The Flashback Interview: Deborah Jenssen
Before I even knew the name of Deborah Jenssen, my next interview subject, I saw her dancing in music videos like Was (Not Was)’ Walk The Dinosaur and on episodes of Solid Gold I had acquired from a fan-to-fan DVD seller. Years later, I would discover Ms. Jenssen on Facebook, and I would find that she had transitioned from dancing to singing. With her many diverse talents, I knew she would have some fantastic stories to tell. We spoke last year, but today, you’ll all get to know her as I have.
Say hello to Deborah Jenssen!
Johnny: Who were your biggest influences as a dancer growing up?
Deborah Jenssen: I started dancing when I was three, so I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about famous dancers at that age, but I knew Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Margot Fontaine and The New York City Ballet. Everything was all about ballet for me. Other influences growing up were Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey. I would read about them, and later would go to New York to take master classes from whoever I could.
Music has always been a huge part of my life. I used to close my door to my bedroom, and all I would do was play records. I would just get lost in it. I would dance and sing in my room as I would listen to Led Zeppelin and Janis and all of that now-legendary music.
The first dance school I attended in my life was called the Little Red Dancing School. A great teacher named Tim Draper came out of that school, and another great teacher named Michelle Bushner was a very positive influence on my life as a dancer. The woman who ran that school, Aileen Charles, had a daughter who I idolized. Her name was Lynn, and she was just an absolutely beautiful ballerina, and she went to the Boston Conservatory Of Music. I decided that I had to go to that school, too.
In Rochester, I also studied at the Eastman School Of Music, where I took classes. Tim was also a part of that. We did The Nutcracker and all the typical ballets. In Rochester, it was probably the best school you could go to. They all pushed the bicycle forward, and I knew that I wanted dancing to be the center of my life, but I was young. In high school, I made my mind up that I wanted to study at the Boston Conservatory Of Music.
I had to audition, and it was completely just like the movie Flashdance. What a process. I remember being at home, still going to high school, and waiting and waiting for that letter. Oh, my god. When I got that letter, I was home alone and I opened it. “You have been accepted”, and I got a scholarship….Not a full-on scholarship, but hey, anything helps, right?
Johnny: Indeed. To go to my next question, in your early days, were there any dance styles you had any particular trouble with, or did it all come to you pretty easily?
Deborah Jenssen: I didn’t really have any problem with other types of dance, but I definitely had my preference. Ballet was my first love, so I excelled in that area. For me, it was the most beautiful. It served its’ purpose for all things. I thought, “If you’re a good dancer, you’ll be able to do anything, really, and you should if you have good ballet training”. I was kind of stuck on ballet as a child, but as I grew into adolescence at the Little Red Dance School, they offered tap and jazz and other styles in addition to ballet.
I just kept taking ballet, but once I got into jazz a little bit, oh, boy! It was like a whole new world. I loved it. I loved the music. I loved the movement. I loved the smoothness. I loved the lines. It broke me out of ballet just a little bit, but using all your ballet training to be a jazz dancer is just so beneficial. I know so many dancers who have just gone into jazz and never really had any extensive ballet training, and if you put one next to the other, you can definitely tell the difference.
Johnny: I understand that. I’ve interviewed several talents with a ballet background, and they’ve spoken of how it’s influenced their work. To stay with you, though, according to the IMDB, some of your earliest work as a dancer was done on variety specials for the likes of Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton-John, and Goldie Hawn and Liza Minnelli. Of those specials, which were your favorites to work on?
Deborah Jenssen: I did many specials, alongside the American Music Awards and The Grammys and The Oscars, where they all had big production numbers.. To answer your question, I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between Olivia, the special Goldie and Liza Together, and the third Barry Manilow special.
I’ve also done some fantastic live events. One that comes to mind was the event for Berry Gordy for Motown. For that one, I was working with the famous choreographer Lester Wilson.
Returning to Goldie and Liza, the reason that was one of my favorites, and a very memorable special for me, was because I worked for another very famous choreographer out of New York. His name was Ron Fields. Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn were just such a great pair, and they were both so, so nice and personable and funny. The one thing about Ron Fields was that you had to perform all the time. There was no such thing as rehearsing his steps. He made each of us perform the steps as if you were on camera every time.
Johnny: Alright. Speaking of Olivia Newton-John, as alluded to, you were one of the dancers in Xanadu. As I asked my good friend Sandahl Bergman when I interviewed her last year, Xanadu didn’t do well at the box office or with critics, but it gained a second life on home video and television, so what do you think home audiences saw in Xanadu that theatrical audiences didn’t?
Deborah Jenssen: (Laughing) You know, I always wondered about that. I mean, I think that maybe they weren’t ready for a musical of that kind at that time. A lot of people don’t like musicals, period, where people are singing through the whole thing, but this movie wasn’t like that. It was a mish-mash of a typical old musical and a modern situation with modern dancing. We all thought it was going to be quite a big hit, but to our dismay, it was not.
You know, the funny thing is that as time goes on, and people see these movies, they’re saying, “Why wasn’t this a big hit?”. I think if it came out 10 or 20 years ago, it would’ve been, but funnily enough, the song Xanadu was in the Top 10 for many weeks, and I know that because I danced to it every week on Solid Gold.
Johnny: Switching from the big screen back to the small, as mentioned, you spent several years as a Solid Gold dancer, working alongside another previous interview subject of mine, choreographer Anita Mann. What made Solid Gold such a special show for you to work on?
Deborah Jenssen: Well, first of all, that was the first show of its’ kind. There were other shows, like Soul Train, that had dancing, but there was no format to them, no structured format of special stars who had already had hits that were coming on the show. Dean Martin had The Golddiggers, and I remember people would mix up The Golddiggers with Solid Gold, and I was like, “No, no, no, no, no!” (Laughing) “That’s something completely different. Don’t make me any older than I am!”
Anyway, Solid Gold was the first of its’ kind as a musical variety show that was totally structured. It had the same beginning, the banners coming up, the logo. The great thing about it was that they had people you definitely knew on that show, and if they were on that show, they had to have had a hit at one time or another that everyone would’ve recognized, so that was another plus. “Oh, I remember that song because it was definitely a hit on the Top 10 charts”.
The dancers were consistent, and they got to know us. We all had, and began to establish, our own individuality. I think that was a good breaking point for that show. I’m sorry you’re never going to be able to interview Kevin Carlisle who, as you may know, just passed…
Johnny: My condolences.
Deborah Jenssen: That was a very sad day. I worked several shows with Kevin before Solid Gold, and he was the one that made the show because he was the first choreographer. He suggested a lot of ideas, which they took, and he was the one who really gave us our individuality, not to mention the kind, caring, respectable person that he was.
It was a lot of work, but Kevin was a master at casting us into groups, or duos or trios, based on our individual styles. It all worked out beautifully, and our identities grew from there.
Because of all the numbers, and countdowns, Kevin or Anita couldn’t be with all of us at the same time, so we’d go off in our casted groups and work on what they had envisioned. This is how our individual styles were incorporated in many of the countdowns.
My decision to leave was because I just felt that the exact things that made this show so special were being manipulated and changed around too much. They changed the hosts. They weren’t even musical talents, so I just said, “Eh, I think I’m through with this”. I wanted to travel, and that’s when I moved to Italy, right after that.
Johnny: Well, I do have a few more questions about Solid Gold if that’s not a problem. Similar to another question I asked Anita, which songs were the easiest to dance to, and which were the hardest?
Deborah Jenssen: As far as countdown dancing, the short clips we did, or are you talking whole numbers with artists?
Johnny: I’m talking about the countdown clips.
Deborah Jenssen: Okay, so there were two things that made dancing to a song very hard. One is that if it was just, melodic-wise, not to our liking. For everybody, it was different. For me, I was not crazy about country music, so if anything happened to have a country flair, I’d say, “I hope he doesn’t pick me for this one”, but eventually we were all picked for all of them.
The second hardest thing I’m going to tell you is, because it was on the Top 10 Countdown forever, and we would be dancing to this song every week for, like, ten weeks, there’s only so many things you can do to a song. Let me pick one example, Streisand’s Woman In Love. Remember that song?
Johnny: I do.
Deborah Jenssen: That played on forever and ever. It seemed like a year, although it couldn’t have been a year, but it was pretty hard. When we heard that song again, you would hear a big noise from all of us, but we did it, and we did it professionally. Kevin was the choreographer when the song was popular. He just tried really hard to create a different thing, and every single one of us danced several times to that song. There were other songs that were the same, but that one just pounds in my head as being one of the most, so as far as hardest, it’s the repetition of how many times we had to dance to it.
Johnny: I can see that. The example that Anita offered when I interviewed her was Olivia Newton-John’s Physical, which she said she had a lot of difficulty coming up with new choreography for week after week as it topped the charts.
Deborah Jenssen: (Laughing) Yeah. That was another one.
Johnny: When it comes to the full performance numbers, as opposed to the countdown clips, of all the singers you crossed paths with on Solid Gold, who were the nicest and conversely, if you’re okay with naming names, who could’ve been nicer?
Deborah Jenssen: I met quite a few artists as we were pretty much in the same space. I have to say that the Wilson sisters from Heart, to this day, are my favorite girls. I loved the band completely. I sing now, and I do a lot of their songs. I always thought Ann Wilson had one of the greatest voices in music, period. I mean, she has a distinctive, beautiful voice, and her sister Nancy is great as well.
When they came on the set, that was the one and only group I went up to. I said, “I hope you don’t think I’m a groupie. I’m not (laughing), but I just really respect and admire your music and your work, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to come up and tell you that”. They were very, very nice. We took pictures throughout the day. They were all really nice people, and they came on a couple of times.
Gene Simmons from KISS…We talked in the green room for lengths of time. He was a very nice guy. John Cougar Mellencamp was a super-nice guy. Lionel Richie and Cher were both lovely, and of course, Tina and Olivia. Frank Stallone was nice as well, and he remains a friend of mine.
Michael McDonald, Cyndi Lauper, Natalie Cole, Engelbert Humperdinck, and of course, the hosts, including Rex Smith, Dionne Warwick, Marilyn McCoo and Andy Gibb all stick out in my mind when I think of warm, friendly moments. They were very nice, approachable, and treated you as you were the same as them.
When it comes to Lionel Richie, I did a Pepsi commercial with him. I walked with him and a group of dancers. That was fun. Vince Patterson choreographed that commercial, and Lionel was super-nice, too, the kind of nice where he invites you in his trailer and his kids are there, and you’re all hanging out. He just treated you like a friend.
I wouldn’t say anything was ever bad-bad, but there were some artists who were just unapproachable and didn’t care to socialize. Some of them, very few, but some of them, didn’t want the dancers dancing behind them. I don’t know if there was a clause in the contract saying “you will have to have the Solid Gold Dancers behind you”, but I really felt that if they didn’t want us, why would we want to?
They were few and far between, and you knew the ones who were approachable, and sometimes they’d approach you. Vanity, Prince’s protege, actually came up to me and said, “If I were one of the dancers, you are the one I would like to be. I think you’re just beautiful, and I like the way you dance”. That, for me, coming from her as she was so beautiful, was a great compliment, you know?
Johnny: How lovely.
Deborah Jenssen: Yeah, that was nice.
Johnny: One of Solid Gold’s frequent hosts was Andy Gibb, so do you have any fond memories of Andy?
Deborah Jenssen: I have so many fond memories of Andy. He was a sweetheart. He was so sweet and kind. He would actually look to us for advice sometimes. “Is it better if I stand like this, or this?”. Sometimes he would smile at me, and I would blush like a little kid.
He was very special, and he went through a lot of stages on that show, just like we all did. There’s one particular thing that stands out that was very special for me because we did have that ability to talk to him, and he with us. I felt connected with him in a way. He would actually call me sometimes on the phone, just to talk. We would have long conversations, and maybe he was looking for a friend, which he found.
One special thing that happened on Solid Gold was that we got an offer to pose for Playboy, and for most of the girls, it was like, “Oh, wow! This is so great!”. Well, it is great in one sense to be in a famous magazine, and we would get paid pretty well for it, especially at that time, but I had a hard time with it.
I have two brothers younger than me, and of course there’s my dad, who was a professional wrestler and in the limelight himself, and very proud of me, too. I just could not grasp the ideal of my brothers, for one, and all of my brother’s friends opening up a page in a book and referring to their sister, not to mention all the other things that people we didn’t know would say.
That’s the whole thing. It’s a public thing. Anybody and their brother can see it, but for me, it was about my family. It was about my brothers and their friends, and how they would feel. That’s all I thought about, how they would feel if their sister was publicly displayed in that light in that type of magazine. I thought of my dad, too, not to mention my mom (laughing), who would definitely be totally against it, but it wasn’t so much my mom who I made that decision for as she’s not going to be buying that magazine.
That was a real dilemma with me. It took me two seconds to say, “I can’t. I won’t”, but that spoiled it for everyone because they wanted either all of us or none of us as a group. I just had to say no, but before I said no, I went to Andy, believe it or not. I was that comfortable with him where I could talk to him about this, and he’s a famous and very good-looking guy, so I said, “Let me get his viewpoint on it. I’m sure I’ll get an honest answer from him”.
I talked to him about it, and he agreed with me. He said, “That’s a tough call because if you were by yourself, and just cared about money and getting ahead with your career, this is a way of helping your career for acting or whatever you want to do, if you felt okay with it, it would be okay, but if you don’t…”. He said, “You need to talk to Victoria”. Victoria Principal was his girlfriend at the time, and I loved her to death. She was just so sweet with all of us as well.
I did talk with her. One night she came in and brought Andy a plate of pasta, and he said, “Deborah wants to talk to you”. I went into the room, we closed the doors, and I told her the whole story. She said, “You are so right. You have all these things to think about. You have values, and if those values are important, you have to respect them”. I already knew that, but just hearing it from these two people confirmed it.
Sometimes you second-guess your instincts, which is something I’ve learned to never, ever do anymore. They’re there for a reason. This is still a great, emotional memory I have with Andy because he was the kind of guy who would’ve taken time with you. He would’ve talked to you about anything you needed to talk about, and that’s how it was. He was a great soul. Andy also wrote about this story in an interview he did with Oui Magazine.
Johnny: That’s another lovely memory, and I can definitely relate to that as well. There have been times when I’ve felt a certain way, and I’ve had to ask others about it just so I could validation. Thankfully, I’ve been able to have a lot of people in my life who provide that.
Deborah Jenssen: Mm-hmm. If you’re working with people who are stars, not all of them are approachable that way, but he was. He was a great guy, and I will always cherish the wonderful memories I had with him.
Johnny: On a different tack, the Solid Gold Dancers made several appearances on the MDA Telethon. If you were part of any of those appearances, then as I asked Anita, I’ve heard conflicting reports about what Jerry Lewis was like as a person, with many people calling him compassionate and hilarious, and just as many calling him callous and bitter, so if you crossed paths with him, what was it like working with him?
Deborah Jenssen: Jerry Lewis? We worked a few telethons and, honestly, I don’t remember anything negative to mention. We worked with Smokey Robinson, too, doing one of those. It was fun, but it was a lot of work. I know the first one we did was with Kevin. We did Aretha Franklin’s Turn Me Loose, and it was an elongated version of that song (laughing). I think it lasted seven minutes or so, and I just remember having so much difficulty breathing after dancing really, really hard to that. It was fun, though. I don’t have any ill memories of those.
Johnny: Alright. Staying on TV, but in a different way, I would now like to ask about several of your music video appearances, starting with Rod Stewart’s Tonight I’m Yours’. How did you land that video?
Deborah Jenssen: Well, let’s see. I had worked with Kenny Ortega on the American Music Awards a couple of times, as well as Xanadu and an Olivia Newton-John special. Kenny just called me and said, ‘What are you doing?”. I was at my apartment, and I said, “Nothing much”. He said, “Run over to the Marquis in Hollywood, and bring your bathing suit. I want to put you in a video, and I’ll make you principle”.
I said, “Okay”, so I did, and they were all set up. Many girls! We were jumping in and out of the pool. All of a sudden, Kenny pulled me out of the pool and said, “Go dry your hair. When I give you the cue, I want you to move around the band”. I’m like, “Okay”. This is what Kenny would want. He would just leave it up to you (laughing).
My nerves were running a mile a minute. I couldn’t imagine just walking up and touching the band members, especially Rod. It was interfering, sort of, so I just decided to crawl through them while they were playing. That’s where that famous part is, where he decides to smack me on my bottom, which I had no idea that was coming…None. I got hell for it from my mother (laughing), but it was super-fun, all harmless stuff, you know?
I just crawled through the band, and ended up sitting right next to him on the floor, with him on his knees, and dancing away to him singing. I actually did touch him, and Kenny said, “It’s better that you don’t touch him”, but I did already, and they kept that shot, so they must have liked it.
Johnny: Alright. That was a cool music video, and speaking of which, you also appeared in the music video for Loverboy’s Queen Of The Broken Hearts.
Deborah Jenssen: Yes.
Johnny: You’re the second talent who’s appeared in a Loverboy video that I’ve interviewed, the first being Becky LeBeau, who was in their video for Lovin’ Every Minute Of It, so were you a Loverboy fan, and if so, did they live up to your impression of them when working with them?
Deborah Jenssen: Definitely. I love Mike Reno. He’s another voice that I really, really admire. I was just on the Solid Gold set when the producer came in and just asked for me. “I want that girl. We want you to do the Loverboy video”, and I was like, “Of course. Why not?”. (Laughing)
I did that, and that was rough, though, because I believe it was out in Red Rock Canyon, and they wanted to do it at night with all the shadows and stuff. Well, there was a sandstorm that night, and if you ever look at that video and you see Mike Reno singing (laughing), his teeth are grit almost shut, but he’s trying to move his lips. It was difficult. There was sand everywhere, BUT it was still a nice video. They added a lot of different effects. Loverboy were all nice, and the guitar player, Paul Dean, was super-nice. He’s the one that I’m staring at in the end of the video. He’s just a really nice guy.
Johnny: Fantastic to hear. You were also one of the Cave Girl dancers in the video for Was (Not Was)’ Walk The Dinosaur, so what was your favorite part of working on that video?
Deborah Jenssen: That Helene choreographed it. She was a dancer on Solid Gold, although she wasn’t with Solid Gold at that time. She would call me for a lot of things, and she was really into choreography. and she still is. It was a blast, and all the guys, and the girl, were very talented.
Johnny: Indeed it was. Of course, if you listen to the lyrics, it is a little unnerving (Deborah laughs) because, after all, you’re basically talking about a song about the end of the world, but damned if you couldn’t dance to it.
Deborah Jenssen: Oh.
Johnny: Yeah, I’m heavy on listening to the lyrics.
Deborah Jenssen: You know, I never realized that.
Johnny: Yeah. It was basically about an extinction level event that wiped out the humans the way it wiped out the dinosaurs. Of course, that was a pretty big theme for songs in the 80s. After all, one of the biggest was Prince’s 1999.
Deborah Jenssen: Right, right. I think you paid attention to that one a little bit better because, I’m telling you, I had no idea. Walk The Dinosaur, for me, was just, “Oh, here’s a fun little dance they’re going to be doing in the discos”.
Johnny: Yeah. I can see that.
Deborah Jenssen: I also did a music video for a band called OXO and their song Whirly Girl. That was fun because it was one of the videos I was proud to show my kids (laughing). I can’t say that about all of them, but in this one, I was animated. I was twirling up into space, and it’s very funny because it was homemade. They were a band that was on Solid Gold twice, and they did have a couple of hits. They were signed with Geffen Records and they just fizzled out, but when I met them on that show, they wanted to ask me to be in their video, and that’s how that happened. That’s a fun video. You should take a look at it. It’ll crack you up.
Johnny: We’ll switch gears for the next question. What led you to make the switch from dancing to singing?
Deborah Jenssen: Well, I always loved to sing, and when I went on the road, one of my first jobs in L.A was that I was asked to audition for Tina Turner. Tina was in New Orleans doing a show at the time, and she needed to replace one of the girls that was a backup singer/dancer. She was not with Ike at this time. She was on her own. I was flown to New Orleans, I auditioned for her, and I got the job. That was one of the greatest memories of my life. It was just the beginning of another great thing. I did her American tour for a year, and I was singing AND dancing. Her dancing was pretty vigorous, as you know…
Johnny: Oh, absolutely.
Deborah Jenssen: (Laughing) …And singing could be, too, although some of it was just pure harmony. We would be shakin’ it, and I’m talking shakin’ it, onstage, and then we had exactly two minutes to run offstage, rip off our clothes and get into another costume. Two minutes…It was timed, and people were backstage, putting this and that on you. You ran out, you were so out of breath, and you stood at that microphone.
She was now doing a slow ballad, and you had to sing, in your harmony part, nice and easy (laughing). That was difficult. Her stamina, for one, is amazing. You think Madonna works hard for everybody, and she does, god bless her, but Tina? WHOOH! I learned so much from that woman. I love her to death.
Johnny: That’s fantastic to hear.
Deborah Jenssen: Yeah. I had sung in L.A.. I had done a lot of recording projects for people who just wanted to have recordings of their demos that they could shop to bigger artists and things like that. I sang backup for some people who were trying to put out singles, actor friends of mine who wanted to get into singing, but I never went full-on singer because, honestly, dancing was my first love.
Actually, Michael Miller, who was the musical director of Solid Gold, and his people got a hold of a couple of songs for me, and we recorded them in the studio. Nothing happened with the songs, and this was while I was dancing on the show. The beautiful thing is that they actually did that for me.
As much as I wanted to string them together, dancing and singing, that is, it was very hard because then I either really wanted to sing or really wanted to dance. I had to make a choice and say, “Okay, as long as I can still dance, let me plug on with the dancing until I’m not doing that anymore and can ease into something where I can concentrate more on singing”, and that’s pretty much what happened. Dancing is a short-lived career. Singing became the extension of my dancing career.
After Solid Gold, I moved to Italy. Before that, I did a couple of workout videos first. I did Lou Ferrigno’s Knockout Workout, and I worked on Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini’s workout video, plus a couple of other things. I was a workaholic, and I needed to take a break, and that’s when I went to Italy.
That led to meeting friends, and we would go out to hear music and bands. There was this one place called Talent Scout, and my friends were sitting behind me, pointing their finger at my head as the announcer is asking for someone to come up and sing Aretha Franklin. They were pointing at me, but I had no idea. I had to go on stage and sing Respect.
From that point on, from that night, there were two or three people who had bands and wanted me to come sing with them. I picked a couple, and started working and rehearsing with these bands. One was a full-on rock band, while the other performed a mix of all sorts of songs that were hits. I stayed with both of those bands, and one of them got really popular, and we toured around Italy. I also had my own band in Italy, so there was a lot of singing going on.
I did that for 15 or 16 years, and I was pretty known in L.A in the club scene. We did pretty well. There were times when I had three or four gigs a week until the players were telling me, “Hey, I have a girlfriend”. “I have a wife”. ‘We can’t play every weekend”. I had to cut it down for them a little bit, but we played all the popular places, and that was fun, and it was great until COVID hit. That kind of snapped everything out of its’ potential at that point.
I needed a big, big change, and I decided to move, so I moved from L.A to North Carolina, and I said to myself, “I’m not happy, truly happy, unless I’m performing”. That’s one thing I think is true for all performers. Whatever you do, whether it’s dancing, singing, or acting, you have to do it in some way or another. Otherwise, you’re not complete. That’s what I did, and I’m doing it now.
In fact, I joined two bands (laughing), so here, in my old age, I’m still cranking out the tunes, singing better than ever for some reason. I think the humidity helps my voice, and I’m having a lot of fun again.
Johnny: That’s wonderful to hear. If I may, how did your time as a dancer influence your singing?
Deborah Jenssen: A lot. On a performance level, 100 percent. It’s tricky because when you’re just a dancer, you have your counts, your steps, your music. You know exactly what you’re supposed to do and when, and there are times when you make mistakes, but very rarely does it go off-track because your body is programmed to do this and that, but I’ve always loved music so much, and I *FEEL* music so much with my body.
It’s actually better for me singing-wise. When I’m singing, I don’t have to do anything with my body except for what I feel. Nothing is programmed, nothing is triggered. Most of the time, my body is just moving because I feel that song, and then when you’re singing it, it can inhibit you from doing a lot of the things you would want to do dance-wise, but you’ve only got a little space. You can’t knock into the guitar player (laughing), or back into the drums.
I don’t make it a performance like, “She’s a dancer who sings”. It’s more like, “I’m a singer who can definitely move”. I think that’s how my audience sees me.
Johnny: Okay. As a singer, you have a very diverse repetoire, so which songs get the best reception when you sing them?
Deborah Jenssen: If it’s with a full band, and the right place, it’s pretty much classic rock/rock/pop-rock. I think I’ve got great taste in that area because we always get positive feedback. The diverse repetoire would come into play if I’m playing in a different atmosphere, like a quiet restaurant. I’d have a total different set list, which might include Jobim/Sade/Carole King, etc.. I love this music, too.
It just depends on where you are, and what they want. Whatever I do, it’s music that everyone knows, and mostly classics, in any case. Once a hit, always a hit, and those hits always bring people right back to where they were in their lives at that time. To me, there are so many great songs out there, not so many new songs. I don’t even know what new music is, really, as it doesn’t appeal to me, but from the 70s and 80s, there’s just no comparison to the music from those days.
When a song is popular, with a great melody and meaningful lyrics, music puts a lot of stuff in your brain, and that’s the beautiful thing about it. You can’t go wrong.
Johnny: Indeed. Staying with music, here’s a hypothetical question: You’re given an unlimited budget for an album, and you can collaborate with any singers and producers you would like, so which ones would you choose?
Deborah Jenssen: Definitely Ann Wilson, for sure. I love Lou Gramm from Foreigner. He actually happened to be a neighbor of mine who lived around the block from me growing up in Rochester, NY. Maybe Bryan Adams, Robert Plant, and if they were still around, Janis, and Jimi Hendrix.
Johnny: Similarly, if I were to look at your iPod, which artists would I be most surprised to find that you listen to?
Deborah Jenssen: On my iPod are things that I always have to rehearse to. It’s not something that I just listen to for fun, but mostly, on my iPod, you’ll find classic rock tunes. You know, Styx, Journey, Jefferson Starship.
Johnny: Okay. Switching gears again, you’ve always been a great beauty from the 80s to today, but there was a very long period of time where people treated the fashion and hairstyles of the 80s with the same disgust one would reserve for pictures of war atrocities or murder victims, and although it’s subsided for the most part, 80s fashions and hairstyles are still being talked about poorly to some extent. Why do you think that is, and do you think there might ever be a similar lashing out against 90s fashions and hairstyles?
Deborah Jenssen: To be honest, I never got into the 90s anything. I just think they were going over a wall from traditional into their own thing, modernizing it but with no foundation for it. I didn’t understand it too much. Even the electronic music, the digitalness of it, didn’t make much sense to me (laughing). It took the soul out of so much of what we were listening to before that. That’s news to me about what people say about 80s hair.
Johnny: The thing is that I’ve been a major fan of the pop culture of the 80s for a long time now. I turned to it in the late 90s as I was in a very bad position at the time. I was still dealing with the effects of my autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, still reeling from the death of my father when I was 12, dealing with school bullies and a relationship with a functioning alcoholic mother…
Deborah Jenssen: Oh, my god!
Johnny: …Who didn’t know how to raise a child on the autism spectrum, teachers who didn’t understand where I was coming from…The 00s weren’t much better because, for the great majority of the 00s, I was technically an adult, but still a child in many ways. I wouldn’t really reach maturity until I turned 30.
The pop culture of the 80s played a large part in my maturation process, so when people make fun of the fashions and hairstyles of the 80s, like when they say that male pop-rock singers looked like women, or when they say that mullets were disgusting, or “What were we thinking wearing denim jackets?”, it’s like…There were plenty of things to be upset about in the 80s, but give the fashions and hairstyles a break, would ya? I think people looked good back then…
Deborah Jenssen: Oh, yeah!
Johnny: …And, basically, whenever people make jokes about the 80s, it hurts me because it was a decade of pop culture that helped guide my maturation process and helped me truly become a man, a man who is able to deal with his autism spectrum disorder and explain it in a calm manner. It helped me to become calmer and kinder, and more open-minded and respectful. That’s a big reason why I do interviews like this, because a lot of talents I interview were active in the 1980s. These interviews are my way of thanking them for the work that got me through the dark times and led me to the light.
Deborah Jenssen: That’s awesome, and you should be very proud of yourself.
Johnny: I am.
Deborah Jenssen: You’ve been through a lot, my friend. Oh, my goodness! I commend you completely, but history repeats itself, obviously. I watch a lot of period pieces on Netflix, and I love to watch them for the fashion and the hair. The fashion? Oh, I’m just in awe of some of these dresses that these women would have to put on every day, and the corsets underneath it.
You look at all the things they did, and then you progress through time. Men back then would wear dresses, and had long, beautiful hair. It just seems like you go through bits of time, and then it’s not popular anymore, and then, guess what? It comes back, and in another 50 years, it will come back again. I’m seeing right now that a lot of the popular fashions and hairstyles of the 80s are coming back again now.
Johnny: That’s heartening for me because I think the 80s is a very underrated decade for pop culture and fashion. I’ve been something of a black sheep throughout my life, and I wouldn’t really come to maturity until my mom’s passing in 2010. That was the inspiration for me to start changing my life, and the pop culture of the 80s played a big part in that. I’m just glad that the 80s are finally getting the respect they deserve.
I was ahead of the curve. I was an 80s fan back in high school, and it wasn’t a popular time to be an 80s fan. In our 12th grade music class, which was really just the only male teacher we had stapling together makeshift textbooks copied from books in the school library, with a lot of time spent watching movies instead of doing any learning, I would bring in 80s music on cassettes and CDs, and none of my fellow students liked it. They would be blasting their 90s music at full volume.
I mean, I can even recall one time where I explicitly said that I didn’t like Nirvana, and one of my fellow students put in the CD of Nevermind and cranked up Smells Like Teen Spirit at full volume just to spite me. While I have come around to respecting Kurt Cobain as a person, I still don’t like Nirvana’s music.
Deborah Jenssen: Right, and that’s your preference. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a lot of groups I grew up with that I felt their music was bubblegummy, or had no substance and soul to it. Everyone looks for something different in music. That’s the great thing about music. It pulls something from your inner self that it will not pull from another person next to you. That’s the whole difference, and the beauty of it.
In those days, I never let anything dictate the way I wanted to look. I looked how I felt, and believe me, I went through a lot of changes. You could see my hairstyle one week, and then it might change the next week, and in another two weeks, it was different. They would say, “What the hell is wrong with you?”. I would just say, “I felt like I needed a change”. I went from long hair to short, short hair to mid-length hair, perms, not to mention all the different colors. I’m going to do the 80s shag again. It goes well with the singing, you know?
I don’t care what time it is. I still wear bell bottoms. Everybody wears them. Bell bottoms have been back. They never really left until the straight-leg look came in and nobody wanted them anymore, but now they’re back, and it’s about time. Yeah, there are things that are flattering and things that aren’t, but I’m not going to go with what’s out there because that’s all there is. I have to go with what I feel most comfortable with in my skin.
Johnny: Oh, I can absolutely relate to that. That’s really the best thing to be, just be yourself. To go to a more general question, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to enter the entertainment industry?
Deborah Jenssen: It’s quite different now than it used to be. For one, when I started out, no one had agents. No one had a manager. I did everything myself. You went to the auditions. You got cut. You were sent home. You were rejected, or they liked you, or they held you on a string for a month and then rejected you. It was nerve-wracking. It’s very, very hard. To clarify, for the acting and commercial parts of it, you did have to have an agent, even back then.
That was a whole different thing, but then there were a lot of other things you had to deal with, the casting couch being one of them. I wouldn’t have gone too far in the acting field because I believe in things being my choice. That was my dilemma back then and, being a dancer, I eliminated that. There were just too many obstacles that I was rebellious about. I let my words be known, and I spoke them.
What I would say today is beware. Although times have changed, I think that a lot of people who were in great power still have that power. They may use it in different ways and methods to not be so blatantly obvious, but it is a lot of hard work. You should study and be prepared beforehand.
Back then, I was not supported much for that choice of mine, and I did have little doubts at times. I was eating macaroni and cheese for two weeks, and my landlord was helping me pay the rent (laughing), so it goes from one extreme to another, but if it’s in you, and you’re strong enough to have that great will and determination, then you have to go for it. It’s all about your passion. This career is short-lived as it is, so you don’t ever want to have the words, “I could have” or “I should have” in your vocabulary.
That’s the one thing I can say I am grateful for because a lot of people had doubts, and a lot of my friends were equally talented, but for some reason, they didn’t get into that group of people who worked all the time. I, by the grace of God, was lucky enough to be able to do that, and I just believe that He has watched over me all my life.
I just say that you should do it, and if it gets to the point where you think you can continue, go ahead. If you realize yourself through a lot of soul-searching that “maybe I’m really not cut out for this. It’s not making me happy.”, then you need to consider other things that may have something to do with it, but not actually doing it as a major profession.
Apart from my singing, I also have an esthetician’s license. It’s sort of a backup plan because I’ve always had an interest in esthetics and makeup, and chemical peels and the like.
My advice to anyone is to trust your instincts, that gut feeling. Follow your passion, believe in yourself, and remember you always have a choice.
Johnny: Alright. That makes sense. My brother had a zoological degree when he graduated from college and wasn’t happy with his job, so he moved to New Zealand for work in 2019. He actually just left to go back there today after a two-month visit back here. He wanted to work a job that would utilize his degree. He didn’t want to do anything else besides that, and I wanted to say to him there’s no shame in doing something that doesn’t necessarily take advantage of your skills, because you can always use them in a hobby.
I mean, the writing I do? That’s my hobby. My paying job is as a cashier at a major retailer. The job I have pays the bills, but I just write for the love of it, and I just wish my brother could understand that there’s no shame in working a job that may not necessarily take advantage of a degree.
Deborah Jenssen: Oh, god. Johnny, how many people have gone to college, some of them have their Masters’, and they’re not using it?
Deborah Jenssen: They can’t get hired, or they can’t find work that they’re cut out for. There’s so many people that I know who have gone to college that I wouldn’t consider wasted it. I would consider it a good education, if nothing else, but you have that piece of paper if you ever need it. I don’t think it’s a stamp saying, “You must do this. You must follow through”.
We live in this world for a very short time, and speaking of certain careers, mine was very short-lived. That’s the other reason I went out into singing. I can sing until the day I die, or until I don’t have a voice anymore, but you can’t do that in dancing. A football player can’t do that.
There are so many things that are limited, besides that that’s your dream. You’ve got to follow your dream for sure, and it is scary, but if it’s not scary, then maybe it’s not big enough, and there will be other things following after that which are extensions, little flowers growing through that big rock that you’ve formed. That’s the important thing, that you always stay connected to that place with what you’re doing.
Deborah Jenssen: Health and happiness is much more important than the amount of money you have. That is for sure.
Johnny: What were your favorite memories of working on Staying Alive?
Deborah Jenssen: It was very exciting. The thing about Staying Alive is that I got hired on that movie as an actor, not a dancer, but I actually auditioned for the lead role that had a lot of dancing, and I did quite well at the audition. Sylvester Stallone took me aside and said, “You nailed this. You could do this”. He had a problem with the producers, however. They wanted a girl with an English accent. They wanted her to be different than John Travolta.
In my case, if you put me and John Travolta together, we look like cousins, or brother and sister (laughing). That’s just how it was, but he said, “I’m going to try and convince the producers to rearrange the storyline so that we’re both from the Bronx, and we’re competing against each other in our own city”. I didn’t think much of that at the time. I was just in gaga-land. To get a lead role like that?
I waited six days by the phone, literally. I don’t even know if I ate, but Sly finally called me. He was very personable. I consider him a friend, even though I haven’t seen him much lately, but he was very, very nice, and he offered me a smaller part as an “I’m sorry” kind of thing. That smaller part got put in the movie, but a lot was cut out because it was controversial. Despite that, Sly made sure that I had screen credit and the name of my part, and to this day, I still get money from that movie. That just goes to show you that some people do look out for you. Some people feel bad. Some people understand what you’re going through, and that things can’t be changed, but he was really great about it.
When it comes to Flashdance, it was somewhat of the same situation. I was number two in line for the lead role of that movie.
Deborah Jenssen: I went out with director Adrian Lyne and his girlfriend a few times. One specific time that stands out in my mind was going to Club Lingerie in Hollywood. I always used to love to go to that club because they had great bands, and I would dance for, like, two hours straight, and come home looking like a drenched wreck.
As part of my final audition for Flashdance, we would go to places like Club Lingerie in Hollywood, and he would have me dance by myself to see how many people would come and join me. That was the whole premise of Flashdance, that whole thing of being drawn to a dancer, and having the people come to feel what you’re feeling.
It was phenomenal. It was fantastic. In the end, they end up going with Jennifer Beals because she had an innocence to her, as opposed to the exotic presence I had.
Deborah Jenssen: But this is Hollywood, and these are things you definitely need to be prepared for. Everything happens for a reason. I love Jennifer Beals, and I think she did a fantastic job in the movie. You’ve just got to persevere, be good at what you do, and filter out all the noise outside.
Johnny: Fantastic advice. I now come to my final question: Where do you hope your singing takes you next?
Deborah Jenssen: I’m still out here doing my thing because it’s fun, and I love it. It’s invigorating. It’s my livelihood. It keeps me on my toes, and it keeps me creating, It’s my hobby/passion. I really don’t expect anything to happen with it, except being recognized as good at what I do with good musicians who are like-minded.
Johnny: And with all the work you do, you’re excellent at it.
Deborah Jenssen: This has been fun.
Johnny: Indeed it has, and again, I thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this. I’ve admired your work for a long time, and it’s been an honor to talk to you.
Deborah Jenssen: Thank you so much. This has been an honor for me.
Johnny: I’ll definitely be in touch again soon. I hope you have a wonderful afternoon.
Deborah Jenssen: Thank you so much, Johnny. I wish the same for you.
Johnny: Thank you. Be well.
Deborah Jenssen: You, too.
Deborah Jenssen: Bye bye.
I would again like to thank Deborah Jenssen for taking the time out of her schedule to speak to me, and for allowing me permission to use the pictures featured in this article.
Coming soon to the Flashback Interview are conversations with Oscar-winning makeup artist Kevin Haney, two-time Oscar-winning sound designer Russell Williams II, Oscar-winning hairstylist Anne Morgan, and actress/singer Tricia Leigh Fisher.
Thank you as always for reading, everybody.
Loading new replies...
Join the full discussion at the PopGeeks.com - Books, Film, Video Games, Animation Discussion →