Let’s face it – we’re endlessly fascinated by stories like those of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, they who attain stardom, and simply cannot withstand it…leading to their ultimate and tragic downfall.
But what of those who face the same, or even greater, struggles, and soldier on to survival?
Such was the case with Judy Torres, who rose up from an abusive Bronx childhood, and at just 17 years old shot to fame as one of the key figures of a then new, late ’80s urban dance music phenomenon called Freestyle. It was a raw but exuberant sound that came straight out of the – at that time – impossibly electrifying NYC club scene. Her single “No Reason to Cry” was one of its absolute hallmarks.
As happens, maintaining stardom, or even a stable existence in the wake of it, proved painfully, but enlighteningly elusive. Industry indifference, malign relationships, and a terrifying medical diagnosis marked out her epic struggles.
But after nearly 30 years of personal and professional peaks and valleys, she has triumphantly returned in 2018 with a startlingly visceral, starkly confessional one-woman theater production, appropriately titled No Reason to Cry. Directed by Emmanuel E. Hernandez (who has worked with John Leguizamo), and produced by Jay Manuel, David Miskin and Raquel Bruno, it has startled with sold-out performances at NYC’s Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, leading to speculation about taking it bigger.
We caught up for a chat with Ms. Torres as No Reason to Cry was being extended into the fall season. Unsurprisingly, she was as candid and soul-baring as the production itself.
You achieved success quite quickly?
I think the phrase, “overnight success” is deceiving. People don’t see all the hard work, and arguments, and sleepless nights you had before it all happened.
What was the New York dance/club scene like at that time?
In the late ’80s the club scene was it! It was vivacious and absolutely instrumental to dance music of any kind. At that time, if you didn’t get your recordings on the radio, the only way your music survived was in the nightclubs. I remember the huge crowds, the bass pumping so much that you felt your heartbeat matched it. The clubs were so crowded that the walls used to literally sweat, just as much as the people did; and I’ve since never seen anything like it. At times when I performed, it felt as if the audience made one collective decision while you were on that stage: they loved you or they hated you, and there was no in between.
Was it difficult navigating success at such a young age?
It was hard at 17; it took almost two years to get my first song, “No Reason to Cry,” on the radio. But when it happened, it happened so quickly. I was a kid, I didn’t even know how to do my hair or makeup. As a plus sized girl, I couldn’t wear what all the other kids were wearing, so I felt lost a lot of the time, like a fashion outcast. And doing three to four shows a night was exhausting, and very hard on my voice. I came from very humble beginnings, so I didn’t have the funds to get the proper wardrobe, and I couldn’t afford an attorney. As a result, I trusted people and got hurt. It was the most expensive lesson I ever learned. However, I wanted it so bad, I would do it again.
Did you find that the music industry was mostly unsympathetic once you’re not riding as high?
When the Freestyle movement began to decline, it felt like the music industry was very unsympathetic. When you are on top, everyone wants to be part of it. But it is a business, and if you’re not going to help them profit, they are looking for the next best thing. It felt confusing; these people tell you how great you are, and the very next day they won’t even acknowledge you when you see them…it was hard to not take it personally. But now I get it, and I know who I am, and always look to reinvent myself – while always staying true to who I am.
What happened in your life between the years of 1992 and 2001? Was it a difficult period for you?
They were some of the greatest and worst years. I made the grave mistake of allowing a boyfriend to manage my career – I had no idea that he was a narcissistic sociopath. I had a stalker on my hands and didn’t know how to get away from him. I landed in a serious depression and [there was] a suicide attempt. I got a lot of therapy, a restraining order, and I realized I had to stop blaming other people for my failure. In 1999 I was offered a job at WKTU as a radio personality, and I’ve been there ever since! I gained a respect from the fans that was deeper than I could have ever hoped for.
You were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. What was your first reaction to the news?
I woke up one morning with an annoying pain in my eye. A few days later, I was blind. I landed in the hospital, and by the end of the week, the doctor told me about the diagnosis. I was absolutely shocked, how could this happen to me? I contemplated suicide again – right there in the hospital. I read all the books about multiple sclerosis and none had happy endings. An ex-boyfriend came to visit me in the hospital and didn’t feel sorry for me at all. He told me to get up – that as long as I could still sing, I had no right to be upset. I wanted to punch him in the throat; but something resonated. And I took it as a sign from God: you can take anything from me, but as long as I could still sing, I could get through it. Little by little, I grew stronger.
What challenges did it introduce into your life?
The idea of having to possibly learn to function with just one eye was terrifying; I couldn’t even park my car correctly. My depth perception was off, I became clumsier, and I kept underestimating where the stage ended, because I couldn’t see stairs properly. I began falling a lot, bumping into things a lot. Then when I was told I had to go on medication to keep the disease from progressing, it was very depressing. After awhile, I put my big girl panties on, and did what I had to do. And finally, I began to rewrite my own story.
What inspired you to do No Reason to Cry?
I’m a huge fan of John Leguizamo’s one man shows. I watched him in his latest one, Latin History for Morons, and kept thinking, “I want to do that.” And finally, my best friend of over 20 years, David Miskin, told me, “My friend, I know you can do this! Write it, and I’ll produce it.” I thought he was joking, and today he’s the Executive Producer of the show. But deep down, I felt it was time to tell my story.
Why did you choose to do it solo?
It takes a village to do a one woman show – no one makes it alone. But I chose to perform it alone, I guess because I’m letting people into a very personal place. I feel it needed to be told from me directly. And I also enjoy the challenge of being on stage for two hours knowing I have to hold people’s attention.
Has the show acted as a kind of emotional catharsis for you? Have you been able to sort out any personal matters by doing it?
Performing No Reason to Cry has absolutely been an emotional catharsis for me. It allows me to give a voice to those early childhood experiences – when back then I had no voice. I was too busy trying to survive the trauma of watching my mom being beaten by my father and stepfather; trying to protect her, trying to figure out if it was going to be a good day or not. I had no power back then; but on stage, I do! It has allowed me to tell my truth as I saw it. And every time I perform it, I feel stronger and more complete and more at peace with all of it. Doing this show has helped me realize that the people who hurt me have a story too, and if I knew their story I could understand the horrors better. It has also shown me that it doesn’t excuse them for hurting me.
What do you hope people will take away from No Reason to Cry?
I hope people walk away feeling inspired – that you can have an idea in your mind and make it happen. I hope they see that as terrifying as this was for me, on the other side of that wall of fear is your greatest victory. I want people to walk away knowing that it is never too late to forgive and it’s never too late to resolve things.
Would you consider making it into a bigger production?
I’d love to see where No Reason to Cry goes from here. I chose the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater because of its intimacy. I think connecting with the audience on an intimate level is important for this show. But, if it has the opportunity to go bigger, and reach more people…I’m open to that too.
What are your plans for the near future?
I’d love to take the show on the road, as I have fans in other states who cannot make it to NYC. I also plan to write a book based on the show, that will include more details and stories I was not able to include on stage…because of time constraints.