Cherry Vanilla – former DJ, Warhol “Superstar” actress, David Bowie publicist, groupie and rock singer – reflects on the adventure story that is her life
Before PJ Harvey sang, “Lick my legs, I’m on fire…” and before Kathleen Hanna sang, “Suck my left one,” Cherry Vanilla proclaimed, “Lick Me.” Indeed, that is the title of her 2010 memoir, taken from a phrase emblazoned on her tank top in an iconic photograph of her onstage (with Sting in the background).
When I spoke with the former Warhol “Superstar” and groupie who also worked as David Bowie’s publicist before forming her own bands, she was wearing a swimsuit—she’d just been swimming laps in the pool at her Palm Springs abode.
“I didn’t even know what a feminist was when I started living my life the way I lived it.” she said, her New York-accented voice soft and strong as velvet. “I didn’t see the barriers. I didn’t mind using my sexuality, my looks, or even sex, sometimes…”
Madison Avenue and Europe! Plane tickets and hotel rooms! Mansions on the canal, galas at restored theatres, operas! Depression and OCD. Homelessness. A Berkshires mansion, an apartment in Manhattan, and an Art Deco apartment in Hollywood! Cherry Vanilla’s life has been a book that she wrote along the way. She says, “Life presents people to me, and I say yes or no.”
A Libra born on the Day of Essential Judgment, Kathleen Anne Dorritie grew up in Queens. Her mother worked as a telephone operator at Manhattan’s Hotel 14, which housed the famed Copacabana nightclub where the showbiz types gathered (and where Cherry met her first crush, Dean Martin). Her mother’s stories about the stars who lived there entranced Cherry. One of her sisters was a governess to the adopted children of debonair leading man, Don Ameche, who lived at another fancy Manhattan hotel, the Croydon.
Cherry spent a lot of time at these hotels, mingling with models and chorus girls and gangsters, crooners and movie stars and promoters. For Cherry, Queens was “miles, years away from Manhattan’s sophistication, glamour, and show biz.”
The youngest of four children in a strict Irish-Catholic household where the “sun always shone on the son,” Cherry was a loner. “I liked to be alone, sit in the woods, contemplate, go swimming. I liked to do a lot of stuff by myself. I used to walk all around Lake Carmel [in Putnam County, north of New York City]. It took all day to walk around that lake.”
“Sex is something everybody can have. But having your own band, and standing up there in front of those giant speakers…a live drummer beating out a beat… It’s almost like having an orgy, because you’re doing it with the whole band.”
She began writing poems in high school. “I enjoy words,” she said. “They’re magic. They’re another instrument you can make magic with. Notes or words or numbers, people make magic with them.” At night, Cherry glimpsed Manhattan’s lights along the water, inspiring “East River Drive,” a song she wrote.
When Cherry was a child, her dog died from sadness, she claims, after a forced abortion and shaming.
“She was traumatized by the event, and even after,” she said. “Because there was a whole different attitude, that she was a bad, bad dog, and she wasn’t a bad dog. She just had sex with another dog.”
It was the greatest sadness ever, she tells me, and it forever altered her perception of her father and brother, who forced the abortion.
She said, “A lot of kids, their dream is to leave their small town and get to the big city. I was only across the bridge from the big city. I didn’t have to leave the small town, but I had to leave my small life. I knew I had to get across that bridge.”
After graduating from a Catholic high school, Cherry did move to Manhattan, working on Madison Avenue in 1961.
“I was truly innocent, fresh out of an all-girls high school with the nuns,” she recalls.
She was an artist in a commercial world, directing, casting, and sound-mixing commercials before she was 20. She didn’t earn much money but she was willing to do the work others wouldn’t do. She obtained trips with expense accounts for what were then called “Negro radio stations,” her “unintentional feminism” including civil rights and queer-core activism.
“There have to be soldiers. I was never one of the soldiers”—those people who get the laws changed—“But I was a fighter by living the way I lived my life,” she said. She changed her name to Cherry Vanilla as an alias when she recorded stories about musicians for a mixtape smuggled into North Vietnam’s Radio Hanoi.
By 1965, she was a DJ at New York City’s classiest discotheque, Aux Puces.
Cherry’s self-publicity campaign included ordering elegant cards from Tiffany & Co. that read, “You are beautiful, so am I,” handing them to people who appealed to her. “It wasn’t easy!” But “I could hand them a card and sort of run away.” (They would, of course, always call).
“I was playing the part of a girl who could walk up to a rock star,” she said. Cherry’s innocence, naiveté, and honesty meant she was sexually open, and openly naked, at parties, having sex and getting whipped (but not really hard”). She wanted to prove she could do it, and she was soon working with rock stars, sleeping with them, too.
“Let them call me groupie, I’ll make groupie a wonderful thing to be,” she figured. A groupie is an “ardent fan.” She sees nothing wrong with being a groupie, saying, “I think groupies are amazing people who make rock stars, who call DJs and tell them to play their records, who write articles about them, and we should be grateful for that.”
Cherry said that groupies got free tickets to shows, free albums, on the tour bus, and on the road. However, “being a groupie was on the sidelines; I was also a writer, a DJ, an actress…on the weekend I fucked rock stars. But, no matter what, they’ll hang that tag on you because it’s what intrigues them the most.”
When Cherry worked as Bowie’s publicist, they stayed at Hyatt House in West Hollywood (aka the infamous Riot House), and she let groupies sleep in her room. “I wanted to let them know that I saw nothing wrong with what they were doing. I wanted to honor it.”
Cherry’s feminism integrates the mind with the body: “It’s okay to be adored for your body as long as there’s an equal adoration, appreciation, or attention for your mind,” she said. “That’s the real feminism, not one more over the other.”
Her stage performance in Jayne County’s play with Theatre of the Ridiculous impressed Andy Warhol. In 1971, Cherry played the title role in Andy’s Pork at London’s Roundhouse Theatre, making her a Warhol Superstar. Then she worked at Mainman Management for two years.
“Being on the road with David Bowie and having sex with him, with any of the rock stars on the road, was incredible, great fun,” she said. “Wonderful memories. But the real thrill came with feeling that you were part of launching this rock star, this accomplishment that was bigger than any of the sex.”
Cherry told me, “Sex is something everybody can have. But having your own band, and standing up there in front of those giant speakers…a live drummer beating out a beat, not many people can do that. So, that seems extra special. It’s almost like having an orgy, because you’re doing it with the whole band, in those moments when everybody kind of gets in sync. All the musicians are listening to each other, and kind of getting swept away in it, that’s really high…it’s like an orgasm…So those moments are maybe better than sex.”
She wrote songs and toured Europe with Stuart Copeland and Sting (members of her band, as well as her opening act, before they had success as the Police). She plastered taxicabs with stickers that proclaimed her name underneath two sexually suggestive cherry-topped ice-cream globes, writing and performing punk pop with so many revolving back-up bands that she eventually named her group This Week’s Band. Releasing two RCA UK albums, Bad Girl (1978) and Venus d’Vinyl (1979), she also provided audio tracks for Vangelis in 1980, and performed spoken word for her 1993 collaboration with Man Parrish on Blue Roses.
She ran one of the first phone-sex services, which was all about repeating the story she was told by the caller to tell.
“It’s so crazy what that penis means to them,” she realized, saying a guy might feel he has to have a hard-on to prove his manhood, which is a “heavy trip to carry around.” She said it’s a man’s world, and “we would be dancing in the streets if we could prove Trump’s election was rigged.”
She supports #metoo and feels lucky to have avoided sexual trauma.
“I never felt anyone abused me…I was never forced or raped,” she said, “I let myself be exploited by a lot of the men,” on the edges of S & M and humiliation, because she “wanted to try everything.”
“I was a demystifier…I wanted to demystify what it felt like to be an ad exec, I wanted to demystify what it felt like to make a commercial, to demystify what it felt like to be onstage in front of a rock group, I wanted to demystify what it felt like to have your picture on the cover of a magazine. I didn’t want it to keep going, over and over,” Cherry explained. “You’re poor one day, sleeping on the floor. The next day you sign a contract, you’re treated like a star, they send the limousine for you. It’s so weird. Then you don’t have a hit and you’re not treated like a star anymore.”
She had a revelation: “Okay, don’t be a star. Just be an artist.” You might have to take menial jobs, and you might not wear the latest fashions, but “who the fuck cares? Know what you are. It has taken me 74 years to put that into one sentence. I know what I have to be an artist, and I know what I don’t have to be a star. That is such an awakening, and such an acceptance of yourself. You could see the fact that you weren’t a star as a failure….Or you can say, you just knew that wasn’t for you.”
Her life now is quiet.
“I like being alone a lot, I like being quiet, I like to create, cook, shop, and go to the movies, take walks,” she said. “I like doing all that stuff on my own. I haven’t had a romance since I was in my 30’s. I don’t even want one. I gave up sex when I was 40. People say, ‘you don’t want to cuddle?’ ‘No, I don’t want to cuddle’. I want my simple life. The life process is figuring all that stuff out, and not getting stuck in something you don’t want to be stuck in the rest of your life.”
Rufus Wainwright wrote a song about how Cherry loves the simple life she ultimately created. He also wrote the foreword to her memoir, Lick Me.
“It takes a long time to make peace with yourself and know who you are. What I want now is the feeling of accomplishment that comes at the end of a project. I love that feeling…Of course that is gone in a moment but it’s worth it all to get there. It’s such a wonderful moment.”
From her teenage poetry to the grown-up Subway Sagas she wrote in New York; from ghostwriting as David Bowie for Mirabelle magazine to columns and articles she created for Circus, Creem and Penthouse; from the songs she penned for her band (including a song about Punk magazine) and her notebooks full of “pretty tunes and poems” to her scrapbooks that sound like art projects, writing was “always at the base of everything I loved.”
Cherry is now writing a two-act play about music and a love affair between a 75-year-old woman and a 22-year-old man.
“I’m giving myself a role for the afterlife,” she told me.
When she was a kid, she biked, walked, swam, played ball, danced, and never joined a gym. “We were strong, active little kids!”
She’s strong and active now, too. As we parted, she said she was going back in the pool to swim thirty more laps.