Singer and actress Ute Lemper pictured in London
Ute Lemper: ‘I’m definitely a free spirit… I have tried sexual encounters with women’
The screen and stage star reveals that she has more in common with Marlene Dietrich than meets the eye
If you’re channelling the great Marlene Dietrich in your new one-woman show, it’s perhaps not surprising if you and your heroine share everything from German genes and camera-loving Cubist cheekbones to… a certain free-spirited sexual history. And so it proves with the West End and Broadway star Ute Lemper, who has been compared to Dietrich on and off throughout an international career over nearly four decades as an actress and singer-songwriter. Slinky glamourpuss looks? Check. Seductively husky vocals? Check. Outspoken foe of fascism, especially Nazism and neo-Nazism? Check. Bisexuality?
Well, let’s say there’s an intriguing parallel, as Lemper goes on to reveal, between these two women born 62 years apart. I’m meeting Lemper in London to talk about Rendezvous With Marlene, which is now touring UK theatres. Mixing legendary Dietrich songs and stories with her own life, it’s based on a three-hour encounter by telephone with the octogenarian Dietrich when the latter was a semi-recluse living in Paris in 1988, while Lemper was playing Sally Bowles in a French production of Cabaret. She had sent Dietrich a fan letter in the form of a postcard and was astonished when the octogenarian diva, who died four years later at the age of 90, rang her back.
The star of such iconic films as The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express and Destry Rides Again was married to assistant film director Rudolf Sieber, by whom she had her only child, Maria. But Dietrich was openly bisexual and had many affairs with female performers, Edith Piaf and Mae West among them, as well as with such leading men as James Stewart, Gary Cooper and John Wayne. None of which put an end to her 53-year marriage, which seems to have to be an open one – because Sieber himself had a mistress.
“I’m definitely a free spirit like Marlene; I have tried sexual encounters with women,” Lemper says without hesitation. “But I did not have a lesbian relationship with any of them – although I would say never say never!” Men, she says, often resent her strength “because then you can take decisions, protect yourself, establish a life you want to live – you are not a victim.”
The rebellious daughter of a Munster bank manager and a hausfrau who dabbled in amateur opera-singing, Lemper first made her name at 24 for that Sally Bowles performance in Paris, winning a Moliere, the French equivalent of an Olivier. She went on to bag an Olivier and an American Theatre Award for playing murderess Velma Kelly in the acclaimed revival of Chicago in the West End and on Broadway in the late Nineties. She has worked with Woody Allen, Robert Altman and Daniel Craig, very nearly becoming a Bond girl (sorry, woman) in Goldeneye until she turned down the role eventually played by Famke Janssen.