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True Colors: Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual turns 35 today and hardly looks it

She's So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper, 1983, photography by Annie Leibovitz, art direction by Janet Perr.

She's So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper, 1983, photography by Annie Leibovitz, art direction by Janet Perr.


One day in the late ‘70s, a pre-fame Cyndi Lauper was working one of her shifts at McCrory Stores in Brooklyn. It was a dreary, stormy day. Installed in front of the store’s large ground floor windows, she watched “the rain pour down and bounce off the bus shelter by the corner and up off the sidewalk,” as she later wrote in her 2012 memoir. Out of that gray vista emerged a particular woman, who entered the store and immediately caught Lauper’s eye. The singer recalled “her platinum hair tied up in a tall French knot in the back and curled in the front. And a kerchief with a pink and red floral print, framing those high curls in the front and her face. She wore a bright, cobalt-blue raincoat and had on the prettiest bright pink lipstick too.” In awe, Lauper told her, “Wow, you look great,” to which, the woman replied, “I always wear my brightest colors on the darkest days.”

Not many years on, when Lauper showed up for the cover shoot for her 1983 debut album on Coney Island—dressed in a dazzlingly red outfit, her wrists weighted with bracelets and her hair a fiery orange—she remembered that woman. Standing in a piss-spattered, burnt-out alley in her fishnet stockings, she thinks, “In the darkest place, shed the brightest light.”

Just like that, She’s So Unusual arrived radiant and luminous 35 years ago. Neither age nor time, though, have dulled its color, confidence, and craft. It still scintillates, not least for its four brassy top-five singles (the first time a female artist scored such a coup), including the plaintive “Time After Time,” and of course, the effervescent “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” On the charts, the record rubbed shoulders with a chiefly male crowd of rock balladeers, heavy metal upstarts, and new wave haircuts—a pop anomaly for its whimsy and self-possession, its heavily female-centered content (from its title to singles like “Girls” and “She Bop”), and its singular style. Appropriately for a work titled She’s So Unusual, its sleeve duly demonstrated its maker’s arty idiosyncrasy, carving Lauper a class of her own, separate from her contemporaries such as Bonnie Tyler, Linda Ronstadt, or yes, Madonna. In an industry bordered by rigorous guidelines on how female pop stars should look, dress, and be packaged, her debut cover sold neither face nor sex, but hue and energy that defied plain categorization.

Lauper was assiduous about the look of her first cover; her decisions made in the name of light and color. With art director Janet Perr, she picked out a location on Coney Island, a wax museum with a storefront saturated with bold primary colors. “I knew that blue and red would pop out, like a strobe,” she recalled in 2014. With stylist Laura Wills, at vintage store Screaming Mimi’s (where she also worked), she put together an ensemble, an olio of bodice, flared skirt, fishnet stockings, and an abundance of accessories that was individual and vibrant in its disarray. Even the soles of her shoes were not spared: they were gessoed with images of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Back cover of She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper, 1983, photography by Annie Leibovitz and art direction by Janet Perr.

She summoned then-Rolling Stone staffer Annie Leibovitz to take photographs, and brought along to the shoot a beach umbrella, a bouquet of flowers, and unfinished tapes of her album (“the only way Annie could understand what it was she was taking a picture of,” she wrote). And in the middle of a sunny day, she stood in front of that faded blue brick wall and yellow door, and began dancing.

Leibovitz’s shots captured Lauper mid-pirouette—her limbs at angles, her skirt swirling around her, her red heels cast aside—a whirl of color and motion akin to that of a Frankenthaler canvas. “I wanted to show movement, to dance. Have fun,” she said. Around her waist and ankle are encircled chains, which she picked and wore “to stress that woman is the slave of the world,” an insistence in remarkable contrast to their wearer’s loose and liberated form. The best thing Lauper wore that day, though, was a face of fierce determination and concentration as she twirled for Leibovitz’s camera. This was not the meek or come-hither look of a frivolous starlet, but the aspect of a driven artist and maker of a kinetic, graphic aesthetic. In fact, she repeatedly rejected Leibovitz’s urging to “pull [her] dress up” to reveal her slip. “I just felt like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I want to do the strong dance art thing.”

Outtakes from the She’s So Unusual shoot, 1983, photography by Annie Leibovitz.

The total vibe she was after, according to her, was “Jane Russell in the 1950s, with a specific South American feel.” Hence the rich palette and the vintage gear. “It was something old in a new way,” she said. “A young girl in a new dress is like two young things together; there is nothing to really consider. It has to be timeless.”

Also on her mind, apparently, was the brilliantly dressed woman who one time, stepped out of the rain and into McCrory’s. “It made my eyes happy to see her against that gray day,” she wrote; “I wanna be the one to walk in the sun,” she also sang on “Girls.” Likewise, Cyndi Lauper first appeared to us more than three decades ago—a dancing burst of color, refusing to stand still, outshining even the midday sun.

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