Woman Reddy, Helen (1941 - )

Born
1941
West Richmond, Victoria, Australia
Occupation
Feminist and Singer

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Helen Maxine Lamond Reddy was born into a show business family in the inner suburb of West Richmond, Victoria in 1941. She followed the trade and became one of Australia's most successful international recording artists, particularly in the United States. She was the first Australian artist to win the American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist, the first Australian to win a Grammy award and the first to have three number one hits in the same year. Her song, 'I Am Woman' which reached number one on the American charts in December 1972, became an anthem of the second wave feminist movement and was added to the National Film and Sound Archives' Sounds of Australia register in 2009.

Helen Reddy was destined for a life in show business; her mother, Stella Campbell (née Lamond) was a singer and her Father, Max Reddy, was a writer, producer and actor. Educated at Tintern Girls Grammar School in Melbourne, Helen was groomed for show business from the age of four, with both parents urging her to be a performer. Her form of teenage rebellion was to push back in favour of domesticity, she married a much older man, musician and family friend, Kenneth Weate, at the age of nineteen. They were divorced after only a few months and Helen's daughter, Traci, was born not long after in 1963. A single mother, she resumed her career as an entertainer, travelling to Sydney to get more work that would enable to her to combine employment with mothering. Most of the work was uninspiring, but at least it paid. 'Show business', said Reddy, 'was the only business that allowed you to earn the same salary as a man and to keep your name' (Interview NFSA).

Reddy moved to the United States in 1966 after she won a competition run by the Australian television show Bandstand. A recording contract with Mercury Records in New York City was the advertised prize, although something appeared to get lost in translation between Mercury and Australian Bandstand. Mercury claimed that the prize was the right to audition, and that the Bandstand footage constituted the audition, which was unsuccessful. Disappointed, Reddy elected to stay and pursue her career in the U.S., despite having only $200 and a return ticket to Australia to her name.

Finding a job in the United States was very difficult, so Reddy often took the trip across the border to Canada, where she was permitted to work. In 1968, down to her last $12 she was helped by a friend who organised a party where she performed, charging guests to attend. Here she met her future manager and husband, Jeff Wald, there and although the marriage was troubled and ultimately failed, it was during this period that her career kicked off. The couple moved from New York to Los Angeles and Reddy's version of I Don't Know How to Love Him from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was picked up by some Canadian disk jockeys and became a hit. Her success was consolidated when I am Women reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1972. Accepting the Grammy Award she won the following year for her performance of the song, she famously thanked God 'because She makes everything possible'.

Reddy has attributed the development of her feminist consciousness to her personal experiences, including witnessing her own parents' relationship, reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and meeting expatriate rock critic and feminist Lillian Roxon. She found strength in feminism at a grassroots level and was involved in a Hollywood Hills consciousness raising group. She began looking for songs to record that matched the sense of empowerment she felt as a member of the woman's movement, couldn't find any and so decided to write one herself. Completing the lyrics herself, she struggled to find the right melody. Australian singer-songwriter, Ray Burton, came up with the music and Reddy was on the road to stardom. Over the next five years she had more than a dozen other US Top 40 hits, including two more No.1 hits. She became a frequent guest on U.S. television variety shows and hosted her own Helen Reddy Show in the 1970s. She appeared as an occasional guest star in numerous other television series. Throughout the 1970s she was one of the most recognizable headline acts in the United States and was a source of encouragement to other Australian artists. Peter Allen opened for her on a 1975 tour of Japan, Hong Kong and Australia and she told Olivia Newton John in the early 1970s 'if you want to be a worldwide star you have to come to America' (Interview NFSA).

In a 2008 interview, Reddy described the song I am Woman as her 'greatest achievement'. She treasures a review from the Los Angeles Times music critic who claimed that she couldn't be taken seriously as a rock artist because rock music dealt with 'major issues' and therefore I am Woman was 'sociologically insignificant'. She was also impressed by the industry expert who told her that 'a feminist singing about feminist issues was the kiss of death' (Interview NFSA).

After living for three decades in the United States, Helen Reddy returned to live in Australia in 2002, coming first to Norfolk Island and then moving to a flat in Sydney. In March 2013 she returned to the United States where she resumed her singing career 'on her own terms' (Ready to Roar).

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • Helen Reddy interviewed by Nick Weare, 10 October 2008, 765334; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

Published Resources

Books

  • Reddy, Helen, The Woman I Am: A Memoir, Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, New South Wales, 2005. Details

Magazine Articles

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Title
I Am Woman (1972)
Type
Audio
Date
c. 1972 - c. 2014
Place
National Film and Sound Archive
Publisher
National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA)

Details