John Travolta might be just an actor from a canceled TV show, Steve Rubell would be running a hash house instead of Studio 54 and nobody would think Rod Stewart or Donna Summer was so sexy—if it weren’t for Gloria Gaynor. After all, it was her revamping of the Jackson Five’s Never Can Say Goodbye that broke the pop barrier for disco in 1975, getting the first national AM radio air play for the danceable new music that was to become a way of life. As is so often the case, however, the craze that Gaynor helped launch took off without her. Everyone forgot about the original Queen of Disco, or did at least until this spring when she emerged with I Will Survive. That single outhustled the Bee Gees to No. 1 on the charts and made Gloria’s sixth LP, Love Tracks, her biggest seller ever. “It’s the right song for me,” rejoices Gaynor. “I am a survivor.”
Indeed, at 29, Gloria has survived not only the unhappy love affair described in the song (it was based on her first man at 17, “Lamont something, I don’t even remember his last name”) but also career calamity. She had four straight unsuccessful albums and stayed alive only by working 50 weeks a year, mostly in Europe. “I knew I had something to offer and was determined not to waver.” Then she took a bad fall onstage. “I woke up in the morning and couldn’t turn over,” she remembers. Last year Gloria underwent a risky six-hour spinal fusion, followed by three months in the hospital and three more in a brace before she could boogey again.
Now she’s making her first national tour of America’s big halls as opening act for the Village People’s disco extravaganza. The last of the 44 stops is her New York base where Gaynor hopes for another first: to marry her manager of four years, Linwood M. Simon, 32. “He says the ‘M’ stands for Magnificent, and I quite agree,” she says. They met when Simon, an ex-subway cop from Brooklyn, was managing his sisters, then Gaynor’s backup trio. “One day the girls showed me a picture of their brothers. I saw Linwood and said, ‘This is the man I’m going to marry.’ ” Three months later they had their first date and have been “together ever since,” although they keep separate apartments. “When I get married, I want to stay married,” she says. “If there’s an argument, we talk about it and I submit.”
Right now the only fight that either is losing is Gloria’s battle of the bulge. “I have an oral fixation,” shrugs Gaynor, who hopes to pare 25 pounds off her 5’5″ frame to get back to 130. Since she cheats on her diets, she has lately resorted to acupuncture staples in her ear to curb her hunger.
Gloria grew up the middle child of seven of a Newark firehouse dispatcher who had once sung in vaudeville. “We were poor but didn’t know it,” she recalls. “There was music everywhere to keep us happy. My brothers could harmonize with waterpipes.” At 8 she practiced with records by Nat King Cole, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Sarah Vaughn, because she couldn’t afford voice lessons. Her mother thought show business was “too unstable,” so Gloria worked as an auditor and a beautician for five years after high school. (She still does her own makeup and coiffure.) Then a Jersey club band leader asked her up on stage one night and was so impressed he took her on tour. She formed her own group, City Life, and played the East, singing jazz and even classical, then switching to disco because “it was an open market.”
She then made history with the first LP in which each song blended nonstop into the next. “If you’re really a disco dancer, you’re just getting started after two minutes and 50 seconds,” she figures. Now Gloria finds the scene changed. “I’m embarrassed by the lack of clothing and the sexual dances—things that are repulsive to parents.” Her lyrics, some of which she writes herself, are always wholesomely inspirational. (She plans to study piano next year so she can do more composing.)
“Success hasn’t spoilt me—it’s spoilt everybody else around me,” Gaynor kids. She has loaned her brothers and sisters portions of her seven-figure earnings to help them start careers, and she showers gifts on 14 nieces and nephews. Currently perched in a splashily decorated three-bedroom Jersey apartment overlooking Manhattan, Gaynor plans to build a house for the two or three kids she’d like to have. “Nobody is going to raise my kids for me,” she promises, but she does get “itchy” between tours, she admits, and finds herself watching five soaps a day. She goes back into the recording studio again in August and will follow up with another overseas tour (she’s already logged 30 countries). Gloria also wants to take acting lessons to implement her “lifelong fantasy” of playing a Doris Day-type film role—”There’ll be no X-rated stuff for me.”
But disco remains Gloria’s first priority and she won’t give it up for “a long, long time. It’s not going to end, it’s going to evolve.” Just as she has dresses in her closets in sizes from 10 to 16, Gaynor’s ready for any contingency. “If they decide they want to waltz again,” says the original Queen, “then I’ll do disco music they can waltz to.”