In an early tryout of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, Effie Melody White’s big number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” appeared early in Act 1. “Audiences wouldn’t stop applauding, so they had to move it to right before intermission,” Jennifer Holliday, who originated the role of Effie in the show, tells Closer. The part won Jennifer a Tony, while the recording of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and won her a Grammy Award in 1983. “It’s remarkable for a song from a Broadway show to go all around the world,” Jennifer, 63, says. “It made me a household name.”

And it hasn’t stopped. Jennifer’s rendition of the showstopper is still part of her live performances. “I am going to be playing the Café Carlyle in New York in February and March,” she says. “It’s a small, elegant and historic supper club. I’m doing a jazz set but, of course, I always have to do my song from Dreamgirls.”

What are your favorite memories of doing Dreamgirls?

“It’s funny, we just passed our 42nd anniversary of our Broadway opening. My fondest memories are of us creating our roles. That was the most exciting part because each of the principals had a lot to say about our parts. There was a lot less pressure. We were just creating something for the love of the show and love of theater.”

Did the pressure build after the show opened?

“Yes. Once the show is up, it becomes very grueling. It’s not like you can do a lot of things outside of the show. People don’t even realize that.”

Were you surprised by the success of Dreamgirls?

“I think that we knew we were working on something really great, but we had no idea that four decades later people would still care. You know, we had no idea about the impact. At the time, we just hoped we’d put together a good show and it would run.”

Aside from Dreamgirls’ Effie, what have been some of your other favorite roles?

“From a fun standpoint, it would be playing Mama Morton in Chicago. For my growth as an actress, I played Shug Avery in The Color Purple on Broadway with Cynthia Erivo. I was older than most of the cast, so I had to figure out how to make Shug a mature, sexy sanctuary. I studied really hard, and Cynthia’s acting was just off the chart. It was a great experience.”

Jennifer Holliday wearing a sequined gown
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Dance Theater of Harlem

How do you describe this time in your life?

“I would say I’m having a third act, not only in my career, but my life too. In my career, I’ve been rediscovered by social media. I know we get so upset with social media, but for some of us, it’s revived whole careers with a whole new, younger following. I just turned 63 years old, and it’s almost like I have a new career. So I’m really, really grateful.”

Looking back over your career, what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned?

“I think one of the greatest lessons was to not worry so much about tomorrow. In theater, you can have great reviews, but the show could still close. So then what happens next? I realize now that you just have to go toward opportunities and live your life.”

Do you have any regrets?

“One of my life regrets is that I wasn’t more aggressive. I was very afraid of rejection. I used to weigh almost 400 pounds. I was just really afraid of being rejected, and it all had to do with my self-image and my self-confidence.”

How did you overcome that?

“I had to realize that whether I was overweight or just a normal size, that you still have to find a reason to love yourself. It’s not a mistake that you’re here. You have a purpose in life, even though it’s not always clear at the moment. There’s a reason that you were born.”

You’ve lost a lot of weight. Did that change the way you see yourself?

“I was one of the first celebrities to have gastric bypass. I lost like 200 pounds. But when I lost the weight, I still was self conscious and not sure of myself. I still didn’t really know who I was. And then I started going through rejection in the entertainment industry for being small!”


“People didn’t want to hire me because they were like, ‘Well, can you still sing at this size?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I went through rejection as a big girl, and then I went through rejection as a size 10. David Kelley, [the producer] of Ally McBeal, was the only one who would hire me — although he almost didn’t give me the job because he wanted the other Jennifer Holliday.”

You’ve talked before about overcoming depression. What advice do you have for other people who also struggle?

“I had to allow myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I had to say to somebody, ‘I don’t feel myself. I feel sad. I need someone to talk to.’ I think the most important thing, too, is to find out what kind of depression that you have. That’s why professional help is important. Once you realize that you’re not the only one suffering through this, that helps, too.”

How is your health? You were diagnosed with MS some time ago.

“I’m doing good. I’ve been in remission now for about eight years. As I get older, I’ve also been learning how to pay attention to my body more, to know what are symptoms related to MS and how to control stress. Stress takes a real toll on people who have autoimmune illnesses. I also took up playing golf, which one of my neurologists suggested, because you have to focus and use your whole body.”

What are you proudest of?

“Career-wise, I’ve always tried to stay authentic and true to myself. I try to choose roles that I feel that truly represent me.”

What do you still hope to accomplish?

“I am enjoying being back on the road singing again. I would love to return to recording, too. To record great music, be it jazz, soul or R&B. I feel like I have a whole world of possibilities, not because I have so many great things lined up, but there’s just so many great ways to reach your fans today.”