Oprah Talks to Tina Turner
This interview appeared in the May 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
The triumphant queen of rock 'n' soul—that 1,000-watt voice! Those killer legs! That hard-earned don't-mess-with-me-ness!—lets her glorious mane down to talk about growing up in Nutbush, Tennessee, surviving Ike Turner's brutal physical abuse (and the night she got away), younger men, growing older, plastic surgery and why "all the best" is yet to come.
When Tina Turner's Wildest Dreams tour stopped in Houston back in 1997, I stood (let me tell ya, you seldom sit at a Tina performance) next to a woman whose story I'll never forget. "I came because I was looking for the courage to leave the man who beats me," she said. "Tonight I found that courage."
Watching Tina perform is what I call a spiritual experience. Each electrifying swing of her miniskirt, every slide of her three-inch Manolos across the stage, sends a message: I am here. I have triumphed. I will not be broken. When I leave a Tina concert, I feel the same way I do after I've seen any great art: I want to be a better human being.
Before Tina Turner—a stage name Ike Turner gave her—there was Anna Mae Bullock, a girl born to sharecropping parents in 1939. Her father and her mother, who was part Native American, left her during World War II to be raised by her grandmother in Nutbush, Tennessee, while they worked in Knoxsville. In Nutbush, Tina fantasized about stardom while singing in talent shows and at church. After moving to St. Louis at age 16, Anna was discovered by Ike, the leader of the R&B band the Kings of Rhythm. Within a few years, her stirring vocals and energetic dance moves catapulted her from backup singer to the act's dominating force, which was renamed the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.
In 1960 the couple had a son, Ronnie. (Ike already had two sons, and Tina had one.) The same year, they landed their first hit, "A Fool in Love," and in 1962, they were married in Tijuana. The band's crossover to pop came with "River Deep—Mountain High" (1966)—a song that, while not a chart topper in the United States, propelled them to European acclaim. Onstage Ike and Tina soared, but offstage she suffered through his violent attacks. One night in 1976, after arriving in Dallas to begin a tour, he beat her bloody en route to the hotel. As soon as he fell asleep, Tina put on sunglasses to disguise her bruised face and escaped with 36 cents in her pocket. She found refuge in a nearby Ramada Inn, then fled to Los Angeles.
After the split, Tina paid her rent by cleaning houses. She eventually broke into cabaret, performing old hits, and later played Las Vegas. Finally, in 1984, with her own manager and a new record label, Tina released her breakout solo album, Private Dancer. The record sold more than ten million copies; she won three Grammys and scored her first number one hit: "What's Love Got to Do with It." In 1986 her autobiography, I, Tina, was published, exposing the shocking abuse she'd endured. (The book was made into the 1993 movie What's Love Got to Do with It.) Since leaving Ike, Tina has become an international rock and soul legend whose packed concerts are among the top selling in history. For nearly 20 years, she's been living in Zurich with her longtime partner, Erwin Bach.
Although she officially hung up her high heels from the big tours in 2000, she returned to the United States last winter with the release of her double CD anthology, All the Best. I spent my birthday, January 29, with her at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. At 65 she's more gorgeous than I've ever seen her. "I've never been happier," she said. Her face and demeanor showed it. I've talked to Tina many times on TV, and in this interview, I found her at her most candid—about the years with Ike, rocking on through her 60s, loving a man 16 years her junior and the one dream she still has.
Oprah: You look good! Those legs—is that just genes?
Tina: Yeah, I always had long legs. When I was young, I used to think, "Why do I look like a little pony?"
Oprah: Your legs aren't just long, they're shapely and beautiful.
Tina: I never put a lot of praise on myself because of my relationship with Ike. I was just happy when I started to like myself—when I divorced and took control of my life.
Oprah: You didn't just divorce. You broke out.
Tina: That's right.
Oprah: Growing up, how poor were you? Every time I hear your song "Nutbush City Limits," I think of my little hometown in Mississippi.
Tina: We weren't in poverty. We had food on the table. We just didn't have fancy things, like bicycles. We were church people, so on Easter, we got all done up. I was very innocent and didn't know much else. I knew the radio—B.B. King, country and western. That's about it. I didn't know anything about being a star until the white people allowed us to come down and watch their television once a week.
Oprah: Which white people?
Tina: The Poindexters. My [maternal] grandmother lived on their farm. That's when I saw Loretta Young on TV. I thought someday I'd have a star on my dressing room. But guess what? When we did "A Fool in Love," and we went to the clubs, we were in a storage room full of beer bottles, Coke bottles. We had to dust and clean up. We were on the road, sleeping in the car.
Oprah: But you started to dream when you first saw Loretta Young?
Tina: Before that. Remember Betty Grable?
Tina: You're 15 years younger than me. Betty Grable [a World War II pinup girl and actress] had beautiful short legs. She was in proportion.
Oprah: Your legs are endless.
Tina: That's what I didn't like. I didn't know how to buy clothes for that. As I grew up, I learned what worked for me. That's where the short dresses came from. And you can't dance in a long dress.
Oprah: No, no. But let's start with Nutbush. What carried you to the next point?
Tina: Fate. When my parents went off to Knoxville to work, I lived with my father's mother. She was strict—the kind who starched and ironed dresses. I had to sit more than I played. Oh, I was miserable. I liked being out with the animals. I'd come in the house with my hair pulled out, sash off the dress, dirty as heck. I was always getting spanked. When my parents returned, they separated. Oooh, Oprah! You know what happens to children sometimes when their parents separate—school can be really cruel. I got teased, and it interfered with my learning. But I grew out of that, and I fell in love in high school. Why did I fall so deeply in love? I think when you haven't had that much love at home, and then you find someone you love, everything comes out.
Oprah: The first love can be the most difficult to get through because you've had no experience.
Tina: That's right. When I think of Harry now, my heart beats faster. He was the most good-looking guy. Everything was in the right place—his eyes, his nose, his mouth. He was a basketball star. Sometimes I'd wear his jacket. It was fainting hot, but because it was his jacket, I wore it. It was magical.
Oprah: I can see that.
Tina: Harry also took my virginity. I don't regret it. I came home that night and folded the dress I'd been wearing and put it away. The next day, my grandmother was doing spring cleaning and everything got washed. When I came home, she said, "I knew you were running around. You're gonna get pregnant." Oh, Oprah! I felt embarrassed. I didn't know what to say. She didn't wash the dress. She just left it out. There was this big spot on it. She didn't let me go dating Harry anymore.
Oprah: Your eyes still light up when you talk about him.
Tina: At the time, I wanted to get married and have children. Harry would have been the one. Years later, after "What's Love Got to Do with It," I ran into his son. He came up to me and said, "Harry Taylor is my father." He looked just like Harry. I thought, "My God, that must have been from another lifetime."
Oprah: It's so interesting what maturity does. What did the Ike years teach you about yourself?
Tina: That's when I learned that I was truly talented. Before I met Ike, I was singing at church and at picnics—but lots of people sing at church and picnics. After I moved with my mother to St. Louis, my older sister and I went to see Ike Turner, who was the hottest then. His music charged me. I was never attracted to him, but I wanted to sing with his band. Ike thought I couldn't sing because I was a skinny-looking girl. Oprah, you were Ike's type. He liked the ladies with the hips.
Oprah: Oh, I really missed out on that one! What is Ike's phone number?
Tina: There was a girl named Pat, and she looked a lot like you, Oprah. He let her sing because she was his type. Pat couldn't sing nearly as well as I could. One evening when the drummer gave my sister the mike, I took it. I could do B.B. King songs with all the emotion. Ike said, "Girl, I didn't know you could sing!" I was so happy, because he was bigger than life. That's when I knew I wanted to be an entertainer. Forget marriage, children, and living happily ever after as a housewife. That was gone. Ike went out and bought me a fur, a dress, some high-heeled shoes. He got my hair all done up. I rode to work in a pink Cadillac. I even got my teeth fixed.
Oprah: How old were you?
Tina: Seventeen. Ike had to come to the house and ask Ma if it was okay for me to sing with him. He knew I had the potential to be a star. We were close, like brother and sister. We had so much fun, Oprah. On his off nights, we'd drive around town, and he would tell me about his life, his dreams. He told me that when he was young, people found him unattractive. That really hurt him. I felt bad for him. I thought, "I'll never hurt you, Ike." I meant it. He was so nice to me then, but I did see the other side of him. He was always fighting people—but I just thought that was because they'd wronged him. That had nothing to do with me.
Oprah: That's what you thought?
Tina: Yes. I also saw that he had a temper when he would fight with the girl he was dating. Then I learned that his father had been beaten up by some whites for going out with the same woman one of them was going out with. His father later died. I learned a whole story about Ike.
During the time when I didn't have a boyfriend and Ike had broken up with his woman, he started touching me. I didn't like it, but I didn't know what to do or say. We were sitting in the backseat of a car. In those days, everybody did what Ike said. He had the power. He had never been mean to me, so I felt loyal to him. But I didn't want a relationship with him.
Then came the recording. I went to a studio, recorded "A Fool in Love," and Ike sent it to New York. Soon after, Ike and I had a little run-in and I said to myself, I think I'd better get out of this. So I told the girl who was managing everything that I didn't want to be involved with the recording. That was the first time I really got a beating from Ike.
Oprah: A beating?
Tina: With a shoe stretcher.
Oprah: Wait a minute. He hit you with a wooden shoe stretcher?
Oprah: Where were you?
Tina: At his house in East St. Louis. I was afraid of Ike—I'd talked to the manager because I felt the vibration of what was about to happen. I wanted out.
Oprah: Even if it meant giving up your music?
Tina: I had a reputation around town as Little Ann. I could have gotten jobs with other bands—but I was loyal to Ike. That's how I am. Ike would ask me over and over: "Oh, you want to hurt me like everybody else, don't you?" I'd be saying, "No, no, no," but the more I said no, the more he'd say, "Yes, that's what it is." Later on, that pattern of dialogue became so familiar that when he'd start with it, I'd know a beating was coming. He'd walk around biting his lip and working himself up. I'm sure he needed a bit of therapy.
Oprah: A bit?
Tina: Anyway, wham! I was shocked. How could you hit someone with a shoe stretcher? Then he hit me with the heel of a shoe.
Oprah: In your face?
Tina: Always. Later he'd hit me in the ribs, and then always try to give me a black eye. He wanted his abuse to be seen. That was the shameful part.
Oprah: Over the years, I've told women that when it happens the first time, you need to walk.
Tina: I did not walk.
Oprah: What happened after he hit you?
Tina: He told me to get in the bed, and he had sex with me. When I met Ike, I couldn't have orgasms. He used to get angry with me. He'd say, "You're not trying." Later it became, "You're not trying to get a hit record." All the blame was on me. When I look back on that time now, it was just hell. So why didn't I walk out? I had nowhere to go. I didn't have money—and neither did my mother. I found out later that my mom had this worship thing for Ike. When Ike and I eventually separated, she tried to find me for him.
Oprah: Is it true that he would beat you before you went onstage?
Tina: Yes. I never knew what would trigger him. He was tired, he didn't eat properly, and he'd drink peach brandy with his drugs. So his emotions were never in control.
Oprah: He was obviously unhappy with himself.
Tina: And so fearful of failure. We hadn't had a hit for a while. He was spending most of the money on drugs. Expenses were mounting. I was upset because I wasn't receiving a dime. I knew that he was buying for all the ladies around him.
Oprah: What was the greatest humiliation for you?
Tina: There were so many. He liked to show the public that he was in control and that he was a woman hater. He also liked for his women to get up and walk across the floor for display so that other men could see what he had. I didn't know how to get out of the whole situation. There were many times when I picked up the gun when he was sleeping. I once moved all his clothes from the house down to the studio. He had a fit.
Another night we had a fight in the dressing room, and when I went onstage, my face was swollen. I think my nose was broken because blood was gushing into my mouth when I sang. Before, I'd been able to hide under makeup. But you can't hide swelling.
Oprah: Did people around you know what was happening?
Tina: The band knew. But it was probably difficult for them to get work and I think they wanted drugs from Ike. I didn't know where to go. And I still had a sisterly love for the man. I did my best to make him happy. I shopped for him. I did his hair. I was his Cinderella.
Oprah: Some part of you must have believed that you deserved the abuse.
Tina: Oprah, if I thought I deserved it, I never found that out. It was just karma. I came into this lifetime with a job to finish. I finished it well. I've been told many reasons for why I lived through what I did. But I have never felt that I deserved it.
Oprah: Was it a self-esteem issue? There's no way this could happen to you today. I just ran across a letter I wrote in my 20s, when I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. I'd written 12 pages to one of the great jerks of all time. I wanted to burn the letter. I want no record of the fact that I was ever so pitiful.
Tina: I had pity for myself. That started way back when I felt my mother didn't love me. A psychic in England told me that when my mother was pregnant with me, she didn't want me. When I confronted Ma about that, she told me the whole story. When I was born, she felt trapped into staying with my father. I didn't blame her, but I felt sorry for myself.
Oprah: Not being wanted is a terrible feeling. My mother didn't want me, either.
Tina: Did you feel pity for yourself?
Oprah: No. But it affected my self-esteem for years. It's unnatural to not be wanted by your mother. That takes some overcoming.
Tina: Right. I don't think about my years with Ike a lot because I don't need to. It was the worst time in my life.
Oprah: Did your children witness the abuse?
Tina: They saw the black eyes. Ike's children never reacted, but my oldest son, Craig, was a very emotional kid. He'd always look down in sadness. One day when Ike was fighting me, Craig knocked on the door and said, "Mother, are you all right?" I thought, "Oh, please, don't beat me at home." I didn't want my children to hear. I tried to have meals with the children, talk to them about life. But Ike had no sense of that. He'd always come home late from the studio. It was awful.
Oprah: What did you learn from that time?
Tina: That I have to depend on myself. When you stay in a situation like that, you're trapped in negative energy. I believe that if you'll just stand up and go, life will open up for you. Something just motivates you to keep moving. When I left, I simply said to that white manager at a hotel in Texas, "Can you give me a room?" I was shaken, nervous, scared. But I knew I wasn't going back.
After my plane landed in California, my heart was in my ears. I was afraid Ike would be there because when I'd left once before, he tracked me down on a bus. I'd been sleeping, and when I sat up and looked out the window, there he was. That was the first time I got beat with a hanger. So when I got off that plane, I ran like mad. I said to myself, "If he's here, I'm going to scream for the police." And I had one chant in my head: "I will die before I go back."
Oprah: After surviving that, did you feel you could do anything?
Tina: Oh, yes.
Oprah: Were you still scared of him for a long time?
Tina: When he finally found me, he asked if I would see him. I went out and sat in the car to talk with him. I knew exactly where the door handle was. So when he said, "You motherf---er," I was out of the car and back in the house. I think he told my mother that he was happy I'd gotten out of the car because he had a gun and was planning to kill me.
Oprah: Weren't you afraid?
Tina: I wasn't afraid of death. And I knew there was nothing he could say or do that would make me go back to him. In court, during the divorce, he tried to give me a mean look. I wanted to say, "You're such an idiot. Do you think your vibes can even reach me now?" He had no power over me. For anyone who's in an abusive relationship, I say this: Go. Nothing can be worse than where you are now. You have to take care of yourself first—and then you take care of your children. They will understand later.
Oprah: I got that.
Tina: Your children are blessed. They possibly have good karma, or someone will take them in. People take care of children. But they don't always take care of you.
Oprah: I understand that in a way that I've never understood it. How old were the kids when you finally left?
Tina: Old enough. Craig had graduated from high school. My youngest son, Ronnie, was still in school. The housekeeper was there. I made sure they would be all right. But before you can really help them, you have to strengthen yourself. You're the priority.
Oprah: How did you get on that plane with only 36 cents?
Tina: I called one of our lawyers who had often looked at me with a face that said, "Why do you stay?" I said, "I've left Ike. If you can send money, I promise to pay you back one day." The lawyer called some friends in Fort Worth, and the next day, a couple came to the hotel. They didn't say a word to me. I just got in their backseat. The country was still very segregated, yet these white people were doing something for a black woman. When I arrived in California, I took a taxi to a hotel in Hollywood to meet the lawyer. He paid for the cab, and from there, we went to his home. The next day was the Fourth of July—Independence Day. That holiday had never meant so much.
Oprah: You've been a Buddhist for a long time. What brought you to that?
Tina: The women who sold drugs to Ike said, "What are you doing here, Tina? How can you live with this madness?" Then one day, someone told me, "Buddhism will save your life." I was willing to try anything. I started to chant. Once, I chanted, went to the studio, and put down a vocal, just like that. Ike was so excited that he gave me a big wad of money and said, "Go shopping!" I thought, "This chanting stuff works." I was hooked. I still believe in the Lord's Prayer. I find a form of the Lord's Prayer in Buddhism. Every religion has rules for living a good life. If you practice any kind of spirituality, it moves you to stages where you gather other ways of communicating.
Oprah: That's exactly what I believe. You evolve new parts of yourself.
Tina: I never close a door on any other religion. Most of the time, some part of it makes sense to me. I don't believe everyone has to chant just because I chant. I believe all religion is about touching something inside of yourself. It's all one thing. If we would realize this, we could make a change in this millennium.