For Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive” is so much more than just a universally celebrated disco anthem. The song won Gloria, 80, a 1980 Grammy for Best Disco Recording, but it is also a mantra that has accompanied her throughout her life.
“The first step out of the darkness is recognizing that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There were times I just saw darkness, but the light was shown to me whenever I felt there was no way out,” she tells Closer exclusively.
Since its release in 1978, listeners have also embraced the song’s message. “I feel it has become the core of my purpose, which is to bring hope, encouragement and empowerment to people all over the world,” Gloria says of “I Will Survive.”
That life-affirming mantra is now the title of a new documentary, Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, which will debut in more than 900 movie theaters nationwide for one-day special screenings on Galentine’s Day, February 13.
When did you decide to be a singer?
I was 13 and standing in the hallway of my apartment building. I started singing Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” When my neighbor came downstairs, she said, “Oh my goodness, I thought that was the radio.” I thought, “Oh, yes, I can do this!”
Who were the singers you admired?
Nancy Wilson. I loved her voice and style, not only her singing, but the way she carried herself and the way she dressed. She was very much a lady, and I admired that. I was very happy in my 40s to get to tell her that her song “Save Your Love for Me” was the first song I ever sang in public.
What kind of sacrifices did you have to make for your career?
Early on, I worked at Bamberger’s department store from 9 to 5 as a sales auditor. Then from 6 to 10, I did hair at a beauty shop. Then I’d sing at a club from 10:30 to 2 in the morning. Later on, as my career was heating up, I had to work 360 days a year in 1975, ’76 and ’77. Five sets a night from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. New York was even worse — 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.! You worked every hour for 45 minutes and rested 15 minutes.
Whoa! Can you remember the most exhausted you ever were?
[Laughs] I will never forget waking up in the middle of the night in a hotel somewhere in Europe and I didn’t know where the bathroom was. And then I realized I didn’t even know what country I was in!
What are you most proud of?
I think the Grammy for “I Will Survive,” and also, for how my fans greet me with such respect. I was walking down the street one day, and there were some kids playing on the other side. One of them said, “Oh, look — there’s Gladys Knight.” Another of them said, “No, no. That’s Diana Ross.” “No, no, that’s Dionne Warwick.” And then the last one said, “No, that’s Miss Gaynor.” That really struck me.
When you first sang “I Will Survive,” what thoughts were in your mind?
The passing of my mother was the main thing. My mother was my role model who taught me to be strong and to be my own person. She passed away when I was 25, and my bottom fell out. I lost my way for a while.
What are you thinking when you sing the song today?
That I am accomplishing my purpose along with God’s purpose. I have always wanted to give my audience something that lasts beyond the duration of the concert.
When you were in your late 60s, you went back to school and earned a degree in psychology. Why did you choose that discipline?
Right after my divorce [in 2005 from former manager Linwood Simon], I decided to go to a therapist because I didn’t want to take any baggage into another relationship. It was wonderful learning from my therapist, who has since become a friend. I grew up without a father, and there is an organization that helps young absentee fathers learn how important it is to be involved in their children’s lives whether they live with them or not. In 2024, I plan to work with them to be the voice of abandoned daughters.
This moving new documentary on your life touches on the difficulties you suffered — health issues, the murder of your sister, a troubled marriage, and a divorce that cleaned out your bank account. How have you maintained your faith through it all?
You know, I don’t always understand God, but I just trust Him. It’s like with your parents. I think that’s what’s meant by, “You have to have the faith of a child.”
What are your thoughts on dating?
“One less bell to answer and one less egg to fry,” don’t sound like no sad song to me! But absolutely I would date. I love men. I grew up with five brothers, and I prefer male company. Unfortunately, men don’t seem to really want to be friends. I do have a couple gay friends, including Felipe Rose of the Village People.
What is keeping you busy these days?
Well, my fragrance, “Survive by Gloria Gaynor,” came out last year. When I was asked what I wanted the perfume to do, I thought about how women wear a fragrance for the men in their lives. Often that man is an opponent, so you need to disarm him. I want this fragrance to disarm. Next, I want to do a line of shoes and clothing, as well as a new album. I’m recording this year in Nashville.
We also hear that you love to cook!
My specialty is my piña colada cake, which is a yellow cake that has pineapple and coconut in the cake batter. Then it’s coated with that coconut-pecan frosting that’s used on German chocolate cake.
You recently built your dream home. That must make you feel proud.
My childhood home was so raggedy that someone broke into our home by knocking a door off the hinges. We were never able to put the door back because the wood was so rotten that it wouldn’t hold the nails. Many years ago, I asked God for an apartment that didn’t have any holes in the walls. Now when I show my new house to close friends, I tell them God is an overachiever!