In a private screening of the new biopic I Am Woman, which charts the rise of 1970s superstar singer Helen Reddy, the woman herself, now 78, sat surrounded by her family as the events of her life appeared on-screen.
“She was totally captivated,” Helen’s granddaughter Lily Donat tells Closer Weekly, on newsstands now. “I sat next to her and we were holding hands and she was smiling, giving little anecdotes, like she was reliving certain things. She sobbed at the end — we all did,” Donat admits. “It was a very emotional, happy thing.”
The film, starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Helen, follows the native Australian singer’s 1966 arrival in New York City, marriage to manager Jeff Wald (played by Evan Peters) and rise to fame with a string of hit singles, including “Delta Dawn” and the iconic “I Am Woman.” The latter became a feminist anthem.
“I’m trying to find a way to reach women,” Helen said at the time, “to give them a confidence in themselves that they’ve never had.”
Helen cowrote her famed song, and the powerful lyrics “I am strong / I am invincible” are even more meaningful as she faces her greatest challenge. In 2015, the singer was diagnosed with dementia and she now lives in a Los Angeles retirement home for performers. Despite the diagnosis, “She’s happy. She’s still singing,” Donat says. “She’s in a more relaxing, mellow place in her life.”
Helen has earned her rest. When she first arrived in the U.S. from Melbourne in 1966, she was a 25-year-old single mom with very little money but endless determination. She’d performed since age 4 with her entertainer parents, who, she said, “instilled in me: You will be a star.” Still, Helen had just $200 to her name. She struggled, explains Donat, “coming to a new city with a small child and being the breadwinner and also having a dream and being rejected.” But Helen persisted.
In 1968 Helen married Jeff, a 22-year-old secretary at the William Morris Agency. “It was love at first sight,” she said. But life didn’t get any easier. “When we did eat, it was spaghetti,” she recalled. “And we spent what little money we had on cockroach spray.”
Helen’s talent and tenacity finally paid off when she landed a record deal and scored her first U.S. hit, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” in 1971. By 1975 she’d become the best-selling female vocalist in the world and a feminist icon who supported the Equal Rights Amendment. In accepting the Grammy Award for “I Am Woman” she thanked God, “because She makes everything possible.”
Helen’s positive attitude never faded — not when she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease in 1976 nor during her bitter 1982 divorce from Wald. “I feel great,” Helen said in 2015. “I really love the life that I have. I take every day as it comes.”
Throughout her success, Helen’s love of family kept her grounded. Donat remembers cuddling with her Nanna, “watching The Sound of Music, eating Fig Newtons,” after Helen’s music career waned. “She’s incredibly loving,” Donat says. “She’s strong-willed, smart, she’s got a big personality and she just is who she is and she doesn’t apologize.”
Helen’s strength and wisdom continue to inspire her granddaughter and a new generation of women, including those who saw her sing “I Am Woman” before thousands at the 2017 Women’s March in LA. Her lessons are simple, Donat says: “Don’t give up, be stubborn if you need to, chase your passion and allow your uniqueness to be powerful and beautiful — and put family first.” That’s how you become invincible.
— Lisa Chambers, with reporting by Diana Cooper
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.