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Catching up with Jody Watley

Catching up with Jody Watley: Michael Slezak talks to the singer about her new album, how those plastic-surgery rumors got started, and more

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Jody Watley: Monica Morgan/WireImage

Sorry, haters: Jody Watley does not have a new face, only a new album, The Makeover, a saucy mix of surprising covers (Madonna! the Carpenters!) and original dance-lounge tracks. EW.com caught up with Watley on a recent promotional tour in New York to get the straight scoop on her recent gay brouhaha, the career nadir that nearly made her go postal, and that Page Six item accusing her of bad behavior in a plastic surgeon’s office.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The liner notes for your new CD, The Makeover, feature some, um, interesting photographs where you’re made up to look like you’re recovering from plastic surgery.
JODY WATLEY Right, well, most people download music, so I had to think about a nice way to make buying the CD worthwhile. It’s good fun. I addressed those plastic surgery rumors. Bogus! The joke’s on you. Hello! [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about that: The New York Post’s Page Six and other gossip sites ran an item last year about you having a meltdown at a plastic surgeon’s office. Which came first, their story or your photo shoot? [A spokesperson for The Post declined to comment on this story.]
I was in New York doing the Move Against AIDS dance-a-thon the first week of December [2005], and I did the photo session with Mike Ruiz. The previous summer, there was a feature in Italian Vogue called ”Makeover Madness,” where all the models were bandaged. It was a spoof on our obsession with beauty. And I said, ”That’s it! That has to be part of the photo session for The Makeover.” So we did the shoot, we had a special-effects makeup artist who did the intricate stitching, the fake blood, and we were laughing the whole time. He put on little pieces of wire with an adhesive to look like stitches. But I don’t think there’s any plastic surgery where you’d cut around the eyes! Somehow, one of the pictures from the photo shoot leaked onto the Internet and the rumors started: ”She’s had major work done.” I wanted to address it right then, but I thought, ”I’m going to be quiet, and wait till the CD comes out.” There was no clinic, there was no nurse. People who know me really knew the gossip item was fake because it said, ”She had a tantrum.” That’s not me! I wasn’t looking for a new face! [Laughs.]

But still, there’s an obsession with looking young that seems to permeate the music business. Marie Claire magazine recently devoted their letters page to readers who were upset that Ashlee Simpson was on their cover saying it’s important to love your body, but then, by many accounts, went out and got a nose job.
The thing with aging is that — nothing against people who have plastic surgery — but you don’t end up looking younger, you just end up looking weird. I liked Cher with the nose that wasn’t perfect and the crooked teeth. That’s what makes us all unique. But as a woman in the music business, the superficial is always going to be an issue.

Let’s talk about the new music. Even though The Makeover features new versions of two of your classic ’80s hits — ”Friends” and ”Don’t You Want Me” — your overall sound is very different now.
This is my ninth solo album. I know there are people who loved my first two albums, and they want to hold on to that forever. And I wrote those songs, so I’m not distancing myself from that, but at the same time, I am. That was then, and this is now. I always look at each record as if I’m a new artist.

What were you aiming for with this record?
The Makeover is clubby but sexy. It’s ambient, but it’s a soulful record, and soulful in a contemporary way. A friend of mine said it’s like a mixtape, you can dance to it. And somebody at an in-store I did recently told me, ”I’ve made love to it already.” He said it was [a cover of Diana Ross’] ”Love Hangover” that got it goin’. And I was like, ”Good for you! I really appreciate that, but, um, you’re telling me too much!” [Laughs.]

You’re also covering Madonna’s ”Borderline.” You don’t hear people cover her hits very often.
It’s the opportunity to give a different look to these songs. What’s interesting to me, though, is that while I love both songs, Diana Ross is the one; she was the mark for me — glamorous, elegant, well spoken. Nobody has asked me, ”What is Diana Ross gonna think?” What is that about? Anyhow, I always loved ”Love Hangover,” but especially the downtempo portions. It’s sexy. I wanted to do it as a slow, wrap-yourself-in-the-moment vibe.

And on top of that you have a medley of songs by the Carpenters.
I loved Karen Carpenter’s voice. I didn’t think about it when I was recording, but it goes into this whole idea of size 0, outward appearance, that she was so beautiful, and with that great a voice, but got caught up in her physical appearance. That’s sad. The despair she felt at the time, I feel like it was somehow in my vocal.

On your blog, you’re very candid about the obstacles you face as an artist releasing music through your own independent label, Avitone, and dealing with a corporate radio system that only wants to play a limited number of artists.
The first stations that played ”Borderline” were smooth jazz. There’s NPR; there’s satellite radio. There are still areas where they can put variety on the playlist. But top 40 and R&B/Urban, they’re only playing something that sounds like something else.

Even Madonna can’t seem to get airplay anymore.
No, she doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter. Her records are still successful. It’s a question of ”How do you define success?” Ultimately, success is doing what it is you believe in. You see some artists — and no disrespect to any of them — but you can see they’re really grasping, trying to appeal to this small group of people that only like this stuff that sounds like 50 other records. Instead of being fearless.

Let’s talk about some of the original material on the CD. ”A Bed of Roses” really touches on some of the things happening in the news right now.
That song is probably the best representation of the whole project. The lyrical content is about disappointment, but always being optimistic. ”Life is no bed of roses, you’ve got to get up, get up, get over it.” [Singing about] single mothers, the war, the government, people struggling…bittersweet things.

You definitely get political, but in an organic sort of way.
Yeah, without being overbearing. The week I wrote it, there were a lot of things on the news about the war. There was something about a family, and they were upset because they wanted answers about what had happened to their son. They were very patriotic, but they felt betrayed by the government: ”Our son gave his life.” I can’t even imagine it. The lyrics, ”War kills, you can’t take it back/ Families left wondering, what happened to our dreams?” All these kids who go to war, it’s part of their dream to feel like they’re doing something that’s right. And it goes awry. The song was a way of putting it out there. It’s amazing to me there are so few songs on the radio that try to touch the subject, over several years now. It’s nowhere creatively, except for Neil Young, and some rock artists, they’ve covered the subject.

Next page: Watley on a recent controversy in Chicago, embracing the Internet, and her shelved album