When Donna Summer hit the American Idol stage for its May 21 finale, the Queen of Disco did what she does best: got the audience up on its feet to dance. For a few minutes, it was like time-traveling to the ’70s, when Summer’s fans hustled and boogied under glittery spinning balls to smashes like “I Feel Love,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff.” Returning to the stage on Idol night was “fantastic,” says Summer.
The Idol performance helped kick off a comeback for the 59-year-old diva. She also has a new album, Crayons (her first studio album in 17 years), with the groove-worthy single “Stamp Your Feet.” And in July, she’ll step out on a 29-city tour.
But the siren who once gave bell-bottomed clubgoers reason to get down almost didn’t make it back: After 9/11, Summer suffered a crippling case of depression.
“I was really freaked out by the horrific experiences of that day,” says Summer, who was at her Manhattan apartment during the attacks. “I couldn’t go out, I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had to keep the blinds down and stay in my bedroom.” Summer didn’t seek help until her best friend, author Alice Harris, intervened. “She says, ‘I’ve called a shrink for you who’s on the end of your street,'” Summer recalls. “Walking there felt like 90 miles. I was so burdened, I was panting. I went, ‘I can make it to the end of the street. I know I can.'” Though therapy helped, Summer chose not to take antidepressants. “I had taken [medication] before and realized it could do physical things to my psyche,” says Summer, who wrote in her 2003 autobiography, Ordinary Girl: The Journey, that she attempted suicide at the height of her career in 1976. “But emotionally, I had to stop focusing on negativism.”
A born-again Christian, Summer (real name: LaDonna Gaines) also turned to her faith. “I went to church, and light came back into my soul,” says the singer. “That heaviness was gone.” Now, when she feels down, she prays—and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. “When I attack myself on little, nonsense issues, I start thanking God for my life. I look at people in Afghanistan and Darfur, and I’m like, ‘Hello? Wake up, Miss Summer!'”
Summer also got support from her husband of 28 years, singer-song-writer Bruce Sudano, 59, and their daughters Brooklyn, 27, and Amanda, 25, as well as Mimi, 35, her daughter with ex-husband Helmuth Sommer. “She’s gotten through it with the support of a man who adores her,” says Alice Harris. Says Sudano: “I call her the Empress. We understand each other now better than ever.”
Their low-key life in Nashville, where they’ve lived since 1995, makes it easier to stay serene. “There’s a sense of real life here,” says Summer, happy to be away from the pressures of eternal youth in Hollywood. “I have hips, and I like to eat,” she says, staying healthy by walking and doing Pilates. “I’m too chicken to go under the knife.” Instead, she keeps young by pampering her daughter Mimi’s kids, Vienna, 10, and Savanna, 8. “I make them a bubble bath and bring them cider in champagne glasses,” says Summer. “They boss me around and get a total kick out of it.”
But Summer, who counts Rihanna among her favorite new singers, couldn’t keep the dance-tastic side of herself down. “I was on my couch eating potato chips, thinking, ‘I gotta get out of this house, or I’ll wind up a desperate, old housewife,'” says Summer, who then recorded the eclectic “Crayons”. Along with uptempo tunes cowritten with a songwriter for Fergie, Summer sings about Darfur (“Bring Down the Reign,” which references Angelina Jolie as an “angel of light”) and even explores reggae, folk and Latin sounds.
Now, with a North American tour on the horizon, Summer couldn’t be more thrilled—and she’s worked hard for it, honey. “Life always serves you challenges,” says Summer. “I’m looking to the future, and life is good. I’m weathering the storms of life.”