Jennifer Holliday is a survivor.
The 56-year-old actress and singer — who won a Tony Award for her breakout role in the 1981 original production of Dreamgirls — hasn’t been on Broadway in 15 years. But she’s currently in the midst of a triumphant return, this time as Shug Avery in the Tony-winning revival of The Color Purple musical.
It’s a comeback even Holliday might not have expected. The actress became an overnight sensation after she originated the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls — a role that would give Holliday her signature song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and one that would eventually land Jennifer Hudson an Oscar for a splashy 2006 movie adaptation.
But a struggle with clinical depression drove Holliday to attempt suicide at the age of 30. Then, she was rejected from the music industry for her size — and, ironically, was pushed away further after dropping the weight following gastric bypass surgery. For the last two decades, Holliday has battled multiple sclerosis (M.S.) — a disease that at one point left her blinded and unable to walk.
Throughout it all, she’s remained a fighter.
Her depression began long before she was ever diagnosed — 35 years ago, when she was in Dreamgirls. “When I was suffering with depression, people weren’t talking about depression,” she tells PEOPLE. “It had a stigma. Nobody asked me about it.”
Holliday started gaining weight and experiencing mood swings — outbursts that left her labeled a “diva” who was difficult to work with. “No one ever said, ‘Do you want to talk to somebody?’ ” she says, with wonder. “I knew I was terribly sad, but I didn’t know why.”
On her 30th birthday, Holliday took sleeping pills in an attempt to kill herself. When she was rescued, she woke up angry that she “didn’t do it right.”
She spent three healing months in a sanatorium, and pinpointed her problem to her weight. “I had thought I was really ugly,” Holliday reveals. “I had just been dropped by my record company because they called me too unattractive and not marketable. They were like, ‘We can’t make a music video of you.’ I told the doctor, ‘That’s the reason for my problems. My record company dropped me, I can’t get a boyfriend — that’s the reason! I’m too big.’ “
So Holliday had a then-experimental surgery called gastric bypass. She lost 124 lbs.
It didn’t help.
“Nobody wanted me small,” the Grammy winner says. “They only wanted the old Jennifer Holliday. They were uncomfortable with my new look, my new attitude — everything. It was a very hard time for me for about three years. I had no work and no friends.”
But Holliday liked her new body. “I didn’t fall for that trick,” she says, confidently. “I like the way I looked and I have stayed that way. I wasn’t going to believe everyone else because they lied when I was overweight!”
She was diagnosed with M.S. in 1999 — right around the time David E. Kelley cast her in an acclaimed recurring guest spot on Ally McBeal. But like depression, she was battling the symptoms of the illness for six years prior.
“For a long time they thought I had lupus, then they thought I had something else,” Holliday explains. “Finally, when I couldn’t walk, they did a spinal tap and conclusively diagnosed me with M.S.”
The process was painful. “Sore joints and muscular pains” took away her ability to walk and function. One day in 2007, she felt an overwhelmingly sharp pain — “as if someone had taken a knife to my eye.” She ended up going completely blind in her left eye.
Holliday didn’t have health insurance at the time.
“I had to go the New York Eye Infirmary, and I told my neurologist, ‘Fortunately, there are a lot of blind singers. There was no discoloration in the eye, so I’m not concerned about seeing out of it as long as I can sing.’ “
She kept doing just that, singing her signature song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” on from the rooftop of New York’s Roosevelt Hotel the night Hudson won the Oscar for playing the role of Effie White in the 2006 movie version. “I was like, ‘I’m singing — y’all position me right here,’ ” she jokes.
But the fear of her illness, and its effects, made her fight more. “I began to look for more alternative treatments,” she says, recounting her travels. “I said, ‘I’ve got to find out more about this illness and I’ve got to fight. I’ve got to be able to walk and I’ve got to get control.’ “
There’s no cure for M.S., but Holliday was able to treat the disease so she could live better. She’s mobile now — and seven months after going blind, her vision slowly returned. One doctor called her a constant seeker of health — a badge she wears with pride.
Holliday credits her positive attitude with helping her survive it all.
“I really tried to fight to stay more positive,” she says, explaining how she used daily affirmations and stayed active so that her mind wouldn’t linger on her sadness. “If your mind is not willing, everything will go. There’s so much great power of our mind that we take for granted, and how we think and what positiveness can do. There was some purpose that I didn’t die when I tried to kill myself. So I decided I was going to fight for life.”
The actress is putting all of her pain and lessons into The Color Purple‘s Shug Avery — a character who, like Effie White, is also a survivor. And after years of waiting for the right role to come along, Holliday is holding tight.
“It was a very long, hard journey,” she says. “But now, I do think that I’m ready to come back. And maybe these opportunities will be better than what I thought I missed. But I’ve grabbed it. And I’m not going to let it go.”
The Color Purple is now playing at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Holliday’s run in the production ends Jan. 8, 2017.