Party girl? Groupie? Poet? Performer? Cherry Vanilla wore the names proudly as she traversed the sixties and seventies. Her autobiography, Lick Me: How I Became Cherry Vanilla, succeeds where others fail because she knows how to tell a story and she has the stories to tell—lots of them, and no holds barred. Somehow, she remembers it all: childhood visits to the Copacabana, shopping sprees with the daughters of dapper Hollywood actor Don Ameche, sex romps and acid trips on Fire Island, ad work on Madison Avenue, and stage antics at Max's Kansas City. She did A&R for David Bowie during his coke-and-milk phase, toured with the Police, and started one of the first phone-sex operations.
After reading her book, Duke theater professor and Little Green Pig director Jaybird O'Berski thought she would be the perfect muse for his Duke Theater Studies production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a revue of songs by the popular Belgian songsmith that opened in Greenwich Village in January 1968, featuring saucy, cabaret-style ditties like "La Chanson de Jacky," a Top 40 hit for Scott Walker as "Jackie." So O'Berski arranged for her to come read choice sections of Lick Me on the production's Studio 54-inspired set this Saturday. She spoke with us from her home in Palm Springs, California, about acid, Brel, and being a witness to an age.
INDY: What is it about Jacques Brel that fit into the flower-power ethos of the late sixties?
CHERRY VANILLA: He was part of this whole French new wave, which was becoming hip at the time: espresso house coffee shops, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Aznavour. They weren't Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, they were something else. He was Belgian but he was put into that kind of chic hippie French thing, and it was stylish and different. If rock and roll took up ninety percent of the musical airwaves, this kind of music only took up part of the other ten percent but it was considered hip and in. And where they played in '68, the Village Gate, that itself was beatnik hip. That's where I first saw Nina Simone. It was an interesting moment there, and New York had all these movie houses that played French films, so he was bunched in with that. Also, he was very attractive. He had that rugged, rough sort of French movie star look.
Jacques Brel came up in your book a few times and now you're serving as a muse of sorts?
At first I was puzzled by it. But then I realized, in Jaybird's wisdom, the younger people I talk to are just hungry for cultural information about the fifties, sixties, and seventies. I guess what he wanted was to get them into the head of what New York in '68 was like when they were putting the show on there. I was thrilled. That's the best thing anybody could say to me. When I wanted to write this book, a friend said to me, you can write your autobiography for one of only three reasons: either you're mega-famous like Elvis Presley, or you've done some incredible thing, like climbed Mount Everest and ate human flesh, or you were a witness to an era that you can express. And I said OK, that's the one! I hope that in writing my own private life story, that what I was conveying was that feeling of New York in 1968, that whole era. Because it was ... something else. I feel so blessed that I happened to be in my twenties in the nineteen-sixties.
Oh, your timing was exquisite.
I know! I feel that way. And I know that people before me used to say that about their youth and their generation, but when I see kids now, I know they're having fun with their selfies and technology, but I don't know. To me, it's never gonna look like as much fun as I had.
Spending time with Don Ameche and his daughters, you learned to hang out with the famous and realized they were real people?
Being in those circles, I really feel lucky and privileged to have not only rubbed up against, but been intimate with—whether in a business sense, a friendship sense, a sexual sense, a creative sense—these incredible people. And I don't know why me. I don't have a huge ego. I know I'm not the smartest one on the block, or the most talented or the most beautiful, or the most anything. But for some reason, the path I followed, something about me attracted them to me and me to them.
There was a lot of LSD in your autobiography.
The last time I took any acid would have been around '77 and it would have been just a little bite of a tab. Up until a year and a half ago, I only smoked pot and did some mushrooms here and there. But anyway, I have OCD, dermatillomania, which is picking at your skin in a manic kind of way, and I've had it ever since I was a child. I just touched on it in the book, that was my coming out of the closet about it, because it's something you keep secret because it's shameful. It's like people who cut, but I didn't cut, I picked. It's so weird I can't tell you. But that plagued me on and off throughout my life.
When I interviewed Marianne Faithfull years ago and she had just come back from all her druggy drugs, I asked her, how did you do that? She said the first thing was, I admitted I had a problem, and the next thing was, I asked for help. That stuck in my mind. So finally, I started writing about it, and then I started seeking help. Doctors I talked to recommended different kinds of therapies: drug therapy, cognitive therapy, hypnotherapy, and I tried them all.
But I've always believed in LSD, and my instincts told me LSD, LSD, LSD. Eventually I hit upon Dr. James Fadiman, who is a proponent of microdosing. My god, it's been my saving grace. All of my wounds have healed. I still get the urge now and then when I'm stressed or nervous, but I stop right away. It's the first thing ever that has worked.
That's amazing. So you're just sort of on the edge of being high?
Nothing. You don't get high, you don't trip. In fact, I upped the dosage. There were times when I took even a little more than I should, just to see if I got a little edge, and when I did I would go out for a long, long walk, and I did have a little bit of that edge of stomach nervousness. But I don't want that nervous feeling.
Would you say your tripping days are behind you?
I'm gonna be seventy-four soon. I don't think I should take too many chances with my heart [laughs]. You know the energy burst that comes with LSD. Maybe, maybe I would do one in the proper circumstances.
This article appeared in print with the headline "French Letters."