“I walked in and walked out. I only went to shut people up. I didn’t even sign off; I said, ‘Hello,’ and walked out,” is the way Amy Winehouse describes her extremely brief experience with rehab, a subject on the minds and lips of her fans since her most famous recording to date features this irresistible chorus, catchy as a TV commercial: “They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no, no, no.”
Last February, when a presenter at the BRIT Awards, England’s version of the Grammys, joked that “Winehouse” is the new name for Amy’s liver, it was further proof that the singer’s louche proclivities are now as famous as her extraordinary talent—she was named best British female singer that night. Now Rod Stewart says he’d like to record an album with her (a mixed blessing) and her name is being bounced around as, believe it or not, the next Bond girl. Whatever the future holds, Winehouse, 23, has already secured a place in the great tradition of women who get high and tear your heart out, from Billie to Judy, Mama Cass to Janis.
On June 3, American audiences will be able to observe the mesmerizing Winehouse firsthand as she performs live at the MTV Movie Awards. And what will they see? A slight woman with a giant black beehive hairdo and thick eyeliner straight out of Liz Taylor’s 1963 Cleopatra, wearing an ensemble that most likely will show off her considerable array of tattoos (the first of which was Betty Boop on her bum).
It is unlikely that she’ll be drinking onstage at the MTV awards, though she is famous for swigging enthusiastically during club performances. Her favorite cocktail is supposedly a disgusting-sounding concoction called a Rickstasy, which combines vodka, Southern Comfort, banana liqueur, and Baileys.
Winehouse, who was born exactly two decades after Cleopatra was released, has made her mark by channeling, both vocally and sartorially, the distinct style of the so-called girl groups of the 1960s—acts like the Marvelettes, the Shangri-Las, and most of all, the Ronettes. This look, if it is familiar at all today, is associated with the characters in Grease and/or the gang groupies in West Side Story. Curiously, the fashion industry, which has ripped off ( re- invented, they would say) nearly every look of the past half-century, from flapper frocks to Rosie the Riveter rayon dresses to Edie Sedgwick mod to Travolta disco, has let this one go by. So it’s shocking—in a good way—to see a young woman rediscover these pre-hippie street-corner sex goddesses with their towering teased hair and thick, dark eye makeup, and make the look her own, albeit enhanced with a pierced upper lip and other postmodern flourishes. (Don’t be a bit surprised if some of these elements show up on runways next fall; the degree to which fashion designers indulge in stealing— um, sorry, inspiration—is as notorious as Winehouse’s drinking.)
Winehouse has described the genesis of her style in these words: “I was just sitting, listening to different music, just a lot of ’60s-style doo-wop girl groups. . . . ” But alas, she did not share this sentiment—or any other—with the Voice. The singer’s PR people wouldn’t arrange an interview (in fact, Winehouse doesn’t appear to speak to the press much at all), which is a shame since I, like most Americans, adore a hugely talented mess and would have loved to hear what she had to say about her hair and habits. (I am sorry to report that I am joined in my enthusiasm by someone else who loves a talented mess—creepy David Gest. Remember him? Liza’s ex-husband? Gest has reportedly said, “I would kiss the mole on Amy Winehouse’s face and every tattoo on her body, and I’d stick my tongue in the gap where her tooth is missing.” Bet Amy can’t wait.)
But not everyone was reluctant to come to the phone when the Voice rang up. Ronnie Spector—who, it could be argued, all but invented Winehouse’s style in the first place when she took the stage at the Brooklyn Fox Theater with her fellow Ronettes more than 40 years ago—was so taken aback at a picture of Winehouse in the New York Post that she exclaimed, “I don’t know her, I never met her, and when I saw that pic, I thought, ‘That’s me!’ But then I found out, no, it’s Amy! I didn’t have on my glasses.”
Spector has had her own wild adventures over the years (her infamous ex, Phil, is on trial for murder in California at this very moment), and she didn’t want to go to rehab either—”I love that song,” she laughs. “It’s like me”—though eventually she cleaned up her act.
Spector is certainly the go-to person when you’re searching for the history of Winehouse’s style. It all began, she says, when she was a very young teen- ager and her strict grandmother babysat her after school. “I got out at three, and my mother, who was a waitress, got out at five. There was nothing to do but sit looking out the window at the black girls putting out their cigarettes with their high heels and the Spanish girls wriggling their butts.” These young women, slightly older and far more sophisticated than Spector, who was only 14 when she started performing, wore their hair in the beehive favored by cool, tough chicks at the time.
“We came from Spanish Harlem,” Spector recalls. “We had high hair anyway.” So the Ronettes made their hair still higher—”We used a lot of Aqua Net”—and pressed into service one of Spector’s seven aunts: the one who sewed the best.
“It was pretty simple—we took it from the streets, and sometimes we did the opposite: If girls were wearing wide dresses, we would make ours tight. We needed attention.” Spector’s aunt would sew fringe on the back of the dresses; when the girls turned around and started shimmying, the crowd would go wild.
Spector says the group would while away the hours backstage artfully applying makeup and teasing their hair skyward: “There was nothing else to do back there; there was just mirrors and chairs.”
So was it like the beginning of Dreamgirls, when the trio crowded around a dressing room table, fixing their faces and planning their future? Dead silence on the other end of the phone. Then: “ Dreamgirls? Please. No. This was real.”