a child, her teacher bought her a ticket to go see Jose Ferrer as Cyrano De Bergerac, and it changed her life watching the audience love his performance. She had so much pain in her as a child, and watching this performance and the audience’s response made her think that maybe this is how I can get people to want me.”
During an emotional interview Eartha Kitt reflects back on her childhood and how it shaped her into the star she became:
SayWhatNews: While touring in Paris with the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, a night club owner saw Eartha Kitt’s performance and booked her as a featured singer—during one of her performances the great Director/Producer/Writer, Orson Welles cast Eartha as Helen of Troy in “Dr. Faust”. Did your mother ever talk about that moment when she was offered her first film role and her feelings about it? Was she excited?
Kitt: That was a great experience and a huge breakthrough for her as a performer. On opening night with Orson Welles, he accidentally bit her lip when they kissed in the show onstage. She had to cover her mouth onstage with an apron so the audience wouldn’t see the blood. Orson loved her and called her “the most exciting woman in the world.”
SayWhatNews: Kitt, your mother’s amazing stage performances continued to open doors for her rising career. In 1952 the Producer of “New Faces of 1952” cast Eartha Kitt in the Broadway show which led to a national tour and the 20th Century FOX film version. And her Broadway stardom not only helped kick off her film career but it also led to her getting a recording contract and her best-selling records including "Love for Sale", "I Want to Be Evil", "Santa Baby" and "Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa", which earned her a Grammy nomination. Can you tell us about this time in your mother’s life? Are there any stories you can share?
Kitt: My mother most preferred live performing. Santa Baby and Where Is My Man became Gold records for her. It is wonderful that my mother’s music continues to endure. “C’Est Si Bon’ is featured in “The Wolf of Wall Street’, and a whole new generation is discovering Eartha Kitt.
SayWhatNews: In 1960, Eartha Kitt was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How amazing was that moment for your mother?
Kitt: It was a great honor for my mother to be included on the Walk of Fame with all of her friends and song, stage and screen idols.
SayWhatNews: In 1967, Eartha Kitt landed the role of Catwoman in the third season of the television series “Batman”. Eartha Kitt was the first black woman to play the role. How did this opportunity come to be and did your mother know that she was making history?
Kitt: My mother was elated to do the role of Catwoman. Interestingly she only did a few episodes, but it is a testament to her presence that forever more that the role of Eartha Kitt as Catwoman would become so iconic.
During an interview Eartha Kitt talks about her signature roles and how she is remembered for her iconic growl of a cat:
SayWhatNews: In 1968, Eartha Kitt was black-listed in the U.S. for speaking out against the Vietnam War during a luncheon at the White House and was forced to work abroad. Back then there were many stars that were black-listed. Did Eartha Kitt ever speak of this time and her thoughts/feelings of not being able to get work in the United States?
Kitt: Within two hours of speaking her mind to Mrs. Ladybird Johnson about the Vietnam War she was out of work in America. My mother didn’t refer to it as being black-listed, but rather as being white-listed (laughs). They wanted her to apologize, and she would not, and she said, “I think they should apologize to the American people because they know we should not be involved in that war.” And for years after that, she got by from working abroad until she finally returned to America in 1974. She was always very beloved and popular overseas. Years later, McNamara came out with his book saying “Eartha Kitt was right,” and that was a sort of vindication, but it doesn’t make everything right. Eartha was punished for telling the truth.
SayWhatNews: Kitt, as a young child, what was it like traveling around the world as your international celebrity mother toured the world?
Kitt: My childhood was a bit unconventional, traveling with my mother as she toured and performed internationally. I studied at the Lycee Francais in Los Angeles and with tutors when on the road. My mother believed that no classroom or textbook could duplicate the education and appreciation a person gets from seeing the world firsthand. I wouldn’t say that I felt I grew up in my mother’s shadow, but as the only child of a famous woman, I do feel there was a kind of security in being ‘the daughter of…’ Eartha Kitt.
SayWhatNews: In 1974 Eartha Kitt returned to the U.S. and performed at Carnegie Hall and by 1978 received her second Tony Awards nomination for starring in “Timbuktu”. How nostalgic was those moments for her when just some years back she was unable to work in the U.S.?
Kitt: To perform at Carnegie Hall in America in 1974 was a great return for my mother. Timbuktu was another great highlight. She was very proud of those roles.
SayWhatNews: Kitt, your mom has written a total of 4 books including 2 autobiographies and a best-selling fitness book. What inspired her to become an author?
Kitt: The written
word was always very important to my mother.
She loved to express her thoughts through writing. So to author books was a great joy and logical
creative outlet for her.
SayWhatNews: In 1992, Eartha Kitt starred in “Boomerang” alongside Eddie Murphy and Halle Berry as Lady Elosie. How did Eartha feel about playing a sexy older woman alongside Eddie Murphy?
Kitt: She LOVED it! It also introduced her to a whole new generation of fans. My mother was a performer through and through and this role allowed her to really have a huge amount of fun.
SayWhatNews: Eartha Kitt was the voice of YZMA, the villain in Disney’s animated cartoon series and movie “The Emperor’s New Groove” and 2007 & 2008 won the Emmy Award for Best Vocal Performance in an animated Television Production. How did Eartha land the voice of YZMA and how did she feel about her Emmy wins for the character?
Kitt: The role of Yzma came about when the production team from Disney came to New York and happened to get into a NYC taxi that, at the time, had celebrities recorded voices delivering a message on safety and fastening your seat belt. They happened to get into a cab with my mother’s voice instructing them to buckle up for safety and they immediately decided that she should be the voice of the villain, Yzma, in the feature animation production of The Emperor’s New Groove. My mother won the ANNIE Award for that vocal performance. That film then went on to become a TV series for Disney, titled The Emperor’s New School for which she won two EMMY’s. She got the biggest kick out of winning her first EMMY at 80 years old. The second Emmy award she won posthumously.
SayWhatNews: From 2001 – 2008 Eartha Kitt starred in Broadway shows such as “The Wild Party”, “Wizard of Oz” and “Cinderalla”; plus performed in cabarets, concert halls and with local symphonies. It seemed that Eartha Kitt had a true love for the stage. What is your most memorable moment of your mother during the last years of her life doing what she loved, entertaining her fans?
Kitt: My mother died Christmas Day 2008 and her final performance was September 23rd 2008 with the Virginia Symphony (I may be off on the exact date). She had two great loves, her fans, and me. That last performance, she knew she was sick and she was in great pain. But, once she stepped out onto that stage, her professionalism and talent overtook her discomfort, and she gave the most amazing 90 minute concert of her life.
My mother had lived each and every one of her days to the fullest. She embraced every minute and every thing around her and felt truly blessed. I was blessed to have had such an amazing woman for a mother. And, I was even more blessed to have known that while she was alive. I worked for my mother as President of Eartha Kitt Productions for 25 years. We loved each other deeply and laughed with each other daily
SayWhatNews: Kitt, since your mother’s passing in December of 2008. You have since launched “Simply Eartha” which includes canvas wall art, candles, crystal paper weights, Eartha Kitt stone coasters, glass plates and more. What inspired you to launch “Simply Eartha” and what is its mission?
Kitt: The Simply Eartha lifestyle brand is a line of home and gift ‘Accessories that SAY something’. I have taken my mother’s words, wisdom and beauty and designed products that are made in the USA, by local artisans, using natural and/or recycled materials. My mother loved the art of conversation. She loved words. So it seemed only natural to take her sayings, that she coined “Kittisms”, which reflect how she felt and her philosophies of life, and share them with her fans, old and new. And, since my mother died from colon cancer, I have partnered with the Colon Cancer Alliance to spread the word about the importance of getting screened. We also donate a portion of our proceeds to http://www.ccalliance.org
SayWhatNews: Where can Eartha Kitt fans find “Simply Eartha” products?
SayWhatNews: What’s next for Kitt Shapiro and “Simply Eartha”
Kitt: My mother’s words are empowering, so I am teaming up with a organizations working with young men and women to help with their self image and self worth using her words as reminders to embrace who They ARE.