Tammy Faye Starlite explores Europop with new character, Tamar

tammy faye tamar

Tammy Faye Starlite will play a new character, Israeli chanteuse Tamar, in a series of shows at Pangea in New York. Photo by Bob Gruen; artwork by Rachel Lichtman.

Tammy Faye Starlite, the bold and inventive alt-cabaret singer, has earned critical acclaim for the characters she inhabits, including the singers Nico and Marianne Faithfull — “blondes with low voices and defiant lives,” as she said in a prior interview.

Her performances reveal her biting sense of humor and sharp, politically left commentary. She unleashes her own voice through her characters and shines when she is shocking.

Petite with cherry red lips, boundless energy and lots of attitude, she returns to the stage as Tamar, an Israeli chanteuse, in “Yesterday, Today and Tamar!” every Thursday (beginning Oct. 7) at the downtown New York club, Pangea. The show was co-written by Starlite and Rachel Lichtman and directed by Lichtman; for information, visit showtix4u.com/event-details/55943.

Starlite says the character Tamar “started with my doing an obnoxious Israeli accent during conversations with my publicist, the legendary Bob Merlis, after he encouraged me to watch (the Netflix series) ‘Shtisel,’ which I loved. Then in February of this year, I was thinking about something new to do, and I realized that my real name is Tamar (I’d forgotten that fact) and maybe I could unite the name with the accent, and Tamar, the persona, emerged.

“I started by having my previous director, Michael Schiralli, take pictures of me via Zoom and making posters for an upcoming non-existent concert. I did a brief Instagram video as ‘Tamar’ and then I was talking with Rachel and she wanted to help me develop Tamar … in the mode of (European singers such as) Amanda Lear and Raffaella Carrà, so I decided to record the Hebrew standard ‘Lo Yisa Goy’ ” — the Jewish summer camp and anti-war classic — “as a disco song.”

BOB GRUEN

TAMMY FAYE STARLITE

Lichtman sent her voice memo recording to musician Ted Leo, who put a backing track to it. She also conceived and directed the video for the song. (see video below)

“Rachel FaceTimed my friend — and hair colorist/stylist — Lexie Montgomery in my apartment on Lexie’s phone while Lexie filmed me on my phone,” Starlite said. “Rachel then took the footage and did her magnificent magic and there it was, a bit of neo-proto-Eurovision. We did the same process with the next two videos — me singing into my phone, Ted putting music to it, Rachel directing Lexie on the filming. Those next two videos were Tamar’s pop/folk-existentialist phase, à la Françoise Hardy and Juliette Gréco.” (see videos below)

Starlite expressed gratitude for her team, which had to deal with obstacles caused by the pandemic. “It felt like the same creative collaborative high that normally comes from working on live shows. To paraphrase Emmylou Harris, your style is defined by your limitations.”

Starlite said that “Tamar’s genre, if she has one specifically, is the South of France.” So while it may be hard to put Tamar in a creative box, it’s helpful to know that, according to press materials, she embraces an “Ashkenazi-textured Europop” sensibility and has won the fictional Giorgio awards for “best spoken word disco performance by a non-Belarusian female solo.” Tamar — known as the “Belle of El Al” — sings in Hebrew and English and is known for her signature response to most questions, which is “of course.” 

Tamar is quite an enigma, even for a fictional character. Regarding her compulsory service in the Israeli defense forces, Starlite, switching to Tamar mode, responded only “Of course!” When I asked her about Tamar’s musical influences, she said “Exactly!”

CINDY STAGOFF

Tammy Faye Starlite, performing at Pangea in New York in 2019.

Tamar has appeared in roles in fictional Golan-Globus productions such as “The Fig Bush” and, according to press materials, her appearance in New York “is rare, yet tax-deductible.” At Pangea, Tamar plans to cover, in addition to “Lo Yisa Goy,” everything from folk classics to The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.”

I wondered if Tamar delves into the conflict affecting The Middle East in her shows. Starlite said Tamar dedicates all of her performances to peace. 

Starlite’s characters have commented on Jewishness before and, in a way, remind me of midrash, a rabbinical tradition of biblical interpretation that encourages debate and questioning. Starlite’s characters often demand that we question the cultural and political status quo. So her theater becomes a midrash that is all about interpreting the texts she references and the comments she makes about the history of rock ‘n’ roll, love, loss, alienation, success and women’s empowerment.

Starlite got her stage name from the first character she played, a country/Christian singer. As this irreverent country star, she released two albums: On My Knees (1994), featuring the songs “Did I Shave My Vagina for This” and “God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus” — a satirical anti-abortion song — and Used Country Female (2003), featuring “I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star)” and “Don’t Make Me Pregnant.” She is a devotee of country music and enjoys turning the stereotyped version of a wholesome country star inside out.

Starlite grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended Jewish private schools before majoring in creative writing at New York University. She lives in Hoboken with her husband, guitarist Keith Hartel.

In 2019, I experienced her merging of fantasy and authenticity at her show “Why’d Ya Do It,” in which she channeled ‘60s pop icon Faithfull, performing songs from Faithfull’s 1979 comeback album Broken English. Her performance was mesmerizing, with provocative monologues and an uncanny vocal impersonation.

Tammy Faye Starlite, performing as Nico.

She recounted in that show the moment when Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham discovered Faithfull at a 1964 party and decided he would make her a star based upon her appearance, not knowing if she possessed musical talent. When I asked Starlite to compare Nico and Faithfull with Tamar, she said that Tamar is “different from Nico and Marianne Faithfull because she didn’t know Andrew Loog Oldham,” though she said the artists knew each other. “She (Tamar) modeled with Nico on the Via Veneto and she was on a bill with Marianne and Gene Pitney in Hull.”

One factor that definitely sets Tamar apart is her appreciation of the disco movement in the United States. “She loved Xenon,” said Starlite, referring to the Manhattan nightclub. “And she was in Long Island during that brief halcyon period when L’Amour East was a disco.”

During a prior interview, Starlite spoke about Faithfull’s song “Broken English,” which discusses the futility of violence, even as an act of political defiance. She said that defiance takes on many forms, both political and personal, including drug abuse and anorexia, which she has suffered from, on and off, for years. When she introduced “Broken English” at her “Why’d Ya Do It” show, she explained that it was inspired by the activities of Ulrike Meinhof, a West German militant and co-founder of the Red Army Faction, and compared Faithfull’s heroin addiction to the nature of political violence, both acts of defiance that lead to destruction.

Starlite presents a lens to see the complexity in her characters (and herself) onstage and I expect that with her signature irreverent defiance, literary allusions and rage, we will know Tamar’s sides, too, while enjoying a revelatory night of theater.

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