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Helen Reddy: Farewell to a feminist icon

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Helen Reddy in 1975 (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Feminist icon Helen Reddy, the first Australian to top the US charts, has died at age 78.

She was born Helen Maxine Reddy on 25 October 1941, in Melbourne, to a well-known Australian showbiz family. Redding began performing with her parents on the Australian vaudeville circuit at the age of four. Pushed towards stardom right from the get-go, Reddy rebelled as a teenager and said, “I was going to be a housewife and mother”.

A youthful marriage at 20 to Kenneth Claude Weate – an older man who was a family friend – ended in divorce in 1966 and left Reddy as a single mother with a young daughter, Traci, to care for.

Reddy was also plagued with ill health after having a kidney removed at 17, which prevented her from having a dancing career. She concentrated on her singing and won a talent contest on the Australian TV show, Bandstand. First prize was a trip to New York City. Reddy was also supposed to have a chance to audition for Mercury Records but they saw the Bandstand footage and rejected her.

Despite only having US$200 (AU$280) in her pocket and a return ticket to Australia, Reddy decided to stay in the United States with her young daughter and pursue her singing. It ultimately turned out to be a brilliant career move, although Reddy lived hand to mouth for a while due to her visa status. As an Australian citizen, she did not have the right to work legally in the United States and continually skipped across the border to Canada – another Commonwealth country – to find work.

In 1968, Reddy met her future manager and second husband, Jeff Wald, at a party where Reddy entertained. The admission price of $5 was to enable Reddy to pay her rent.

Reddy recalled:

[Wald] didn’t pay the $5, but it was love at first sight.”

Reddy married Wald – a Jewish native of the Bronx – three days after their fateful meeting, which gave Reddy the right to live and work in the United States. Reddy later bore Wald a son, Jordan.

During the 1970s, as a naturalised American citizen, Reddy enjoyed international success with 15 singles in the Top 40 of the U.S. charts, including three number ones. Her first real chart success was with 'I Don’t Know How To Love Him' from the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Initially a B-side to 'I Believe In Music', which fell flat, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” peaked at number 13 in 1971.

In May 1972, Reddy released her best-known number one hit 'I Am Woman', which she was inspired to write after becoming actively involved in the burgeoning women’s movement. Reddy said she wanted to find a song that reflected the positive self-image she had gained from finding solidarity with other women.

She said:

"I realised the song I was looking for didn’t exist and I was going to have to write it myself.”

Initially, 'I Am Woman' had a lukewarm reception and barely registered on the charts. However, female listeners identified strongly with the song and began requesting it at their local radio stations in droves. The single consequently raced up the charts and made Reddy the first Australian artist to score a U.S. number one.

At the Grammy Awards ceremony, Reddy famously finished her acceptance speech by thanking God

“...because She makes everything possible.”

When discussing the song’s iconic status, Reddy said:

“I think it came along at the right time. I’d gotten involved in the women’s movement and there were a lot of songs on the radio about being weak and being dainty and all those sorts of things. All the women in my family, they were strong women. They worked. They lived through the Depression and a world war, and they were just strong women. I certainly didn’t see myself as being dainty.” 

Reddy’s career exploded after that and at her peak in the mid-70s, she was headlining in Las Vegas and actively promoting the career of her close friend Olivia Newton-John, who won a starring role in Grease after meeting film producer Allan Carr at a party at Reddy’s house.

While Reddy was active in the 1980s, her relationship with her husband and manager, Wald, became volatile due to his controlling nature and Reddy filed for divorce. In 1983, Reddy married her third and final husband, Milton Ruth, a drummer in her band. They divorced in 1995.

In her later years, Reddy’s health worsened and she suffered from both Addison’s disease and dementia.

Her death prompted a flood of tributes.

Unjoo Moon, who directed a recent biopic about Reddy called I Am Woman, said:

“She paved the way for so many and the lyrics that she wrote for ‘I Am Woman’ changed my life forever, like they have done for so many people and will continue to do so for generations to come.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard wrote of Reddy: 

'Move than seven decades after she appeared in vaudeville as a four-year-old, she has exited the stage for good. Like all legends, she has left her audience applauding and calling for more.'

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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