‘I Exposed My Trauma’ – Keala Settle on Hate to Her Flagship Song This Is Me | Musical comedies

Keala Settle, best known for her barnstorming performance as the bearded lady in The Greatest Showman, is on the phone from Manchester, where she is rehearsing for the musical Sister Act. The American will appear alongside Jennifer Saunders and Beverley Knight in a show she says is witty, uplifting and loving. But more than a job, it’s a bit of a homecoming for the actor and singer, whose father is from Oldham. “This whole country, but especially Manchester, looks like my people,” says Settle, who moved from the United States to London. “I live here. I will die here and be cremated and thrown into the North Sea.

Now 46, Settle has been slow to find her home. She was born and raised in Hawaii, the eldest of five siblings. “We grew up on Cadbury’s chocolate at the post office and Enid Blyton’s books and watching Are You Being Served?” His mother, a native New Zealander, also influenced them. “From her, we were learning Te Reo, which is the Maori word for the language, and the ways of life there. And none of that applied in the United States. So we walked through our door and we couldn’t use any of it. She saw her parents’ accents mocking and adjusted hers to sound American. But today she speaks to me in a flawless English accent; ‘squishy’ she calls herself. her, in reference to her ability to immerse herself in different cultures.

“I hated it”… Settle into the role of Lettie Lutz in The Greatest Showman; she has since made peace with This Is Me. Photography: 20th Century Fox/Allstar

How did all of this make him feel? “How did that make me feel?” Baby, I’m gone. Settle was made to feel like she didn’t belong, which was especially unfortunate as her parents had moved to a new country for a better life, with an expectation “of all children living the life they didn’t have.” never had”. It was not an easy childhood. A natural singer, Settle was harmonizing with television commercials by the age of two. “It was driving my mother crazy! And that was our relationship for a long time. Whatever was driving her crazy, I was like, ‘Yeah, go for it!’ I only got into the musical to spite my mother. Because she said I couldn’t play.

Her mother wanted her to get a recording contract, but Settle ran away to study acting instead. After landing the role of Tracy Turnblad on a Hairspray tour, a career was born. She starred in Les Misérables and Waitress on Broadway, but it was The Greatest Showman who brought visibility that Settle neither expected nor wanted. The PT Barnum-inspired 2017 film became a smash hit, and the song Settle This Is Me has been heralded as an uplifting anthem for strangers. There’s a moving video on YouTube, which has now had 82 million views, of Settle singing the number during a presentation to get the movie greenlit. She said how scared she was, and you can see her shaking, hiding behind her desk and shaking hands with Hugh Jackman. She’s a Tony-nominated Broadway performer – why was she so scared?

“Because of all the context I just gave you,” she says. “I put it on display. My life has been traumatic, and this song demanded it. And for five years, I stayed traumatized so everyone could get enlightenment. Settle found herself championed as a that voice of the voiceless, given pride of place, with thousands of people messaging her every day. “I hated it,” she said. Were the people around her aware of the difficulty of the situation? “It didn’t matter. It’s the industry, my love.”

In 2018, she had a mini stroke. “Because that’s how traumatized my body was. The doctors who performed the 10-hour operation told me that. From her hospital room, she was fitted for a dress to sing at the Oscars – the only gig she really wanted to do – but since then she has focused on her sanity and even finally made peace with it. This Is Me. But it’s not back to business as usual. While she is “really happy” to be part of Sister Act, she confides: “This is my last. I will never do musical theater again.

Holy Order... the cast of Sister Act, left to right, Beverley Knight, Jennifer Saunders, Settle, Lesley Joseph, Clive Rowe and Lizzie Bea.
Holy Order… the cast of Sister Act, left to right, Beverley Knight, Jennifer Saunders, Settle, Lesley Joseph, Clive Rowe and Lizzie Bea. Photography: Oliver Rosser

After a recent performance in & Juliet in London’s West End, she said: “I took my bow with my face in my hands because I was so scared they would see my face. Everyone was trying to love me with their energy and I was like, “Come back!” I didn’t want to be on the front line, ever. My mother wanted this, not me. I have done so many things for so many other people. For me, I just want to bake bread and walk my dog. Settle is borderline agoraphobic, so the dog drags her out, “because I knew I couldn’t be scared forever.”

She’s booked to panto this Christmas – a true embrace of her Britishness. Beyond that, she does a little writing, but won’t say more. “We live in a world where it’s like, ‘What’s your checklist? Let’s see how your checklist is doing!’ I’m not funny, but fuck you!” She laughs. “Quality of life matters way more than anything else. I just want the chance to breathe.”

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