Heather Headley

Sitting on a desk at POLLSTAR are about 100 pictures of Heather Headley, taken at a recent show in New York. They tell a tale of how Headley became a Tony Award winner, beyond the tremendous voice.

In one picture, her face is raised to the sky, her hand on her heart. In the next, her nose is crinkled as she reaches for a high note, her fist pumping the air. In the next, she is smiling deviously at someone in the back rows.

Flipping through them is like watching an old-fashioned flicker show on Edison’s Kinetograph. Her expression keeps changing, her body reacting.

“She’s just got a passion that’s unbelievable. Unbelievable,” CAA’s Rob Light told POLLSTAR. “I guess you can tell I’m a big fan.”

Broadway star Headley is getting ready to take her carnival of emotion to various cities across the U.S., but although her mainstream debut, This Is Who I Am, dropped October 8th, plans for a tour are still formulating. The word on the breeze is sometime in the spring of 2003.

In the meantime, she’s, well, OK, she is touring. It’s just the radio show thing, the morning show thing. Not to say that isn’t tough enough.

“I’m learning that the touring beast is just a little much,” Headley told POLLSTAR. “With all due respect, it’s almost (she begins whispering) slightly easier. Kind of like if one time I can’t hit a note, I can just let the backup singers do it. (Raising voice to full stage volume) Whereby, on Broadway, if you can’t hit that note, God help you. Just stay home.

“But now I’m learning that the beast is a little harder,” she continued. “The traveling takes so much out of you mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically that when you do get on stage, it’s tough. … And listen, I’m not even doing the big tours like Bon Jovi and already I’m like, ‘Whoo! I need a day off!'”

Along with the “beast,” Headley also uses an intricate analogy of the “child,” meaning her record, including gestation time and godparents. She carried her baby for two years before it was born October 8th. Rob Light and manager Randy Hoffman are now considered the “nannies,” along with caretakers at RCA.

“I was carrying an elephant,” she said, because she was meticulous in choosing the songs.

The album certainly feels like a starmaking project, similar to Whitney Houston’s first record, which also took forever to prepare.

“It’s ironic that you bring up Whitney Houston because that’s how I wanted it, that first album that she did,” Headley said. “When we started at RCA, I told them I wanted a timeless piece.”

Heather Headley

Headley grew up the daughter of preachers at the Barataria Church of God in Trinidad before her father secured a pastorship of a church in Fort Wayne, Ind., when she was 15. She competed in performing arts contests at age 2 and was playing concert piano by 4. Although her record is mainly R&B, her life in Trinidad also gave her a background in calypso, soka and reggae.

She eventually found her way to study communications and musical theatre at Chicago’s Northwestern University. In 1997, she landed the role of Nala, the lioness in Broadway’s version of “The Lion King.” That took her to the lead role in the Elton John / Tim Rice-penned “Aida,” the story of a Nubian princess, for which she won the Tony.

“I can’t wait to be on tour,” she said, “and have such an intense show that people, when they come out, they’re like, ‘I need a break’ and ‘I’ll always remember this day.’ I love when people tell me that about [my theatre performance] and my dream is to do it on tour as well. So, I’m excited. I’ll drive the bus.”

Headley said she was also meticulous in choosing her management and record company.

RCA was chosen because there wasn’t anyone on its roster at the time that equated to a Houston or a Monica or a Debra Cox.

“You want to go somewhere where they give you attention and prioritize this child I was carrying.”

For the same reasons, she went with Hoffman, who also manages a diverse roster with John Mellencamp, Thalia, Jessica Simpson and Mindy McCready.

“I think with Randy, he sees a more long-term investment,” Headley said. “This is not about the first record; it’s about the one I do in 10 years. It’s about the movie I’m going to do when I’m 45, that kind of thing. He deals with it almost like a father. It’s his passion, it’s his life … The money is not the focus; it’s more about the fact that we’re going to build a career and, in the end, we’ll all be happy.”

The day before the drop date of her album (which debuted at No. 38 on SoundScan and No. 14 on the R&B chart), Headley was onstage with Mellencamp at the Timothy White tribute.

She said her set is currently an hour, but she could do an hour and a half of music. The hard part is getting her to leave the stage.

“After an hour and a half, you’d kick me out. I’ve done benefits and we normally do an hour, hour and a half,” she said. “Then, I faint and somebody comes and throws a cape over me. And I rise from the floor.”

“She’s got a special gift,” Light said, “and how you get the word out there is the hardest part of this. I keep telling her it’s a one-person-at-a-time kind of battle. Little by little, she turns people around.”