Big Woman!


By Jim DeRogatis



Candye Kane is used to seeing a string of intriguing adjectives linked to her name. "I’m the ‘former porn star, stripper, blues diva, fat activist, feminist bisexual,’" she says proudly. The one modifier that she had some trepidations about adding? "I didn’t know if ‘Tupperware Lady’ might be a little too radical," she says with a hearty laugh. But she discovered that peddling plastic ware while singing for housewives is a good way to earn a few extra dollars in between gigs, so we might as well tack that one on, too.

Kane is clearly one motivated mama, and her climb to cult fandom has been inspirational. Born and raised in East L.A., she was a precocious kid who first caught the showbiz bug while organizing neighborhood variety shows. She dreamed of being a singer, but got sidetracked in high school when she fell in with an Hispanic gang and wound up as a teenage welfare mom. That got her excommunicated from the Mormon Church, but she never really fit in there, anyway—she only joined because it provided an outlet for her singing. She’d belt out hymns for the faithful on Sunday afternoon and croon doo-wop oldies for the chulos on the street corner at night, showing the broad range of her appeal right from the start.

Candye’s first brush with fame came not from the music world but from displaying her ample charms in specialized men’s magazines such as Juggs and Plumpers and Big Women, as well as in a handful of porn films. Adult entertainment helped support her son and provided the money to form a band and record some demos; it also did wonders for her body image. For the first time, she realized that fat women can be beautiful and desirable (something that Renaissance painters like Rubens knew way back in the day), and this has become a recurring theme in her work. "You need a great big woman/You need a queen-size woman/You need a big-butt woman/You need a well-rounded woman/You need a great big woman to show you how to love," she roars on the opening track of Diva la Grande, her masterful 1997 jump-blues album.

The fat activist movement first sprung up in America in the ’70s, when the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance started to petition airlines to make the seats wider and boycotted TV shows that consistently ranked on fat people (the one group that’s still fair game in these politically correct times). Recently, a new wave of sassy, sex-positive activists writing for publications such as Fat? So! and Fat Girl ("a zine for fat dykes and the women who want them") has emerged with a prouder, more celebratory message. "You’ve got to love your body, love yourself, and love everyone else’s body, too, if you get the chance!" is how Kane summarizes it in song.

This is a message that rock ’n’ roll needs to hear. Throughout its history, plus-size performers have suffered some awful indignities. The pre-stomach-stapling Carnie Wilson of the pop trio Wilson Phillips and the raven-haired Ann Wilson of the female metal band Heart were both forced to hide behind long, flowing robes, winter coats, and opaque veils while their thinner sisters invariably romped through their videos in bikinis. Martha Wash, the rotund R&B diva who powered hits by the C+C Music Factory, was replaced altogether in that group’s clips by a model who didn’t even sing. With a powerhouse voice that ranges from a gritty growl on the raunchier rockers to sweeter-than-pecan pie on the ballads, Kane refuses to be ignored—or to cover up. At gigs, she’s been known to play the piano with her boadacious boobs.

"I think I’ve formed my own niche, my own quirky little audience of bisexuals and fat women and men who like fat women and porn fans and rockabilly fans and feminists and lesbians and bikers—different weird people who feel disenfranchised, who can relate to someone in their lives who is, or who just want to see how big my boobs are," she says. "They’re all there for different reasons, and I just try to deliver a sound musical experience that they’re going to like. I do my own fair share of soap-boxing, but when I sing, ‘You Need A Great Big Woman to Show You How to Love’ or ‘I’m two hundred pounds of fun/There’s enough for everyone,’ it’s a positive affirmation. When I sing those songs, I feel empowered by singing them and empowered by others’ reactions to them. It’s a wonderful free therapy session."

Kane started her recording career in typical do-it-yourself fashion, inspired by punk-scene friends such as Los Lobos, Social Distortion, and the Blasters (whose Dave Alvin produced Diva la Grande). "She’s a dangerous woman, Candye Kane, and I love her—whether she’s singing or selling ice cube trays," says Susan Antone, who runs Austin, Texas’ famous Antone’s Nightclub. In the mid-’90s, she convinced her brother Clifford to sign Kane to his record label. "The first time I encountered her, she just sent me a tape, and I went, ‘Wow, who is this girl?’" Susan says. "I think she appeals to people because she has such a big heart, and because of the way she sees the world. She makes people have fun—she’s got this racy side to her—but it’s all done with such an incredible heart that people totally fall in love with her."

Kane left Antone’s Records and signed to Sire for 1998’s Swango, one of the better efforts produced during the short-lived swing revival. But though she was a personal favorite of then-label head Seymour Stein, the man who signed Madonna, her experience at Sire was disappointing. "They wanted to clean me up–it’s what major labels do," she says. "They buy into what is easily packaged and what’s going to be easiest for them to market, and it doesn’t have anything to do with originality or art.

"I think the music industry is just as seedy and heinous as the porn industry," Kane adds. "The main difference to me is that in the porn industry, they’re very upfront about the fact that if you gain weight or you don’t do exactly what they want, they’ll get somebody else who will. In the music industry, they won’t tell you why they’re getting rid of you, and then a year later, somebody else will be doing exactly what you were doing, only they’re younger and thinner."

Now, Kane is back in the indie ranks once more, recording for the Bullseye Blues & Jazz label. Her latest release, The Toughest Girl Alive, finds her channeling her inner Etta James on a quirky mix of country-blues, swing, gospel, and ’50s ballads. The emaciated young waifs who populate MTV would kill to have a voice half as potent as her barn-burnin’ wail. But while she’s resigned to the fact that some narrow-minded fat-phobics will always dismiss her as a novelty act, she knows exactly where she fits in the rock and blues pantheon.

"I’d like to be recognized in the same way as the women I admire: Bessy Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Lucille Bogan, Julia Lee," she says. "Bogan wrote ‘Shave ’em Dry,’ and Lee did ‘Snatch and Grab It.’ They were nasty, and I’ve never understood how the blues purists don’t see how I fit into that. Maybe I’m a bit more contemporary in my delivery and more blatant about my bisexuality, but people can talk about sexual issues now that they didn’t talk about in the ’40s. I’m just a different version of a proud and raunchy tradition."

Penthouse, February, 2002