Dusty Springfield: A Legend Who Loved Women

Not many popular parts of gay or lesbian culture fit into the heterosexual world. Fewer still are celebrated. Dusty Springfield fits seamlessly into both. One of the biggest stars – and most recognisable voices – of the 20th century, Dusty is a true superstar.

Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in 1939, Dusty Springfield grew up in Enfield. She loved to sing from an early age. At 19 Dusty joined the Lana Sisters, her first experience as part of a pop group. She then rose to fame as one-third of The Springfields, with her brother Dion and his collaborator Tim Feild. Their success launched Dusty’s solo career. Smash hits like “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Wishin’ and Hopin” sent Dusty up high in the charts and earned her a loyal following. A legend was born.

Dusty Springfield is one of those rare artists whose music appeals not just across continents, but through generations.

Her honey-sweet voice and her subversive delivery of saccharine lyrics made Dusty a household name. With her glamorous evening gowns and big blonde hair, Dusty had a camp kind of charm. With twenty one albums to her name, she remains a face of 1960s culture and is to this present day a gay icon. Even and especially by modern standards, Dusty’s mass appeal is extraordinary.

People from every sphere of my life have a soft spot in their hearts for Dusty Springfield. She is one of the few things than translates from the side of my world that’s made up of women’s spaces and lesbian culture over to a family context. Dusty is a bit of a chameleon. She sings of longing, love, and loss in a way that perfectly matches traditional notions of romance. And yet songs like her cover of “You Don’t Own Me” rebuke the gendered double standard that’s conventional in heterosexual love.

It was only after I started participating in lesbian feminist community that I came to understand the layers to her appeal. There is a magic to Dusty Springfield that is heightened by the way her music is passed from lesbian to lesbian. Though her sexuality was something of an open secret in the community during her lifetime, I believe that being such an outsider added to the depth of feeling in her music.

Despite her extraordinary success, Dusty’s life wasn’t easy. For many years Dusty was afraid of being outed, worried that it would damage her singing career. Because she was never known to be in a long-term relationship with a man, there was a great deal of speculation from the British press. After a time Dusty felt able to talk about her sexuality openly. In 1970, when the women’s liberation movement was kicking off, Dusty came out as bisexual:

“Many other people say I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it … I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy.”

Her honesty was incredibly brave, and yet Dusty was punished for it. She didn’t have another hit single for over fifteen years.

Shedding her sixties image would also prove a challenge. A mixture of substance abuse and alcoholism kept Dusty from re-establishing herself in the ‘70s, the lull in her career only adding to Dusty’s despair. She was hospitalized several times because of self-harm, and later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Dusty’s relationships weren’t straightforward either, complicated by her addictions and burdened by the weight of public homophobia. Through the 1970s she had an on-again off-again relationship romance with Faye Harris, an American photojournalist.

In the early 1980s, thirty years before same-sex marriage would be legalized, Dusty married the actress Teda Bracci. Although their marriage wasn’t legally acknowledged, the women exchanged vows and made a commitment to one another. The marriage didn’t last two years, and ended with both women being admitted to hospital.

Still, things picked up for Dusty in 1987 when she collaborated with another gay icon: the Pet Shop Boys. “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” reached number two in the UK and USA charts revived her career. It is a certified bop.

My own relationship with Dusty’s music isn’t uncomplicated. Black women with similar levels of talent and charisma had been singing the blues and soul music for years before Dusty ventured into those genres, but very few ever skyrocketed to fame the way she did. It’s frustrating that when a white artist performs a style of music that was developed by Black artists, they are far more likely to meet with success. And yet I find it impossible not to appreciate Dusty’s music. Her voice is rich and clear, and that impish personality shines through in a way that’s irresistible.

On planes and trains I listen to Dusty Springfield and let her honeyed tones carry me away from travel anxiety. And Dusty’s no fair-weather friend – she’s there for me when I’m down. The last song she ever sung on television, in June 1995, has the full power of the blues. “Where Is A Woman To Go?” is a personal lament, but it’s also a highly political song, railing against the ways women’s freedom is curtailed.

At the time of recording, Dusty had already been diagnosed with breast cancer while recording – although the cancer went into remission, it returned shortly afterward and proved fatal. She died in 1999 at the height of her musical prowess, aged 59.

Watching Dusty sing her swansong, I get chills. She was a brilliant performer until the end and, more than that, she felt the music. Dusty is someone I can talk about with my favorite lesbian feminist, and she’s also someone I can listen to with family. One relative with socially conservative leanings, ever so gently, tried to broach the subject of sexuality with me – and in that moment Dusty’s voice was like a bridge between us. I believe the in-between space where she lived her life has enabled Dusty to transcend plenty of conventional boundaries long after her death.