When Elen Lauper announced last April that she was running as the Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of Phoenix, none of the handful of reporters present thought to ask if she was related to the wacky rock star Cyndi Lauper.
A family tie seemed too farfetched. After all, a great deal more than geography separates the Arizona capital’s Socialist Bookstore, where Elen, 33, threw her hat into the ring, from the artists’ lofts of lower Manhattan, where the flame-haired she-bopper pursues her antic art. But the truth will out—even if both Elen and Cyndi wish it wouldn’t—and the truth is, the two are sisters. Elen definitely does not agree with Cyndi, 32, that Girls Just Want to Have Fun. But Cyndi’s self-descriptive album title fits Elen equally well: She’s So Unusual.
As befits the standard-bearer of a party so-named, Elen is a worker—a helper-and-bundler who cuts hot steel with a blowtorch at the Marathon Steel Company’s Phoenix plant for $8 an hour. “It’s hard,” says the 5’4″ Elen, “but you get a certain amount of respect once you’ve matched all the things that your co-workers can do.”
Since dropping out in her freshman year at the City University of New York’s Queens College in 1970 to find out “why the world was the way it was,” Elen has held a series of “non-traditional” jobs. She has repaired railroad boxcars, worked in a garment factory and sweated as a pipe fitter in shipyards. She was introduced to politics through her involvement in the movement for the right to abortion and gravitated into the Socialist Workers Party primarily because of its positions on women’s issues.
Including Elen there are just 15 SWP members in Phoenix, so her candidacy does not exactly strike fear in the heart of the incumbent mayor, Democrat Terry Goddard, 38. Of the Socialists, a Goddard spokesman says, “They have no support, and there is no animosity toward them, either.” In other words they are pretty much ignored.
Elen Lauper may be changing that. Her call for sanctuary for Salvadoran refugees in Phoenix touches on an issue of major concern to the region. But what has really put her and her party on the map is the one thing she refuses to discuss—her relation to the rich and famous Cyndi.
“We live in two different worlds,” says Elen, who after punching out each day drives a battered station wagon home to a small apartment in a salmon-colored concrete-block building where she lives alone. Concerned that references to her glitzy sibling will undermine her solidarity with working people, Elen dismisses all questions about Cyndi with a stock answer: “I don’t write her music, and she doesn’t write my speeches.”
Yet even as she articulates the answer, the faint traces of a New York accent recall the Queens childhood she shared with Cyndi and their younger brother Butch. Their mother, Catrine Dominique, divorced when Elen was 6, struggled to feed her kids on her earnings as a waitress. Cyndi has said that their mother strongly encouraged individual creativity, and Elen says, “I think a good job was done in terms of teaching the value of thinking something through for yourself.” According to Cyndi’s record company biography, when she took up guitar at age 12 she began writing songs with her sister.
Cyndi, who has sold more than 6.5 million copies worldwide of her first solo album, has not contributed to Elen’s campaign. David Wolff, Cyndi’s boyfriend-manager, says she has no comment on Elen. He adds that the sisters talk infrequently and “don’t share the same political views.”
Cyndi did contribute a memorable performance to the We Are the World video to aid the hungry, but she’s been far more outspoken about wrestling than politics. Yet the sisters may have more in common than either acknowledges. “A woman can be a leader. A woman can be assertive,” says the frankly feminist Elen. Members of the L.A.-based Women in Film organization, who know a feminist when they see one, have honored Cyndi for the pro-woman casting in her videos.
Elen, pressing her quixotic battle beneath the Arizona sun, and the flamboyant Cyndi, splashing her art over MTV’s airwaves, sound suspiciously like two sides of the same mother-minted coin.