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Photo: Robin de Puy

encounter

Patti LaBelle on Performing in After Midnight, Young Singers, and Divas of Her Own Generation

The full Patti LaBelle experience is not to be rushed. The showgirls have doffed their feathers, and the band has hung up its horns, following a Wednesday matinee of the Jazz Age Broadway revue After ­Midnight. But Ms. LaBelle, who just brought down the house singing “Sunny Side of the Street” and “Stormy Weather” in her second performance of a three-week run as the show’s special guest star (after which the production will close), needs time to put on her flowing black loungewear and her sparkling Jimmy Choo flats and her going-out wig before greeting her adoring public at the stage door. It’s the same outfit she’d wear to the supermarket.

Finally, LaBelle descends, wearing giant ­Chanel sunglasses, one shoulder draped in a shimmering gray Louis Vuitton scarf, helped by her hairstylist and best friend, Norma Gordon Harris, and a trim, efficient 40-year-old with glasses, Zuri Edwards, who introduces himself as her manager. “He never lets anybody know he’s my son,” says LaBelle, squeezing him. “That’s my baby!”

The dressing room she’s just left is brimming with family photos and “beautifuls” she got for last night’s opening night: roses from Whoopi Goldberg, peonies from Denise Rich, orchids from herself to herself. Flowers; scented candles; her Shih Tzu, Mr. Cuddles; and people are what make her happiest. “Pattttiiiiiii!!!!!” scream three dozen Playbill-waving souls as she steps outside. “You’re not in a hurry, are you?” her bodyguard, a genial wall of a man named Efrem Holmes—“E” to LaBelle—asks me. “Because she will sign everything.”

A fan hands LaBelle a marker, and she gets to work. One woman thanks her for taking this time for her fans. “Honey, if I didn’t have any fans, I’d be in trouble, wouldn’t I?” LaBelle says, winking.

LaBelle’s 70th birthday was just last month. She celebrated by having Baltimore crabs driven to her Philadelphia home. She’s diabetic, and has been menopausal for 20 years but barely notices anymore. “I was flashing onstage today, but I had to keep on keepin’ on.” Harris, who’s been doing LaBelle’s hair since they met when Harris was 18 and an employee at the defunct New York department store Bonwit Teller, is menopausal too, and today’s her 66th birthday. “We’re taking her to a club with poles. She wants to pole-dance,” says LaBelle. “I’m gonna spin around 66 times!” says Harris. “Sixty-six times at a pole hoochie club!” says LaBelle. “Nah, she’s gonna go home and sleep.”

We pull up to Orso, a Theater District restaurant Lee Daniels told LaBelle to try, and are joined by Lona, her makeup artist, and Edwards’s assistant, Zenep, who’s brought LaBelle a cilantro plant. LaBelle, author of three cookbooks, is staying at the London hotel and doesn’t have a kitchen, but she brought several Vuitton suitcases full of electric pots and kitchen supplies and plans to use the herbs that night. Every day before the hotel maids come, she sweeps. She also cleans up for her housekeeper back home. Part of it, she says, is OCD. “But I don’t like for a housekeeper to come in and treat them like slaves and knaves when you can do something yourself. That’s not nice.”

She can’t read the menu, but Harris carries an array of reading glasses in various strengths that she and LaBelle share. LaBelle orders off-menu: hot Italian sausage with spicy tomato sauce and calf’s liver cooked in oil. “Hey, Pookie!” she cries as her other best friend, Diane Beifeld, whom she met in 1962 on a train, comes by a little later. Bei­feld is the jeweler responsible for the incredible string of diamonds around her neck and the giant 19-carat ring on her finger. “I’m her best white friend, Norma’s her best black friend,” says Bei­feld. “No, you’re my best white mother! Come on, Di!” “I’m very protective of her,” says Bei­feld, getting emotional. “Anybody, they gotta get past me if they’re gonna hurt her.”

Going to see another friend, Fantasia, guest-star in After Midnight is how LaBelle wound up in the show. Like Beyoncé and Toni Braxton, Fantasia called LaBelle for advice about the biz, right after she won American Idol. “She’s the mini-me!” says LaBelle. But “she kicks her shoes off a little too soon. In my show, I wait until the seventh song.”

Of the younger generation of belters, LaBelle seems nothing but impressed. Mariah Carey is her goddaughter; they both love butterflies and used to be neighbors on the Bahamian island Eleuthera. She’s got her eye on Miley Cyrus, Adele, Carrie Underwood, and, in particular, Ariana Grande, whom she met when she sang “Lady Marmalade” with her for Grande’s birthday four years ago. “Oh, that girl is a little black girl in white skin!” says LaBelle. “That little hussy! She sings like an old woman!” 

She’s had a trickier relationship with divas of her own generation. Her famous feud with Diana Ross seems to be over. As for Aretha Franklin: This April, she sued a humor website for slander and defamation after it published an article describing a fictional fight in which LaBelle punched Franklin in the face. “I didn’t even address that because it was so stupid,” says LaBelle. “What would I look like, taking my wig off in the street fighting?” The article was likely inspired by a moment, at the White House Women of Soul event this past March, when cameras caught Franklin avoiding LaBelle’s outstretched hand. “She’s the queen of the world, as far as music, to me,” LaBelle says. But she did say to the evening’s musical director, “ ‘Tell Aretha I’ll be praying for her.’ ” Why? “Because she needs Jesus!” she jokes. “I love her.”

LaBelle literally stepped into Fantasia’s shoes to do this show (the heels she wears onstage weren’t ready yet), and LaBelle’s good friends Gladys Knight and Natalie Cole will follow. She and Knight have plans to see some Broadway shows together. They have nearly identical birthdays and sat next to each other at the Tonys. “When the Inch came on,” says LaBelle, referring to Neil Patrick Harris’s performance, “I said, ‘Gladys, that better have been a man, right?’ She said, ‘Patti, no you didn’t!’ I didn’t ­realize it was a boy. I thought it was an ugly woman!”

The table next to us approaches. They’re holding After Midnight Playbills and are from Philadelphia. LaBelle invites them over so she can improve on the autographs she gave them earlier. “You know what today was? A better day,” says LaBelle. She’d gotten opening-night jitters, mainly because her wig wasn’t quite right and she didn’t feel comfortable. “So today I wore another wig that I love and it gave me a confidence level,” she says. “If you feel as though you look a little bit shady, you’re not gonna perform well. Last night, I wish people who paid didn’t come. I want them to come back.”

As a joke, Norma steals and hides LaBelle’s purse, which contains the first cell phone she’s ever owned. It’s just a flip phone, and she got it a week ago. “I don’t know how to answer it,” says LaBelle, who missed four calls because she kept picking up the hotel phone instead. And forget email. She does have social media but just dictates to her publicist what she wants to say. “I wouldn’t know how to put it in there. Ha! I’m a hot mess. And then I found out that Oprah wasn’t savvy with all that stuff, too.”

Call time for the evening show is coming up soon. As she walks out, table after table of diners, all of them white with white hair, offer up their praise. LaBelle is practically giddy when she gets back into the car. “Z, did you see those people clapping for Mommy when I left the restaurant? ‘So fabulous. Just fabulous, dah-ling!’ ” she imitates, as Harris cracks up in the back seat. “These old rich folk lovin’ on me like that? I love it!” says LaBelle. “For real.”

*This article appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Robin de Puy